Warning: As might be expected with the subject of masturbation, this story contains some NSFW language and imagery about masturbation.
I want to talk about masturbation at the movies. Unfortunately, for most people, that invokes Jason Biggs sticking it to the titular American Pie (1999) or conversational dick jokes from Seth Rogen in, well, almost all of his films. Putting those jokey, blokey examples to one side, here’s a short survey of the picture of female masturbation on film – from five great flicks. The curious thing is, even though the films themselves deserve celebrating, are the depictions of one-on-one femme time just as great?
Being There (1979)
Notable for being the last Peter Sellers film released while he was still alive,Being There also shows Shirley MacLaine getting to know herself. It’s a strange and awkward encounter, following her failed attempt to seduce Sellers’ simpleton character, Chance. When he pushes her away, she tries to coax him into telling her what he wants. When he responds with, “I like to watch,” (referring to television) she coyly starts touching herself. Of course we don’t see her actually doing it. Played for laughs this one tells us that female masturbation is an absurd activity for women who can’t bed a man. So, masturbation as mockery?
When teen siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are thrust into the black and white world of a 1950s sitcom, they bring with them modern values and progression – much to the shock of the locals in the suppressed small town of Pleasantville. As teenagers start getting it on, objects and even people slowly come into colour. But it isn’t until Jennifer sits down with her all-American Stepford Wives style mom and schools her in all things birds and bees – including how to pleasure herself in lieu of her husband being unofficially but clearly asexual – that the real revelation comes (excuse the pun). Taking some much-deserved time out from her motherly and wifely ‘duties’, she runs a hot bath and explores her body, seeing things in glorious Technicolor for the very first time. Again we don’t see what she’s doing, but it is at least framed within the guise of burgeoning female independence. The scene ends with a burning bush for crying out loud.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
In David Lynch’s nightmare vision of a woman whose break with reality results in trauma, Naomi Watts changes from sweet Betty Elms to desperate, self-loathing Diane Selwyn. Diane furiously masturbates on the sofa, crying at the loss of the object of her desire and her inability to bring herself to climax. This gloomy depiction of female masturbation is artistic and provocative, but it can also be read as an unsatisfying substitute for sexual union.
We Own The Night (2007)
Eva Mendes as Amada Juarez gets things started in James Gray’s crime thriller by writhing around on the sofa touching herself. Clothed and situated firmly in line with the male gaze, her masturbation is a performance for us but also for her onscreen boyfriend Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix). After we’ve had a sufficient opportunity to look, Gray brings Bobby into frame and he joins in. In a movie that flat out fails the Bechdel test, we see female masturbation as cinema’s dominant hetero male ideology wants us to: pure titillation.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2014)
Stacey Martin plays Young Joe in the flashback sequences in Lars von Trier’s story of sexual pleasure and depravity. Joe’s addiction is to sex, not to the men she often shares the experience with. In Vol. 1 she even talks about how she masturbated in public – on a train, covering her lap with her coat so the people around her wouldn’t notice. Cut from the theatrical release – but spelled out in the extended version that premiered at this year’s Berlinale – Joe explains that the only people who ever noticed were other women. Her ‘tell’ was opening her mouth when she climaxed.
The banality of masturbating in public and the action being about satisfying herself, not framed as sexy, or intended to attract the male gaze, and only noticeable to other women who presumably know because – shocking news, most women masturbate – von Trier is offering us a view of female masturbation that says, “it’s all about the self”. I say, about time.
Maybe your idea of a great female masturbation scene isn’t on this list – there are certainly further examples – whether it’s Kim Basinger doing it in the office to a slide show in Adrian Lyne’s Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), or Laura San Giacomo on camera in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), or Aubrey Plaza humping a pillow in Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List (2013), we’ve really only just begun to explore this unchartered terrain.