Possibly one of the scariest documentaries I’ve ever seen, Sexy Baby explores the over-sexualization of girls and women in the era of the Internet. Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus, the movie analyzes how social media, Internet porn and general pop culture are affecting the sexuality of women through the eyes of its three female subjects. There’s former porn actress Nichole (aka Nikita Kash) who’s trying to settle in to a more conventional life; precocious teen Winnifred, who’s struggling to come to terms with her own image and sexuality; and finally there’s Laura, who, after years of saving up for it, is ready to get the plastic surgery of her dreams – labiaplasty to be specific – so she can finally feel confident.
The three stories attempt to answer the same question – what does it mean to be a woman in today’s hypersexual climate?
Images that were once behind the curtain at the video store or at the very least hidden under a mattress are now accessible at the click of a finger, and it’s gotten more extreme. Porn isn’t new, but the types of porn we’re seeing, and the way we access it is. And in most cases, kids are seeing it at a much younger age than they used to. And if it’s not hard-core porn, it’s sexualized images in music videos, billboards, and advertising images. Celebrity sex scandals are frequently covered in the mainstream media, and those who find themselves with a leaked sex tape are rewarded with celebrity status.
The movie is visually explicit, but not in any kind of titillating way. Laura’s genitals are exposed in full detail during her surgery (a scene that will most certainly be blurred out should this film see a wider distribution) leaving her vulnerable and the audience uncomfortable; Nichole is captured in various states of undress as she performs menial tasks around the house, making it clear that despite her efforts to be a more conventional wife and (hopefully) mom, she’ll never escape her over –sexualized past (not that she necessarily wants to); and Winnifred – a young girl just starting to understand the power of her own sexuality – allows herself to be seen in clothes that most 20-somethings would find risqué.
Laura’s scenes are squirm inducing but it’s Winifred’s that are ultimately the most troubling. Winnifred seems to think that she’s got control over her own image, but to the audience it’s clear she has little understanding of just what image she’s portraying. She’s very self-aware, but at the same time she’s still a product of her surroundings. She claims she doesn’t watch porn and limits her Internet usage to Facebook and blogs, but living in New York she can’t escape the billboards and ads full of exploitative imagery of women. While she may not see much hard-core porn, she can’t escape the effects it’s had on her society. Watching her prepare for a Lady Gaga concert by trying on numerous questionable outfits demonstrates just how affected she is. Winnifred may be smart enough to recognize that women are seen as sexual objects, but that doesn’t mean she can resist the temptation to join in.
The hyper-sexualization of young women (and to a different extent, young men) has become a fact of today’s world. Girls are taking their cues from the “pornified” culture we’ve all become used to; and boys are learning how to treat women from these same images. Social pressures are everywhere, and as much as we can try to protect youngsters from them, this is the world we live in. Kids naturally become curious about sex and their own sexuality at a certain age, but put this normal curiosity into the context of a culture that applauds risqué images in the media but condemns it in reality and you get some very confused kids – and adults for that matter.
Look at Laura – she’s willing to endure severe pain and essentially mutilate herself to fit in with some unknown man’s ideal of the perfect woman. Altering one’s genitals was not something you heard much about ten years ago, but now labiaplasty is quickly becoming one of the most popular procedures for women. It’s widely agreed upon that the abundance of sexually explicit material on TV, online and in print is a major contributing factor.
The movie may explore the porn industry’s infiltration of mainstream culture but it’s important not to write off personal responsibility. If a young woman decides to have half her genitals cut off because she thinks it will make her look like a porn star and men will appreciate her more, perhaps the problem isn’t with the porn.
While Sexy Baby will no doubt provoke some intelligent debate, it doesn’t have much to offer about where we go from here. The Internet isn’t going anywhere, neither is sex, so the question remains, how do we navigate through this new world? Just be glad you’re not a kid going through puberty right now, and if you’re a parent of one, God help you.
The Upside: A cringing inquiry about what it means to be sexy in the cyber age that should provoke some intelligent debate.
The Downside: It tries to tell too many stories at once. While all three women are dealing with the negative affects of sexuality in the digital age, their stories are too different to create a really cohesive film.
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