A young girl discovering her body on the cusp of the internet revolution. Dirty AOL chat rooms, Jack and Rose steaming up car windows, the sexual pull of the boy who sits next to you in class. Throw in Catholic school and you begin to touch on Karen Maine’s funny and touching coming-of-age short drama about teenage sexual pleasure and self discovery. Coming straight of out the success of OBVIOUS CHILD, which she co-wrote, she decided to tackle another off-limits subject, female masturbation and sexual awakening. Starring Natalia Dyer as the title character Alice who discovers that what she has been taught in school and home might not be the only way of life – and that sinning can feel really good. A love story between a girl and her vagina, this short is a perfectly crafted tale that leaves us lingering for more.
Girls on Film chatted with Karen about her intentions for the feature length film and how her upbringing had a big influence on how this story was told…
I loved the film – can you tell me a bit about how all the elements came together?
I’m originally from the Midwest and I was raised catholic, and my two Producers are also Midwestern Catholic women so they definitely identified with the story I wanted to tell: a story of how strange it is for a woman to come of age – sexually speaking – in that environment.
I wrote a feature script right after OBVIOUS CHILD that we’re going to shoot in a month or two, which explores the themes a bit deeper and a more general coming-of-age story, but for the short I really wanted to focus on sexuality. Specifically masturbating, because I think most young women, and men, experience pleasure with themselves before they experience it with a partner (at least in most ideal circumstances) and I didn’t really see that being portrayed in film. You often see young women having sex with a partner, it’s usually uncomfortable, and they don’t really like it but they do it anyway, and while I certainly think that is a realistic narrative there is also this other one of a young woman discovering her sexuality herself without anybody else.
It’s funny because it’s sort of the same thing with OBVIOUS CHILD, where people said ‘you can’t make a film about abortion because it won’t be interesting’ or ‘it wont be fun or funny’ – but a lot of people on Vimeo in the comments have said that people are only paying attention to this film because it’s about masturbating. And well, that might be true, that people are interested in these films because of their subject matter, that’s kind of the point! It’s because those things aren’t in films yet and they need to be and people are like ‘oh right this is a thing that happens, great that there’s a film about it’
So after Obvious Child, was it your intention to pursue kind of taboo female issues? And in a way normalise them?
Definitely! Abortion is certainly more a more divided topic – people have more opinions. But the same way with masturbating, everyone can do what they want, and we are not trying to push an agenda down anyone’s throat but we also think it’s important to tell these real human stories that people deal with in their lives. I think masturbating is a little less taboo than abortion.
But it’s still something that’s not talked about – particularly female self-pleasure. No one wants to talk about, or explain what it is or how it’s done or different routes etc.
I think it’s because male sexual pleasure is obviously an important function of reproduction, so I think that is why it’s less taboo and people talk about it. It’s important women know that sex can be fun – that they can pleasure themselves. When parents or educators sit children down they don’t really discuss that aspect of sex. It’s just the penis goes into the vagina and they ejaculate and then they make a baby – there is not real emphasis on pleasure. I think it’s important in this day and age that men and women know how to give pleasure – to pleasure a woman!!
There’s a historical backstory to that – this dismissal of female pleasure. It’s quite interesting that only now, in 2017, 100 years after Freud are we talking about it. Why has it taken so long?!
It’s so true. And I don’t think it’s that weird a topic to talk about – a conversation about sex doesn’t need to be so awkward.
At the end of the day we all do it – but there’s still this barrier up, particularly surrounding pleasure. Because we still want to talk about sex in a purely functional way. It hasn’t been that way forever, it’s almost like we went backwards in the twentieth century, and we are now slowly progressing.
It definitely seems like that. That’s why I brought in the aspect of Catholicism into this narrative because they are of the idea that you can only have sex if you are married, and pleasure is a small part of it, but really what we are doing here is trying to make babies. So female sexual pleasure has no place in that narrative about sex.
Is that something that was taken from your own history of being at a catholic school?
Oh yeah, the classroom scene – it’s definitely abridged but its verbatim. They definitely told us men are like microwave ovens and women are like conventional ovens (which is also not necessarily true!). That kind of teaching only underscores this idea that women don’t really need to be involved in the pleasure of it; they are just a receptacle.
The Catholic Church obviously has a long history of sexism, of not giving women the same amount of authority or respect but I’m not trying to come out and be super critical of the Catholic Church with this piece.
Everyone has urges and desires and this film certainly showed that – especially the end scene. Was your intention that she realises that sexuality is normal and everyone has desires regardless of faith or religion? Or is there still the element of rebellion?
When she see’s the pictures on the priests computer I think she thinks two things, a) the catholic church is full of shit or b) if a priest can do it, I can DEFINITELY do it.
I go into much more depth about that realisation of that in the feature. The exploration of this world, in which you are taught things that are assumed to be true, because you don’t know anything else. I set in in this time period – right before the Internet blew up, this huge place that you can find anything. But then, you only knew the world you exist in, especially when you are young and you don’t know what you’re looking for. Once you realise there are other ways of thinking, different to what you’ve been taught for the last 15 years, it’s interesting to then decide what is best for you. That’s the broader coming-of-age aspect of it, learning that the adults in your life don’t really have it all figured out either.
Also there’s this aspect of when you get to an age where you don’t really understand your body and you become sexually aroused by things and it feels alien to you, this was evident in the scene in which in class they’re talking about sex and marriage and she is just getting turned on by the hairs on a boys arm.
I wanted to show the female-gaze. I think we see sexy thing as legs or boobs and I wanted to show something different. There was this study of sexual arousal in men and women and the differences. Women and men were shown all different types of porn and measured their arousal. It showed that women were turned on, regardless of their sexual orientation, by everything they saw, whereas men only aligned with what their orientation was. Women have this capability to be super turned on by really random things including arm hair! I wanted to show a girl checking out a guy in a very male-gazey but female way. Women are probably way more horny that men and nobody knows it…
Can you tell us a bit more about what’s next for this film?
We explore the story a bit deeper, including meeting her parents and an awkward Catholic school camp. Definitely her want in the feature is to masturbate without feeling guilty but her need is to think for herself and find out what she wanted instead of just following what she has been raised with, and what she has been told is right and wrong.
If (like me) you can’t wait for the feature, check out Karen Maine’s racy short here: