Review: ‘#FemalePleasure’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

(Switzerland/Germany, 97 min.)
Dir. Barbara Miller
Program: Changing Face of Europe (North American Premier)

Barbara Miller’s indictment of the demonization of female sexuality is all over the place–but in a good way. She travels to the U.S., Germany and Italy, Japan and India to support the fact that men’s desire to control women when it comes to sex is absolutely universal.

In Brooklyn, New York, Deborah Feldman describes how she left her Chassidic community when she could no longer bear the restrictions on women. Women are consistently devalued and female sexuality in that culture, she says, is considered toxic, which is why women have to bathe in the mikva after every menstrual period.

Japanese Manga artist Rokudenashiko reproduces her vulva on a 3-D printer, turning it into a canoe for a joyful boat ride, only to get arrested for obscenity. Her sojourn through sex shops, where the penis is replicated ad nauseam, speaks to the profound sexist hypocrisies within Japanese culture.

Doris Wagner was a nun housed in the German convent Das Werk, where priests and nuns live under the same roof. She was raped there more than once by the same priest and angrily left the Church when no one would make her assailant accountable.

Enduring unremitting street harassment, Vithika Yadav, via her web site Love Matters, fearlessly promotes honesty, safety, consent and most important, female pleasure, when it comes to sex.

In the most gripping segments, Somalian Leyla Hussein organizes to end female genital mutilation, the ultimate atrocity. Fearful of female sexuality? Just cut it out. A sequence in which Hussein uses a two by three-foot clay replica of a woman’s genitalia as a means to show several young men exactly what’s involved in the cutting is deeply upsetting.

It’s a vast swath of territory to cover and the film occasionally suffers for it. Miller deals with mainstream media in mere seconds by showing fashion photos of violence chic at the beginning of the doc. She sometimes doesn’t distinguish between fundamentalism and religion as a whole. Feldman quotes the Bible but it’s only the ultra-Orthodox Jews that take the Torah literally. And whole cultures are dismissed via a single statement. Yadav claims there’s no word for love in Hindi, which is not true; rather, there’s no one word for love, but many.

But Miller’s subjects are wonderful, wholly driven and in some cases, making important inroads. Rokudenashiko was acquitted of one of two charges laid against her but the delightfully positive artist has made thousands of fans worldwide. Yadav’s website is a click magnet and Hussein is engaging effectively with communities in both Africa and the U.K. to end female genital mutilation.

Given her aspirations, it’s no surprise that Miller has left things out. She could have made the case that the pro-life movement, no matter where it rears its head, is itself an exercise in control over female sexuality.

And for the record, lesbians are entirely invisible here. An entire film could be made about how lesbians attempt – sometimes unsuccessfully – to get outside the hetero-normative paradigm and often feel shame about our bodies.

But this film isn’t about that. It’s about hetero-normative oppression and succeeds most when its subjects bring men into not only the conversation, but into the activism as well.

Now what we need is a strategy to ensure that #FemalePleasure finds a male audience.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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