Who's Afraid of the Big Bad O?
One indie film's struggle to get released proves that good girls still aren't supposed to like it
By Michelle Chihara
AUGUST 30, 1999: Collette Burson didn't think she would have to fight this hard to show the world an orgasm. Three years ago, Burson began shopping around a screenplay she'd written about an 18-year-old girl named Stream who wants to have an orgasm. The movie, which eventually got made, is called Coming Soon. It's about three seniors in an exclusive Manhattan high school. They're worldly for their age, they live in beautiful apartments with neurotic parents, and they talk about sex. They seek it out, they don't quite get it, and they try to figure out how, exactly, to enjoy it.
Stream's curiosity is especially piqued when she hears about female orgasms. She doesn't think she's having them with her boyfriend Chad, but she isn't sure. In a pivotal scene, we see her eyebrows lift and her mouth form a telltale "O" while she has a close encounter with the jet of a jacuzzi. When her friend re-enters the room, Stream announces her discovery: she has not, in fact, been coming with Chad. Stream then ditches him and embarks on a search for someone with whom she can share that lovin' feeling. The movie is essentially a romantic comedy with an orgasm or two thrown in.
But after a warm reception at film festivals and an enthusiastic response from the major studios, the MPAA ratings board slapped Coming Soon with an NC-17 rating, ensuring that distributors wouldn't touch it. Since then, Burson has had to recut it twice. Coming Soon was finally given the necessary R rating in April, but Burson still can't find a distributor -- after getting that initial NC-17, a movie that was almost sold for millions seems to strike distributors as too much of a risk (see "An Immodest Proposal").
Their fear might seem surprising, given the glowing track record of boys' coming-of-age movies. From Porky's and Fast Times at Ridgemont High to American Pie, the silver screen is awash in explorations of the male effort to get lucky. But it's different for girls. There are a fair number of movies about girls -- Sixteen Candles and Clueless, even period pieces like Emma and Sense and Sensibility -- but they're about girls' search for love. The raunch factor is low; sex, if and when it occurs, is a side story in the wedding trajectory.
The distaff quest to get laid has gone largely unrepresented. Even in 1999, despite a pop culture that's overrun with idealized teen-girl sexuality -- witness Liv Tyler, Lil' Kim, Katie Holmes, Britney Spears -- the idea that girls might not just want sex, but might even want to enjoy it, still seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
Coming Soon is actually a modest movie. There is no nudity -- the kids seem to prefer sex fully clothed. Some discussion of "spit or swallow" was about as raunchy as the original version got, and that dialogue has since been cut. The ending validates happy heterosexual monogamy, with the best sex occurring in the context of a sweet boy-meets-girl encounter.
Burson's film, in other words, shouldn't be shocking. But it is. It clearly shocked the ratings board. It also shocked me, as well as a number of women I know who had the chance to see it. But mine was a different brand of shock than the MPAA's. Mine was a shock of recognition, of surprise at the realization that here was a whole aspect of my life -- of women's lives -- that I had never before seen depicted on screen.
I can't really say whether Coming Soon is a good movie. The experience of seeing it was too politicized; I can only say it made me laugh. Part of that laughter was just amazed "I can't believe it's taken this long for someone to make this movie" laughter. But it's also a witty movie, clever, and true enough to provide the tickled and relieved feeling that you're not alone on your awkward, lurching personal journey. Or -- more simply and more accurately -- it gave me that "Oh, totally!" laugh.
But the film executives who have seen it have responded with an entirely different kind of energy. "I'm shocked by how threatening people found these ideas to be," Burson says. "I didn't ever expect to have this many problems."
Burson says that three years ago, when she was shopping her script around, "time and time again" she would get a warm reception from studio executives all the way up the ladder, until a male executive at the top would finally say, "Nobody wants to see teenage girls."
"That was Hollywood wisdom, six months before Clueless came out: 'There's no market for teenage girls,' " she says.
On the artistic side, some of the male directors Burson interviewed about making the film had similar responses. "When I talked to them, I swear the conversations went like this: 'I love this, I love the script, but I'd like to get a little bit less of the orgasm thing... maybe a little more of Chad's back story...'." Chad, Stream's self-absorbed boyfriend, tries to convince her that she must be having orgasms because he's having them. "How much do I not give a shit about Chad's back story?" Burson muses. She ended up directing the film herself.
The cast of Coming Soon includes established actors -- Mia Farrow, Spalding Gray -- and new faces Bonnie Root and Ryan Reynolds. Once it was made, Burson thought that she'd sail through the ratings process. No such luck.
"I had just been reading in Premiere that Joel Schumacher's 8MM had a 'surprisingly easy time getting an R.' I couldn't believe it."
8MM is a movie about "snuff films," underground porn flicks in which young girls are actually killed on camera. The contrast between a movie that depicts young girls being murdered for voyeuristic enjoyment and a movie that depicts young girls trying to have good sex raises an obvious question: how can the butchering that goes on in 8MM be less objectionable than the look of pleasure on Stream's face while she's sitting on the jacuzzi jet? Or, for that matter, why is American Pie, where a boy sticks his manhood into a baked good, less shocking than Coming Soon? American Pie, after all, had no trouble getting distributed.
When Burson confronted a member of the MPAA ratings board and accused the board of having a double standard for girls and boys, Burson says the board member told her "that 'that may very well be true.' But, the board member said, 'it's the job of the board to judge for parents all across America, and if [parents] judge differently for their sons and daughters, then the board has to judge differently.' "
"It's rather upsetting," he says, "if [girls wanting orgasms] turned out to be a difficult idea for people. In this day and age, audiences are accustomed to the fact that women have a right to enjoy sex. It ain't a Muslim country."
Part of Coming Soon's difficulties stem from the fact that it's an indie film without the backing of a major studio to help it weather suggestions of controversy. "If a film has some sort of negative buzz, distributors are likely to step back, regardless of whether it's a male or female film or anything else," says Barry Collin, new-media director at the Association of Independent Feature Film Producers, a nonprofit educational and advocacy trade group. "Marketing can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and one bad choice can cost you your career in this business."
But it's not just a matter of that NC-17. "Women-oriented films, and films for and by people of color, often have a hard time at distribution," Collin says. "The distributors are looking for the broadest audience possible, and that sometimes appears to be young white males ages 18 to 35. That's considered the bread-and-butter segment. That perception can lead to miscalculations. When Titanic was produced, it was expected to do quite poorly because no one expected that the teen female audience would be so extensive, and that they would pull their mothers in with them for second, third, and fourth viewings.
"But women audiences are extremely powerful. Independent producers are looking to them artistically and economically as extremely powerful sectors. Why this escapes the majors is a question we'd all like to have answered."
One answer may be staring Hollywood in the face. A 1999 report by the professional advocacy group Women in Film, cited in Variety, found "chronic underrepresentation" for women in behind-the-scenes roles in Hollywood. Of the top 100 films in 1997, for example, 69 percent had no women producers, and only five percent had female directors. And of the top 250 films of 1998, women produced 18 percent, wrote 13 percent, and directed only nine percent. As a result, many women-oriented movies that, for whatever reason, seem risky are simply never made.
"If the girls [in the film] were categorizable as fringe," says Burson, "if the movie were gritty, then people could dismiss it as artsy, or say, 'Oh, those sluts.' But instead, it has this bright commercial package. Stream is hard-working, she's sweet, she has a complex relationship with her mother, she's trying to get into college. And she wants to have an orgasm.
"Stream looks like somebody's daughter, and maybe for a guy watching this, it's like, maybe my daughter wants to have an orgasm."
In a pop-culture world that's powered by sex, clearly the sex itself is not the problem. It's who's asking for it. As Burson recalls, one "liberal guy who works in film" walked up to one of her editors and said, 'This movie really gets to me -- it's as if these girls think they have a right to an orgasm.' "
His discomfort hit the nail on the head: Coming Soon is different because it's about a different kind of sexual equality -- the idea that equality doesn't mean getting equal amounts of sex but getting equal amounts out of sex.
Says Radcliffe Institute of Public Policy fellow and noted author Wendy Kaminer: "We're still generally comfortable with young girls as sex objects, but not as agents of their own sexuality."
Magazine editor Debbie Stoller has a sound bite for the phenomenon: "Our culture thinks teenage girls should be obscene but not heard."
Stoller is co-founder and editor of an independent publication called Bust, an edgy, hip 'zine geared toward teenage girls and women in their 20s. Bust publishes articles on everything from nail polish to best friends to day trading. Calling itself "The Voice of the New Girl Order," part of its edge comes from its unabashed commitment to the idea that girls deserve and enjoy sex just as much as boys.
"In our culture, we're really accepting of the idea that girls can be sexy," Stoller says, "but unaccepting that they can be sexual.
"Nobody thinks it's shocking to slice your breasts open and shove some silicone in there, but buy yourself a dildo and it's very off-putting. That's insane. One thing is changing yourself for someone else's pleasure, another thing is fulfilling your own desires. I really think that's at the core of all the problems we have with sexuality, from date rape to unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Teenage girls need to learn that it's okay to make yourself feel good. Sexuality doesn't have to be about a boy all the time. It's about you."
Of course, when all the teen-sex movies are Porky's and American Pie and none of them are Coming Soon, the sexual P.O.V. is invariably the boy's. Teen girls don't get to see sex that centers on their own pleasure, on their own desires. The MPAA and the studios may think that they're reflecting the existing climate, but in doing so, they're perpetuating a silence whose effects percolate through the culture.
"Admitting that they're sexual, for women, is a hard thing to do," says Kim Airs, the owner of Brookline sex shop Grand Opening! "They just feel awkward trying to ask their lovers or their moms or their sisters or friends."
Airs teaches a class called "Sex Tips for Women," and she says she notices a palpable relief when she breaks the silence surrounding women's orgasmic explorations. "It's a room full of women who don't know each other talking about positions and orgasm.... Women love to have the space to talk about that stuff. They get very candid, even in front of strangers, because there's not usually a space set up for them to do that."
Coming Soon opens up that kind of space. It starts an important conversation. In which case, while Coming Soon might not be the next Citizen Kane, surely it deserves to be released. As with Titanic, the only way to prove the Hollywood executives wrong is to show evidence of a market for the movie. And the only way to make things less shocking is to increase our exposure to them.
"The extremes with this movie, with such embracing and rejection, are a good sign in a way," says Collette Burson. "If your art is blandly accepted, then you haven't created anything important. The rejection isn't very much fun. But I can take some comfort in that."
In other words, if the notion that nice girls like it too is still so shocking -- well, all the more reason for it to be put into circulation. The guys might even be interested. Porn and dildos and entitlement issues aside, insight into the opposite sex is rarely undesirable. It still takes two to tango.
O marks the spotWhen the protagonist in Coming Soon figures out how to have an orgasm with her boyfriend, she becomes part of a statistical minority.
"There haven't been national studies done on how most women tend to reach orgasm, but it's basically understood by people in the field that the majority of women have difficulty reaching orgasm from intercourse alone," says Laura Berman, sexual therapist and co-director of the Women's Sexual Health Center at Boston University.
According to a University of Chicago study reported in the Journal of American Medicine, about a quarter of women between the ages of 18 and 29 are unable to achieve orgasm with a man. Problems with sex decrease with age, and also, interestingly, with marriage and education: unmarried women are roughly 11/2 times more likely to have climax problems than married women, and women who have graduated from college are roughly half as likely to experience low sexual desire as women without a college degree. But overall, 43 percent of all women (as opposed to 31 percent of men) report some degree of sexual dysfunction.
"Sexual dysfunction" is an umbrella term for a complex problem. But sex therapists and clinicians do generalize that for most women, the political-sounding notion of entitlement can play a significant role in getting over it.
"Feeling entitled to sexual satisfaction is extremely important," says Berman. "Women are still for the most part affected by that very subtle taboo that nice girls shouldn't communicate openly and emphatically about what they want in the bedroom."
As a result, many women never get what they want or need in bed. And it can be hard for them to get medical help, too. Berman says that Viagra can fix up to 90 percent of male sexual dysfunction, and it's usually covered by insurance companies. Viagra's inclusion in medical insurance has prompted some insurance companies to cover birth control for women, but women's sexual needs -- which aren't necessarily as responsive to pharmaceuticals -- still may not be covered.
"I had a patient who was a high-ranking army official," says Berman, "and she was fighting her insurance all the way up to the highest levels of the military bureaucracy because she wasn't able to get her military insurance to cover her visit to our clinic. The minute a man in the army experiences a problem, it's totally covered for a urologist to check it out."
A representative for Harvard Pilgrim, one of Boston's largest insurers, would say only that sexual dysfunction is a complex issue. She pointed out that the HMO covers up to 20 visits with a psychiatrist, if a woman's physician recommends it.
The political and medical issues surrounding female orgasm may be complicated. But masturbating, and releasing films about orgasms, are not. As Wendy Kaminer says, "I would like to think that, 30 years after the sexual revolution, it's not controversial for women to want orgasms."
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