A new generation of women filmmakers are finally showing female sexuality right on screen

While 'Jumbo' and 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' might first seem worlds apart, both films are committed to showing sexuality outside the prism of the male gaze.

by Katie Goh
16 March 2020, 3:41pm

Image from Jumbo

The first time your parents meet a new partner is always a bit nerve-wracking, but for Jeanne, the young protagonist of Zoé Wittock’s debut film Jumbo, it’s especially uncomfortable. She is introducing her mum to her first real crush, the titular Jumbo, a theme park ride. Jeanne (played by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant) and Jumbo have a gradual courtship over many nights – she works as the park’s cleaner and Jumbo a new addition to the rides. A reclusive, socially anxious and autistic young woman, this is Jeanne’s first true relationship and the fact it’s with an object makes no difference to her.

Jumbo had its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival, alongside Never Rarely Sometimes Always. On the surface, the films couldn’t be aesthetically more different, but what they have in common are their portrayals of aspects of female sexuality rarely seen on screen: objectophilia (a sexual attraction to objects) in Jumbo and abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

While Jumbo might be a surreal coming-of-age tale, Never Rarely Sometimes Always wants to ground its subject – teenage abortion – in the gritty everyday. In the film, 17-year-old Autumn (played by Sidney Flanigan) discovers she’s pregnant between shifts at the local supermarket and high school in small-town Pennsylvania. We never find out who the father is and writer-director Eliza Hittman has no interest in a heartfelt, romantic teen comedy à la Juno. With no one to turn to at home, she decides to visit her local crisis pregnancy centre and is immediately bombarded with patronising, anti-abortion sentiment. During Autumn’s first ultrasound, the technician tells her she’s about to hear the “best” sound she’ll ever hear -- her baby’s heartbeat -- while the centre’s receptionist plays a “pro-life” video aligning abortion with murder when Autumn implies she wants to end her pregnancy.

Unable to get an abortion because of Pennsylvania’s state law -- anyone under the age of 18 wanting to procure an abortion must have a parent or guardian’s permission -- Autumn googles how to do a self-induced abortion which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work, instead leaving her with a bruised abdomen and who knows what internal organ damage. Another teenage girl, Skylar (Talia Ryder) who also works at the supermarket, spots Autumn throwing up one day and the decide to lie to their parents, steal some money from work and head to New York City where Autumn can get an abortion without her parents permission.

In Never Rarely Sometimes Always there are no villains -- even the crisis centre’s staff are only passing on what they’ve been taught -- and instead, Hittman recreates a world horribly familiar to most women. When Autumn and her other teenage colleagues hand in their cash at the end of their shifts, they’re forced to endure a kiss on the hand from their much older, male manager. The boys at school call Autumn a slut, while Skylar has to play along when a twenty-something guy the girls meet on the bus becomes their only lifeline after they spend their cash.

Similarly, in Jumbo, Zoé Wittock shows the hostile world her young protagonist lives in. Jeanne’s mother, Margarette, is committed to finding her daughter a boyfriend, even if that means setting Jeanne up with her own theme park boss. When Jeanne finally builds up the courage to tell her mum about her first love, Margarette is horrified, laughing of her daughter’s feelings for Jumbo as nothing but pleasurable vibrations before kicking her out of her house. Jeanne’s boss is a sleaze and the local boys are bullies, so it’s hardly surprising that she finds love in the first thing that shows her affection. Jeanne and Jumbo even create their own language as the ride rumbles and flashes its neon colours – green for yes, red for no – as human and machine court one another.

Objectophilia isn't a new concept, but it is a sexuality very much on the fringes of the socially acceptable. Human/machine love was made culturally famous in J G Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash, infamously adapted into an Oscar-winning movie. Crash’s version of objectophilia is car-crash fetishism as its protagonists become aroused by staging or creating real car crashes. While Ballard’s objectophilia is supposed to be a perverse collision between humans and technology -- as well as a peek into Ballard’s future and our present for how many of us find sexual fulfillment via computer screens, porn sites, sex dolls and dogging -- Jumbo is very much a tender love story. Its most surreal moment comes when Jeanne crawls under ride’s mechanics, suddenly finding herself in a white void representative of her mind where oil drips down and laps the floor around her. For the first time she finds genuine sexual pleasure as the oil moves autonomously, coating her naked body in the fluid. It might be an unconventional sexual encounter, but it’s one that’ll be familiar to anyone who has repressed their sexuality before finally embracing what really turns them on.

What unites both is that they are devoted to authentic portrayals of coming of age and coming into one’s sexuality, whether that’s the joy of a first orgasm or the decision to end a pregnancy. It’s worth noting that both Zoé Wittock and Eliza Hittman are female filmmakers – still a minority in the director’s chair – and while their gender is by no means integral to their filmmaking, there is an authentic specificity in the very gendered, socially constructed worlds their films portray in which sexuality amongst women is punished.

Wittock and Hittman’s films don’t shy away from showing the cruelty their protagonists face and have faced – the shame and guilt Jeanne experiences due to her love for Jumbo and the financial cost and emotion damage of trying to procure an abortion in Trump’s America -- but they also offer liberation. Jeanne’s objectophilia sexuality is treated with sincerity, while Autumn and Skylar’s relationship offers Autumn true friendship for the first time in her life and her decision to seek out an abortion is the only autonomy she has in a world surrounded by creepy dudes.

Jumbo and Never Rarely Sometimes Always also do a rare thing: validate their female protagonists’ sexualities as their own authentic experience of being in the world, outside and apart from the gaze of men. We know that on screen representation is vital and with their films, Wittock and Hittman are lifting the veil of complex, authentic and diverse female sexualities.

Male Gaze
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