It’s in the photos that everything comes together. “Sexy Baby,” a documentary from Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and debuts on TV on Showtime tonight, Friday, December 7th at 10pm, begins by declaring that it will focus on three women living in three different cities, and that “their lives have nothing in common except one thing.” That thing is their gender, though it’s more precisely how they’re wrestling with the desire and pressure to be attractive, to seek out attention for their looks and perceived fuckability and to conform to an ideal of beauty that’s shaped by an increasingly sexual pop culture that’s heavily influenced by porn.
Which brings us back to the photos. All three of the subjects have an array of pictures of themselves, either self-portraits or taken by their friends or professionals, that end up on display for the camera. Winnifred, who’s 12 at the film’s outset and who lives in New York, has Facebook shots that grow increasingly sexualized as she hits puberty and becomes aware both of boys and her own appeal. Laura, a 22-year-old North Carolina kindergarten teacher, shows off her favorite picture of herself, a black and white one of her in her tank top holding up her hair. And 32-year-old Nichole, aka Nakita Kash, has plenty of photos of a more X-rated type — a former porn star and pole dancer, she made her living off of those images, videos and live performances at strip clubs, though these days she’s looking for a more conventional life.
All three of these women, as well as others who appear on screen, are able to regard these images of themselves with a practiced eye, evaluating where they look best — like Winnifred’s 13-year-old friend Olivia, who points out the over-the-shoulder photo of herself she thinks is “seductive.” They are all, in essence, objectifying themselves, though one of the things “Sexy Baby” explores with bracing sharpness is how little we can agree as to what that means now, as we struggle to figure out what, as one woman puts it, “empowered female sexuality looks like.”
“Sexy Baby” braids together the stories of these three women, some of which have more depth than others. Laura, the least developed of the three but the most tragic, is preparing for labiaplasty, having become convinced that she needs one after dating a guy who compared how her genitals looked to those of a porn star. She tells her doctor, whose practice consists only of this type of plastic surgery, that she has nightmares about it — “it’s like a permanent scar in my mind.” Her mother, who supportively keeps her company during the process, is unable to keep herself from bursting into tears as she talks about her daughter.
Nichole is trying to start a family with her husband, who also worked in the adult film industry, and wonders how they’ll talk to their children about sex and porn. “I don’t want to answer that — I don’t like that question,” her husband says when she asks what he’d do if their theoretical 12-year-old son encountered porn.
But its Winnifred who’s the heartbreaker, a kid being raised by progressive parents who are separated but still very much in communication, and who fret over what to say as they watch her transform from a gymnastics-loving little girl to a moody young woman who posts picture of her cleavage on Facebook. Winnifred is smart and confident and wants to change the world — she’s part of an acting troupe putting on a “girl power” play. But she’s also a teenager hooked on the attention and instant feedback social media provides for her, and while she reveals self-awareness about the negative aspects of this behavior in interviews, she still indulges in it.
Her mom and her dad are both feminists, and watching them struggle over what to say to their defensive daughter about her increasingly provocative dress sense feels like an example of just how complicated and conflicted contemporary feminism has gotten. “At least I don’t act like a whore,” she tells her father, and sure, some of that’s just bratty adolescence, but the rest is right out of the divide between the desire to say that a girl can and should wear whatever she wants and the one to not want your middle-school kid to go out with her bra on display. “Sexy Baby” doesn’t deny the appeal of being desired and being told you’re desirable, but Bauer and Gradus have crafted a smart documentary that shows who holds the power in that equation is still very much up in the air, and that meanwhile, between 2008 and 2009, labia surgeries increased 70%.