Boobs are fine—great, in fact. So why no vulvas?
I recently went to see The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It was great—the feminist overtones, the agency of the protagonist, the flares—yet I still left disappointed. Disappointed that the film had failed to show any vaginas.
Frequency of vulvas is not the way I personally measure a film's quality (I didn't storm out of Inside Out, for instance, thinking, Where are all the vaginas?), but Diary of a Teenage Girl centered around female sexuality, and the absence of any full nudity felt dishonest. If the film was comfortable enough depicting a 15-year-old (portrayed by a 23-year-old) having sex and dabbling with heroin, it might consider depicting a naked, real, vulva-carrying body to go along with the sex stuff.
Films are terrified of depicting vulvas. Breasts are fine—great, in fact. As long as they're quite sexy and not, you know, sustaining a human life through breastfeeding or doing anything other than being alluring, we like them. Breasts will sneak into the occasional PG film (Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) and sit comfortably in a PG-13 (The Fifth Element).
A shot, however, exposing even a hint of a vulva is almost guaranteed to earn your film a UK 18 rating [the equivalent of a NC-17] . Maybe that seems intuitive and reasonable—genitalia are hidden for a reason. Except, penises aren't subject to the same treatment; The Hole, Hall Pass, EuroTrip, The Talented Mr Ripley, Forgetting Sarah Marshall—all are films with a shot of a penis, all had a 15 certificate in the UK and R in America. Even weirder is that women are far more likely to be shown as "naked" on screen, even if it means no vulvas. A study found that "females were over two times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing attire (24.8 percent vs. 9.4 percent), and partially or fully naked (24.2 percent vs. 11.5 percent)."
I asked someone who knows a lot about vaginas, Emma Rees, author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, why films felt more comfortable depicting one genitalia over the other. Turns out, vaginas are pretty radical. "When a woman is doing her own thing with her own body, the action has an impact far beyond the immediate act: It becomes symbolic of an independence and self-governance that is threatening precisely because it excludes the penis," she said. "The response to this, literally for millennia, has been ridicule, rage, or violence."
Namely, it was the autonomy of the vagina from being arousing to men that reconfigured it as something radical or taboo. "One of the most interesting things I learned while writing was just how illogically squeamish people are about vaginas, vulvas, labia, and so on," Rees continued. "This was especially apparent in the complaints people made at an artist's exhibition which showed beautiful images of crowning [the moment the baby's head first appears during vaginal childbirth]. The revulsion some people articulated was hypocritical in many cases—the same people saying, 'Urgh! A vagina!' were probably only two mouse-clicks away from accessing porn and saying, 'Ooh! A vagina!' Some people get very anxious when the vagina is not being represented for their pleasure; they feel excluded by its power and autonomy."
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Having already spent far too long thinking about vaginas, the reason for the eternal absence of the vagina seemed twofold. One reason is that the vulva, unlike breasts, is harder to angle as solely for the male gaze, and therefore becomes a threatening marker of female autonomy. It is too often being used for something else—female pleasure, masturbating, giving birth—for it to be simply an orifice for a guy to imagine his dick going into. If films are, more often than not, made by men and for the male gaze, then the inclusion of the vulva—even if attempting to be sexy—sits uneasily if the depiction can be too easily detached from "object literally only useful for male pleasure." As soon as it strays away from that definition, the vagina becomes problematic. Passive cis women's bodies are useful for men to project their sexual fantasies upon; active cis women's bodies that are using their vaginas for a purpose that in no way gives a man an erection is gross/wrong/explicit.
The second is that female sexuality is perpetually mythologized. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that "women are the other and their cunts are mysteries to us all." I've paraphrased that a bit; what she actually said was women are othered as a result of the "mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity." For hundreds of years, women have been considered mysterious and alluring exactly because of that mystery. Historically, then, the hidden vagina—that coveted sexual goal that offers infinite pleasure to a man—is what's considered conventionally sexy, and exposing it in a film undermines that. If a vagina is only sexy when hidden, then a vagina can't be considered sexy in a film, so doesn't need to be included.
There are exceptions to this, but films not scared to show us a vulva here and there are often considered extreme and graphic because of their use of cis female genitalia. Blue Is the Warmest Color is an example of a film with complete female nudity, and many of Lars Von Trier's films (Antichrist, Nymphomaniac parts I and II) contain vulvas.
Neither of these, however, quite manages to render just the mundane reality of a vagina. Blue Is the Warmest Color reeks of male gaze and Antichrist—well, it's probably an 18 for more than just a shot of Charlotte Gainsbourg wanking in a forest. Gasper Noe's new film Love is sure to include uninhibited depictions of cis women's bodies, but it will most likely be capitalizing on that "shock value" of the vagina, perpetuating the idea that its inclusion in a film is somehow radical.
Demythologizing the vagina is essential so that women's sexuality, bodily functions—existence, for Christ's sake—is normalized. It can be a difficult line to walk between sexual honesty and misogyny when it comes to nudity, but vaginas don't always need to be this terrifying or graphic emblem of sexuality. Sometimes, they're just plain old vaginas.
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