As much as we have confronted rape culture and the patriarchal control of female bodies, there is still an area that has too often remained untouchable in the conversation: the specific roles religious and cultural norms have played in the persecution, abuse and suppression of women’s sexuality. That is where director Barbara Miller squares her uncompromising new film, “#Female Pleasure.”
Miller somewhat stiffly opens the documentary with images of objectified women in recognizable male-designer commercials and ads, highlighting how mainstream culture has long normalized the problem. But then, she (with cinematographers Jiro Akiba, Gabriela Betschart, and Anne Misselwitz) takes audiences across the world to illuminate the condemnation of female sexuality as the international pandemic that it is. This is where “#Female Pleasure” soars.
The filmmaker presents the stories of five different but equally courageous women in various countries: Deborah Feldman from Brooklyn, Vitika Yadav in India, Rokudenashiko in Japan, Leyla Hussein in the Somali Muslim diaspora, and Doris Wagner in Europe, all hell-bent on obliterating harmful cultural practices — like genital mutilation and the shaming of the female orgasm — that lie at the root of rape culture and patriarchy. While doing so, the director empathetically yet boldly points to theological text as something that has historically failed to protect women.
From the Bible to the Qur’an, the director flashes across the screen such religious messaging as, “Women are the root of all sinners,” which Wagner utters as she recounts being repeatedly raped by a priest when she was a nun in the Catholic church. It is that juxtaposition of holy text, which suggests that women are inherently sinful because their bodies are men’s weakness and should be covered at all times, that establishes a standard for women of the clergy like Wagner to be demoralized and violated.
Similarly, Hussein recalls undergoing horrific genital mutilation at just seven years old. Considered a cultural rite of passage and emblematic of purity and female beauty, it is so normalized that other young girls her age didn’t even socialize with her until she’d had the procedure. Feldman talks about taking marriage preparation classes as a 16-year-old Jewish girl who was forced to have sex with a man she didn’t know and to have his baby.
Meanwhile, Rokudenashiko is a manga artist who centers her work around vaginas and other female genitalia to expose and confront the taboo of female sexuality in her country. But as groundbreaking as her art is, it’s considered “obscene” in Japan, and she is even arrested due to the mass hysteria it causes in a country where female modesty is all but legally mandated. This is despite, as Rokudenashiko rightly explains, a global culture that has routinely exploited female porn stars and subjected other women to painful dildos and other sex toys for male pleasure.
Likewise, Yadav is also disrupting norms as head of the love and sexuality website Love Matters, where female sexuality and pleasure is prioritized in the face of a culture that birthed the Kama Sutra with only male pleasure in mind.
With “#Female Pleasure,” Miller isn’t only highlighting the issues that have contributed to the sexual marginalization of women. She’s calling these atrocities, embedded within cultural and religious norms, by their actual names: rape, assault, child trafficking, abuse. The director amplifies the platforms of female activists who were taught to be silent and shows them confronting the very entities that have oppressed them.
Feldman reflects on escaping Judaism, subsequently being ostracized by her family and later proudly posing nude and writing a book about her experiences. Wagner interrogates members of the Catholic clergy. And Hussein, Yadav, and Rokudenashiko stand up against cultural practices that have discredited female sexuality and allowed women and children to be molested and brutalized in other ways. Despite them all being defamed and persecuted — some even receiving death threats — they’ve persisted.
“#Female Pleasure,” a title that presumably connects its message to today’s era of social media-based movements, also serves as an urgent call to action for younger audiences to pay attention even to the words they use to describe certain abominations and to help them recognize forms of oppression. For instance, there’s a scene in which Hussein shows a group of school-aged boys what genital mutilation is through a clay-based art exhibit, which she disfigures with a giant pair of scissors similar to the actual tools used in the procedure.
It’s a painful scene to watch, particularly because it forces Hussein to relive her own childhood trauma, but we watch as the teenagers who have been taught to celebrate this practice become increasingly disturbed by the image in front of them. More importantly, they end up wanting to engage with the movement. Hussein also introduces us to a young African rapper who devotes his songs to condemning female oppression.
And back in India with Yadav, Miller highlights a young theatrical group putting on a street show focusing on female pain, trauma, and rage in the midst of this crisis. It’s proof that change is possible, particularly among the younger generation that, with the help of valiant women like Yadav and Hussein, is openly interrogating issues they’ve been indoctrinated to accept. After all, the thrust of today’s global movement is to reject deep-rooted practices and to re-teach ourselves and others how to do better.
“#Female Pleasure” smoothly glides from one country segment to another and engages audiences with the personal stories of the five women, told through voiceover and solo interviews, as well as a broader look at the cultures in which they live. The intimate direction and natural cinematography help to remove the shame and stigma that have long been attached to this subject.
What is left, as the postscript states, is an empowering statement for women, no matter their cultural or religious background, to reclaim their bodies and celebrate their sexuality without shame or suffering.