With the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same sex marriage and the arrival of Caitlyn Jenner as a powerful spokesperson for the LGBT movement, 2015 is proving to be a momentous year for developing perceptions of gender and sexuality in America. Fortunately for cinephiles, the movies have followed suit. This country’s cinema has been stuck in a male-dominated, heternormative mold since its inception, and while that certainly remains the case to a large degree, this summer’s releases have indicated that on some level the tides are changing. When considering the movie season’s increasing open-mindedness towards sexuality and feminine issues, nobody deserves more credit than Steven Soderbergh.
While Soderbergh is known culturally for his dry style and humor in the “Oceans” films and “Out of Sight,” he has consistently displayed atypical thoughts on sexuality. His recent work in “Magic Mike” is a fine place to start. Objectifying women is deeply rooted in cinematic history, where actors can age as they please and actresses must retain youthful beauty or risk being cast out of the limelight. Shifting the camera’s gaze from male to queer/female, Soderbergh portrays the lives of male strippers. It’s not hard to see how much media attention and fanfare was driven by the pure sex appeal of the leads.
Beyond the Straight Male Demo
The film is littered with such moments, where the male entertainers cater to the needs of women. They love their good work: bringing a smile to someone, making them feel special and attractive, simply asking what they want. Think of the sequence at Rome’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) club, where women are in charge and served. The men obey their self-dubbed ‘queens’ with intense performance from the likes of dancer Twitch, former Giant Michael Strahan and of course Channing Tatum. Rapper/comedian Donald Glover even dedicates a song to affirming an underappreciated woman’s worth. Not only are they aiming to make the women on screen smile and feel beautiful, they’re looking to do the same with the audience, an infectious operation that’s impossible to deny. Much credit is due Soderbergh’s way, providing delight for viewers and being only one piece in the wave of summer films that aren’t driven for the amusement of straight men.
Less kid friendly though equally adored, George Miller’s post apocalyptic epic “Mad Max: Fury Road” has been heralded as an incredible cinematic feat, noted for Charlize Theron’s fantastically righteous Imperator Furiosa. She plays the most important part in the film’s plot, which essentially boils down to the overthrow of the patriarchal system. Some credit for inspiration can be given to timeless female badasses like Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley, but Soderbergh is no stranger to strong, female-driven films.
All Kinds of Women
Even earlier, Soderbergh headed the remarkable cinematic account of lawyer and activist Erin Brockovich, with Julia Roberts starring in the titular role. She famously fought the corporate suits responsible for massive amounts of poisonous pollution and won. Her triumph is an exceptional tale, and when displayed in “Erin Brokovich,” it fully shows a woman’s power and agency in the clichéd idea of a “man’s world.”
Taking some points from Soderbergh in asserting female competency, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s 2015 installment “Spy” deconstructs some rather unseemly tropes in the spy thriller genre. Where James Bond is seen in society’s eyes as suave, Feig’s spoof version of him, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), is outlandishly obnoxious. Self obsessed, misogynistic degradation of women and illogical tactics make for a poignant dismantling of Bond’s character. Even more fascinating, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper turns out to be just as integral to Fine’s success as much as his good luck, providing a tremendous amount of support via satellite. Later, Cooper proves to be a superior agent than the rest of her male colleagues, (including an incredible Jason Statham as the foul mouthed, incompetent loose cannon Rick Ford), saving the world despite constant belittlement and lacking the in-ear support Fine survived off of.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Soderbergh continued with these ideas 20 years later, in the less-acclaimed but altogether impressive “The Girlfriend Experience.” More experimental than his other works, Soderbergh focuses on the side of prostitution where men pay a pretty penny to have a “girlfriend experience” — not just sex, but also dinner and a conversation, a pseudo-relationship. The film follows former porn star Sasha Grey as an escort who provides these services. She is as reserved as Spader — subtle and poignant in how she listens to her clients. Nudity is sparse and there is no sex on the screen, making it apparent that these men aren’t paying to screw. Instead, they just want someone to show concern for their needs. In tandem with the men’s desires, Chelsea specifically notes at one point how a client did not sleep with her. While it hints at potential anger in her own sexual and professional life, the fact that she even feels such frustration deepens this portrait of the world’s oldest profession more than anything that comes before it.
Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight” seems like a good fit in this discussion as well. On the indie front, the comedy very progressively looks at the laissez faire lifestyle of swingers, including the independent and sexually minded characters of Judith Godrèche and Taylor Schilling. Of greater note, Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott’s curiosity provide the most provocation and comedy. While the film laughs at the awkwardness of sexual exploration and discomfort, it does not objectify or degrade self examination, merely asserting that many feel something other than just one end of the Kinsey scale, particularly with attraction to more than one person. To heighten the film’s open mindedness, there is almost only male nudity and Schilling plays the breadwinner in her family, where Scott is the stay at home dad.
More than anything, Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” may be the most impactful of summer films following Soderbergh’s footsteps. The actress-cum-screenwriter has been electric in challenging gender roles, beauty standards and other related societal misdoings, all under the umbrella of comedic perfection. Her cinematic debut has only progressed her stirring ideas, portraying a more eccentric version of her persona. She goes from guy to guy, drinks heavily, falls in love and questions sports fandom. Schumer constructs a woman with palpable depth, her own true libido and phases of development and recovery, key factors missing in most female roles. It’s not hard to see this character joyfully attending a screening of “Magic Mike XXL” like scores of other real women.
What all these movies suggest is that Soderbergh’s progressive filmography finally has some company. Where society argues getting yours is the goal, Steven Soderbergh insists that understanding, care and equality are even more important. In fact, they might be life’s priority.