Review and Interview: Subjectified

photo of subjectified documentary pictures
‘Subjectified’ is a documentary by Melissa Tapper Goldman. According to the statement on their website, this documentary was born out of Goldman’s frustration. Personally, I can agree that most art comes out of a similar place.

Goldman said, “I thought I understood the motivations and pressures regarding young women’s sexuality within the community where I grew up, but I had no clue what sexuality meant for other women around the country. I thought I understood what might make a teenage mother decide to raise a baby, or for a religious person to practice abstinence, but the models in my mind for why girls have sex just didn’t add up to a believable picture. Why do girls have sex? Or why don’t they have sex? Pressure? Libido? Emotional dependence? I realized that I drew many assumptions from examples in media rather than from real life, since few of us ever hear such intimate details from anyone but our closest friends. And even my own experiences come filtered through expectations shaped by stories drawn from external sources including television, movies and magazines.”

To explore this topic, Goldman interviewed nine women from different cultures, upbringings, all ranging from age 19-28. All of these women were asked why they have sex today, what their first experience with sexuality was like, their current sexuality, about sex education in school and what they learned, and finally, about fertility and contraception. A few of the women gave examples of their favorite sexual experience and how they felt and about times where they felt pressured or forced. All of the stories were very similar. All of the women, except the two virgins interviewed, had a time where they had to “talk themselves into” having sex, or felt pressured to have sex. The pressure had varying reasons like “He’ll get it somewhere else”, “He wanted it”, “I did it to shut him up”, etc.

I decided to review this documentary based on a preview I saw. I thought, ‘This documentary would get to the bottom of why women feel this way, why we feel obligated to have sex, why we find our worth in it’. And really, while it scratched the surface of these questions, I didn’t feel that I got any new information from it. I’m a woman, I’ve felt these things—sure, it was comforting to know that everyone has felt this way, too, but we still don’t understand it. I wasn’t given any information about how to combat it, or even about its origins. I guess I felt a little…confused, to be honest.

The documentary is, however, quite interesting. It’s thought-provoking, but still I feel it’s slightly anorexic or worse, maybe even a little watered down. The film, at one hour and forty-nine minutes, I think could benefit from one or two less interviews and maybe a half an hour of background.

In the film, Goldman sits, asking the questions behind the camera, and we never see her or hear her own responses. I would’ve been very interest in her response to this interview. While I enjoyed watching ‘Subjectified’ and felt a little disillusioned with women and their views on sex, I just wanted more. Out of nine women, the nineteen-year-old was the only one I felt had a positive outlook on herself and sex. That’s another angle I would’ve liked Goldman to explore—how this nineteen-year-old is able to say she will not be forced or treated poorly while having sex, but a 28 year old has issues with it….

… ?
If you’re looking for a little comfort, or a light documentary, I would highly recommend you watch ‘Subjectified’, if for no other reason than taking the time to consider your own sexuality and stance on sex. Goldman has a very bright future in documentaries and I look forward to her growing braver with her questions and camera.

As I said, there are nine women in this documentary, some single, one lesbian, and  two virgins. I have no idea why Goldman chose them, how she found them, or even why she asked the questions she did. I emailed her asking these questions because she’s currently touring with the film here are her responses:

NB: Why did you decided to do this?

MG: The simplest answer was that I was curious. I was curious about why young women make the choices that they do when it comes to sex and sexuality. I realized that women’s stories appeared to be everywhere: plotlines in primetime dramas, images on billboards or magazine ads, exposure on “reality” television. These stories fill our minds with ideas about young women even though we know that they don’t reflect reality. In fact, those images only exist to sell things. They don’t have our interests in mind at all. Sexy women are everywhere, and women’s real perspectives are nowhere. So it’s easy not to notice the absence of real stories and real voices. But once you notice, it’s hard to go back. I knew I had to do something about it.

NB: How did you choose the women?

MG:  ”To start with, I was first looking to cover some “tropes” that we have in our culture (the teen mom, the abstinent Christian, the lesbian). I wanted to take some of the most common stories that exist on TV, particularly “reality” TV, and show three-dimensional versions of the same stories that demonstrate how much deeper and more interesting real people are than the stereotypes you see in media. We think we know why young women do what they do, but our understanding is often reductive and sexist. The reality is much more interesting, and it’s much easier to feel compassion and connection with real people than scripted and manipulated ones.” (from Adios Barbie

NB: How did you choose the questions and what were their significance?

MG:  I chose questions to help me learn about all the influences on the women’s experiences with and attitudes toward sex during their lives so far. Part of this was just a basic history: what have you done and when? The other part was directly addressing the things that introduce us to these topics and help us make sense of them. This could include a religion’s messages about sex, the way her parents communicated about sexuality, or sex education in her school. We also talked about the attitudes in their friend groups. I tried to think broadly about what sexuality means to people, from body image to sexual orientation to experiences of violence or abuse. Sex touches many parts of our lives in lots of different ways.

NB: Why was sex ed an important question for you to ask?

MG:  Sex Ed was one of many inputs that the women had in learning about approaches to sex and sexuality. They were already exposed to lots of messages about sex by the time they were adolescents: messages from the media, from their parents, from their religions (in some cases), and from their friends. The women had very different experiences of Sex Ed at school, although there were some common themes. One was an emphasis on fear of consequences, which did not necessarily translate into their making safer choices. Another theme was that regardless of the women’s politics, they trusted that the information they received was factually correct (even if it did not address their real questions or reflect their personal values). Consider that currently only 12 states require that the material taught in Sex Ed classes be medically accurate. What this means is that students across the country are receiving inaccurate information and assuming that it’s true since it’s being taught in school. It’s important to show that people have starkly different levels of access to information about sexual health depending on their region and school system. Personally, I learned some really crucial things about sexual health in school Sex Ed, although there were other significant elements that were definitely missing. We need to recognize that people have different access to information about their bodies and health, and that this information takes on additional importance in young people’s lives when the other inputs are based on opinions rather than verifiable facts. The other sources for teenagers may include hearsay from peers, boloney from the media, and opinions or values that are personal to their families. So Sex Ed plays a significant role in how they learn about sexuality, no matter what their background.

NB: Why didn’t you include yourself?

MG:  There would be nobody to interview me! I felt like I was extremely present and exposed, since I was a common thread in all nine of the interviews. Even when you don’t hear my voice, you know I’m on the other end of the conversation. My focus was on making the women’s stories relatable, challenging, and compassion-building, and everything in the documentary is organized toward that purpose. My own story would only be distracting from that goal.

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