Female sexuality and sensuality in Iron Jawed Angels
by Ibiene Minah
Women and sex. Women being sexual beings. Women being sensual beings. Those are all concepts our patriarchal society has been confounded by, ignored and dismissed throughout generation. The woman has been believed to be an insipid body of mass within which no actual personal drives or intellect exists or can even be cultivated. A line from a classic american short story perfectly sums up the popular consensus, “You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?)” (Updike, A&P). There is the perpetuated idea that women are creatures without inherent substance or motivation. And any creature without inherent substance or motivation becomes an object to the benefit of society. Society likes to stick a naked woman on a wall and jerk off, both literally and figuratively, to it but it doesn’t condone female sexuality. It wants to pardon my French, fuck women but doesn’t want them to develop intimate and personal understandings and relationships of and with sex.
Images and narratives of women being intellectually and sexually self-sufficient are not endorsed or encouraged by popular media. While the secular world likes to and profits of the objectification of women, it is very threatened by the reality of women being sexual and sensual in their own right. Furthermore, it has never dared to see women as fully-developed, three-dimensional creatures that contain both intellect and sexuality. For ages it was thought that during sex between men and women only the man needed to reach sexual gratification. Women were not permitted to be comfortable or free in the exploration and expression of their sexuality. But in Iron Jawed Angels, through the bathtub scene, Von Garnier captures the image of women being sexual beings in their own right and ambassadors of their inherent sensuality. To an extent she poses the woman as sensual and sexual independent of a male partner
The bathtub scene where Paul masturbates as she recalls events of the day spent with Ben fully displays women as personally sexual and sensual beings. By finding pleasure by herself, to a degree Paul takes advantage of Ben by using him to her sexual gain. It’s a tongue-in-cheek turning tables moment, for men have been using the image of women to their own sexual gain for years, but here Paul acts in the vice versa. And furthermore, she does not use his image in an overtly sexualised way. The memories that drive her to pleasure are the most mundane, tender, sweetly occurring. She is turned on by Ben as a person, not an object, and furthermore turned on by their completely equal interaction and exchange as beings. I think a great part of her arousal comes from the respect Ben pays her throughout, from his observance of her personhood. All of these things come together to the achievement of her sexual gratification and they add another layer of dimension to Paul.
In most popular depictions of women, she is entirely without multi-dimension and facets. Society perpetuates the idea that a woman can only driven by own motivation, she can only strive to own desire otherwise bless her delicate sensibilities she might crumble under the weight of different drives. It is to this regard that I imagine Von Garnier finds its necessary to include a romance plot in the film, to oppose that persisting image of women. Furthermore, the enduring image of the feminist, propagated by anti-feminists, is that she is a dowager spinster misandrist livid with her own unattractiveness and subsequent lack of suitors. She cannot possibly inspire romantic attraction and she doesn’t know how to perform in that arena of female expectation. By including a romantic plot they are refuting that. But to a degree I personally believe they are making her more palatable. Society at large is confused by women who are not romantically inclined and by feeding into that expectation I believe the movie acts counterproductively. The added discourse between Lucy and Alice about being lonely and craving a family contributes into the idea that every woman subconsciously is driven by maternal need and seek absolute fulfillment in that way. She cannot be fulfilled absolutely by any other thing. I found that whole part of the movie to be unnecessary and almost insulting. I’m not under the impression that there aren’t women who champion the feminist movement who are mothers, wives and home builders; a great cornerstone of the feminist is to support women and celebrate their decisions no matter what, so long as the decisions they make are inherently to the fulfillment of their own personal wishes. That being said I don’t think much is done to fully cultivate a positive, respected and valid image and narrative around the feminist who is not. A full-bodied narrative of a woman being wholly fulfilled by activities and desires outside of the home is greatly lacking.