JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Addressing Kiss and Tell, Nash dissects the paradox for female sexuality where the teen girl is expected to stave off sexual activity yet be sexualized by the culture’s gaze.

In the 1960s the subgenre reemerges, Nash arguing that as the threat of Communism intensified in the early 1960s, again films depicted teen girls as domestic threats, their chaotic lives challenging domestic containment just as the United States had to police Communism. One example is Take Her, She’s Mine.

Considering The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) within romantic, gross-out, and teen-pic comedy genres, Nash sees virgin-protagonist Andy framed in better light than his adult-aged, yet juvenile-behaving friends. The narrative values Andy’s inexperience over his mates’ sexual behavior that occurs outside of a love context.

Key aspects of The 40-Year-Old Virgin make it ripe for comedy. It focuses on the male gender and a person well beyond the age when people typically shed their condition of virginity. The collision of these circumstances provide material for parody.

In horror comedy Cherry Falls (2000) female orgasm and intercourse are shown to be nearly mutually exclusive, masturbation discussed as the path to orgasm.

Conceiving virginity

As Hanne Blank describes, when writing her book Virgin: the Untouched History, conversations about virginity often turn towards the loss of virginity rather than remain on the state of virginity itself. Reflecting on this, Blank concludes:

“Virginity is invariably defined in terms of what it is not, and is believed to be proven most incontrovertibly by whatever signs … become obvious only in the moment of its obliteration … In retrospect I realize that the tendency to speak of virginity loss rather than of virginity itself should not have surprised me. Virginity is because it ends.” (96-7)

Some of the essays in Virgin Territory look at moments of overcoming virginity, such as Shary’s work on first-time intercourse. Others, like Nash and Jeffers McDonald, analyze films where virginity is maintained.

While most of the essays take the definition of virginity for granted, Greg Tuck questions it more thoroughly. In “Orgasmic (Teenage) Virgins: Masturbation and Virginity in Contemporary American Cinema” Tuck scrutinizes the notion of virginity and repartitions the concept into subcategories, with interesting results for film analysis. Absolute virginity is a state that Tuck believes applies to pre-sexual beings, an ideal equated with children, a state that presumes no sexual knowledge or experience (some might contest this perspective on childhood). On the other hand, adolescents who are completely sexually inexperienced possess a mix of carnal knowledge and carnal ignorance; they feel desires but have not yet acted upon them. Teen sex comedies play on the tensions between bodily feelings and pursuing sexual activities. Many teenagers in sex comedies have experienced some form of sexual pleasure, just not normative sexual intercourse —Tuck coins a name for them, “orgasmic virgins.” Orgasmic virgins have experienced genital stimulation and orgasm — receiving pleasure from themselves or others. As the young protagonists strive to eliminate their virginal condition, Turk argues, they cannot be thought of as “sexually innocent or ignorant,” associations attributed to the concept of virgin, but instead “transitional” or “liminal”; such youths have had a range of sexual pleasures but not the normative penetrative sex act of intercourse (158). Contrary to popular belief, Tuck asserts that the “virgin/nonvirgin boundary is not traversed in a single moment through a single act” (158). Instead, the shift away from childhood absolute virginity is a route involving the attainment of various combinations of sexual knowledge and actions.

Like others who write on sexuality, Tuck points out that the dominant conception of virginity is based on the notion of intercourse as heterosexual and procreative. Furthermore, Tuck confronts the idea that the virgin/nonvirgin boundary is passed in one instant. If we consider heterosexual adolescents who experience corporeal pleasures as “virgins,” such an assumption reinforces the idea that they have not yet had “actual” sex since “the act of ‘losing’ one’s virginity is usually coded by mainstream texts as the moment the subject learns (in principle) how to reproduce” (Tuck 159). A heterosexual frame dominates conceptions of virginity, such that same-sex couples can experience a range of penetrative acts while still being considered virgins by cultural definition. If we preserve that popular conception of virginity, it makes procreation the goal of “real” sex and upholds “an ideology of reproduction” (160). Retaining a traditional conception of virginity maintains the heterosexual, procreative frame and allows the cultural discomfort with separating sexual pleasure from reproductive function to remain in place.

The male masturbating moment in There’s Something About Mary (1998) shows the protagonist as pathetic and duped. In U.S. cinema adults who masturbate are mad or extremely neurotic – such as in Happiness (1996).

Within teen sex comedies, masturbation is placed within a particular framework — a state reserved for potentially healthy adolescents but not affirmed for male adults. Tuck asserts that masturbation in such films as American Pie (1999) “affects the subject’s virginal status in one of two ways: being perceived as either learner sex or antisex” (160). Most films, according to Tuck, frame masturbation as ”infantile/immature sex, merely a stage that must be passed through before one may adopt one’s ‘proper’ adult sexuality” (160). In U.S. cinema adults who masturbate are mad or extremely neurotic — as in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Happiness (1996). For males, Tuck asserts, the framework reinscribes the reproductive imperative for males, refusing to allow adult men to masturbate in ways embraced by the narrative. For example, the masturbating moment for the hero in There’s Something About Mary (1998) shows the protagonist as pathetic and duped. On the other hand, there are a few celebratory filmic depictions of masturbation for females, since “it is not in itself a negation of a potential procreative event” — no seed is wasted (Tuck 171).

Looking at Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), Tuck creates another category for female nonorgasmic, nonvirgins – highlighting one adolescent who experiences orgasm through use of a vibrator but does not achieve such pleasure via heterosexual intercourse (162). In horror comedy Cherry Falls (2000) female orgasm and intercourse are shown to be nearly mutually exclusive with masturbation discussed as the path to orgasm (162). In contrast, in American Pie a female friend advises a boy to give his girlfriend oral sex to bring her to orgasm so that she may then be open to intercourse — here intercourse promising penultimate sex for the male, beyond orgasm by other means (163). In addition, as Tuck notes, there is a lack of psychological satisfaction for both partners after coitus in American Pie.

Similar to Tuck, in Virgins: A Cultural History Anke Bernau complicates attempts to easily define virginity, pointing to a number of physical acts and asking if such behavior indicates loss of virginity. She concludes, “its meaning has never been fixed or ‘found.’ Thus, while virginal purity epitomizes order, it is also fundamentally unstable” (xii-xiii). Like Tuck’s and Bernau’s refining of concepts, more of the essays in Virgin Territory could theorize the notion of virginity and consider how film narratives complexly function within broader cultural ideologies. Siegel’s work is one of the few essays that explicitly articulates an ideological framework. She analyzes the cultural moorings of feminist theories about sexuality, preferring what she regards as the French path of sexual expression over what she characterizes as the anti-sex path of U.S. feminists. Siegel, however, fails to recognize the diversity within U.S. feminism and neglects pro-sex U.S. feminist work, such as that influenced by queer scholars, sex performers and activists.

Representing absence

A few of the essays consider how virginity — the absence of sex — can be represented. Tuck highlights the problem in how our culture conceptualizes virginity, stating that it arises because virginity is typically “an attribute associated with what we do not do” (158 emphasis his). Tuck, in response, promotes re-conceptualizing virginity, not just within the realm of media representations but the culture more generally. Andrea Sabbadini discusses the difficulty in representing virginity in audio-visual narrative form. Defining virginity as “the absence of the experience of genital intercourse,” Sabbadini argues that “absence” thus “implies that the phenomenon is as such un-representable” (224). He continues:

“Films can show virginity only indirectly, either through its contrast with the presence of other related phenomena (for instance, the character’s sexual activities other than genital intercourse, or his or her feelings about virginity such as desire, fear, guilt, or shame) or, and more emphatically, by representing the very act of genital penetration that puts an end to it.” (224)

Rather, according to Sabbadini’s framework, “virginity itself could never be directly represented in films” (234).

Yet other authors contest the idea that virginity is un-representable. For example, Jeffers McDonald in her essay “Performances of Desire and Inexperience: Doris Day’s Fluctuating Filmic Virginity” looks to the acting choices and star persona of Doris Day as indicating sexual inexperience. Analyzing two of Day’s films released during the Production Code era when the word “virgin” was not allowed in films — Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961) — Jeffers McDonald states, “virginity was a status that Day consciously adopted for her character” in the 1961 film but not for its predecessor (8). Pointing to Day’s vocal inflection and bodily expression, Jeffers McDonald indicates how the state of virginity is represented through acting style. Chase also considers how mise-en-scene conveys sexual meanings. She asserts that Preminger makes Bonjour Tristesse more palpable for repressed U.S. sensibilities by changing the plot of the French novel. Yet the film’s lush aesthetics allow for a double-read across generations, affirming sexuality for youth viewers as they ingest the sensual seething of the mise-en-scene, despite the punitive repercussions of the youthful female protagonist’s actions. Some of the most interesting contributions to the anthology are those that discuss how virginity can be depicted beyond verbal assertion or moments when the condition of virginity is overcome.

Pointing to Doris Day’s vocal inflection and bodily expression, Jeffers McDonald argues that sexual experience is represented through acting style in Pillow Talk. Jeffers McDonald argues that virginity was enacted through vocal inflection and bodily expression in the 1961 film Lover Come Back.

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