The Spectacle Of Lesbian Sex In Prestige Cinema

    The Handmaiden is the latest in a string of critically acclaimed lesbian films directed by male auteurs that reduce queer women's bodies to a beautiful spectacle. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

    The last sex scene of Park Chan-wook’s new erotic thriller The Handmaiden prominently features a sparkly pair of silver Ben Wa balls. Earlier in the film, they’d been used as a weapon; now they’re serving a very different purpose. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) are fully naked, facing each other while precariously balanced on their knees. They’re in what looks like a ship’s first-class cabin, resplendent with plush, colorful furniture and ornate frames on the walls. As they fit their bodies together and insert the Ben Wa balls inside their respective vaginas, a merry tinkling noise accompanies the women’s giggles — Sook-hee and Hideko are, for the first time, fully and completely at ease with each other. Their beautiful, lithe bodies are arranged in perfect symmetry, just like the room around them. The scene is an immaculately arranged tableau.

    It would be stunning, if it weren’t also so laughably absurd. Whose sex life looks remotely like this?

    The Handmaiden, from the South Korean visionary who brought us Oldboy, is exquisitely composed and deftly plotted — by many accounts, a masterpiece. Park adapted the script from Fingersmith, a novel by the Welsh writer Sarah Waters, but transported the characters from Victorian-era Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. What at first looks like the story of one long con becomes an intricate tale told in three acts, detailing a complex web of double-crossings and shifting allegiances. As Lady Hideko’s new maid, Sook-hee is tasked with convincing Hideko to fall in love with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a lowly Korean con man posing as a Japanese nobleman. Though she feigns naïveté and sweetness, Sook-hee is, in reality, a conniving pickpocket, working for Fujiwara to help steal Hideko’s fortune; after he marries her, the two plan to dispose of Hideko in a mental hospital. Everything is going according to plan, until Sook-hee and Hideko start falling for each other.

    In a film that traffics in duplicity, role-play, and cultural code-switching, the various sex scenes throughout are far from unwarranted; rather, two out of the three actively propel the plot forward. (And two out of three ain’t bad.) Still, every sex scene manages, at one point or another, to reify stale tropes about lesbian fornication – including a silly overemphasis on scissoring — all of which are bothersome distractions from an otherwise spellbinding film. More broadly, these sorts of sex scenes position female bodies as gorgeous objects: metaphorical stand-ins for questions about art, beauty, and the dark side of desire.

    Since it competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, The Handmaiden’s graphic sex scenes have inspired inevitable comparisons to Abdellatif Kechiche’s infamously sex-heavy Blue Is the Warmest Color, which competed for — and won — the Palme d’Or in 2013. Both films also share a certain ethos with Todd Haynes’ Carol, which was the equivalent Cannes darling in 2015. The three most critically acclaimed films of the decade about queer women are all by distinguished male auteurs, and all are based on fiction written by lesbians: Blue Is the Warmest Color was originally a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, while Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt became Carol.

    Though they take place in different countries and time periods and languages, the films share a visual sumptuousness; they are veritable marvels for the senses. Each one delights, and indulges, in the gorgeousness of the women they feature, especially when those women get undressed. The resulting depictions of lesbian sex as choreographed by these male directors are, at best, well-intentioned attempts to honor the beauty of queer female sexuality — but at worst, they’re formalist experiments in symmetry and duality (Hey, they’re having sex and they’re both women! They look alike! See? Pretty!) that can easily become flat-out fetishistic.

    Two of The Handmaiden’s sex scenes are actually separate tellings of the same moment in time. After Sook-hee climbs into Hideko’s bed to comfort her after a nightmare, they end up kissing — and Sook-hee, whose job is to convince Hideko to fall in love with Count Fujiwara, evokes the count as their makeout quickly escalates to something more. Hideko asks if the count would really touch her like this — Sook-hee maintains that yes, he would, as she gets more and more flustered. It’s played, successfully, for laughs — clearly, they’re much more interested in each other than they are the count — and yet there’s still something grating about hearing so many rapid-fire references to a man in the midst of a sex scene with two women. “Keep doing it like the count would!” Hideko cries while Sook-hee’s mouth is on her breast.

    Later, when the scene is revisited anew, this time in greater length and detail, the comedic aspects are ramped up still further. About halfway through, the film switches in perspective from Sook-hee’s to Hideko’s, and we learn that Hideko has spent years being forced to read from her uncle Kouzuki’s extensive pornography collection to a roomful of pervy men. We see Hideko as a child, exposed early to the sexual fantasies of her uncle and his customers; Kouzuki punishes her by hitting her hands with the same Ben Wa balls she’ll later use when having sex with Sook-hee. Just as Sook-hee was only pretending to be dim-witted and flighty, doting simperingly on her lady, Hideko was feigning her facile, wide-eyed innocence. “You must be a natural!” Sook-hee says, astonished, as their reprised lustful tangle rearranges itself into — you guessed it — a scissor. We know better than Sook-hee: Hideko is no clueless puritan. Even when Sook-hee lifts her face from between Hideko’s legs, half her face smothered with vaginal fluid, the effect is a small shock of body humor: a little goofy, a little gross. (Though, to Park's credit, rather realistic.)

    In her New Yorker review, Jia Tolentino praises the film’s sense of humor and mischief, writing that “the actresses are as skilled as Park in the task of finding straightforward moments of comedy in situations this overwrought.” Sex scenes can indeed often benefit from some levity, just like sex in real life often can. But in The Handmaiden, the characters aren’t laughing at themselves and each other — we’re the ones laughing at the characters. Their breathless enthusiasm is borderline obscene, and their slack-jawed shock and hunger is supposed to be all the more delightful because the viewer knows more than they do.

    Barely a week before seeing The Handmaiden, I was in a different theater watching Barry Jenkins’ gorgeous coming-of-age drama Moonlight, with another audience who cracked up at moments of queer intimacy — but in this case, they weren’t necessarily supposed to. As E. Alex Jung relays at Vulture, Moonlight does have its charming, funny junctures, but both he and I were sitting with audiences who also happened to laugh at quietly lovely moments of flirting and seduction. “I couldn’t help but feel that it was demeaning,” he writes, “a way to neuter and compartmentalize gay male intimacy as a punchline.”

    It’s unsettling to see lesbian sex presented as a jokey spectacle — especially when many people don’t think what queer women do even counts as sex.

    Park is clearly welcoming laughter in The Handmaiden’s sex scenes — and, refreshingly, the funny parts don't draw from queer intimacy alone, but rather from a series of mixups and reveals. Since lesbian sex scenes so often serve one of two plot points — 1) women discovering their sexuality, or 2) women discovering their sexuality before getting immediately punished for it — depictions of queer sex which reveal characters' motives and spur on the narrative can both inform and invigorate.

    And yet it still feels somewhat unsettling to see lesbian sex presented as a jokey spectacle — especially when many people don’t think what queer women do even counts as sex. To a lot of viewers it’s a meaningless college hookup, or a performance for horny guys, a phase or a mistake. One of the reasons why scissoring is still such a popular depiction of lesbian sex, even though most queer women don’t attempt it at all (according to anecdotal evidence, plus this not-super-scientific poll) is because scissoring looks “real” to straight people. Since the use of fingers apparently doesn't count, genital-on-genital contact is the closest thing two cisgender women can get to an approximation of P-in-V sex — besides, of course, the far more common act of tribbing, or using strap-ons. For some reason, strap-ons haven’t caught on at all in either mainstream media or pornography made for straight men, and I’d wager that's because scissoring looks hot to guys, while a woman wearing a dildo could easily threaten straight men’s egos. A strap-on says: Women and other queer and gender-nonconforming people can fuck each other better than you can. Sorry!

    The Handmaiden’s take on scissoring is especially comical, since Sook-hee and Hideko clasp hands while they do it, like they’re high-fiving at a sports match and have just decided to stay that way. Slightly more realistic (but still far-fetched for a first sexual encounter) is when they start exuberantly 69ing, an act also filmed in a breathless wide shot. While we are placed into Sook-hee and Hideko’s perspectives at certain times during their sexual encounter — which is more than many other films can say — the big, dramatic moments reveal their entire bodies, in all their slim, hairless glory. As we watch them 69 from above, it’s hard to view scenes like these as anything other than a product of the male gaze, beautifully composed moments tailor-made for male consumption.

    As Amy Nicholson notes in her review for MTV News, “Park pokes fun at men like the Count who think they understand female desire” — and as a result of their failure to truly understand it, the count and Kouzuki meet grisly ends. Soon after Hideko and Sook-hee destroy Kouzuki’s precious collection, his days of peddling pornography and sexual exploitation are over. Kouzuki is ultimately condemned — and yet the film itself presents us with sex scenes one might expect to find depicted in Kouzuki’s ruined pages. The power of Hideko and Sook-hee’s triumph over men who’ve treated them like pretty sexual pawns is belied by sex scenes that slip into positioning them as exactly that.

    In Abdellatif Kechiche’s NC-17-rated Blue Is the Warmest ColorThe Handmaiden’s most famous predecessor when it comes to controversial lesbian sex scenes — we’re barely afforded any time in the women’s points of view at all. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15-year-old Parisian, quickly falls in love and lust with the older, more experienced Emma (Léa Seydoux); their longest sex scene goes on for a truly insane seven minutes. The length wouldn’t be nearly as uncomfortable if we didn’t see so much of the women’s bodies at one time, in unforgiving wide shots that last a few beats too long (those shots are key to capturing some more aggressive, unnecessary scissoring). It’s gross to watch — and even grosser still, in retrospect, since after their splashy debut at Cannes the actors gave interviews saying the sex scene took 10 grueling days to shoot, that Kechiche asked them to do things other directors wouldn't dare, and that they “felt humiliated.”

    “Thank god we won the Palme d’Or, because it was so horrible,” said Seydoux. The author of the graphic novel that inspired the film thought it was a “brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold ... which turned into porn.”

    Kechiche goes so far as to insert a version of himself into the film: A male character gives an insufferable speech to a party filled with artists about the mystical power of the female orgasm. The women in Blue are his muses; he graphically matches their naked bodies with statues in museums. Adèle and Emma are not so much characters in their own right, but artfully choreographed masturbatory tools: What could be better than one beautiful woman with insatiable carnal lust? Two of them.

    Todd Haynes’ Carol, meanwhile, carries no such exploitative baggage — on the contrary, it's a quietly joyous and affirming film. Set in the 1950s, Therese (Rooney Mara) is a shopgirl with a penchant for photography who’s swept into the fashionable world of Cate Blanchett’s Carol after Therese helps her retrieve a forgotten pair of gloves. Carol received a cascade of accolades and nominations; among them, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Every frame is pretty as a painting, infused with warm holiday-season reds and greens; the period costume design, by Sandy Powell, is a dream. As I’ve previously written, Carol’s overall tone is incredibly rich without quite being warm.

    At a time when queer people in the US had to rely on signaling and other under-the-radar methods of communication and connection, Carol’s obsession with looking — Therese gazing out of rain-washed windows; Therese gazing at Carol, both in person and through the lens of her camera — makes technical as well as thematic sense. But sometimes, when they look at each other, it’s clear all they’re seeing is different possible versions of themselves, especially during the film’s one sex scene.

    They're alone together in a hotel room. As Carol takes off Therese’s clothes, Therese’s bare skin glows in the lamplight. Before Carol leans down to ravish her, she pauses to deliver the line: “I never looked like that.” It’s jarring — instead of seeing Therese as an individual, Carol, even if only for a second, is seeing the sort of youthful beauty she’ll never have again. It’s the kind of line you’d never get in a sex scene between a man and a woman. For a brief moment, here again we have women serving as reflections of each other, womanhood and femininity through the looking glass.

    Haynes, like Park in The Handmaiden, is a sucker for the ultra-feminine: Carol’s luxe mink coats are akin to Hideko’s intricate Victorian gowns. In one scene, Hideko dresses Sook-hee in her clothes, their roles reversed, and a shot of their two heads from behind reveal two identical updos, two identical bared necks. As they swap clothes and identities, they still mirror each other, no matter how often they give each other the runaround.

    Lesbianism in each film, but particularly The Handmaiden, is far from incidental: It’s staged as a narrative tool.

    Besides lady and maid, Hideko and Sook-hee also alternatively serve the roles, perversely, of mother and daughter. “You’re my baby miss,” Sook-hee tells Hideko after giving her a lollipop to suck on while she takes a bath. Once, while they’re having sex and sucking on each other’s nipples, Sook-hee says she wishes she could give Hideko her milk. (After this line, my girlfriend and I turned to each other in the theater and grimaced.) Haynes also plays with mother-daughter roles, albeit much more subtly, in Carol, where the women have more of an age gap: Therese’s blunt bob and bangs look strikingly similar to the hairstyle of Carol’s small daughter. The age gap in Blue Is the Warmest Color is smaller, but still significant, since Adele is a young teenager — practically a child at 15. Every queer woman is different, and has differing opinions on what kind of sexual representations seem truly genuine; but I’m going to bet that for the majority of us, mother-daughter stuff will be met with a hearty Thanks, but no thanks.

    In all three films, women inevitably become foils for each other, if just for a few moments or for long, indulgent stretches. In The Handmaiden, all the double play adds provocative layers to thematic questions of identity and deception — which makes the constant swapping and mirroring more justified, even during the sex scenes. But there’s still something a little tired, and a little unimaginative, about reducing two women — whole, complete people — to symbolic opposites. Lesbianism in each film, but particularly The Handmaiden, is far from incidental: It’s staged as a narrative tool. Two different sides of the lesbian coin are used as a means to explore different cultures, different classes, different levels of sexual experience, different conceptions of good and evil. Both Sook-hee and Hideko don different costumes (lady and maid, victim and criminal, pursuer and pursued, mother and child) — and because they’re both the same gender, you often can’t tell which woman is which. That’s supposed to be the fun part. It’s lesbianism as a sleight of hand.

    To be sure, seeing lesbians in prestige cinema is a welcome change of pace, especially since queer people have so often been relegated to Hollywood’s dark and sinister shadows. This year, as lesbian and bisexual female characters are still being killed off on television at alarming rates, something like The Handmaiden — which, like Carol, has a breath-of-fresh-air happy ending — is a joy to behold. Sook-hee and Hideko escape from the men who sought to quite literally fuck-marry-kill them, finally finding honesty and pleasure with each other. But like Slate’s Laura Miller, I wish “the film had concluded with an earlier scene, one displaying the kind of freedom celebrated by Fingersmith: the two women running, laughing, across a green field toward an imagined, uncontainable sea.” It’s a breathtaking moment. Instead, the film closes with the most matchy-matchy sex scene of all — the Ben Wa balls scenario in the ship’s cabin — which is as over-the-top as it is improbable.

    One suspects that having more women in decision-making film roles — behind or in front of the camera; ideally, in the director’s chair — would result in more lesbian sex scenes where individual characters’ point of views are privileged; where we don’t just see porny wide shots of bodies; where women don’t see each other as reflections of themselves, but as complex and full-blooded other humans. All the better if those female decision-makers are queer themselves. If that were the case, we’d likely see way more queer sex scenes involving queer people across the gender presentation spectrum. (Hideko does don a great male disguise at some point, but she’s out of it and having super-femme sex again soon enough.)

    Symmetry and duality in lesbian sex scenes only work when queer female characters present as queer in exactly the same way. You couldn’t achieve the same level of formalist mirroring with people whose bodies and gender presentations don’t match: say, an androgynous femme and a bull dyke (not to mention women of different races or sizes). While lesbian representation in film and television is on the rise, nearly all the queer female characters we keep seeing are straightforwardly pretty, thin, and white — which doesn’t only fail to reflect queer diversity, but privileges cool aesthetics over raw and red-blooded storytelling. Sex scenes that treat queer women like dolls in a beautiful living tableau aren’t just unrealistic — a lot of the time they’re super awkward, or else just flat-out boring. And there’s enough boring straight sex scenes out there as it is.

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