SSL Review - Slums of Beverly Hills


I'm pleased to present another SSL review. In an SSL review, of course, I specifically critique the depictions and discussions of female sexual response. I also like to add in my 2 cents about the movie as a whole, so we'll begin with that.

Slums of Beverly Hills was written and directed in 1998 by Tamara Jenkins and is said to be somewhat autobiographical. I have caught it on TV a few times over the last several years and from my memories thought it could be an SSL review candidate. As I suspected there was a notable depiction warranting an SSL review, and I was happy to find I liked the movie just as much this time around. If I must categorize it, it would be a coming of age story. Vivian is a middle child about to start high school, who travels from crappy motel apartment to crappy motel apartment with her 2 brothers and divorced 65- year old father in Beverly Hills. This movie to me has an authenticity to it that is endearing. A lot of reviews called this movie a comedy, but I think if a drama has the good sense, as this movie does, to allow ample comedy in, it gets mixed up in the purely comedy genre, and it is much more than that. It is a sort of raw peak into a family - the good, the bad, and the ugly, and during that glimpse, we get to see Vivian exploring her place in the family, in society as a woman, and her exploration of herself as a sexual being.

Now that I've just kinda described this as a drama, I want to say that I like the lack of drama in this drama. There is no obsession with a big event that forces her into adulthood. In fact there are events in this movie that would have overtaken the plot of other movies; loss of virginity and witnessing a distasteful side of your parent for instance. However, instead of dwelling on these "life events" they simply flowed along with the rest of her experiences. Speaking of her experiences....Let's movie on to the SSL review.

There was only one scene in here that depicted female sexual response. Let me set it up first though - going a few scenes back...Vivian is sharing a room with her 29 year old sweet, fun, addict, fuck-up cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) who has come to live with Vivian's family to get her life together while Rita's father subsidizes a nicer place for the family to live in. So, as Rita is unpacking, she holds up an item, a cream colored hard plastic dildo-shaped vibrator.

Vivian: What's that?
Rita: My boyfriend - a vibrator. Haven't you ever seen one of these before?
Vivian: Yeah, (giggle) sure.
Rita: You can use it. Ya know what's mine is yours. (turns it on) Batteries still work. Here. (Tosses it to Vivian)
Vivian: (Catches it) Ew (giggle) (Tosses it back)
Rita: (Catches it) Play with it a little. (Tosses it back)

Rita turns on the radio where "We got the Funk" is playing, and the two laugh and toss the vibrating object back and forth, each dancing with it before sending it to the other. Eventually,Vivian's dad walks in behind Vivian who is having a good ol' time dancing and thrusting with it as if it was her own attached penis. Rita turns off the music and there is several awkward moments where Vivian and her dad are staring at each other straight faced as she tries to turn it off. Rita is laughing and telling her to turn the head until Vivian finally quiets it...and...cut.

I like this scene for a couple reasons. One, Vivian has just the right amount of awkward fun playing with this thing and trying to be cool in front of her cousin. The other part I like is the relaxed attitude about female sexual initiative/masturbation/openness. I mean, as a feminist working towards orgasm equality for the ladies, I have a special love for this kind of vibrator promotion plus frank admission and advocacy of masturbation among women in a movie. Rita calls it her boyfriend, tells her young cousin she could use it (warning - not recommended on a STD level to share sex toys:), and after her dad sees Vivian with a vibrator - life goes on - not too much of a biggie. The next scene is the whole family walking up to visit their dad's new girlfriend, nothing odd at all. I will admit that this does fall into a common stereotype where the females who show sexual agency and actual desire are, well, the screwed up, freaky, crazy, or nerdy ones. However, I'm going to give this movie a pass on this because Rita, although a screw-up addict, is depicted as a whole person, and we feel for her in a very human way at times. Maybe I'm just sweet on this movie, but I have seen much worse uses of this stereotype (American Pie, 40 Year-Old Virgin....).

Ok, so that happens. Later Vivian is peeing in the middle of the night, and - no toilet paper. She's in a nightgown,. Her panties are around her ankles, so she crawls over to the vanity cabinet to look for some more TP, which she does find. She also finds that vibrator. She quickly loses interest in the TP and looks at the door, reaches up to turn off the light, holds the vibrator at her chest and lays back on the floor. The shot is looking straight down, a close crop around her face and shoulders. She turns the the vibrator on and slowly moves it down her body until we see from her face that the vibrator is in contact with something pleasurable. There is no detectable movement going on with her arms or body, indicating that she is simply holding the vibrator against something (hmmmm...her clitoris maybe??). Her eyes kinda roll back in her head for a second, she gives a few twitchy corner of her mouth smiles, her face barely crinkles up a couple times and she expels some quiet, composing breaths. Then we see her face sorta tense up a touch more, and it cuts to a straight down shot, close in on her feet, with her panties around each ankle. It indicates she is laying straight legged, feet inches apart. We see her feet press together urgently indicating she is having an orgasm. We cut again to the shot of her face and see her eyes crinkle. A satisfied look comes across her face, and she slowly brings the vibrator back up, clutching it delightfully against her chest as the music gently swells euphorically.

This scene depicts a vibrator bringing a young lady to orgasm in about 90 seconds. As I pointed out before, there is no indication that she is moving the vibrator much. Her legs are basically closed, and so there is no real sense that she is inserting the vibrator into her vagina. It seems more as though she is pressing the vibrator against her vulva, which is consistent with how a female could stimulate herself to orgasm. There is also the matter of her understated orgasm performance. It is quiet and quick and here is one obvious point where we can assume orgasm occurred. We see no fake-y porn moaning, and it doesn't seem as if she is coming the whole time. Those are major problems in porn and other media depictions of orgasm. Female orgasms, according to personal descriptions from the Hite Report and physical observations from Human Sexual Response, can be achieved within minutes (just as males can), do not last too much, if at all, longer than a male orgasm, and do not generally coincide with screaming or constant moaning. That last point is from The Hite Report not HSR -that study doesn't really speak on it. However, I just found an article in Archive of Sexual Behavior (May2010) called ":Evidence to Suggest that Copulatory Vocalizations in Women Are Not a Reflexive Consequence of Orgasm." The abstract is as follows:

The current studies were conducted in order to investigate the phenomenon of copulatory vocalizations and their relationship to orgasm in women. Data were collected from 71 sexually active heterosexual women (M age = 21.68 years +/- .52) recruited from the local community through opportunity sampling. The studies revealed that orgasm was most frequently reported by women following self-manipulation of the clitoris, manipulation by the partner, oral sex delivered to the woman by a man, and least frequently during vaginal penetration. More detailed examination of responses during intercourse revealed that, while female orgasms were most commonly experienced during foreplay, copulatory vocalizations were reported to be made most often before and simultaneously with male ejaculation. These data together clearly demonstrate a dissociation of the timing of women experiencing orgasm and making copulatory vocalizations and indicate that there is at least an element of these responses that are under conscious control, providing women with an opportunity to manipulate male behavior to their advantage.

I haven't actually read the article yet, so i won't yet speak to the quality of the actual study, but I think it speaks to the idea that women are too often depicted as having excessively vocal orgasms compared to men.

I'd also like to point out that Vivian does have sex in this movie - the back seat of a car - classic. We did not see her actually having sex, and so didn't see her reactions. We did see her afterwards where the boy asks if she was on her period and realizes that this was her first time. She seems ambivalent about the experience, and states that she just wanted to get it over with. I have to say I like the undramatic nature she portrays. She doesn't seem changed (certainly not as much as she does after her bathroom floor self induced orgasm), and her relationship with the boy remains largely unchanged also. In relation to depictions of sexual response, it really just wasn't there to comment on. However, I think it's relevant to point out that the director made the decision to show Vivian have an orgasmic response to masturbation, and make no indication of an orgasm or post-intercourse Euphoria for her first "time."

Anyway, my point is that I was happy with the depictions of orgasm in this movie. I think my next SSL review will need to be a bad one. Lately I've been drawn to movies I was pleased with, so I'm gonna go to some classics next....40 Year Old Virgin? Forgetting Sarah Marshall? We'll see.

Slums of Beverly Hills gets 5 vulvas.

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