Acting as muse:
Patricia Cohen, wrote an interesting review of the play “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” for the NYTimes on December 19, 2009. The first page off the Internet is below, if you wish to read the second page, cut&paste the following site and sign up for free access to the NYTimes on line.
“Is not this new instrument wonderful?” Dr. Givings exclaims in Sarah Ruhl’s Broadway debut, “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” “Thank goodness for Benjamin Franklin and his electrical key!”
Neither the 19th-century doctor nor his contented new patient, Mrs. Daldry, realize that the electrical contraption he has designed to cure hysteria, a common female ailment in the Victorian era, is actually a sexual aid or that her sensation of “dancing on hot coals — and down — down there — cold and hot to the touch — my heart is racing” has anything to do with erotic pleasure.
The point, as Ms. Ruhl shows, is how much control the mostly male medical establishment exercised over women, and the degree of ignorance women (and men) frequently had about their own bodies.
To a 21st-century audience, bombarded 24/7 with graphic sexual images and language, such prim naïveté is hard to imagine. American culture so openly embraces sexuality that you practically expect souvenir vibrators to be sold in the lobby of the Lyceum Theater, just as umbrellas with parrot heads are for sale nearby at “Mary Poppins.”
But as Ms. Ruhl herself acknowledged in an interview, today’s overexposure can exert its own brand of tyranny over attitudes toward sex. The difference now, say media, feminist and cultural critics, is that the mostly male-run film and television industries, as well as the profit-driven medical and pharmaceutical establishment, can aggressively promote their own self-interested standards of beauty, sexiness and normality.
“Men comprise the majority of the creative community,” said Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, and one result is “male fantasies of women’s sexuality.” Dr. Lauzen studied the 2008-9 television season, surveying more than 2,100 of the most powerful jobs in prime-time network broadcasting, and found that only one out of four was held by a woman.
She did a similar examination of the film industry, which revealed that of more than 2,700 people who worked on the top 250 films at the domestic box office last year, women accounted for 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors. Nearly a quarter of those films employed no women in any of those key jobs.
Focusing on directors, the Lauzen team found that women made up a mere 9 percent of the total — the same as in 1998.
The way that these mostly male creators and executives portray female sexuality include women who resemble Victoria’s Secret models, voracious female libidos and routine pairings of older men with women 20 and 30 years younger. The new film “Crazy Heart,” released this week, which matches Jeff Bridges, 60, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, 32, is just the latest example.
“The Proposal,” a hit over the summer that starred Sandra Bullock, 45, and Ryan Reynolds, 33, is among the few films that switch the age disparity. Generally, in these sorts of films, Dr. Lauzen noted, “the entire story has to revolve around explaining that relationship, because how can it be that a younger man would find an older woman attractive.” An older man-younger woman relationship, by contrast, is “just accepted, no explanation needed.”
Exceptions to the male view are “startling because you almost never see them,” Dr. Lauzen added, mentioning as an example the TNT cable series “Saving Grace,” which stars Holly Hunter and was created by a woman, Nancy Miller, who also serves as executive producer. In scenes that depicted Grace’s lover fulfilling her sexual desires without reciprocation, “it was about her pleasure, not his pleasure,” Dr. Lauzen said.
One twist in the new film “Up In the Air” is that a female character exhibits what is considered typical male behavior: sex without emotional attachment.
Ms. Ruhl, who spoke from her home in New York, said: “We get a lot of the male gaze on female sexuality. In the theater, a lot of woman have to be naked onstage.”
In “In the Next Room,” Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) ends up standing in front of the audience, nude, while his wife (Laura Benanti) does not.
“I don’t take it lightly to ask an actor to take his clothes off onstage,” Ms. Ruhl said, but added that she felt that it was important in this context. “It is about his character’s vulnerability, but also about her looking at him. I feel we see a lot of examples of men looking at women, and audiences’ being asked to take the male point of view. We’re so unconscious of it.”
What has largely disappeared from the media are distorted portrayals of women as frigid or uninterested in sex. What has replaced them, however, are shows like “Cougar Town,” “Private Practice,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” — all on ABC — that frequently portray women as rapacious sexual predators, always in the mood for sex and without qualms about bedding down as many men as possible.
Lenore Tiefer, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center and a sex therapist, complained about “the standardization of sex.”
“Everybody has to like sex, want sex, be good at sex,” she added. “In the face of that, it’s inevitable that people feel insecure.”
Older “characters who look their age and have sex are still taboo,” Dr. Lauzen said, adding that on screen, women “age faster” than men.
Normal signs of the passing years are erased, so that anyone over 35 still has a whipped-cream complexion and an ice-cream-stick figure. Because viewers are so unaccustomed to seeing faithful renditions of older women, when they do appear, people assume that the characters are older than they really are. The rampant use of Botox, facial fillers or cosmetic surgery among female celebrities has caused the eyes to readjust.
Not propositioning anyone this week or engaging in passionate love before the dinner dishes are cleared? Perhaps it’s because you have a low sex drive or wear a size larger than 2.