There are a lot of complex ways in which individuals shape their sexual identity.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Two recent films illustrate perfectly how people ‘do’ gender, how they ‘perform’ it, and mediate masculinity and femininity. At the same time, both films omit crucial questions concerning the consequences of what being a man and being a woman demands today.

Mansome is a threadbare documentary with little insight into modern male maintenance
A hilarious look at men’s identity in the 21st century. Models, actors, experts and comedians weigh in on what it is to be a man in a world where the definition of masculinity has become as diverse as a hipster’s facial hair in Williamsburg. The follicles of men’s idiosyncratic grooming habits are combed over as men finally take a look in the mirror.

Sexy Baby investigate a cultural shift in the sexual landscape caused by adult entertainment.
The cyber age is creating a new sexual landscape. Having pubic hair is considered unattractive and “gross.” Most youngsters know someone who has emailed or texted a naked photo of themselves. Facebook has created an arena where kids compete to be “liked” and constantly worry about what image to portray. Much of what was once private is now made public. Sexy Baby looks at how the adult entertainment world is trickling into the mainstream world and affecting mainstream lives in different ways.

Sexy Baby portraits three women who negotiate their role as women in an era in which pressure to conform to certain ideals continues: Winnifred is 12 and defines herself and her generation as pioneers, as she mediates her Facebook identity (“30% of my life”) and her reallife one. Modelling her awakening womanhood is a major part of growing up and it is affected by others, most notably her parents, friends, and Lady Gaga. Laura is 22; she used to work as a model but now is an assistant kindergarten teacher. She has been saving up for two years to pay for her labiaplasty. Not because there is anything wrong with her labia, but because she thinks “looking like a porn star” is what turns guys on. Finally, Nichole, a.k.a. Nakita, is a former porn star and pole dancer who observes that the adult industry has infiltrated the mainstream. Now that she wishes to start a family she needs to reconcile her past identity and its values with her desired one of being a mother.

Mansome considers the male and handsomeness in the present age. Exemplified by physical features of the man addressed in sections about the moustache, beard, body, hair, and face, the film presents individual stories as well as expert comments and animation. Mansome producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett visit a spa. During the various treatments, including massages by women masseurs, they discuss modern manhood, grooming, and womanhood.

Sexual identity is a complex thing. Expressing oneself in terms of gender means manipulating symbols to manage the presence of both the masculine and the feminine. 1)Martin, Diane M., John w. Schouten, and James H. McAlexander. 2006. Claiming the throttle: Multiple femininities in a hyper-masculine subculture. Consumption Markets & Culture 9, no. 3: 171–205. Both are constructs and evolve and change over time. 2)Beynon, John. 2002. Masculinities and culture. Philadelphia, PA: open uP can be expressed in many ways. Doing gender is closely related to consumption. 3)Schroeder, Jonathan e. 2003. Guest editor’s introduction: Consumption, gender, identity. Consumption Markets & Culture 6, no. 1: 1–4.

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SEXY BABY Directors: Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus

Winnifred’s story is most interesting in this respect, as she is in the process of forming her identity. In the film, this is associated with how she dresses, how she “consumes” Facebook, and how she does photo-shoots with friends. In the beginning of Sexy Baby we see her in a school play, addressing how she and her peers deal with the omnipresence of sexuality in society and the perception of women. Her critical approach here clashes with her behaviour later on. We see both her parents struggling to keep up with their daughter, to keep track of what she is doing, as she gradually becomes more and more of a woman. They negotiate giving her space to grow and discover life and herself, and setting limits and passing on values such as that freedom comes with responsibilities: wear that sexy dress but do it for you rather than for someone else.

Nichole always made sure she worked on her own conditions. Getting ready for her new role as mother means reconsidering the values that facilitated her and her partner’s careers in the adult industry. Nichole needs to take a step back into a more conservative role. Apart from ‘sex isn’t love’, it remains unclear what values she will eventually pass on to her young son.

In the case of Laura, we witness her consultations with the surgeon, the procedure itself and her recovery. The film suggests that after the event she is confident enough to start picking up guys.

The filmmakers of Sexy Baby are as good as absent from the film’s diegesis; their presence resides most notably in the editing and the use of music. If any critical questions about the events in the film were asked, they were edited out. Whatever the case, the answers don’t attest to any.

Mansome presents a sequence of rather nondescript stories. Bateman and Arnett are the ones explaining the need for physical care and accounting for their spa visit. Apparently, it needs accounting for. Spurlock himself then is the first to go as he talks about his moustache, which he shaved for the November charity, to the dismay of his young son. The various stories told by beard competitor Jack Passion, Fresh Balls (“it is what it is”) CEO Brook Frank, pro-wrestler Shawn Daivari, barber Carmine Pisacreta, and fashion buyer Ricky Manchanda remain somewhat disconnected and superficial.

Mansome. Director: Morgan Spurlock

Both films illustrate how men and women perform gender and consciously and unconsciously adapt to models and expectations. But neither film surprises: we already know women get cosmetic surgery in the hope of meeting mostly male expectations; and we know male grooming is on the rise. Furthermore, there are additional matters in need of more thorough consideration. These centre on the question of the potential consequences of such ideals about the masculine and the feminine. In Sexy Baby we observe Laura while visiting her surgeon. He not only acknowledges Laura’s wish to have the procedure, he also encourages her to understand her current self as a problem. In the film, no dilemma is presented around her choice, or around the surgeon’s behaviour.

But why do we allow women to mutilate their private parts in order to conform to some secular belief in beauty while we oppose similar mutilation when it is done to conform to a religious belief? What is the difference? Merely the fact that in this case the woman chooses it? How free is that choice if women are continuously confronted with images that suggest they are never good enough as they are?

There is also something else going on. In Mansome, wrestler Shawn Daivari shaves most of his body before fights. He aptly observes that shaving equals returning to the body of a boy. The same can be said about labiaplasties such as Laura’s: it is a return to the immature body of a girl. We can accept this procedure as just another fashionable thing to do. But what does it mean that contemporary ideals about appearance demand that women return to the physical status of a girl and men to that of a boy? Such questions need to be addressed at a time when one’s success depends more and more on one’s image. Both films fail to embed these individual stories in the bigger picture and omit to deal with the consequences of modern concepts of man- and womanhood.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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References   [ + ]

1. Martin, Diane M., John w. Schouten, and James H. McAlexander. 2006. Claiming the throttle: Multiple femininities in a hyper-masculine subculture. Consumption Markets & Culture 9, no. 3: 171–205.
2. Beynon, John. 2002. Masculinities and culture. Philadelphia, PA: open uP
3. Schroeder, Jonathan e. 2003. Guest editor’s introduction: Consumption, gender, identity. Consumption Markets & Culture 6, no. 1: 1–4.