It’s raining outside. The lighting is low and soft. There is a trail of rose petals leading to a plush white bed. A muscular man and thin, busty woman, glistening with sweat are having mind-blowing sex, tangling themselves in the sheets. They climax together, the woman’s moans jumping an octave just before the big O. And then, they collapse in a heap on the bed, gazing into each other’s eyes as they fall asleep.
Does this scene sound familiar? My guess is yes. But do most of us experience sex like Vivian Ward and Edward Lewis, America’s favorite Pretty Woman and her millionaire boyfriend? My guess is no.
How often do we see honest depictions of sex on screen? Think about it. Are most stories that you see scripted or real? Written by men or women? What bodies do we see? Whose voices do we hear?
Let’s contrast “reality” TV with real experiences:
“I felt misled about how women feel when they orgasm during sex. I guess I only knew from video porno. I had only seen like two tapes by the time I was having sex. A woman was supposed to be, like, crazy in the sack and wild and loud, and I never felt that in sex with Andy, and I only feel it once in a while in sex with Dave. Pretty much only I can give it myself. It feels good, but the orgasm [moaning sounds] where you have to be really dramatic, for a long time I thought I had to do all the histrionics and I probably really embarrassed myself a lot of times. Our sex became much more real when I realized I didn’t have to do any of that stuff.” –A, 23
“The first time I had sex, I was over my first boyfriend’s house. He told me, “I think you’re ready.” [laughs] It was supposed to come off smooth, but it didn’t. It wasn’t like, oh, I’m gonna follow his lead, it was something I wanted to do, too. I was more confident about trying it because my friend had already done it. I just remember having my eyes closed because I didn’t want to see anything. I remember feeling a pop, and it hurt a little bit. I just remember him asking me, “Are you okay?” at some point during the two minutes. I cried when I was at his house…I just felt like there was nothing left for us to do. He was like, “It’s okay. I still feel the same way about you.” Afterwards, I just felt so dirty and I had to go home. I was staying with my father, and I just kept telling myself, “He’s gonna know.” It wasn’t shame, it was fear of being in trouble. We didn’t have sex for a while, ‘cause I just wasn’t comfortable being sexually active at that point.”-M, 24
Last question. Does this sound closer to real life?
That may be because they are the stories of two young women, unscripted, unpolished, and unmanipulated. These last two quotes come from Melissa Tapper Goldman’s documentary, Subjectified, a film that unearths complex stories of female sexuality. Subjectified turns the camera on nine young women as they explore the meaning of their sexuality, in their own words. Adios Barbie was lucky enough to interview Subjectified’s director and producer Melissa Tapper Goldman about her film, women’s sexuality, and the effects of pop culture on women’s self-image.
Emma Shakarshy: So Melissa, why this film? Why now?
Melissa Tapper Goldman: We are suffering from the silence around sex. Because representations of women’s sexuality are so pervasive, many people think that we understand young women’s perspectives, but that’s simply an illusion. For many, we don’t even understand what sex and sexuality mean to the women closest to us, let alone what sex means to women with very different life experiences. Yet we’re taught to have opinions about what girls should do with their bodies. But still we can’t listen to or communicate openly with young women about sex.
Subjectified aims to open up those conversations from a place of respect and compassion by actually starting the conversations. The documentary Miss Representation did an excellent job of framing the politics of women’s representation in media. The next step is to begin actually communicating about women’s experiences in a way that gives respect and honor to the women as individuals rather than as bodies that exist for decoration. Subjectified takes this next step.
Why now? Well, as soon as possible. This is long overdue. But this year in particular, the political process has pulled out into the open some things that normally bubble under the surface when it comes to the silencing of women.
ES: To break the silence, you start the video with “Are you beautiful?” Why did you choose to begin this way?
MTG: I knew that my biggest challenge would be getting the women to really open up. I needed to get them off their “scripts” as quickly as possible so that we could be real with each other. So I asked an intense question from the start. What I said was, “You have to answer this question honestly. [Pause] Are you beautiful?” But actually, it’s an impossible question.
In our culture, we’re told that women aren’t authorized to judge their own beauty. Our beauty is decided by the people looking at us. Someone can call us “fugly” or “fat,” and they get to decide our value. If we disagree and say, “No, I’m beautiful,” we’re seen as either arrogant or stupid.
So the question wasn’t about beauty at all. It was about how the women could talk about their own self-worth as seen through their eyes and the eyes of others. I’m not saying at all that beauty equals worth, but many of us experience that objectification at times. Since it’s an impossible question, the women had to dig into their own feelings to come up with a response. Some said “yes” but felt the need to justify their answers. Some said “no” and looked clearly uncomfortable. Even the one-word answers were not simple ones.
ES: Your film aims to answer the question, “What would real stories of female sexuality sound like?” Why is it so important that we hear those stories?
MTG: Real stories are so liberating. They show us that reality doesn’t match up to what you see on TV, and that this is totally normal and fine. In American culture, we place a lot of importance on being “normal,” especially when it comes to sex. The unrealistic, unattainable, white-centric model of sex that we see in entertainment media seeps into our notion of what’s acceptable. But real stories show us that different people have very different ways of experiencing sex and sexuality, in part because of their circumstances and in part because of their personalities.
Sometimes we assume that sex means one specific thing, when really it means something different to each person (although our experiences are related to each other’s in important ways). Coming to respect our own experiences and perspectives is so important, and it’s not a message we often hear. Instead, media images tell us that we exist for the pleasure of someone else, that we’re decoration. Or worse, rape culture tells us that our consent or desire is irrelevant.
We need to be the ones writing our own stories for our own sake, or else the stories will never reflect our lived realities. TV is there to sell ads, not to tell our stories. So we need to find other ways to communicate our stories, otherwise young women will keep feeling defective and keep trying to meet impossible standards. That might be good for a makeup company, but it’s not good for us.
MTG: To start with, I was first looking to cover some “tropes” that we have in our culture (the teen mom, the abstinent Christian, the lesbian). I wanted to take some of the most common stories that exist on TV, particularly “reality” TV, and show three-dimensional versions of the same stories that demonstrate how much deeper and more interesting real people are than the stereotypes you see in media. We think we know why young women do what they do, but our understanding is often reductive and sexist. The reality is much more interesting, and it’s much easier to feel compassion and connection with real people than scripted and manipulated ones.
ES: From the stories you heard through the making of the film, how does the media’s representation of women’s sexuality affect body image?
MTG: That’s a long and complicated question. I think the most fundamental answer is that the sexualization of women in media reinforces to young women that their looks are their value. This came through in direct and indirect ways in the interviews. One example is a conversation I had with a biracial woman who was really overwhelmed with self-doubt about her appearance, particularly about her features that she associated with being non-white. This was something she’d taken from the media as well as messages from people in her life. While she didn’t use the word racism, she knew that there was something fundamentally horrible about someone telling her that her curves and curly hair were specifically unappealing. But that didn’t stop her from feeling rejected and internalizing that in her sense of self-worth.
I also think that not relating to the sexuality that they saw on TV or in ads created substantial confusion. We have an overwhelming cultural silence around sex, so the messages we do get through the media take on extra importance, since we’re not hearing much else. For example, the idea that they were “supposed to” orgasm from vaginal penetration was a theme in several of the conversations, even though that wasn’t what they were experiencing physically. I was surprised that this came up for one of the women even though her sex partner was also a woman. Even for her, the image of penetration clouded her expectations and made it hard for her to tune into what she actually wanted.
ES: What do you hope that this film will accomplish?
MTG: I hope that people who watch Subjectified will take away two things. First, young women are young but they’re not stupid. We tend to talk about young women’s sexuality dismissively or in terms of how it fits into young men’s sexuality. This is unrealistic and unfair. They make tough choices in a culture that offers them an array of imperfect options for growing up gracefully. They bring their strength and creativity to these tough situations, and that applies across the political spectrum.
Second, I hope that watching these brave young women open up on camera will show people that it’s not so hard to talk about sex. I hope that it helps other people start conversations about sex and sexuality in their own lives, even if the topics that are important to each of us are different from the ones discussed in the movie. We all need people in our lives to support us and help us make choices that are healthy and true to ourselves. Being able to communicate openly is so crucial in building these relationships, whether they’re with our friends or our sexual partners. We need supportive relationships, and the process of opening up actually helps us build them.
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To start the conversation, Melissa has created Subjectified Movie Party Kits, which come packed with a DVD of the documentary as well as discussion games that help you and your friends have fun, supportive, and interesting conversations about sex, all wrapped in an awesome lime green Subjectified tote bag! The perfect holiday gift for a best friend, daughter, parent of a young person, or favorite sex ed teacher.