I was feeling lazy this afternoon, so I decided to watch a copy of The Oh! in Ohio that I had just checked out from my local Brooklyn Public Library. I never saw this movie when it came out in 2006, and apparently not many people did, since it tanked in the box office and got panned pretty much all around. The basic premise, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, which might be all two of you, faithful readers: Parker Posey as an advertising ice queen unable to achieve orgasm, and Paul Rudd as her gone-to-seed high school bio teacher husband, who feels stripped of his manhood by his wife’s “sexual dysfunction” and rediscovers his former glory by taking up with his miraculously transformed pothead-to-Harvard-headed student, played by Mischa Barton. Oh, and Danny deVito as “Wayne the Pool Guy”.
As a feminist and a filmperson, I had a lot of initial misgivings about the extremes that this film (incidentally, directed and written by two men) employs in addressing what is basically the issue of female sexuality. I can make some allowances for the fact that it is meant to be a comedy, and it is operating within a discourse of the sex comedy which is typically masculinist, centered on the male orgasm, or if not purely masculinist, quite usually heteronormist. The film tries, I think rather valiantly, to reverse these ideologies by centering the plot (which most critics complain does not exist, like Posey’s elusive O…) on the issue of female pleasure, and by including a brief daliance on Poey’s part with a gorgeous femme-y lesbian sex toy shop employee played by Heather Graham, to round out the not-totally-heteronormaative requirement. But the problem is that the be-all and end-all of sex (and a fulfilling life, apparently) is still the orgasm. Perhaps this is endemic to the sex comedy as a genre, but the persistence of this narrow-minded view of sexuality and of how we define sex is only ever going to uphold the structures of patriarchy and misogyny and the imbedded cultural results of sexual difference that continue to limit the potential of women. Vibrators are demonized as being addictive and replacing the male sex partner and disrupting important business deals, and lesbian sexual relations are represented as ineffective. Ultimately, Posey does discover her O with a man, but the film makes this the “solution” to her problems — the man himself. Uh-oh.
There also seems to be a confusion of love and sex, itself perhaps the ultimate problem with the entire genre of the sex comedy — how is it that a marriage of twelve years could really dissolve so easily over issues in the bedroom? Are we to assume that the people in these relationships do not ever do the Times crossword together on Sundays, or play games of tag in Ikea, or other non-sexual things that healthy couples might at any moment all across the country be doing?
But still — I applaud the creative team (including mostly female producers) for trying. The way to make films that address female sexuality, in an industry and a discourse so heavily male-dominated, is to begin by making some that fail. In this case, any publicity may be good publicity, for the subject of female pleasure, if only for the arguments or conversations the film and its plot my inspire. But this gets to what scares me the most about the whole situation — the critical response. It has a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the critics “cleverly” express their distaste with jokey jabs about the film failing to satisfy or never reaching climax, rejecting it within the terms of a failed sex comedy, which only serves to reinforce the already problematic privileging of the orgasm above all else. Did I mention that practically all of these reviews were written by men? Many of the same men who loved 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which is in essence a version of The Oh! in Ohio with a male protagonist, enough to give it an overall 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do we find humor about Steve Carrell finally achieving pleasure totally palatable and endearing, but Parker Posey finally getting off in a heteronormist, sexist world is no dice?
The bottom line is that sexism persists, imbedded or otherwise, in the film industry and on the screen and in the real world. And it’s hard to see how a mainstream sex comedy is going to change this, as long as what we’re trying to change is the mainstream — but we have to keep trying. And for the record, from the standpoint of pure entertainment value, I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Oh! in Ohio.