I’m far from the first person to suggest that it can be fun to watch women express their sexualities on-screen. But besides the fact that it can be fun or exciting, it can be incredibly validating, because authentic depictions of female pleasure are rare, while pleasure which exists outside the male gaze is increasingly so. For those simultaneously being impacted by racial- and gender-based oppression, empowering expressions of sexuality in popular media are even more uncommon. It doesn’t help that there is a long, though thoroughly unsurprising, history of the chief Hollywood ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), rating displays of female pleasure more harshly than male pleasure. Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce has even stated that the MPAA were more concerned about depictions of oral sex in her film than they were about the graphic displays of transphobic violence. This film industry has decided that it is more important to normalize brutal violence than sexual pleasure. Frankly, we deserve better.
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
Unfortunately, the lack of female pleasure on-screen is completely expected when considering the state of women’s sexual pleasure in real life. The orgasm gap is becoming increasingly well-documented, demonstrating that women in heterosexual relationships are the least likely of any sexually active people to orgasm during a sexual encounter (65% according to one study), while heterosexual men are most likely to orgasm (95%). This is a prevalent issue which is undoubtedly exacerbated by poor media representation, a lack of comprehensive sex education, and a continued societal prioritization of heterosexual, male sexuality over all others.
Just as in all other fights for meaningful on-screen representation, the lack of female pleasure on film is a multifaceted issue, requiring more than simply depicting more orgasms. The quality and purpose of the depiction are just as valuable as the depiction itself, and this requires a massive overhaul in mindset. The question I ask myself when watching female pleasure in cinema is simple, “Who is it for?” For most of film’s history (a history which continues), the answer is also simple: for the heterosexual male spectator. This phenomenon is known as the male gaze.
From academia to TikTok, Laura Mulvey’s conceptualization of the male gaze is a popular talking point when sexuality of all varieties is depicted on screen. Identifying the camera as an apparatus of objectification, Mulvey determines that the act of looking is one which provides a sense of agency to the looker, who is coded as male, and submission to the object of the looker’s desire, who is coded as female. Any piece of media which provides a male, heterosexual audience with an exclusive opportunity to identify with the camera lens, participates in and normalizes the male gaze. The pervasion of the ‘peeping tom’ trope is one such instance of the male gaze at work in popular media.
The male gaze and other heteropatriarchal standards for sexuality undeniably determine the quality of female pleasure on display in Hollywood cinema. Not only is this portrayal harmful, but it is also purposeful. Sexual freedom is clearly connected to bodily autonomy and personal power. Sexual expressions which transcend heterosexuality and male sexual imperative are seen as threatening to a social order which depends upon women’s submission and subordination. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more clearly than the horror genre’s obsession with and deep fear of sexuality, especially that which is freely expressed by women and/or queer people.
Making choices about one’s body is incredibly liberating and it is a right which should be universal. The lack of authentic sexual representation in popular media makes even the most basic expressions of queer and female desire seem taboo, even threatening. Rather than empowering people to make their own choices about their bodies, this culture of shame and secrecy makes that choice for us, limiting the use of what could be the most powerful tool of our liberation. The need for more diverse, transgressive sexual representation has never been more clear.
WHAT’S BEING DONE ABOUT IT?
Film enthusiasts and artists have long noticed and criticized the portrayals of women in mainstream cinema. The Bechdel Test, though imperfect, has become a popular way for feminist film enjoyers to examine the media they consume. A new test, the Clit Test, has been developed by a self-funded group of “people with clits” to determine the quality of on-screen sex. The criteria is very straightforward: does this piece of media in some way acknowledge the presence and importance of the clitoris in facilitating sexual pleasure? If so, it passes, and if not, it fails. This acknowledgement can come in many forms, from direct conversations between characters to depictions of sexual activities. This focus on the clitoris is important when considering that it is the most sensitive area for most vulva owners and that only a small number can orgasm from penetration alone.
One brilliant example of a film that passes the Clit Test is 2019’s Yes, God, Yes, a comedic yet heartfelt look at one young woman’s experience of balancing her religious upbringing with her burgeoning sexuality. Thanks to its focus on self-exploration and personal pleasure, Yes, God, Yes handily passes the Clit Test. The creators of the Clit Test have compiled a list of “passes” here, so if this discussion has piqued your interest, you can explore clit-centric media to your heart’s content.
Portrayals of the diversity of women’s sexual experience and expression will hopefully become more prevalent as we continue having these conversations. It is in these conversations that this once taboo topic gets to finally see the light. We all deserve to experience the fullness of the human experience to the extent that we desire, bodily pleasure and sexuality included. We also deserve to have that fullness reflected back to us in the media we consume. The more authentic this reflection becomes, the better equipped we become to reclaim our sexual power and use it to inform and enrich all parts of our lives.
Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!