Subjectified: Transcending Taboos in an Era of Shareware
Although we live in an Internet era of oversharing, sexting, combined with an HBO/Showtime matrix of explicit programming, and a constant stream of highly sexualized images of women and girls, remarkably little open dialogue exists in the media about real female desire. Melissa Tapper Goldman’s bold 2012 documentary, “Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk about Sex,” turns a lens on a topic that still brings out the censors: young women frankly discussing their sexuality. Since its debut, the video has been circulating as a touchstone for animated discussion and community-building around the country at colleges, community centers and film festivals. In addition to the documentary, Goldman has developed a “Movie Party” kit that includes a discussion guide with game and writing prompts.
Below is an interview with the director about her process in producing the video, the optimal context for viewership, and the meaning of exploring this topic when mainstream outlets accord Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” with the last word on millennial sexuality. Clearly, young women have a lot more to say.
vmlab: Can you explain the title of your documentary?
I called the documentary “Subjectified” because I was interested in flipping the script: looking at women not as objects of sexual desire but as subjects of sexual experience, agents in their own stories. Being the protagonist in our own story and simultaneously the object of other people’s gazes is the real, lived experience for many women. But women’s sexual agency for its own sake is almost never depicted in popular media, which typically exists for commercial purposes where sexuality is a means to an end (selling a product or driving hits, for example). The full title is “Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk about Sex.”
vmlab: What is your primary impulse for producing this documentary?
I wanted to increase compassion and understanding among women around the country, especially toward people whose experiences with sex and sexuality are different from our own. With the myths or archetypes that are reinforced by pop culture (and Reality TV in particular), most of us suffer from seriously misunderstanding other people’s motives and behaviors when it comes to sex, reproduction, sexuality, and sexual health. This mutual skepticism and disregard, especially among women, keeps us from addressing the bigger questions getting in the way of our well-being.
vmlab: How did you select the subjects? What were the criteria? Were they all friends of yours?
There were a few kinds of diversity that I wanted to incorporate, particularly geographic, ethnic, socio-economic, religious, and in terms of sexual orientation. Because the women’s accounts needed to be long enough to get in-depth with their own personalities and motivations, I was limited in the number of subjects I could include. The sample was small by design, so I couldn’t reach as far as I wanted in all of those areas. But there were a few stories that I wanted to tell specifically because they exist as archetypes in pop culture (such as the abstinent Christian and the young mother), archetypes that I wanted a chance to deconstruct and three-dimensionalize. It was also important to me to show very different personalities and approaches to sex, something totally unquantifiable.
vmlab: How did you establish trust on camera?
It started with an immense amount of research and self-scrutiny to look at what assumptions and biases I was bringing to the interaction. I knew that whatever was holding me back or making me uncomfortable would be immediately apparent in such an intimate conversation and would compromise the interview. So that was internal work that happened before I even approached the subjects.
I explained the project to every person when we met up for the interview, and each one was totally on board. They really were partners in the process. I basically said, “People want to hear each other’s stories so we can be more compassionate and less judgmental.” Good listening is really rare in our society, and many women feel not listened to and not understood. I think that people really want to share and really want to listen, but there are barriers in place that make it difficult. I offered to answer any of the questions I asked after the interview, but actually nobody took me up on that. I think we were both so exhausted by the end. Bottom line, I was totally present and invested in each of the conversations, so I think that came through to the participants and built trust. I approached them with admiration and respect, which I think was apparent from minute one.
vmlab: You often cut away to referential photos that are identity-protected/pixelated…can you explain why so many identities are being protected? How does this reflect on breaking or sustaining taboos about young women’s sexuality?
It’s not an accident that these topics are considered private or taboo. There are many ways that this silence (and sometimes shame) is enforced. When you really believe that sex and sexuality are not shameful, you start to see this shaming everywhere. Why should talking about the facts of your life threaten your job or livelihood or relationships? Why should the participants have feared that their coworkers or families might come across the movie? But those fears have a real basis in how we treat and talk about women. In a culture where women’s sexuality is policed both by society at large and also frequently by other women (through “slut shaming,” victim blaming, and a general contempt toward people of different experiences), the consequences for breaking this silence can be really significant. Women are often defined by their choices around sex, as well as choices that were made for them and without their consent. We want to use this project to show that “normal” is not so meaningful, or at least that it encompasses a wide and diverse range of experiences. That’s something you can only learn in practice by being exposed to people with different perspectives and then listening to them. Our culture’s silence takes a huge toll, and that cost is not evenly distributed among people. Women pay dearly for not being able to speak about our own bodies and experiences.
vmlab: What are your thoughts on the HBO show “Girls”?
I think Lena Dunham has tremendous guts and is extremely talented, and I see the voice in the show as authentic even if it only captures the experience of a narrow segment of people. Any time women or sexual minorities speak out about their experiences, it’s a risky proposition. The point of view portrayed in the show is still an underrepresented one. I read a quote from Lena Dunham at the New Yorker festival that I haven’t been able to replicate, but it was something like, “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” I organized an event last fall with Carol Gilligan and a bunch of wonderful activists from my own generation, and this was an issue that kept coming up in the discussion. It is hard for many people to insist that their stories are important because we live in a culture that tells us to shut up so often. It’s a challenge also to approach these issues sensitively and intersectionally, realizing that the barriers to expression are not the same for all women or all people generally. We need to do special and particular work to welcome in a diversity of perspectives, but that fundamental first step is always there, saying “my story is important.” But it’s still uncomfortable for people to hear “my story is important,” especially when it comes from a woman. Carol Gilligan commented, in her soothing voice, “I keep hearing you talk about being selfish. When you tell your story, you’re not being selfish. You’re just telling your story.” That’s a paraphrase, but it was really revelatory.
Coincidentally, I’m involved with two projects right now that have some parallel with Girls. One is Subjectified, which has the obvious connection of capturing women’s stories about sex but in a completely different format than Girls. The other project is a web series made by my supremely talented brother, Adam Goldman. It’s called The Outs and is sometimes likened to a gay guys’ version of Girls. It does take place in Brooklyn and involve 20-somethings being honest about sex, and they’re both cleverly written. But the projects serve different aims and exist in different spaces. There’s obviously a significant distance between a crowdfunded web series and a fully produced HBO hit. The fact that people keep drawing these connections is a testament to how little there is in media culture that actually makes space for earnest depictions sexuality outside of the hetero-male perspective. We are hungry for this material.
vmlab: Did you learn about sex from “Sex and the City”? (For a lot of teen girls, the DVD collection could be called “Sex Ed and the City”….)
The show definitely created space for the idea of women communicating openly and relatively non-judgmentally about sex. I hope people learned that part! I think it also began to desensitize American culture to the idea of women as people with their own sexual motivations, even if the particular motivations were sometimes unrelatable if not unreal. We still have miles to go on the topic of sexual agency, but perhaps it needed to be raised by fictional characters in a caricatural way. There was some unfortunate damage done by the show’s glamorization of rich white sex, things like Brazilian bikini waxes.
vmlab: Have you considered creating a member’s only channel for young women where they can upload their own stories of healthy sexuality (similar to the powerful “It Gets Better” series)? How could you protect such a site from trolls or fundamentalists? Is it possible to host such a community online?
This is on my mind all the time. I’m seeking funding to develop multimedia tools for story sharing around sexuality. Wish me luck! Trolls and privacy issues are the most serious concerns. One of the great things about “It Gets Better”: it was made by people who had already taken the steps (and consequences) of living their lives openly. For many women, the consequences of “coming out” as people who value sex and sexuality would still be ahead of them, and that’s tricky to facilitate in an ethical way. It’s been a challenge even in the much more controllable sphere of documentary filmmaking. Not to mention that if minors posted their own videos, they could actually face criminal charges in some states. I’ve been looking at ways to anonymize the process and strike a balance between creating safe spaces and taking on the risks necessary to make change. There are communities that do story sharing in effective and inclusive ways. I think MetaFilter is a fascinating example of an online community that has established community standards that encourage dialogue, sharing, and freedom of expression, within a framework of rejecting hate and flame wars. And I particularly appreciate that the community is not just an echo chamber of the same opinion or background. That model takes careful and consistent moderation by some brilliant people (like librarian/writer Jessamyn West). There are other models, but they’re either work-intensive or community-intensive. I’m interested generally in questions about how to create safe spaces for expression, whether they’re in individual friendships, on campuses, or on corners of the internet.
I haven’t yet solved the problem of how to scale “Subjectified,” but my hope is that the conversations in the movie will provoke people to start conversations in their personal lives. To this end, one of the distribution strategies that I’ve worked on is an extremely low-tech solution: creating a board game for the movie, which we’ve called the Movie Party Kit. The kit encourages people to watch with friends and, like the movie, it jump-starts conversations about sex that can be hard to begin on your own. We often consume media alone on PCs or mobile devices, so I was looking for ways to encourage “IRL” community-building with the movie (which happens to be much more fun to watch with friends). We’ll see if people use the kits. I created them with the help of some fantastic sexuality educators around the country.
vmlab: Do you see your film as a real-time community building tool that operates best in group screenings followed by discussion? How can social media support your work?
Right now the real-time community building is our priority, because that’s how we’ve seen Subjectified be really effective. The movie gets people to open up and communicate about sex and its related issues. One of my favorite reactions is that people often want to share their own stories after seeing the movie. So I’ve been interested in how to capture people’s stories and weave them back into the project so it reflects the values, interests, and priorities of the audience. That said, it’s not some anonymous future viewer on the internet who makes our stories valid, it’s expressing them in the fabric of our communities.
I care more about building relationships between people than about creating media for “public” consumption. Twitter or tumblr are somewhere in between. I’ve started researching how to use apps and social media to connect around these issues, but so far I’ve found the real life conversations more impactful. There are other interesting questions that social media can help us work on, such as how we can empower people to formulate their stories for their own sake rather than for performance. There’s so much disinhibition on the internet, but it’s another step to translate that openness into our intimate relationships or “IRL” friendships. Ultimately, I want to foster openness and support that can exist in lasting friendships and sexual partnerships wherever they are. It’s not obvious how to do that. People can have powerful, supportive friendships entirely online, so online community-building is still an important avenue to explore.
Especially in this “digital age,” real life community plays an important role in people’s lives, partly just in helping us metabolize the pressures of living in an information-dense environment. The influences of TV or web video or pornography hit us quickly and we don’t have much time to process in the moment, which is disturbing if you look at the cognitive science research on media effects. Processing and contextualizing are really important for having a healthy relationship with the media we consume, and it takes time and effort. So my perspective is that there’s a lot of space for effective interventions that exist both in the digital and “in real life” realms (to the degree that they’re distinct at all).