Features Film

Discovery And Pleasure: Female Masturbation On Film

NEARLY three decades have passed since Chrissy Amphlett of Australian band Divinyls proudly sang about ‘touching herself’. But female masturbation remains a taboo subject.

This has filtered through to the big-screen with representations of female onanism few and far between. Instead depictions of the act of masturbation have largely been confined to male experiences and used for comedic purposes.

These most notably include Ted’s (Ben Stiller) hair gel incident in There’s Something About Mary, Brad’s (Judge Reinhold) poolside voyeurism in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Jim’s (Jason Biggs) sock time in American Pie and – most recently – Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) peach experimentation in Call Me By Your Name (which I should note is a scene far richer than any of the others).

Although this is still a male-dominated space, there are filmmakers who have approached female masturbation in a way that gives genuine, non-exploitative treatment to the subject.

Just this month, Deborah Haywood’s strikingly honest film Pin Cushion included a scene with introverted schoolgirl Ioana (Lily Newmark) masturbating in bed after her frenemy Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice) had introduced her to the art of such stimulation with an electric toothbrush – more likely a power move than an act of friendship.

Ioana’s masturbation scene is one of discovery and pleasure, climaxing with her seeing seemingly euphoric blurry shapes. It is rare moment of genuine, unspoilt coming-of-age discovery for Ioana during a period when she is suffering the ill-effects of a damaged mother and hatefully cruel bullies.

Masturbation acts as a release and a reminder of the adolescent journey Ioana could be going through if not for the harrowing events ravaging her life.

The pleasures of masturbation are also discovered by sheltered schoolgirl, Alice (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things), in Karen Maine’s short film Yes, God Yes. Like Pin Cushion’s Ioana, this is another lead character who stumbles upon masturbation and proceeds down a path of erotic curiosity.

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Alice (Natalia Dyer) in Yes, God Yes

Although Alice wrestles with both Catholic guilt and her newly unleashed urges for much of the film, Yes, God Yes ends with a tight shot of Alice’s pleasure-filled face as she enjoys her own body to the romance of James Cameron’s classic film Titanic.

The type of autonomous sexual awakening that Ioana and Alice (Ioana to a lesser extent due to Keeley’s prickly influence) go through is not just limited to younger characters on film. Middle-aged 1950’s housewife Betty (Joan Allen) heads to the bath to masturbate for the first time in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville after receiving advice from modern woman Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon).

As part of a film that injects colour and emotional range to a conservative, black-and-white world, Betty’s masturbation is a revelatory moment that leaves her husband in the other room bemused and climaxes with a literal explosion in the front garden. An intense release of untapped sexual energy and neglected satisfaction, this female masturbation is historically therapeutic.

Given its watery and mid-20th century setting, the Pleasantville scene bears some resemblance to a scene from Guillermo del Toro’s recent Oscar-winning film The Shape Of Water. In this case we witness masturbation in the bath as part of Elisa’s everyday routine. Although it is done with a splash of comedy, the scene distances itself from the over-glamourized sexual portrayal of women in film and moves towards a more normalised outlook.

Masturbation has been shown as something to be discovered for female characters, but it can also act as a means for discovering or unlocking a part of one’s own identity.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) explores her sexuality in Blue Is The Warmest Colour when she touches herself in bed and vividly fantasies about the woman (Emma played by Léa Seydoux) she had seen earlier. The brief lingering of Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera on a panting Adèle after she has finished masturbating suggests a realisation of the new sexual space that has opened up for her through this experience.

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Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) in Blue Is The Warmest Colour

A similar scene occurs in 2017 film Princess Cyd, although director Stephen Cone presents a less overtly sexual picture with a full-clothed Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and no cutaways to her fantasies. This places emphasis on Cyd’s inner-journey over and leaves us to wonder whether she is exploring her feelings for the barista, Katie (Malic White), she recently shared a dance with.

In Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, masturbation is a form of daring expression for Maureen (Kristen Stewart) as she is driven to new emotional frontiers by a mystery texter. After trying on her celebrity boss’s clothes, Maureen retreats to the bedroom for a professionally risky yet intensely sensual moment. The scene ends interestingly with Assayas’ camera drifting out of the room, adding an almost voyeuristic element to the scene as Maureen’s mystery texter could be watching.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is going through even more intensive emotional strain when she masturbates in Black Swan. Thrusting and moaning over the bed covers, Nina eventually turns to her side to realise her mother is asleep in the room with her. A scene that presents us with highly sensualised female masturbation, only to subvert it into something more sinister.

David Lynch uses masturbation as a vehicle to take us through Diane’s (Naomi Watts) emotional state – from sobbing to near anger and frustration – in his mysterious cult classic Mulholland Drive. Here the action of masturbation is used by the director to express the character’s feeling in a succinct, visual manner.

Female masturbation might be under-represented on the screen, especially in comparison to male scenes, but a lot of those willing to approach the subject have done so (largely) with a range and delicacy that can only work to improve and encourage more open conversations about the subject.

If we want to move towards a sex-positive culture, then we should not be afraid nor ashamed to talk about masturbation – or to watch it in a non-exploitative fashion on the big-screen.

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