‘She Found It At The Movies: Women Writers On Sex, Desire and Cinema’ (Book Review)

Like many of the contributors to She Found It at the Movies, the intoxicating new collection of essays from female and nonbinary writers about sex, desire and cinema, I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell head over heels for cinema. One rainy Sunday, aged 16, I revelled in an accidental double-bill of Tank Girl (1995) and Gone with the Wind (1939). I’d rented the former after being lured by the pulpy swagger of the VHS cover, and the latter simply popped up on BBC2. The uncompromising punk of Rachel Talalay’s comedy action film and the sweeping majesty of Victor Fleming’s 1939 romance epic were like nothing I had seen before. I was hooked.

I have since come to appreciate that these films gifted me indelible female characters at a time when I needed them most. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Lori Petty’s Tank Girl both displayed an unwavering self-confidence that I, a teenager struggling in her own skin, could only dream of. Yet, there was something else at play. Like Scarlett, I swooned over Clark Gable’s swaggering Southern lothario Rhett Butler; utterly reprehensible yet totally beguiling. Tank Girl’s fearlessness, her total disregard for traditional notions of femininity, were also deeply seductive.

More than two decades later, I struggle to dovetail these responses with what I know to be true about myself. How can I, as a liberal feminist, desire a man like Rhett, who fights against the abolishment of slavery, fails to respect Scarlett’s strong-headedness and seems to care little about notions of consent. And, as a straight woman, what exactly is my attraction to Tank Girl? Do I want to be her, or be with her?

Reading the profound, provocative and deeply personal She Found It at the Movies, I made the welcome discovery that, despite the overwhelming blunt maleness of film and film criticism, a language does exist for exploring this nuanced, sensitive subject. Divided into sections – ‘Innocence and Experience’, ‘Fantasy and Danger’, ‘Our Bodies, Our Selves’, and ‘The Female Gaze’ – the book mines the broad spectrum of female desire, straight and queer, and how it is shaped by, and responds to, cinematic notions of sex and desire.

This isn’t a simple indulging of the ‘female gaze’, although there are brilliant pieces on teenage crushes and the joy of the ogle. “I will never forget how I felt about River Phoenix in 1993,” writes Pamela Hutchinson in ‘Death Cults and Matinee Idols’, an insightful study of grieving for a film star as an adolescent rite of passage. “Gene Kelly was the first man I remember being aware of,” recalls Anna Bogutskaya in ‘Dance Boy Dance’, a luscious appreciation of the male form in motion. “He wore short sleeves and tight white trousers.”

All the writers delve deep into their own experiences, fearlessly baring their souls, as they discuss the films which had an impact on their younger selves, and how they push back against conventional notions of female sexuality that are largely constructed by, and for, men. (A striking example is the intimate ‘Push It Real Good: How Set It Off Set It Straight’, in which Corrina Antrobus dissects her own challenging relationship with representations of black womanhood.)

The idea that female desire, whether passive or performative, is in service to men is also central to Jessica Kiang’s outstanding ‘The Kiss, Or What the Movies Never Taught Me About Desire’. “For women, the movies teach us, to be kissed – and all that comes after – is to lose, to be caught…” she observes. The key, she says, is to subvert or co-opt the masculine concept of “selfish desire”, to find oneself reflected in the attitudes of male and female characters, both explicit and demure. To unashamedly wallow in moments of pleasure, even if in the most unexpected of places. For fellow essayist Anne Rodeman, for example, this can be found in the queer frisson between Liesl and Maria in The Sound of Music (1965), which she describes as “The Hottest Film I’ve Ever Seen”.

The truth is, though, that desire can often lurk in difficult places. Some writers face this problematic issue head-on and, in doing so, bring a clarity of thought to a tangled psychological web. In her essay ‘What Does It Mean to Desire an Onscreen Abuser?’, Eloise Ross lays bare her fascination with Oliver Reed’s violent Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968). “There’s a level of shame for me, as a woman and a feminist, to realise that I may have discarded my own urge for emancipation because I was essentially seduced by a thuggish arsehole,” she admits – a sentiment to which many of us can relate. Elsewhere, Sophie Monks Kaufman writes with raw honesty and strength about her own sense of sexual self-worth in relation to the cannibalistic protagonist of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001) and the robotic Stepford Wives (2004). Like all the essays, this is not just exceptional writing about women but perspicacious film criticism in general. It’s powerful, emotional stuff.

And that’s the very thing. Female desire is emotional, sure, but it’s also powerful. While cinema would like to label all women as shy virgins, psychosexual bitches or wanton sluts, our particular kinks and wants are legion, and deliciously undefinable. She Found It at the Movies is unequivocal in its assertion that female desire, in all its forms, is no dirty little secret; that women should not only speak openly about whatever it is that floats their particular boat, but actively go out there in search of it.

Indeed, while it may be infuriating that such an exciting complexity of female and nonbinary sexuality remains alien in a cultural landscape that continues to throb with sexism and outright misogyny, this book is clear that there are still myriad onscreen pleasures for women to discover and explore. “It’s not about what your find,” notes editor Christina Newland in her excellent call-to-arms opener ‘Those Blue Eyed Boys’. “It’s about finding it.”

She Found It At The Movies, edited by Christina Newland, is published by Red Press.

This review was originally published in Sight & Sound, May 2020

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