Reel Women: ‘Six Acts’ Explores a Young Woman’s Disquieting Attempt at Agency
‘S#x Acts’ (‘Six Acts’), the Israeli drama so provocatively named as to immediately and directly conjure the title ‘Sex Acts,’ follows teenager Gili, a new high school transfer who sets about trying to charm the boys at her school by seducing them. Her story is told in chapters, punctuated by sexual encounters that escalate in their increasing intensity and discomfort. ‘S#x Acts’ is a subtle film that provokes questions about female agency and pressure, and investigates what happens when the lines between “want,” “desire” and “should” on a young woman’s moral compass become hopelessly blurred.
Although ‘S#x Acts’ takes place in Israel, it really could be any average American city. Gili is a relatable enough teen girl — she takes selfies on her laptop and hangs out at the mall, she makes quirky fashion choices and plays off her weirdness with an “I don’t give a f—” attitude — but above all else, Gili just wants to fit in. When her friends take her home, she has them drop her off at a nicer place across from her apartment. A boy she likes tells her he hates the smell of her cigarettes, so she adopts a self-deprecating attitude. “I’m stupid,” she says, extinguishing the cigarette.
In the first chapter, Gili indulges her crush, Tomer, in a hand job. It is but the first in a string of questionable, sexual acts that straddle the line between who is doing the using and who is being used. Like the perpetual riddle of, “Is it still objectification if a woman is objectifying herself?,” ‘S#x Acts’ asks us to ponder what agency a young woman has over her own body when so much of what she does is to please others and not herself. Gili’s quest involves winning affections, first of Tomer, and then of his more compliant — and deviant — friend Omri. They claim and boast to friends that she’s desperate and starved, both for their attention and for their sexual organs — a behavior that’s been ingrained in them as much as Gili’s own behavior has been ingrained in her.
And with every inquisition about her escapades comes a warning — these men are just using her — and Gili shrugs it off; she’s the one doing the using, she counters, and why can’t that be the truth? The truth is that we want it to be the truth. Gili is taking no sexual pleasure from these acts and only doing what she feels might please Omri or make him jealous so he’ll like her more. What she seeks is a sort of vague and unattainable romantic satisfaction; she is a girl that doesn’t know what she wants. The truth is that she is like many young women who have been brought up on mixed messages, taught to tantalize and serve men without living in service to themselves. Gili puts it all out there and it makes these boys uncomfortable because they only know what to do with what she’s giving them, and after they just shun her and toss her aside. The idea that she is using them is a fantasy; she could, but she’s letting them bat her around like drooling puppies with a ball. Guys like Omri and Tomer prefer the more conservative girls who aren’t so eager to sexually stimulate them; the girls who dress nicer and have straight hair and aren’t so overt about their sexuality. They hide girls like Gili and bring her out as a last-minute party trick to entertain their stoned friends.
A late encounter with Omri’s friend, Shabat, whose White Knight efforts to warn her away from Omri are, in turn, both sickening and somewhat sad, quickly escalates into something incredibly discomforting. Ideas about what Gili should do and wants to do in the situation are lost in a sloppy blur of urging and casual resistance. It is, undoubtedly, a controversial sequence, and Gili’s lax attitude about the encounter does nothing to immediately draw empathy, but it should. Pressure comes in all shapes and sizes, and builds over the course of years. A young woman is made to feel as though the only way to please is, ultimately, by pleasing men, and that the way to feel whole is through affection. We come to equate affection with sex, and the dangerous game Gili plays might not be that unfamiliar to a teen girl — using her sexuality to gain affections; performing sex acts to prove her value; and, finally, sleeping with a guy she doesn’t like just to make another boy jealous, when she doesn’t actually want to have sex with this guy.
And in most real-life scenarios, we might lay the blame at Gili’s feet, we might call her slutty, like the boys do — and she puts up with it or says she’s using them, which doesn’t make her a slut at all, but admirable. The truth we’ve known for too long is that a guy sleeps around and he gets patted on the back and called a champ, but when a girl does it, she’s a slut. There is no middle ground or room for people to just be people who enjoy sex, and there’s certainly no room for women to enjoy sex unless they’re in monogamous relationships. Unfortunately for Gili, no one ever told her that it’s okay for her to be promiscuous and sleep around as long as she’s enjoying it. She’s just really good at lying so people don’t feel sorry for her. It shouldn’t have to be that way.