- Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies by Damon R. Young
In Making Sex Public and Other Cinematic Fantasies, Damon R. Young considers the increased prevalence of on-screen sex beginning in late 1950s American and French cinema. Deftly moving between extended close readings and effective engagements with a broad range of critical theories, Young teases out the social tensions in cinematic depictions of sex, especially representations of women and queer subjects. These groups, Young writes, are at the center of “a narrative in which ideals of equality and autonomy…generate a complex and often contradictory set of imaginaries” (7). This early reference to “a” narrative is perhaps misleading as the book eschews any singular theory of screen sexuality, instead exploring a number of explanatory concepts for the erotic phenomena it tackles. This results in a rich mesh of possibilities, generating precise readings of the films examined at length without projecting an overarching vision onto the impossibly broad topic of sex and sexuality in media. The boundaries of Young’s project are clearly stated and the book is stronger for it; he also leaves the concepts he develops open for further development by feminists, queer theorists and other scholars.
The book is segmented into three parts, each with two chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue. The first section, titled “Women,” is where Young most extensively explores the fantasy of the liberal sexual subject, “a subject for whom sexuality…assumes its significance in relation to concepts of social contract, public sphere and nation” (4). He situates the films of Roger Vadim and Catherine Breillat in the context of the sexually explicit and explicitly feminist art that emerged throughout the 1960s and 70s. The title character of Barbarella (Vadim, 1968) is the liberal sexual subject par excellence for Young, with her galactic sexual adventures depicting no limit to pleasure in service of the utopian Sun System. If Barbarella’s liberal sexual subject is a utopian fantasy, as Young argues, we are soon returned to Earth with an examination of Breillat’s “vaginal vision” (59) throughout her many films. Set alongside similar works by Judy Chicago and Agnès Varda and placed into surprisingly fruitful conversation with Andrea Dworkin, Young finds Breillat’s inability to reconcile the vagina and sexuality with subjectivity provides an important corrective to liberal sexual fantasy.
Part II, “Criminals,” introduces queers, specifically gay men, as figures who haunt and/or threaten the social contract that establishes the heterosexual family as the constitutive unit of a liberal society. Gay murderers in the pre-Stonewall Plein soleil (René Clément, 1960) and the infamous Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) are analyzed for their desires to be with—but also kill—other men. Young argues that the former film invokes male homosexuality “as a malignancy of [the] liberal sexual subject, a deadly compulsion toward nonreproductive self-replication” (121). Cruising, on the other hand, positions homoeroticism as “integral to the social order rather than its perverse exclusion” (133) and suggests that the law which enforces the purportedly heterosexual social contract “is itself a queer exception that sustains the…fraternal social contract” (128). The repetition of the male body figures prominently in both films, a clever twist on homo-“sameness,” which allows Young to analyze multiple categories of male relation from the tepidly homosocial to the flagrantly homosexual. Both the dyadic murder plot of Plein soleil and the serial killing of men throughout Cruising reveal crucial gendered underpinnings of the social contract, particularly when considered alongside the developing advent of queerness in cinema and society.
This historically grounded social integration of queer subjects is further explored in Part III, “Citizens,” which takes up the collectively produced documentary Word Is Out: Stories from Some of Our Lives (Mariposa [End Page 101] Film Group, 1978) and the twenty-first century narrative feature Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006). Young reads both films against their popular conceptions as respectively assimilationist and radical, with Word Is Out described as “queer[ing] the normal world over and above any sense in which it normalizes queerness” (186) while he...