Censorious. Directed by Carol Jacobson. Ann Arbor, MI: Carol Jacobsen, 2005. 34 minutes.
The Purity Myth: The Virginity Movement’s War against Women. Directed by Jeremy Earp. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2011. 45 minutes.
Scarlet Road. Directed by Catherine Scott. New York: Women Make Movies. 70 minutes.
In September 2013, The Feminist Wire published an essay on various strands of feminist thought, controversially titled, “Feminist Cage Fight.”1 The idea was to distinguish the characteristics of various forms of feminist theorizing by imagining proponents of radical feminism and third wave feminists punching it out in defense of their ideologies. As a conceit it is effective in suggesting the passionate investment in “radical” feminism’s call for systemic reform or third wave feminism’s investment in the politics of individual choice. Similarly, the films presented here reflect the varied landscape of feminist action and representation.
Censorious offers a charged account of the 1990s culture wars’ impact on female visual and performance artists. Featuring interviews with a number of renowned female artists—including Karen Finley, Howardena Pindell, Holly Hughes, and Renée Cox—the film depicts the ways in which women’s feminist art was contained through legislation. It demonstrates how the government instituted various laws essentially criminalizing the work of female artists who (re)claimed the nude body and female sexuality in their work. This was accomplished, for instance, through 1980s-era legislation requiring photo lab employees to report to the police the owners of any photos they deemed to be possibly pornographic or when the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 adopted a decency clause requiring grant recipients to avow that they would not produce any work which could be deemed obscene. In contrast, the film gives voice to those artists whom the government (led by the religious right, the film insinuates but doesn’t clearly develop) attempted to silence. Providing an extensive selection of images and excerpts from performance pieces along with personal interviews, viewers are familiarized with the range of formal and thematic coverage of the art of the period.
Where the structure of Censorious minimizes the role of religious right, Jeremy Earp’s film, The Purity Myth, puts the role of religious ideologues in close-up while contesting the idea that a woman’s or girl’s primary worth is her virginity. Building on Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, and featuring Valenti herself, the film exposes the sexual double standards, the failure of abstinence programs, and the contradictions in conservative opposition to any number of policies designed to protect women.2 Because it argues that “virginity worship” embodies a number of ideologies aimed at containing the advances that feminists have made in the last few decades, The Purity Myth would be very suitable for a unit on the feminist backlash.
Earp compiles video footage that gives a sense of the discourse that has emerged around issues of contraception, rape, and vaccination against the human papillomavirus (which is associated with the development of cervical cancer), in addition to abstinence itself. The video clips highlight the continuity between the discourse emerging from religious organizations and that of elected officials who seek to justify policy decisions that are hostile to women. This strategy works well to articulate the main theme of the film, which is that opposition to women’s control over their own sexuality is an attempt to contain women’s social advancement as a result of feminist activism.
One thing that The Purity Myth does that is simultaneously laudable and needs further development is to extend the social politics of purity worship beyond just sexual containment. The section that develops the idea of the idealization of virginity makes it explicit that this image of women is raced (she’s white), classed (presented as middle or upper class), and ablist (her body is normatively able). In doing so, however, it does not offer much to help us think about how the virginity myth impacts women who do not fit this ideal. While women outside of these categories may be somewhat liberated from the idealization of virginity, it is well documented that they are among the ones who are most significantly affected by the effects of victim-blaming discourses. For instance, African American women are the most frequent victims of rape, and poor and/or rural women are among those most disenfranchised by the defunding of Planned Parenthood and other women’s health service providers.
Perhaps surprisingly, the realm of popular culture has provoked a challenge to some of the dominant norms regarding Western sexuality. For example, feature films such as The Sessions and The Intouchables (2011) foreground the sexuality of people with disabilities and expose formal and informal communities that develop around this area, challenging the erasures in Valenti’s gloss on the idealized virgin.3 In Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road, the interactions of people with disabilities with sex-workers and sex-positive activists is also central; however, this film examines how those communities interact with the state and other formal institutions such as the academy, as well.
Following the remarkable sex worker, activist, and sexual health expert, Rachel Wotton of New South Wales, Australia, this film is particularly useful in the feminist classroom because it offers a potent illustration of the ongoing debate in feminist circles regarding the nature of sex work and its potential as a route to female agency. Rachel’s decision to pursue a master’s degree in sexual health from the University of Sydney arises from her recognition that the academy exerts a powerful influence on the discourse around sexual health, in spite of the fact that few of the “experts” are basing their conclusions on the same kind of “boots on the ground” work engaged in by Rachel and her colleagues at Touch Base, Inc. Touch Base is an organization that brings sex workers, advocates for disabled persons, and home care providers together to educate these providers about the sexual lives of the clients they care for.
Cultivating this understanding is a necessity because of the tendency to desexualize disabled persons and the discomfort that arises when home aid workers encounter manifestations of sexual desire in patients. It is, perhaps, in the area of the sexual psyches of Rachel’s clients that Scarlet Road is most provocative. Though the film does not make much of it, I was particularly struck by how the desires expressed by the clients are so highly consistent with heteronormative constructions of sex and gender. For instance, Otto, a young man with Down syndrome, expresses that his ideal woman would have big breasts and long legs, while Matt a middle-aged man with multiple sclerosis states that part of the value of his encounters with Rachel is that they let him know that he “liked girls.”
1Darlena Cunha, “Feminist Cage Fight,” Feminist Wire, September 14, 2013.
2Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009).
3The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin (Los Angeles: Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012), The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (Nuilley sur Seine, France: Gaumont, 2011).