Reel Women: ‘Sexy Baby’ and Unrealistic Expectations
The new documentary 'Sexy Baby' tracks the lives of three different women and the way that our hyper-sexual media and culture has shaped, or is shaping, their lives. The film explores the digestive nature of media and what it is we leave behind to teach emerging generations of young women.
'Sexy Baby' is a triptych that follows three young women whose lives have been affected by the prevalence of sex in our culture and media. Winnifred is a 13-year-old girl from a liberal family in New York, coming into her own in the social media age, where young girls post sexy pictures of themselves on Facebook and invite degrading comments from their friends -- one picture of Winnie with her bra exposed draws repeated comments of "whore" and "slut." These young women barely understand the power of these words, but someone like Winnie does understand -- she knows that taking provocative photos of herself isn't appropriate, but she maintains that she has an online persona, like many teens, and she has to keep feeding it. The problem, as the fiercely self-aware girl notes, is that lines have a tendency to blur -- where does Online Winnie end and Real World Winnie begin? By taking racy photos of herself with her friends, will she eventually become the girl in the photographs?
Self-awareness is never enough. Though Winnie, like most people with common sense, knows that dressing "slutty" and acting that way are completely separate and one should never be judged by their appearance, she also realizes that at her age, this is not the best way to present herself publicly. She struggles, like many young women, with her identity and how to embrace this emerging woman as she says farewell to herself as a child. Is being aware of societal perception and the dangers of exposing herself enough to keep her from becoming the person she pretends to be in pictures? That remains to be seen, and even Winnie struggles to find the balance between being herself and being what media says she should be.
But with the prevalence of social media sites like Tumblr, which invite GIFs and photos of sexy women and provocative -- but often artistic -- imagery, it's hard for a young woman like Winnie to shake this idea of being sexy, even if she doesn't necessarily want to attract a boy. It's hard to reason with an addict when you're constantly showing them images of drugs, and it's hard to reason with a teenager about things like provocation when they inhabit these multimedia cocoons of sex. From advertising to social media to music videos and performers, teens are taught that sex is the highest form of currency.
In the second story, 22-year-old Laura is undergoing labiaplasty because she doesn't feel comfortable with what she considers to be excessively large labia. Men she's been with before have commented on it; she mentions that her male friends have made jokes about girls and their "meat curtains," and she's laughed along while secretly bemoaning her own vaginal appearance. In this instance, pornography, which teens are routinely exposed to at increasingly earlier ages, is setting unfair expectations for women -- no one expects a man to look like a greased-up beefcake with veiny arms, but there's a learned expectation about how women should look and behave in the bedroom. While I personally am pro-pornography and believe it to be healthy and normal for people to view and enjoy accordingly, there's no denying that pornography can imbue people with certain expectations when it's the thing they're most regularly exposed to early on. Porn shouldn't be how teenagers learn about sex and the human body.
Which brings us to our final subject, former porn star turned stripper turned businesswoman Nakita Kash, who tells it like it is about her experience with porn -- most of the acts are not pleasurable for either party but are created to look visually appealing for viewers, and most of the people don't enjoy what they do in the films, but it's a living and they're getting paid to pretend. Nakita admits that yes, some women like to be spit on or slapped around, but these are fetishes, and are not representative of the average person's sexual experiences. Nakita just wants to be Nicole -- her real name -- and have a baby with her husband and have sex like a normal couple.
Nakita and Laura's stories are, on the surface, very different, but the questions they raise about pornography are the same. Can pornography be degrading? Yes, and it is created around the objectification of women, just like most advertisements and music videos and other pop culture artifacts. Adults can differentiate between porn and real sex, between what you find appealing visually and what your body enjoys, and between consensual fetish porn and genuine degradation -- the latter of which is of key importance, and is not something that teens like Winnie and her friends can identify just yet.
But Winnie's parents are on the right track, talking to their daughter about everything and inviting open discussion. I'd be willing to bet that if Winnie watched porn, she could talk to her mom, who would explain to her the difference between what she's seen and what really happens. And that's reassuring amid the wash of sexual imagery in the film that reminds us just how deeply ingrained in our culture sex currently is.
For Winnie, it's about finding herself in our modern culture's sea of sex and maintaining her sense of self while trying to find where she fits in -- and really, her story is the story of every teen girl. Winnie's biggest struggle is the ownership of her body and finding the place where her physical self meets her mental self and produces the voice she uses to speak to the world.
For Nakita, it's leaving the manufactured persona behind in search of a real life and normalcy. And for some people, it's just that simple, but sex still hangs over everything Nakita does and continues to do, even her newborn baby sleeping just feet away from Nakita's private pole-dancing class.
And for Laura, it's reconciling societal expectation with her own comfort, and I hesitate to use such a condescending phrase, but she's so damn brave. Laura allows the cameras to film her pre-labiaplasty vagina as well as the actual operation (viewers be warned: it's a bit stomach-churning) and the end result is fascinating. Here is someone who feels so secure in her own insecurity that she has no problem inviting the world in to see that she has issues with her appearance just like any other woman. We begin Laura's journey believing that she may just be doing this to please more men, but the more we get to know her, the less that seems to be the case. We should all feel comfortable with our bodies and ourselves, and though we may not agree with Laura's choice, it is her own.
In one of the more compelling moments of 'Sexy Baby,' Winnifred and her friend Olivia discuss labiaplasty, unaware of Laura's story, and the pair of girls Google images of vaginas before and after surgery -- the two of them shriek and get squeamish, commenting that one woman in particular obviously and desperately needed the procedure. And it's this moment right here that distills (as best as it can with such murky material) the themes of the documentary: the expectations we instill in women by sexualizing them so much that their bodies are no longer their own and we no longer value the female body, instead feeling entitled to it, as if we are all shareholders in the female experience; the digestive nature of media and the way we ingest and leave behind something bigger and more complex for the generation behind us -- we grew and evolved with it, but the next generation is faced with a barrage of stimulation that they never had the chance to acclimate to slowly like we did; and most importantly, the way we present women and their bodies in all forms of media, and the way it turns women against each other, using venomous terms and phrases in an alarmingly casual way.