Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Books

Faking Bad Sex

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA

Something closer to this zero degree of nakedness is what we find in Jane Fonda’s post-Barbarella American film performances of orgasm. However, it would first be through the discovery of ways of depicting non-orgasmic sex—often figured as “bad” sex displayed without music or bracketed editing, eschewing the celebratory, lyrical format of the sexual interlude—that Hollywood would eventually find a new way to portray sex beyond these conventions.


Fig. 2.3 Bree (Jane Fonda) checks her watch
while she fakes an orgasm with a client in Klute (1971).


“Bad” sex in Hollywood had previously been portrayed as the sex the woman did not want to have. By the early 1970s, however, it began to encompass another meaning: inauthentic or faked sex. Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance in Klute was one of the first to complicate the sexually promiscuous figure of the femme fatale, usually a figure of villainy. In this film the woman is, in a more traditional sense and despite her sexual identity, “good.” Having already proved in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? that she could act beyond the role of the ingénue, Fonda now proceeded to play Bree Daniels, a high-class call girl stalked by a mysterious killer and protected by a strong, silent cop-turned-private detective named Klute (Donald Sutherland). Bree’s orgasms, both faked and real, would matter to this narrative, though only the faked, “bad,” ones would be enacted. In an early scene, Bree has sex with a client. Pro that she is, she is fully in control of the orchestration of his pleasure through the semblance of her own. At the moment of her supposed orgasm she offers a patently fake show of enthusiasm while slyly glancing at her watch (figure 2.3). Analytic sessions with a female psychiatrist make this point even clearer: Bree confesses that real sexual pleasure would threaten her control over the scene.


Both Molly Haskell and Pauline Kael’s reviews of Klute discuss this early scene of “bad” sex. Kael knowingly complains that the timing is off—realistically Bree would have looked at her watch before, not during, the faked orgasm. Haskell, for her part, notes what kind of toll such a performance exacts: “As any woman who has ever faked an orgasm knows, it’s too easy to count as a great performance and too cynical not to leave behind some poison.” Although both critics score important points in the evaluation of the film, what is most striking is that two influential women critics of the early seventies, themselves informed by discourses of sexology and its feminist critique, now find it possible to argue about the realism of a performance of “bad” sex. They recognize it when they see it.


“Good” sex would be the new post-Code, Hollywood, answer to “bad.” This may constitute a terribly impoverished range compared to the sexual performances emerging at that same time outside the Hollywood mainstream; it is nevertheless fascinating to watch Fonda “progress” from the comic “exsexes” of Barbarella to the theatrically fake orgasms of Klute and finally to a more “politically correct” portrayal of simulated “good” sex in the later Coming Home. In Klute, Bree explains to her female analyst that in her affair with Klute she is fighting having real orgasms for fear of losing control. Indeed, in a scene that might seem initially to be the “good” sex antidote to the faked orgasm with the client, the two sleep on narrow adjacent mattresses in Klute’s basement apartment after Bree has been frightened by a death threat. In the middle of the night Bree silently climbs onto Klute’s mattress and seduces him.


The scene is striking in its stark simplicity. There is no fancy editing, no musical accompaniment, and only one ellipsis that takes us from a preliminary stage of seduction to thrusting man-on-top, woman-on-bottom missionary sex. Until we see the triumphant look of control on Bree’s face as Klute expresses his (muted) pleasure, we may think that this is the “good” sex—at least she does not look at her watch. But the triumph is too smug, and she taunts him afterward with the knowledge that she did not come—“I never do with johns.” This is her way of asserting control over a man she feels tempted to love. “Good” sex is not shown, but it is hinted at in an extended bit of “sex talk” spoken by Bree in a long monologue to her analyst, of which I excerpt a part:


I enjoy, uh, making love with him, which is a very baffling and bewildering thing for me because I’d never felt that way before. I just wish I could let things happen and enjoy it for what it is and while it lasts and relax with it. But all the time I keep feeling the need to destroy it… to go back to the comfort of being numb… I had more control with tricks… At least I knew what I was doing when I was setting things up… It’s so strange, the sensation that is flowing from me naturally to somebody else without it being prettied up. I mean, he’s seen me horrible. He’s seen me mean, whorey and it doesn’t seem to matter; he seems to accept me and I guess having sex with somebody and feeling those sorts of feelings is very new to me.


Bree’s words could almost be taken as Hollywood’s best advice to itself on how to present sexual relations that capture a sense of a charge flowing between two bodies, without the buffer of musical interlude, without the abstraction of tight editing, and “without it being prettied up” in the usual Hollywood ways. Klute itself does not take that plunge beyond this verbalization, but toward the end of the decade Jane Fonda would again perform brief, “bad,” nonorgasmic sex in yet another Academy Award–winning performance, in Coming Home. This time, however, the bad would be answered by a good that would break the pattern of most previous Hollywood portrayals of sex, while also addressing the question of whether what Anne Koedt called “certain sexual positions now defined as ‘standard’” deserved to be so defined.


Hal Ashby’s Coming Home is not an antiwar film of the late 1960s. Rather, it is an antiwar film made in the late 1970s, after the Vietnam War was over, but looking back at the late 1960s. Early in the film Sally (Fonda) has perfunctory farewell sex with her Marine captain husband Bob (Bruce Dern), before he departs to Vietnam. In the dark of their bedroom, Sally lies still under Bob’s body. Her eyes are open and her hands are folded on his dog tags, as he pushes tamely, passionlessly into her, emitting only a muted couple of grunts at the end. Sally does not fake orgasm; she simply holds still and passively takes what her husband gives.


An adulterous affair will be the occasion to counter this “bad” marital sex and to render shy Sally more independent. She volunteers at the hospital and develops a friendship with Luke (Jon Voight), a paraplegic Vet who channels his anger and shame about his participation in the war into antiwar activism. After Luke chains himself to the Marine base gate to protest conditions in the veterans’ hospital, Sally asks to spend the night with him. In a scene almost perfectly designed to illustrate the argument of Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” she achieves her first orgasm with Luke, a man paralyzed and without sensation from the waist down.


The scene begins with Luke emerging from the bathroom of his apartment in his wheelchair with only a towel draped over his crotch. Sally, still in a trench coat, helps him onto his bed and turns off the light. “Turn on the light,” says Luke, I want to see you.” What follows is almost a lesson in synesthesia designed for movies. Luke informs Sally that he can’t feel when she touches him (down there) but he can see. Sight, in a solution that neatly coincides with the needs of an audience screening sex, thus partly substitutes for touch in a sex scene that has a legitimate excuse to leave the light on.


Fig. 2.4 Sally (Jane Fonda) and Luke (Jon Voight) negotiate
new ways of touching, feeling, and looking in Coming Home (1978).


The first image after the light goes back on is a goldenly lit shot of the now naked couple in a tight clinch. “What can I do?” asks Sally. “Everything, I want you to do everything,” answers Luke. This invitation implies a liberation from the usual temporality of a sex act that in hardcore films would progress through a certain amount of quick foreplay toward the predictable end in male orgasm and ejaculation presumed to signal the end of the female’s pleasure as well. In the new, bracketed, musical interludes of post-Code Hollywood, this trajectory would be similar but the foreplay would be extended and the thrusting would be both simulated and truncated. Without this usual telos, the trajectory of the encounter is now up for grabs; we cannot assume what this sex will be (figure 2.4). Thus when, in the next shot, we see a more distant view of Sally, her back to us astride Luke, we cannot assume that he is penetrating her (see below). At this point, the polymorphous perversity of the body in its entirety, which Herbert Marcuse had called for in Eros and Civilization, seems to have a chance to emerge as the couple negotiates new ways of touching, feeling, and looking.


However we construe the sex that Luke and Sally have, it is emphatically not that of active, phallic thrusting. We see Luke kissing lower and lower parts of Sally’s anatomy in what we may assume, but cannot confirm to be, cunnilingus. And what we hear is Sally’s delighted, encouraging direction: “Oh softly!” It would seem that hard, phallic thrusting is the last thing on her mind. Were this a scene in hardcore pornography, the injunction from the penetratee to the penetrator would inevitably be “harder!” “Softer” suggests a sex of delicacy in which less movement, force, size, hardness might seem more. The following shot shows Sally’s legs convulsing as they wrap around Luke’s seriously scarred back. We surmise from where her feet are that his face, not visible, must now be at her genitals. A cut to her face reveals the wide eyes, and same panting convulsive movements and a series of long “ohhhs” reminiscent of Barbarella’s encounter with the “Exsexive Machine.” When Luke says “You’re so beautiful”—again asserting that his primary pleasure is visual—Sally for a short while just goes on convulsing, raising the question of when this “sex act” might end. It does end, however, after they have embraced and held one another for a while, when Sally says, perhaps unnecessarily, “It’s never happened to me before.” Here, finally, is the end-of-the-decade’s “good” sex, that answers both Bree Daniels’s hurried sex with a client in Klute, and Sally’s passive, unresponsive sex with her husband at the beginning of Coming Home.


In her autobiography Jane Fonda explains that she and Jon Voight met with Vietnam veteran paraplegics and their girlfriends in preparation for their roles in the film to learn the various ways they had sex. In the process of the research, they were surprised to learn that the men were capable of occasional, unpredictable erections. She writes that until learning this, “genital penetration was not something I had considered possible between my character and Jon’s.” Nor was she interested in portraying this somewhat rare possibility. She was more interested in finding “a dramatic way to redefine manhood beyond the traditional, goal-oriented reliance on the phallus to a new shared intimacy and pleasure my character had never experienced with her husband.” Hal Ashby, however, was determined to portray the sex as precisely an achievement of rare penetrative virility. Voight, for his part, agreed with Fonda that the sex scene would be more adventurous if the assumption was that his character did not have an erection and the sex was nonpenetrative.


Thus began what Fonda calls the “Battle of Penetration.” Ashby had already directed Fonda’s body double in the nude scenes to move as if she were being pleasurably penetrated, whereas Fonda in her own flesh refused to match those actions. The “climax” of the battle occurred in the final day of shooting the scene when she was on top of Voight and Ashby yelled at her “Ride him! Dammit! Ride him!” while Fonda, holding on to her concept of the scene, refused to play jockey. In Ashby’s conception, Sally was astride Luke, who had achieved an erection. In Fonda’s conception the climax of the scene was Sally’s experience of oral sex. The double who acted in the long shots had been directed to “ride,” whereas Fonda, in the closer shots, refused. According to Fonda, the two do not match. I would argue, rather, that they look like two phases of the couple’s lovemaking, a first in which Sally is on top and could be “riding” Luke— but perhaps his thigh, not his penis—and a later phase that consists of cunnilingus and in which Fonda achieves orgasm. At this point most of Luke’s body is “below,” out of frame. From the evidence on the screen, I’d say Fonda won the “battle” of the depiction of this particular orgasm as resulting from nonpenetrative sex. However, one sex scene in one Hollywood film could hardly win the larger war of gender equity in screening sex. Though Sally does give evidence of a prolonged and continuous pleasure that does not have the same rhythm and telos of phallic sex, her “performance” ultimately operates to restore a semblance of masculinity to an initially emasculated veteran.


Perhaps the only way to truly challenge what still remains the dominant phallic discourse of sex would have been to question the very notion of orgasm itself as the “be all and end all” of pleasure, or as the “ultimate truth” of sex for women. For in both these phrases is embedded the notion of a singular end pleasure—a climax, or as Durand-Durand would put it, a “crescendo”—that contradicts the very notion of the polymorphous and the multiple.


As feminist researcher Annie Potts demonstrates, the language of orgasm, even the more “enlightened” female-aware language of sexologists such as Masters and Johnson, tends to be organized as a teleology of excitement, plateau, and resolution in much the way it is performed by Fonda here: still privileging phallocentric models of thrusting and getting “there.” Men are often portrayed as getting there too soon and women too late, if at all. Potts attempts to deconstruct the binaries by showing how the privileged term of presence (getting there) is dependent on the absence of a later “falling away” from presence, of the end of orgasm. Potts herself advocates a discourse of sex in which climax would not be regarded as the only source of true intimacy and a general “unfixing” of pleasure from any specific organs. This general unfixing of pleasure from any specific organ is similar to Marcuse’s call for a more general reactivation of all erotogenic zones, not just the genitals.


It would be unfair to ask Fonda alone to point the way to a brave future of such deconstructed orgasm. Perhaps a simpler way to approach the problem of the figuration of orgasm(s) in this film would be to recall a somewhat simpler model for thinking about all sexual pleasure. Leo Bersani’s argument that often the “pleasurable and unpleasurable tension of sexual stimulation seeks not to be released in discharge but to be increased—as in a clitoral, prolonged, way of thinking of orgasm as an excitement that prolongs itself and, in Potts’s terms, reintroduces the concept of desire.” In other words, the hydraulic model of orgasm, which views it as mounting tension concluded by an explosion of release, can be complicated by another model of sexual excitations that seek nothing more than their own intensification and that might do so, as Sally requests, quite “softly.” The “scratch” model of sexual pleasure aims at satisfaction in discharge, at hitting a specific target, or “spot.” The scratch always presumes a thrusting and a targeted, focused tactility of one erogenous zone upon another. The “itch,” on the other hand, is much less specifically targeted; it is ultimately whatever manages to keep desire in play. The scratch model of orgasm has obviously been the dominant, phallocentric term of much sexology and much cinema. It took an antiwar movie about a paraplegic to begin to figure the pleasure of the itch in mainstream Hollywood: anticipation, prolongation, intensification, but not necessarily hard, not necessarily discharged— to begin to challenge the dominant phallocentric model of going all the way.


Coming Home received mixed reviews but substantial recognition at Oscar time (for both Voight and Fonda as well as the screenplay). Critics were divided by the lightning rod of “Hanoi Jane” playing a docile Marine wife whose political and sexual transformation moves politically in the direction of… well, Jane Fonda. They were also divided about the film’s focus on Sally’s orgasms as well as its use of rock music from the 1960s to underscore many scenes. Vincent Canby called the film “soggy with sound”—“a nonstop collection of yesterday’s song hits.” Pauline Kael agreed, arguing that Ashby “has filled in the dead spaces by throwing a blanket of rock songs over everything.” David James, writing in the early 1990s, nevertheless made an important case for the film’s use of rock and roll, pointing out that though there have been many American films about the devastation of American soldiers who fought in Vietnam—and no feature-length fictional films about the devastation of the Vietnamese—this film’s “unequivocal assertion” that the invasion of Vietnam was “wrong distinguishes it from all other films made in Hollywood.”


What no one seemed to notice, however, was that music was for once not applied to the sex scenes. Indeed, these scenes sex scenes (orgasmic or not) were sometimes the only times in the movie when nondiegetic music did not accompany the action. Relative silence ruled, punctuated by the sounds of sex (the opposite of the musical sexual interlude’s typical blocking out of such sounds), and that simple fact gave the sex scenes—admired or not—a more dramatically integrated status than the standard interlude. What some critics, Canby included, may really have been objecting to in the derogation of the film as a “women’s picture” may not only be its politically tinged melodrama, but the post-sexual revolution mutation of a love story that details a woman’s sexual pleasure without that pleasure being contained in the usual ways.


It is fascinating to watch American critics come to grips with an American—not European—screen sex that goes all the way. Kael, for example, undergoes an interesting change of mind in the course of her review. At first she seems to follow Canby’s judgment and to trivialize the achievement-of-orgasm plot: “Coming Home started out to be about how the Vietnam War changed Americans, and turned into a movie about a woman married to a hawk who has her first orgasm when she goes to bed with a paraplegic.” In the end, however, Kael does not deride the importance of this new “women’s picture” subject matter. More organically, she argues that the film does not quite deliver on the logic and motivation of its sexual subject. Contrasting the look on Sally’s face when she had open-eyed sex with her husband, to the look when she also had open-eyed sex with Luke, Kael writes that the situation fairly demands that her husband discover her infidelity through the new way she would make love when they next have sex. In essence, this comment reduces to the question: Could the woman who now “really” makes love do so with a man who desperately wants to believe in the good of making war? Since the film does not depict such a scene, it, according to Kael, fails its subject.


Whether one agrees with Kael or not, the important point is that in the course of her review she begins to take the dramatic matter of the orgasm seriously, not just as something to be discussed (as in Klute), but as something to be represented and corporeally understood. After initially making fun of the importance of Sally’s orgasm weighed against the disillusionment of Vietnam, Kael implicitly recognizes that how Fonda has sex with her two different partners represents a new cinematic codification of carnal knowledge now demanding to be respected on its own cinematic and dramatic terms. Kael’s insight is to see that that first climax required yet another sex scene with Sally’s husband. Without actually noting that sexual performance had now become relevant to a mainstream Hollywood film with major stars, Kael tacitly grants that a Hollywood film can use simulated sexual performance to express the complex psychology and “drives” of its characters and perhaps something more nuanced than simply “bad” or “good” sex. She also implicitly acknowledges, through her very demand for yet another sex scene, that screening sex up to and including the quality and kind of orgasm conjoins with interest in character and narrative and was now a valid expectation at the movies. Thus in 1978, three years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, American audiences could finally understand and accept the axiom that had been the basis of my generation’s activism: “Make love, not war.”


Linda Williams is a Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Screening Sex, Porn Studies, On the Wire (forthcoming in September 2014); Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. In 2013, Williams received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Related Articles
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.
discussion by

Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.