movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson
Thu May 02 2013, 02:32pm | 37 comments
Lars Von Trier has a new movie coming soon. It’s called Nymphomaniac. Here’s the teaser poster (via The Hollywood Reporter):
This wouldn’t bother me much if I thought there was an equal chance we’d ever see a movie called Satyromaniac by Lara Von Trier that came with a poster like this:
I won’t hold my breath.
Apparently one Shame is enough to redress the balance for all time. Or something.
Shame is not an equivalent to a movie called Nymphomaniac from the guy who made Antichrist.
Indeed. It’s just the only one I can think of that’s even in roughly the same headspace.
i love that graphic (the second one, i mean)… brilliant.
And yet it’s probably not even remotely in the same headspace.
I could easily imagine a movie about Cassanova or Don Juan with a similar graphic design. And some of the posters for “Fellini Satyicon” come close in suggestiveness.
And a banned Hungarian poster for “Shame” depicted the word spelled out on a woman’s back with what appears to be semen.
Your graphic is perfection. Of course, as a devotee to fannishness, I immediately thought, “Hmmm, must be a slash flick!”
Nymphomaniac is a gendered term? I did not know that.
All due respect, MaryAnn, but I hope you’re not suggesting that the man who consistently casts women in complex, powerful roles, generally paints his male characters as evil or stupid, and shows as much male nudity as female, is sexist. Von Trier is a lot of things–a prankster, a provocateur, a poseur, what have you–but he’s not a sexist. And this ad is (to me) a clever and amusing use of design given the film’s theme. Is it really any more offensive than the titles The Vagina Monologues or The Puppetry of the Penis or all those action movie posters with guys brandishing big guns? Just because an image (or word) is female-centric, that doesn’t make it intrinsically sexist. It’s the attitude surrounding it that matters. If there were a weapon pointed at it, or it were in a circle with a line through it, then maybe you could make that argument. But sometimes a parenthetical vagina is just a parenthetical vagina. ;-)
Having said that, I do find your reinterpretation amusing. And if I had time I’d lay out all the many examples of reverse sexism going on in the media today, starting with all those sitcoms and commercials where men are the clueless doofuses just there to make the women look smart. I’m not saying it isn’t fair play, but let’s not pretend the tables aren’t turning. But that’s a whole other topic!
As I recall, the male term is satyriasis.
Of course, both terms are outdated; both are more properly referred to with the term “hypersexual”.
I’ve railed against depictions of men as clueless doofuses. Generally, though, such depictions (as in sitcoms and TV commercials) aren’t there so much to make women look smart but to reinforce the notion that men are so completely helpless in domestic situations and women are “naturally” more suited to them.
And I wasn’t necessarily saying that Von Trier is sexist (though I have a lot of issues with *Antichrist*). I’m saying that our culture is sexist. And I’m saying that Hollywood is sexist. I know that this is a parenthetical vagina. Hollywood has no trouble whatsoever depicting female nudity. And now someone has found a clever way to get female nudity onto a thereoretically family-friendly poster. (And yet, imagine the howls if someone did want to make a movie version of *The Vagina Monologues* — you can bet that the V-word would appear nowhere on the film’s poster.)
What I’m asking with this post and my satirical poster is: Can you imagine the male version of this existing in current Hollywood culture? I can’t.
But sometimes a parenthetical vagina is just a parenthetical vagina.
What the hell does that even mean? Look, I get that you’re trying to be clever by paraphrasing Freud, but c’mon. The Freud quote (or rather, the likely apocryphal story about Freud) is about not ascribing additional meaning to mundane symbols. That is, just because a cigar looks like a penis, doesn’t mean it must be a phallic symbol.
The design of this poster, for a film titled “Nymphomaniac,” isn’t being subtle at all. The pair of parentheses are quit clearly intended to both resemble a human vulva, and to invoke all of the connotations of a human vulva. And it’s even less subtle than that. Note the tagline, “Forget about love”, when everyone knows that love for a man is one of only two begrudging reasons a woman should ever have sex. Note the amount of whitespace between the parentheses. There’s no misinterpretation going on here. No jumping to unwarranted conclusions.
And furthermore, you, David, do not get to dismiss, simply by fiat, all of the baggage, all of the history of sexism and misogyny, that the term “nymphomaniac” carries with it. Any clinical definition the term may have once had is antiquated and frankly unreclaimable. It’s just a “nice” way of saying “slut”. While there may be women trying to reclaim both terms, the culture is nowhere near that point yet, and Lars von Trier damn well knows that. If he thinks he doesn’t, he’s fucking fooling himself.
So, here’s what we have: an invocation of the shocking notion of sex for pleasure, a synonym for slut, and a wide-open pussy. No hint of irony, or of a challenge to any of those connotations. Just an appeal to (pay to) see von Trier’s movie. So, tell us again how “sometimes a parenthetical vagina is just a parenthetical vagina.”
Edited because I’m not done yet
Is it really any more offensive than the titles The Vagina Monologues or The Puppetry of the Penis or all those action movie posters with guys brandishing big guns?
Seriously, dude, this is a question?
The term “monologue” carries the connotation of a solemn, serious, and (hopefully) eloquent speech. The play itself features a series of eloquent speeches – some solemn and serious, others more whimsical – by women about the female experience. Eve Ensler could easily have taken the safe route and used any term representing a defining characteristic of femininity and womanhood. It’s not as though every monologue in the play is about vaginas. She chose “The Vagina Monologues”, probably because the term is serious (inline with “monologue”, and the nature of the show), clinical (avoiding the censorship issues of using a vulgar euphemism, and the potential for dismissal by using a humorous one), and still a word that gives the patriarchal culture a case of the goddamn vapors.
The title “Puppetry of the Penis” is ridiculous, intentionally and satirically so. There’s no question of Simon Morley’s intent. And in this case, the clinical term has an inexplicable* effect of sending the patriarchal culture a giggle fit. Both “Puppetry of the Penis” and “The Vagina Monologues” are deliberately being offensive, in order to challenge the notion that these terms should even be offensive.
And what makes you think all those actioner posters aren’t offensive in almost exactly the way the “Nymphomaniac” poster is offensive. At least with the guns, one can possibly make a “cigar is just a cigar” argument. You’d look pretty fucking clueless in the doing so, but you could make the argument.
* well, it’s inexplicable if we want to try and believe that we don’t live in a culture of goddamn children who can’t help but giggle about pee-pee parts.
The *banned* poster.
I was actually quoting an old SNL skit, which I was pretty sure MaryAnn would get. ;-)
What about these? ;-)
I have my own issues with Antichrist, but mostly having to do with it being a crap movie.
One can always find sexism if one looks hard enough. Is our culture sexist? Yes. But so is our entire species–it’s bred into us (sorry, I genuinely believe that). But considering we’ve only been working on eradicating that for the last 100 years or so, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not always going to be pretty. Is Hollywood sexist? Only in that, until recently, they believed $$ could be gotten only from teenage boys. They’re learning otherwise (see Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, etc.). Does this poster have anything to do with Hollywood? Considering it’s for a film by a European provocateur who’s never set foot on American soil and is an arthouse auteur at best, I think not.
Which is only to say, I think you may be making a mountain out of a molehole. Sorry: hill. Molehill. ;-)
Which “complex, powerful roles” are you thinking of? I’m going through the von Trier films I’ve seen and it’s one long parade of deeply unstable tragic victims whose only plot function is to be abused. Not to mention the film’s called Nymphomaniac, which doesn’t exactly scream “This film will be free of 19th-century attitudes towards women’s sexuality!”.
Those are clearly metaphoric. But that Nymphomaniac poster is not metaphoric. It cannot be seen as *anything* other than a vagina open for business. Unless you somehow want to explain how some punctuation is related to the film.
One can always find sexism if one looks hard enough.
You’re not seriously suggesting that one must “look hard” for sexism in our culture?
Is Hollywood sexist? Only in that, until recently, they believed $$ could be gotten only from teenage boys.
And totally forgot about how audiences loved movies with strong, grownup female characters in the 1930s and 40s.
They’re learning otherwise (see
Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, etc.).
They really aren’t. Films that succeed with female protagonists are dismissed as outliers. (If they weren’t, we would have been inundated with knockoffs of *Titanic.* And where are all the *Sex and the City* imitators?) And yet films with female protagonists that fail are taken to mean that audiences don’t want female protagonists, even when the problems that sank a film are obvious. This is why the head of Warner Bros. felt comfortable dictating “no female protagonists” after *The Brave One* (a ridiculous revenge flick starring Jodie Foster) failed. Yet he has never banned male protagonists when movies headed up by male characters flop.
Wait: Could you explain how you think that Hungarian poster is similar to my satirical one?
I’d take that a step further, and say that Bridesmaids and its imitators are no less sexist than generic romcoms. They similarly assume that all women care about and want the same things (“women’s things”), where that assumption is almost entirely absent in films about men.
The problem I have with this accusation is that it lacks real depth. I read your article and your comments and I’ve seen nothing about Von Tier’s intention with this film. Gainsberg defending the film. You have a valid point about depictions in media, objectification, and so on, but this film may be an odd or complex place to start, especially for only a poster to be released. I saw an add for a videogame that featured a beheaded woman with an addition bare of breast on her back, that was problematic, this, not so much. Further there seems to be an association with negativity and sex period. Sex Negativity is not the place were we need to keep feminism. Some of what Von Tier has said, seem to be aimed at getting people to think about sex, gender roles, and so on. This may be a sex positive (I hope) film.
The poster for “Nymphomaniac” depicts, as you note, a vagina as “open for business.” The Hungarian poster for “Shame” depicts an unseen penis as having done its business.
There are posters for Fellini”s “Casanova” which include phallic imagery. The same is true for the crappy de Sade movie “Quills.” The imagery is not as upfront as in the poster for “Nymphomaniac,” but it’s still there.
On the other hand, some of the posters for Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” show a woman with her hands on her crotch, and a poster for her “Une Vrai Jeune Fille” shows a young woman sitting on railroad tracks (?) facing us, with her legs spread, her skirt up, her hand reaching inside. And her the imagery is in service of a film by a woman director who is noted, by some, as offering an alternative to traditional depictions of sexuality.
Movie marketing departments are so cynical that I have no doubt that a variation of the satirical image you propose will be used eventually.
Hi, Tim. It’s been a while.
Hi, Dr. Douchebag. Still being a douche I see. Well at least you are consistent.
Also, Seth McFarland at the Oscars.
Last time I recalled, the vagina had a clitoris. I wonder if that’s too threatening to include in the poster?
Thanks for writing this. It was good and well written.
Male solipsism: It has nothing to do with my penis, therefore it doesn’t exist.
well goodness, what’s the point of making the film if there isn’t bound to be controversy and discomfort around the topic? sometimes a topic worth discussing is just that, a topic worth discussing. to me, a controversial topic on women does not = sexist.
what’s the point of making the film if there isn’t bound to be controversy and discomfort around the topic?
Is that a serious question? Are you saying that controversy and discomfort are necessary conditions for a film to have value?
sometimes a topic worth discussing is just that, a topic worth discussing.
Not only is this tautological, it’s essentially meaningless.
a controversial topic on women does not = sexist.
No, it doesn’t. Sexist = sexist. And “controversial” isn’t a shield one can deploy against the essential sexism in a work.
Could explain what is “controversial” about *Nymphomaniac*?
yes, to make a good film there has to be something worth talking about, or it’s a bore. von trier could have labeled his film “dissertation on the inequities in societal perception of male vs. female promiscuity” if his promise to audiences was to lecture us to sleep. instead we have a craftily conceived parenthetical vagina, folks i don’t think anyone’s denying that’s what it is. we’re just saying that doesn’t mean it’s sexist.
i actually think you should go ahead and make satyromaniac, like superfast. do it as a mockbuster, and use that same poster…
to make a good film there has to be something worth talking about, or it’s a bore.
So, escapist entertainment isn’t worthwhile filmmaking? I’m afraid you and I are not going to agree on that point, sir.
if his promise to audiences was to lecture us to sleep.
No, to a lot of audiences, that appears to be a side bonus to von Trier’s work.
a craftily conceived parenthetical vagina
Part of the issue is that some of us don’t find this image to be remotely as clever as you and the poster’s designers (who may or may not include Lars von Trier) seem to think it is.
that doesn’t mean it’s sexist.
This image doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a much larger cultural context, one which includes all of the sexist connotations of the term “nymphomaniac”, and the entire oeuvre of Lars van Trier.
There’s putting something out there that’s worth talking about, and there’s trolling. The two are not the same.
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