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Excerpted from Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, edited by Eric Schaefer (footnotes omitted) published by Duke University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Eric Schaefer and Duke University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.



cover art

Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution

Eric Schaefer, editor

(Duke University Press; US: Mar 2014)

Jane Fonda’s Orgasms
by Linda Williams



Jane Fonda’s orgasms take on significance against the background of all the above-mentioned factors: highly sexualized antiwar activism; new discourses of sexology questioning the causes and the nature of female orgasm; feminist revision of these discourses; and the new appearance, in hardcore pornography, of explicit sex acts. In 1969 Pauline Kael reviewed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with the observation that Fonda, who had been a “charming, witty nudie cutie in recent years,” now “goes all the way” with an archetypal character, “as screen actresses rarely do once they become stars.” “Jane Fonda stands a good chance of personifying American tensions and dominating our movies in the seventies.” Dominate she would.


Fonda had once been informed by the great stage director Joshua Logan that she would “never be a dramatic actress with that nose, too cute for drama.” It was this “cute” starlet who was invited to France in 1963 to make a film with Roger Vadim, whose… And God Created Woman (1956), starring Brigitte Bardot, had inaugurated a whole new era of sophisticated, if not exactly graphic, European screen sexuality. Vadim was a contemporary of the French New Wave artists, but unlike them he was unabashedly commercial. He celebrated a particularly French kind of sensual pleasure in the first film version of Les liasons dangereuses (1959), in a “racy” remake of Max Ophuls’s La Ronde (1964), and in the quite remarkable and little-known The Game Is Over (1966, La cureé). Vadim rarely pictured graphic sex, but he was fascinated by female sensuality and did not always find it necessary, as Hollywood films of roughly the same era did, to punish female protagonists for their pursuit of sexual pleasure. For a six-year period, overlapping with her career as a proto-Hollywood star in such films as Cat Ballou (1965), Any Wednesday (1966), and Barefoot in the Park (1967), Fonda worked in France under the tutelage of Vadim, whom she eventually married.


To his great credit, Vadim did not try to make Fonda into an American version of Bardot. What he did instead, with a screenplay authored by satirist Terry Southern, was to capitalize on her American innocence while asking her to disrobe in suggestive, but never frontally nude, ways. The credit sequence of the French-Italian coproduction, Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968), was emblematic: intergalactic traveler Barbarella strips off her space suit while floating weightless in space. The letters of the credits hide crucial body parts. The peeling off, or decorous shredding, of already skimpy outfits constitutes the primary visual pleasure of this film about an earthling ignorant of the “old-fashioned” sexual pleasures derived from bodily friction. Earthlings, we learn, had long ago given up such primitive “distractions.” But when a hirsute, virile representative of another galaxy insists on old-fashioned friction, Barbarella is pleasantly surprised. All we see, however, is a state of extreme, presumably postcoital, satisfaction. Another sexual episode—this time with the smooth, well-built flesh of the angel Pygar (John Phillip Law)— further convinces her that old-fashioned sex has its charms. But like the first scene, this one too is elided: all we see is a postcoital Barbarella, relaxed and humming, stroking herself with a feather from Pygar’s wing.


By the time Barbarella arrives at her third sexual encounter, this time with a bumbling revolutionary, Dildano, played by David Hemmings, she is eager to engage again in this supposedly retrograde activity. But Dildano is a modern man who insists that she engage in the more proper pill-induced “exaltation transference.” After ingesting the transference pellets, they face one another, fully clothed, and touch only their palms, which gradually begin to smoke as their faces reveal mild pleasure. The “climax” for each appears to be a moment when their hair curls and stands up, though Dildano’s hair curls more. At one point the slightly bored Barbarella drops her hand, but then politely reengages.


Barbarella’s plot is usually dismissed as a silly excuse to maneuver Jane Fonda into various stages of undress. This it ably does, but it is worth noting that Southern’s script hinges upon Barbarella’s mission to locate and eliminate a “positronic ray,” possessed by the villainous Durand-Durand, which threatens the peace of the universe. It is thus to avert war that the future Hanoi Jane undertakes her mission. Our sci-fi heroine makes love, the old-fashioned way (off-screen) and averts war (on-screen) by disarming the power-mad megalomaniac Durand-Durand. But if Barbarella is strangely modest about the portrayal of sexual acts compared to the exhibitionist display of its heroine’s body, it is especially innovative in its approach to female orgasm.


Caught in the clutches of the villain, whose peace-shattering weapon it is her mission to destroy, Barbarella is placed in a number of vaguely S/M torture devices. The most important is a futuristic version of an old-fashioned single-person steam bath from which only her head, neck— and later her upper chest—protrude. This rubber tent is attached to an organ (the musical kind) whose keys the villain plays. His plan is for Barbarella to die of pleasure from the sound vibrations caused by his playing. In “playing the organ,” he thus proposes to “play” Barbarella herself—to death. What we then see is a nonexplicit extended “sex” scene in which the feminist inference drawn from Masters and Johnson is dramatized: “The more a woman does, the more she can, and the more she can, the more she wants to.”


As Durand-Durand begins to “play his organ,” Barbarella sighs and her eyes widen as one-by-one items of her clothes are spit out at the bottom of the “Exsexive Machine.” “It’s sort of nice, isn’t it?” she asks. “Yes,” replies the sly villain, “it is nice… in the beginning.” Though more of her upper body will gradually protrude from the steam-bath-like contraption, it is her face that registers the surprise of successive degrees of pleasure as the music builds. “When we reach the crescendo you will die,” promises the villain. Big death—real death—is supposed to follow the excess—exsex—of the little death (petite mort) of orgasm. But the more frenetically the villain plays the organ as the music reaches one crescendo after another, the more it becomes apparent that Barbarella can “take” whatever pleasures it offers. In the end, it is the machine that dies. “Theoretically,” as Mary Jane Sherfey put it, “a woman could go on having orgasms indefinitely.”


In this scene a finite, masculine concept of sexual pleasure as climax and crescendo—the quintessentially French and male concept of orgasm as a kind of finite petite mort—comes up against the lessons of Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and feminist sexological revisions of female sexual pleasure as potentially infinite. The more the machine tries to kill her with pleasure, the more Barbarella relaxes and enjoys. Soon the tubes feeding the sound into the cubicle shrink, and the connections smoke and burn. Yet another mad male scientist’s experiment has gone awry. “Wretched, wretched girl!” exclaims Durand-Durand, “What have you done to my Exsexive Machine?! You’ve undone it! You’ve undone me!


Fig. 2.2 Barbarella (Jane Fonda) can

Fig. 2.2 Barbarella (Jane Fonda) can “take"whatever
pleasure’s Duran Duran’s “Exsexive Machine” has to offer.


Look! The energy cables are shrinking! You’ve turned them into faggots! You’ve burned out the Exsexive Machine! You’ve blown all its fuses!” The snickering double entendre of Terry Southern’s script is evident in every word of this monologue, but the words are superfluous compared to the ever-widening eyes, open mouth, and growing beads of sweat on Barbarella’s face (figure 2.2). This is one point in the film in which Fonda’s face, not the game of peekaboo with her semi-naked body, counts. And it is the expression on this face that presciently prefigures all of Fonda’s subsequent performances of orgasm. What it reveals is Kinsey’s insight that “an individual who is really responding is as incapable of looking happy as the individual who is being tortured.” Such is the first (American) face of female orgasm on the American screen.


Although many have noted the campy sets and sexual innuendo of much of the film’s dialogue, and though some have drawn a connection between the “Exsexive Machine” and Woody Allen’s later “orgasmatron” in Sleeper (1973), no one has noted the sheer temporal duration of this scene or the fact that it only ends when the machine itself dies. Barbarella’s pleasure endures as the machine steams up and sputters out. If the film carefully elides all views of heterosexual coitus as pelvic thrusting—more chastely, in fact, than American films of the same era—it does not elide the orgasm presumed to be the end point of sexual pleasure. Nor does it presume that this orgasm can simply be represented as a single crescendo or climax. Rather, it is suggested as something that goes on and on, beyond the capacity of the machine to control. In its own very “sixties” way, then, and in a way that will carry over, though in a much more serious mode, into Fonda’s film career post-1960s, the future Hanoi Jane uses her orgasmic capacity to expose the warlike villain and his death machine as impotent and to celebrate herself as orgasmically triumphant. Make love, not war, indeed!


In the introduction to his book about Victorian pornography, first published in 1964, Steven Marcus introduced an image derived from Masters and Johnson that he considered symptomatic of the new era of twentieth-century pornography that was on the rise at the time of his writing. Noting that Masters and Johnson had “discovered” the “orgasmic capacities of women,” he points out the aptness of this discovery for an era of postindustrial advanced capitalism: “It can hardly be an accident… that the idea of large or virtually unlimited female orgasmic capacity should act as a centrally organizing image of our time. [It] corresponds exquisitely to the needs of a society based on mass consumption. It is in effect a perfect image of mass consumption—particularly if we add to this image the further details that she is probably masturbating alone, with the aid of a mechanical-electrical instrument.” Fonda’s Barbarella is not exactly masturbating alone, but she does have the aid of a “mechanical-electrical instrument” in the form of the Exsexive Machine. As such she seems to be an important precursor of the image of the future that so worries Marcus, perhaps as much as it worries Durand Durand: the multiply orgasmic woman in no need of heterosexual coitus.


In her autobiography, My Life So Far, Jane Fonda places the Barbarella, of 1968, as the last chapter of the first of the three acts of her life: here, the sex kitten Jane, shaped by the Pygmalion, Vadim. The second act, which begins with a chapter entitled “1968,” is called “Seeking.” It tells the story of her political awakening. This act would eventually be presided over by a very different Pygmalion in the form of Tom Hayden, former leader of Students for a Democratic Society. But before Hayden makes his entrance, Fonda describes witnessing some of the events of May 1968 as interpreted and explained by her sometime mentor, French actress and left-wing activist Simone Signoret. In this phase of her life, Fonda becomes pregnant, goes to an antiwar rally in Paris with Signoret, and at the latter’s prodding, reads Jonathan Shell’s story of the “pacification” of the village of Ben Suc in his book by that title. She learns of France’s own sorry history of Vietnamese colonialism, begins to contemplate the significance of her father’s legacy as an icon of American democracy in his roles as Lincoln and Tom Joad, and from there is gradually drawn into the movement of American gi war resisters. Signoret, who was also a friend of Henry Fonda, is reported by Fonda to have maintained a belief that “what she loved about my father from his movie roles was waiting inside me to manifest itself through action.”


This action becomes manifest in antiwar political action as well as in the roles she takes on when she “comes home” to the United States, first to make They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Then Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971) and eventually the aptly named Coming Home (1978), directed by Hal Ashby. It would be in the latter two films that Fonda’s orgasms would take on narrative relevance and no longer in the context of the “nudie-cutie” pleasure machine that was Barbarella. Thus whereas Barbarella, Klute, and Coming Home would all make female orgasm central to their story, it would only be the American films that would take on the challenge of how to represent orgasm in more realistic, socially embedded contexts beyond the sniggering joke of an “Exsexive Machine” but also without encroaching on the emerging territory of hardcore pornography.


How, then, did the mainstream New Hollywood cinema portray sexual acts now that the Production Code no longer necessitated the elision of all sex except the briefest of kisses? How did it portray a sex that could now be presumed to “go all the way” and that no longer need end with the cut away from, or fade out on, a kiss? With the new mPaa ratings in place since 1968 there was now a category, R, that could permit the limited display of what would come to be called “simulated”—as opposed to hardcore—sex. However, that limited display had, even before the rise of the ratings system, fallen into a fairly predictable pattern of representation that I call the Hollywood musical interlude. It is that pattern that Fonda’s orgasms would disrupt, if not definitively shatter.


The Hollywood musical interlude is a formula that was forged perhaps most memorably by The Graduate as early as 1967. It was Hollywood’s presumably “tasteful” way of suggesting carnal knowledge. This knowledge is revealed (we are certain the couple does have sex; no coy fade-out or narrative obfuscation typical of the Production Code years) yet simultaneously concealed (we are not asked to confront the visual fact of genital action). In theater history an interlude was a short humorous play between the acts of a more serious miracle or morality play. But one of the term’s primary meanings is also musical: the instrumental music played between the sung parts of a song. Either way, an interlude offers a break with the normal flow of drama or music. In movies before the 1960s it was conventional, in addition to the usual scoring of Romantic music throughout a film, to add interludes in the form of songs sung by performers within the narrative (for example, Dooley Wilson singing “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca). But in the 1960s, films began to appropriate a new model for importing a wide range of pop music into their very fabric. They moved away from “monothematic scores”—single themes that return in dramatic situations—and toward “multitheme” formats: new or old pop songs that underscore the film, often to highly edited montages. The popularity of the song could thus contribute to the popularity of the film. This move to “underscore” movies and even to sell them with entire compilation scores was especially attractive to younger audiences. These lyrical montages (in some ways prefigurations of music videos) tended to stop the narrative flow of the film in order to “sell,” or at least let viewers enjoy, the song.


It is precisely in these lyrical montages, montages in which music amps up and narrative amps down, that a certain palatable form of carnal knowledge first found its way into mainstream American film. Indeed, the conjunction of music and sex, as opposed to the presentation of sex acts with little or no music, is enormously important in the history of cinematic sexual representation. When the sounds of sex became audible for the first time without the cover of music, and when the kind of affective control offered by musical interlude was not deployed, then a new kind of “nakedness” became available to films, even when the characters having sex were clothed. The smooch of a kiss, the smack of a slap, the slurp of fellatio or cunnilingus, the whoosh of penetration— not to mention the sighs, moans or outright cries generated by sexual connection—make the sex that is seen seem all the more proximate to the viewer-listener. Where Hollywood sound cinema was quick to provide “sound effects” for the physical blows of fight scenes, it was not equally quick to provide sound “synch points” for carnal encounters. Indeed, the trope of the musical sexual interlude seems partly designed as a new way of screening out components of sex acts that were nevertheless becoming necessary to present. We do well to recognize that bracketing off carnal knowledge from the rest of the film is what the music and editing of the sexual interlude does. Within this bracket, intimate sexual relations reside in a different register of time, space, and sound. Just as romantic kisses in the silent or sound film almost never occurred without soaring music, so it would prove extremely rare for post-Code Hollywood films to depict carnal knowledge without affectively controlling, and reassuring, audience response with musical accompaniment. When we do get sex without the soaring musical interlude, it usually seems more “naked,” more “real,” even though the acts represented remain simulated.


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26 Mar 2014
Sex Scene offers a new angle for examining the "longest revolution", and demonstrates the profound ability of the media to influence how we think, and what we think about.
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