SSL Review - Shortbus

If you don't want to watch a movie that starts out with a man giving himself a blow job, full on cum shot and all, then don't watch Shortbus. It was a hit at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and made waves for its explicit un-simulated sex scenes. I first learned about it after a co-worker went into it on a first date on name only and was...surprised. I, then, had to check it out. I'll be honest. I've watched too many early John Water's movies, Todd Solondz movies, and porn for Shortbus to give me any full on shock value, but it does include tri-sexual orgies, 3-way gay sex that involves a rendition of "Star-Spangled Banner" and so on. Watch at your own risk - that's all I'm sayin.

This movie is actually a really good one to SSL review (Find all the SSL Reviewed movies HERE) because one of its 3 main plots is about Sophia, a married, couple's councilor who has never orgasmed and begins a journey to finally do it - so that's SSL gold right there.  It's also a movie geared toward the young, sexually accepting, avant-garde crowd, which is just the kind of crowd that probably thinks they know best about the "real story" of how women orgasm. So the fact that this movie gets it so wrong in places, seems to me like an indication of how ignorant our culture really is about female orgasm. I also think that the movie takes a sort of "ah ain't she cute and innocent and sexually closed off" attitude about the pre-orgasmic character. There is no indication that this is a problem larger than her - that there are larger cultural issues at play. The problem is all about her; her hang-ups, her personality...her inner self is at blame for this. In fact this movie is really all about personal/relational hang-ups that are largely expressed in the movie through sexual hang-ups. All 3 of the main storylines revolve around an emotional/relationship journey, each coming to a climax in a sexual scene that indicates they've begun to overcome their personal hang-ups. So whether or not the director wanted to insinuate that the only thing a pre-orgasmic woman needs to do to become orgasmic is lose the emotional hang-ups, that is what ended up being insinuated. I realize this movie was not a discussion of our cultural understanding of female orgasm. It was simply a movie intended to use sex and sexuality as a narrative device. However, it acts as if it knows something about female orgasm. Unfortunately, though, the mythology of female orgasm permeated this movie, and I believe it heavily reinforced cultural misunderstandings particularly because this movie had the pretension of being so sexually open and informed.

So...let's get down to what it did say about female orgasm. Before it is revealed that Sophia is pre-orgasmic, we see her having sex with her husband. They are doing it all over the house - look like they're having a pretty fun wild time. Then at the end, getting pounded doggy style, as he is coming, she "comes" too. So this is the classic, simultaneous intercourse orgasm that we often see women having. However, this time we will know it is fake, and I applaud that. So, then we see them post-sex laying in bed, she says it was incredible and that she feels sorry for people who don't have what they have....people like a couple she's been working with where the woman just revealed she's been faking and is afraid the guy will break up with her if he finds out.

"So, I finally told her what I think she should do."
"what should she do?"
"She should keep faking. It's a completely legitimate strategy to buy some time."
"Cause the thing is if she tells Brad, he's gonna think it's all his fault, you know."
"And the thing is an orgasm isn't something Brad can give her. She has to claim it for herself. What do you think?"
"What do you mean what do I think?"
End scene

He looks perplexed and worried the whole time she is telling this story, giving you the impression he suspects she is talking about herself. So, her problem is introduced this way, and I like that there is the acknowledgment that she has to give herself an orgasm. It isn't going to come from someone else.

She reveals her pre-orgasmic condition in an apology after she smacked one of her patients during a therapy session (a gay male couple who makes up the 2nd main storyline - both named Jamie). They tell her she should check out this club called Shortbus, which I will describe as a swingclub filled with artists doing artsy things, all types of sexualities, and filled with mostly the young and the counterculture. She goes.

Talking to the Jamies at Shortbus she says she wonders if it (the female orgasm) is even real. It isn't necessary for procreation....etc. she goes on to say, "You know I feel like we're inundated by images of these super deluxe babes in the throws of the ultimate orgasm. I think it's just some myth to sell more magazines." At this point a trans woman pipes in and tells her they are real, she's seen them, and that she finds it unacceptable that Sophia's never had one. So again, I think these sentiments are about right. I, as you may know, am often saying these images of female orgasm that we're inundated with are fake and harmful. It makes sense that these images would make her feel powerless. However, I would argue that these images are off because they portray the wrong types of situations for creating female orgasm, and the movie simply never addresses an idea like this. It just let's her paranoia hang, allowing the viewer to assume, since Sophia eventually does orgasm, that she just can't understand it yet.

At this point she stumbles into a room full of lesbians, and they begin talking about her problem. We find that her husband Rob is the only one she's been with, and someone points out that she probably has some major "blue clit" which is a term I can get behind. They tell her to work on her PC muscle when she's peeing (which we see her do in a later scene). They say it is good for your orgasms (BTW, although a strong PC muscle is often discussed as having to do with achieving or achieving better orgasms, it actually has never been shown to be the case. However a strong PC muscle is associated with bladder control and reduction of problems associated with prolapsed uterus/bladder/rectum, and it may be associated with female ejaculation - just so you know). Then she asks the ladies what their very best orgasm felt like. We hear 3 people, and they all describe them in mystical spiritual terms - saying things like "shooting out creative energy into the world" and "merging with other people's energy and then there was no war" and "felt like I was talking with the gods." Mercifully to me as a viewer, a character Severin was in the corner laughing at each of these descriptions. However, in the end we are led to feel as though Severin is the asshole for being so cold - not that the orgasm descriptions really were ridiculous. (She is the 3rd storyline, and guess what, she has a problem opening up emotionally in a relationship...) So, this scene reinforces the understanding of the female orgasm as based in spirituality, emotion, and mysticism in a way that the male orgasm simply doesn't have to deal with to this degree. It is largely understood that the male orgasm is based in the physical. We clearly understand how it works and when it works. The female orgasm, in contrast, has all this fancy myth around it that covers up our clear lack of knowledge about how it works and when it works. So boo to that scene.

However, Severin and Sophia actually decide to help each other with their problems and begin meeting daily. Before that though, we see Sophia in her bathroom trying to do sexy poses in the mirror, in lingerie. Then she lays on the floor, brings out a vibrating dildo with a "rabbit" attached (this is a toy where the "rabbit" part is intended to vibrate on the clit as the dildo is inside the vagina.) So she pushes the dildo in her vagina and holds it in there, moving her pelvis sort of against the dildo, and we can't be sure if the rabbit is really touching the clit. She certainly doesn't seem to be focusing on the clit in any way. In the end, she can't get it done. Her husband, Rob, is playing music too loud. She's distracted, and in the end, she goes to yell at him, and in their strange fight he tells her he knows he can't give her an orgasm. Here's my thoughts about this scene. First, even if something is vibrating near her clit, she probably is going to need to actually move the vibration around the clitoris to her liking in order to orgasm. The focus seemed to be something vibrating and inside her. There was no sense in this scene that this isn't an obviously orgasmic way to masturbate - particularly when trying for a first orgasm. In fact, I would assume, because of the type of toy she used (a dildo that vibrates, moves, and with a rabbit for the clit) that the toy was supposed to be about the best she could possibly use. I say that because this type of toy has a reputation, starting from a Sex and the City episode, as being the BEST. So, the wrong impression was given for what type of stimulation causes female orgasm (clit/vulva stimulation people - not vaginall!). Second, the distraction of her husband's music and their fight afterward gives the impression that her orgasm problems stem directly from issues in her relationship with Rob. This again moves the discussion of this problem away from a physical one (i.e. a misunderstanding of what physically causes female orgasm...I mean, maybe id she put that vibrator on the outside...) and towards a discussion of emotional and psychological problems. Not that orgasm isn't intertwined with emotions and psychology. It's just that, for women, orgasm problems are too often blamed on the personal when the problem is that physically the stimulation is just not present.

Later Severin and Sophia meet in a sensory deprivation water tank each day and try to help each other out. Severin asks her if she, like, jerks off, and Sophia says of course she does - which I highly doubt - other than the above scene, but the movie never addresses this further. (I would like to point out at this time that 96% of women who do masturbate, orgasm regularly during it (from The Hite Report survey)). At one point, Severin is narrating a romantic story for Sophia while she try's to masturbate. Sophia puts her hand down her pants and rubs in a circular motion. This looks as though she is rubbing her clitoral/vulva area in a way that one might in order to masturbate. She then starts getting impatient and slaps her vulva and begins rubbing really hard at which time Severin tells her to pull over cause she's not riding safely. So we are seeing a more convincing type of stimulation, but we are still led to believe Sophia has some sort of personal block that keeps her from orgasming.

When we next check in with Sophia, she is with her husband Rob at Shortbus. She and Severin have created a little scheme with a vibrating egg and a remote control. We see Sophia put the vibrating egg in her panties. There is not enough shown to know at this point if she puts it up her vagina or just sets it in her panties. Then she gives Rob the remote and tells him they can both roam around, and he can use that remote to check in on her. They go their own way...

The drag queen extraordinaire that runs the club finds Sophia sitting alone and asks her how it's going - letting her know the whole club is talking about her little problem. 

SOPHIA "I think I have some sort of, you know, clog in my neural pathway somewhere between my brain and my clitoris."

DRAG QUEEN: "That's disgusting. Don't think of it as a clog. Think of it as some sort of like magical circuit board, a mother board! Filled with desire that travels all over the world that touches you, that touches me, that connects everybody. You just have to find the right connection, the right circuitry."

So the drag queen made it all mystical and spiritual again, assuring us that if we want female orgasm, we need not look at the physical, but the spiritual - you know connect ourselves with the magical world-wide motherboard of desire or some shit like that.

We then find that Sophia's careless husband is leaning against the remote and buzzing her randomly. In a scene where Sophia is comforting Severin, they start to make out and grind against each other. In the meantime, Rob is buzzing her. Severin is getting off on the buzzing and orgasms on Sophia. This depiction of orgasm is alright. Severin focuses in on herself, seems to rub her vulva up against Sophia's vulva, and there is also supposedly vibrating. It makes enough sense. Sophia is left out of the sexual experience though, and Severin apologizes - she feels horrible, and says, "I'm so sensitive." This might sound picky, but Severin saying that, brings to mind that myth that some women are born ultra orgasmic (ultra "sensitive) (like Samantha from Sex and the City or other like characters) and others are born almost inorgasmic - as if there is some wide variety of innate orgasmic ability among women that doesn't exist in men.

Okay, here's the next thing. The egg was inside her vagina. I know it was inside because after Rob misplaced the remote and someone else started buzzing it like crazy, she became spastic due to the buzzing. After finding that Rob carelessly did that, she got super pissed, went outside screaming, "I want it out of me," and dropped it out, crushing it to pieces with a fake leg. Two things. 1. Again, vibration inside the vagina...not so helpful for an orgasm, people. 2. Can we stop making movies where a woman goes spastic because the remote for something vibrating in her panties/vagina gets into the wrong hands. It's just over done. I'm talking to you The Ugly Truth, O in Ohio, etc...

Okay, finally there is a sort of fantasy/dream sequence where Sophia pushes laboriously and angrily through a forest until she gets to a bench on the sea shore. She sits, touching herself, then lays. We see her face, and we see her rubbing her vulva/clitoris aggressively. This is intercut with the climaxes of the other storylines (all expressed in sexual scenes), until she stops rubbing and screams in frustration, "shut up." She did not orgasm this time either, and in the real world all the lights in New York go out. We later see she is in her home or office, and she heads out to Shortbus, where there seems to be some serene kind of lovey-dovey, artsy, candlelight and symphony thing going on. Sophia looks relaxed and sees a young couple that she has noticed throughout the movie having sex together in the giant orgy room. They sit down on either side of her, and all three begin to gently kiss and touch. She looks and sees Rob across from her, and they give each other a slight smile. At this time, a rag-tag marching band enters, and it becomes a big party. We see quick cuts of Sophia with her two lovers. They're kissing, then it looks as though she is straddling the guy with the gal behind her kissing her neck. Then the next time we see her, it is a downward shot only on her face. No one else can be seen. Her face contorts in orgasm. She breaths in, and the movie ends.

So it seems our Sophia finally had her orgasm. I can't say what exactly was happening to her physically to get it, though. So what is the moral of our orgasm story? I don't really know - some sort of vague self learning, blah blah, etc., etc..student artsy film bullshit. What I'm interested in is what this movie contributed to the cultural knowledge of female sexual functioning and sexual release. So...it seemed like she had her first orgasm ever while engaging in a threesome. Cool, I guess for a movie plot line, but it's not the most responsible way to portray how a sexually active, grown, married, pre-orgasmic women will have her first orgasm. Masturbation people. That is the first step almost always. Just ask Ms. Lonnie Barbach. She created a group therapy technique to make pre-orgasmic (her groups came up with the term pre-orgasmic by the way) women become orgasmic back in the mid 70's. It's all about masturbation first, man. (BTW, I did an interview with Lonnie Barbach, and I'll be posting a profile about her very soon - just a little plug, so look forward to that).

Overall, this movie gave mixed signals when it came to female orgasm. Like I said before, this movie had pretenses of being sexually informed and open, so I feel the bad messages in this movie hit harder than in some crappy run-of the mill movie. We were told that someone couldn't give a woman an orgasm, but as the movie rolled on, we see that they meant less that a woman had to physically create her own, and more that she had to emotionally claim her own orgasm. Not a helpful and positive impact on out cultural knowledge of this stuff. It's more of a non impact. It spoke of the clitoris a lot, but it wrongly insinuated through depictions of masturbation, that insertion into the vagina is a valid method of stimulation if one wanted to have an orgasm. It also emphasized the female orgasm as a mystical, spiritual, emotional thing. Not that emotion isn't part of it, but male orgasm in this movie and in real life does not have to put up with being framed in those terms. This movie squandered a great opportunity to acknowledge that the female orgasm is as much of a physical entity as the male orgasm is. Instead, this movie reinforced our cultural myths that make the female orgasm seem confusing, magical, and unpredictable. Shortbus, I wish you could have done better.

This movie gets 2 vulvas.
(!) (!)

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