Fifty Shades of Penis & The Reestablishment of Patriarchy
Just before I sit down to watch Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” I wonder if males also suffer from nymphomania, or if it somehow only occurs in females? And are hypersexual males just “boys being boys”?
I’d never heard of the male term for nymphomania, and didn’t know if it even existed. It does, in fact, exist and is called “Satyriasis,” which isn’t quite as catchy as its female counterpart.
The two-volume film follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a 40-something woman telling her life story and sexual experiences as a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac. The first volume (which you have to watch before seeing the second or you won’t understand the storyline) begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who stumbles upon Joe lying unconscious in a dark alley after having been beaten up, and takes her home to care for her. There she spends several hours recalling her childhood and how she had discovered sexual pleasure as a young girl. Young Joe (Stacy Martin) claims to have lost her virginity at fifteen and for the next several years, she unabashedly fills her sexual desire with any guy who will give her pleasure. But by the end of the first film, she suddenly loses all physical feeling down there.
Volume II is the continuation of Joe’s life, now mother to a toddler. After three years of complete numbness, she attempts to recover her sexual sensation by experimenting with unconventional and violent methods. In the process of it all, Joe leaves her job and family in order to satiate her needs. Her story is told in hindsight; Seligman is her attentive audience.
Though controversial, von Trier’s attempt to create a progressive film about an empowered, sexually liberated woman falls short. In addition to the film’s gross stereotypes about race and sex (which I will refrain from discussing here), other parts of the film are problematic. Joe is fraught with guilt as she tries to convince Seligman that she is a horrible person—but we wonder through the entire 123-minute running time just why she feels so sinful. Throughout the film, Seligman takes it upon himself to be her moral compass and even points out, “I’m actually the best judge you could give your story to. And when it comes to deciding whether you’re a bad human being or not, I have no problems with that.”
“Nymphomaniac” is peppered with Seligman’s references to culture and religion. He is older, refined and educated—and a man—who is extremely knowledgeable about pretty much everything. Von Trier presents Joe as an unlearned individual who often doesn’t know anything about sophisticated subjects; in that regard, she isn’t a particularly strong character, and Seligman frequently disrupts her story to point out trivia of which she is ignorant. Seligman represents every white, patriarchal symbol of our society: He enlightens her with his extensive knowledge of culture and history. He decides whether or not she is a “good” or a “bad” person. He illuminates her about the sexual oppression of women in society. In the film, Seligman is the deciding factor in morality and justice.
Close-ups of blowjobs are meant to be scandalous, yet when it comes to cunnilingus, the men barely graze the surface with their tongues.
The unequal play and distribution of pleasure reaffirms that the female character exists to provide pleasure to the men of the film, even though it would like for you to believe that Joe uses them for her own desire.
Violence is also a running theme in Volume II. The S&M scenes are difficult to watch, but the overall abuse against women is disturbing— young women are manipulated and objectified to serve the needs of men, sometimes so subtly that it is nearly imperceptible. Its understatement leaves room for the audience to accept and maybe even justify its ideology.
The Danish director can be lauded, however, for highlighting sexual “deviances” including sadomasochism and asexuality as more common than we would expect, and the film even philosophizes on pedophilia. It gives a hetero-normative audience a glimpse into the sexual lives of others. Joe and Seligman touch on the root of human sexuality and wonder where it comes from, whether it is a perversion of childhood or part of our subconscious psyches.
Joe is precarious in her behavior, one moment proudly declaring, “I love my cunt!” and the next, guiltily examining how her sexuality has worked against her. Seligman, of course, points out that had she made the same choices as a man—and not as a woman—it would be more socially acceptable. While that may be true, von Trier still perpetuates the idea that hypersexuality (read: Nymphomania) is a problem that only needs to be corrected in women.
Hypersexuality is defined as “extremely frequent or suddenly increased sexual urges or sexual activity that includes excessive masturbation,” leaving it debatable whether it is a physical or psychological disorder. But males are forgivably considered sex addicts, while the term ‘nymphomaniac’ is reserved for females and is synonymous to “man-crazy,” both of which have overt connotations of lunacy. We forgive Kirk Franklin and Anthony Weiner for their addictions, but we wag our fingers at women for their “mania.”
Sexuality is extremely diverse, as are the ways it is manifested. Who gets to determine what is “normal,” and especially what the right amount of sex is for a specific gender? Of course, if sexual abuse or unwanted physical pain occurs it gives one pause, but sexuality is as individual as the people who possess it.
While the film has controversial elements and interesting stylistic devices to animate the story, it gets a bit tiresome. You support Joe as she gives society the middle finger but roll your eyes every time Seligman interrupts her with some worldly anecdote. He’s like the father she never needed.
“Nymphomaniac” doesn’t deliver a particularly meaningful message– it’s essentially porn with a long background story. It may be labeled as art, but its art seems to be its display of real sex and a rainbow of penises. The final scene is shockingly appalling and abrupt, and it doesn’t leave you wanting more.