Tribeca 2012: Sex and Beauty Through the Lens of Women Filmmakers

Americans spend $10 billion annually on plastic surgery, and a few billion more on porn, which accounts for 30% of all Internet traffic, suggesting that both appearances and sex are pretty high on our culture's list of interests. Accordingly, this year's Tribeca Film Festival includes three films that explore the economic and emotional dynamics at play in this market of female sexuality. Things look pretty grim.
Lauren Greenfield has been chronicling the life of women and girls in America for a number of years, as a photographer, writer and documentarian. Her latest film, "Beauty CULTure," started out as a photography exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, who then commissioned Greenfield to parlay it into a short documentary. The film includes interviews with models, make-up artists, plastic surgeons, journalists, and academics, looking, in Greenfield's words, "at the 360 degrees of our cultural obsession with beauty."
Greenfield admits that much of what's touched on in her film has long been part of the dialog about women and sexuality. What's striking about her film, however, is that so many people who are involved in creating the unattainable beauty ideals that haunt so many women today are wholly aware of what they are doing.

Photographer Gilles Ben Simon talks about how he’s always loved full-figured women, but the fashion industry won’t let him shoot them, while the renowned make-up artist Tyen acknowledges that many women are made to feel fat. To her credit, Greenfield is honest enough to recognize the part she plays in the industry.
"And I'd put myself in that category, too. I'm a photographer that works on magazines. I think that, in a way, that's why this is an interesting project for me--it's also about photography and the role of photography. And whether that's the makeup artist, Tyen, or the photographer, like Gilles… Everybody is complicit."

But Greenfield also feels she and her colleagues are also, in some way, simply cogs in a machine.

"And also in some strange way, you know, everybody's kind of not to blame, too, because it's kind of a bigger--it's kind of a perfect storm of all these things that are not necessarily in the individual player's control. But definitely, I would say that the people in the film, especially the industry people, kind of both play by these rules and then also, you know, some of them push the envelope or reject it in certain ways but are definitely part of it.”
"Sexy Baby," from journalists Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, tackles many of the same issue, but in a deeper and more personal way. It's a documentary triptych that follows Winnie, a 12-year-old girl growing up in New York City; Laura, a 22-year-old assistant teacher who's determined to have her labia surgically trimmed back, a response to comments from an ex-boyfriend; and Nikita Kash, a 32-year-old former porn star who makes a living teaching regular women how to pole dance.

Watch the trailer for "Sexy Baby."

Watching the film, you can imagine you're witnessing simultaneously three different stages in the life of a single women. Winnie is struggling to find her place in the fast approaching marketplace of sexuality. Laura is deep in it, and in response to being told she doesn't measure up, decides to take on a second job to pay for a surgery that offers zero medical benefit and "fixes" a part of her body that very few people see. And Nikita having gone through the wars, wondering about the choices she's made, especially as she tries to become a mother.

Bauer, 48, says that part of what makes Laura’s desire to undergo her surgery so incredible is that it is not unheard for today’s 20- and 30-somethings. Gradus, 34, says men she dates know all about it, while Bauer says her contemporaries do not.

While it’s easy to be heartbroken and/or repulsed watching Laura’s surgery (it’s rather graphic), there’s something to be said for the peace of mind it brought her.

“Yes, she is [happy],” asserts Gradus. “And we actually went back to her a couple of times, thinking something would be revealed, like she's realized … but to her it was a very face-value thing. She wasn't happy with (her body), she got it fixed and she's fixed.”

Clearly the filmmakers are troubled by the lengths to which women are going to compete sexually, but they are not anti-sex.

“I've never been a staunch feminist,” says Bauer. “I have some feminist ideas, but I think, you can look sexy and act sexy and be sexy and I think that’s great. And I think that's what we as women want to do. But there's all these other layers, and (sexy) can’t be all there is.”

The duo had to watch a fair amount of porn (incurring staggering fees which they fought successfully), and while Bauer was concerned about its effects on intimacy between couples, what upset Gradus—aside from the horrendous plots (“Have one or don’t!”)--was the tone.

“I was more shocked and offended by how mean-spirited porn is…that to me is shocking. I just couldn’t get over it. I'm not anti-porn, in any way. It’s not even about, ‘Oh, women are objectified in porn.’ Comparatively, (being objectified) is like nice fluffy kittens--like happy porn. Seriously… the way it is now, not only are you an object, but you're an object that I'm gonna laugh at and be mean to and rough on. I'm going to do things, actively, to humiliate you and make you my object.”

Pushing the boundaries of the conversation further still is Polish writer-director Malgoska Szumowska’s new French-language film, “Elles," (Rated NC-17) which stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, a Parisian journalist, wife and mother working on an article about prostitution, for which she interviews with two young women, Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig), who have been plying their trade voluntarily for some time now.

Working late hours, constantly at odds with her two sons and husband, Anne is forced to reconsider her feelings on the world’s oldest profession. At first saddened and judgmental by what Charlotte and Alicja do for a living, she comes to in some ways envy their freedom. But at the same time, she begins to see all men—even her husband—as their potential clients.

“The film is also about getting old, (Anne) is getting old but she is confronted by the girls, their youth. It’s about age and youth,” says Szumowska. “I was at the airport, here (in New York), I saw, I don’t know who it was, but it was a woman from a television show, a kind of celebrity, she looked like she was close to 50, but with her face she’s pretending she’s 25—it’s pathetic. This is disgusting.”

Szumowska’s doesn’t just try to open a dialog about age, beauty, marriage and prostitution, but confronts our refusal to have that dialog.

“Some women are also rejecting the film,” admits Szumowska. “Why? Because it's not comfortable to say to them, ‘OK, I’m, sexually frustrated, I’m getting old, I have no relation with my husband, my older son is fighting with me, and the younger one pissed me of because he’s playing video games.' People want to keep the illusion, because it’s comfortable. And it’s a catastrophe if you are keeping the illusion too long.”

Szumowska spoke to a number of prostitutes as part of her research for writing “Elles,” and dismisses the common notion, originally shared by Binoche’s character, that these women are all tragic or miserable. In doing extensive research talking to young women in the trade, Szumowska found they were mostly well-adjusted.

“They are cool, they are not ashamed of what they are doing,” insists Szumowska. “I’m not saying (prostitution) is something good, just that it’s something.”

Though she makes a point of stopping short of making a value judgment about prostitution, Szumowska thinks it can be beneficial, but only if women are doing it voluntarily.

“It can help, yes, of course. If a woman doesn’t sleep with her husband, which is often… like after they become a mother, a lot of women don’t want to have a sexual relationship, and she is rejecting (her husband). What can the poor man do? He has sex with a prostitute—I think it’s more fair than having sex wife a friend of his wife.”
Women—and men—have long been adorning themselves in an effort to attract a mate, hold onto their youth, bolster their self-esteem or just keep up. After 200,000 years, it seems unlikely this will stop, and Greenfield, Bauer, Gradus and Szumowska are all smart enough to recognize that, but they clearly see a problem desperately in need of answers. They are also smart enough and nuanced enough not to call for the banning plastic surgery, porn or prostitution

The French artist Orlan spent much of the '90s exploring through her work plastic surgery, going so far as to have cheek implants put in her temples. As outlandish or extreme as her messaging may be at times, it's during a moment in "Beauty CULTure" that Orlan hits upon a starting point.
"You need a dose of narcissism, a dose of exhibitionism, to survive, The important thing is to not get lost in your reflection."

The Tribeca Film Festival is showing "Sexy Baby" on Friday and Sunday, "Beauty CULTure" on Wednesday and Sunday, and "Elles" on Wednesday.

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