A rebuttal to anyone who wants to use women’s rights as a cudgel against whatever group of fundamentalists they happen to oppose, Barbara Miller’s Female Pleasure reminds us that cultures around the world and throughout time have used sexual mores to assert control over women. This tying-together is the main value of a film that, by its nature, can’t dive as deep as previous exposés about, say, female genital mutilation. However modest its production values, it will be warmly received by activists in many communities.
(Miller, whose last documentary, Forbidden Voices, highlighted the way women have used the internet to fight repressive governments, stylizes this film’s title with a hashtag in front of it. Those of us who feel social media platforms have done at least as much harm to the world as good may elect not to promote Twitter when discussing the doc.)
Five women tell their stories here in a round-robin format, beloved by documentarians, that can (as it does here) sometimes quash dramatic momentum more than it augments our understanding. For most of the first half-hour, for example, we may not realize that the movie is going to do more than critique systems of repression by looking at various case studies: the German nun, Doris Wagner, who was raped by a priest and then blamed by her female superiors; the Japanese manga artist, who goes by the name Rokudenashiko, who was threatened with a prison sentence for making sculpture representing her own vagina.
That artist’s case offers one of the simplest examples of brain-frying double standards in the film: Prosecutors call her depictions of female genitalia — not sex, just the organ, presented in whimsical ways — obscene; meanwhile, Miller takes us to Japan’s annual Kanamara festival, a penis-worship event in which partiers wear penises on their noses, eat penis-shaped popsicles and carry a giant phallus on a shrine.
Other double standards can be hidden in discrepancies between what a culture says and how it behaves in practice. Deborah Feldman grew up in an insular Hasidic community where both boys and girls were “protected” from knowledge of the outside world. Forced at 17 to marry a man she didn’t know, she suffered a near-complete ignorance of sex and eventually fled the community entirely.
Like the doc’s Indian subject Vithika Yadav, Feldman makes generalizations one assumes would be rebutted if Miller talked to anyone who embraces the traditions they fled: Feldman claims there’s no way to say “I love you” in the Yiddish dialect she learned; Yadav says, outrageously, that “the concept of love does not exist in India.” But Female Pleasure makes the meaning of that complaint clear as it discusses widespread misogyny in that country and a view of wives as property.
Yadav and Somali-born British therapist Leyla Hussein are the film’s clearest examples of social activism, both working for change-centered organizations and mounting campaigns to challenge public attitudes. Hussein’s main concern in the doc is female genital mutilation, which she points out is present in many religions despite not appearing in any of those religions’ sacred texts.
As Female Pleasure gradually moves from all its introductions to show how each woman fights repression in general, and specifically the denial of women’s right to control and enjoy their own sex lives, Hussein is the center of the doc’s most affecting scenes. In one, she visits with a group of Maassai women and hears them agree they don’t want to inflict FGM on their daughters. In another, in an urban setting, she gathers some boys and young men around a giant clay model of a vagina and shows them exactly how the women they may someday marry have been cut. The brutality of the procedure is impossible to ignore when a clitoris is represented as a fist-sized wad of Play-Doh; the boys’ disgust is clearly not feigned.
Those boys may have been an easy crowd, though. The film mostly watches similar activist efforts, in which a message is presented in the context of modern, multicultural communities. It’s easy to go on NPR and get an indignant response to traditions practiced by religious zealots; what’s harder is changing the zealots’ minds where they live. A close look at an effort along those lines would probably lack Female Pleasure‘s manifesto-like appeal, but it would likely make for a much richer experience.
Production company: Mons Veneris Films
Director-screenwriter: Barbara Miller
Producer: Philip Delaquis
Executive producers: Ellen Ringier, Roswitha Schild, Melanie Winiger
Director of photography: Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart, Anne Misselwitz
Editor: Isabel Meier
Composer: Peter Scherer