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How Steven Soderbergh Changed America’s Relationship to Sexuality at the Movies

How Steven Soderbergh Changed America's Relationship to Sexuality at the Movies

READ MORE: Exclusive: Steven Soderbergh Urges Filmmakers to Embrace the Digital Future

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

“Mike” is a darker and more caring film than its reputation may suggest, but it’s still filled with the kind of carnal pleasures usually reserved for male audience members. “Magic Mike XXL,” the sequel released earlier this month, was only shot and edited by Soderbergh. Though it lost some aesthetics and seriousness, it drove audiences wild with a more forward approach towards beefy fun and sex.

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.

Soderbergh’s success with “XXL” can be seen in a greater light when compared to the flop of “Entourage.” Though way past its window of popularity, the HBO film had enough relevancy and crazy cameos to make for at least a meager picture, but instead was absolutely slammed by critics and made less than hoped. On the other hand, “XXL” was widely loved and raked in double what “Entourage” grossed, currently boasting nearly $90 million worldwide. Such an achievement indicates that the classically misogynistic, bro-fest “Entourage” has seemingly fallen out of the public’s favor.
Even Pixar has taken some cues this summer, with its latest emotional hit “Inside Out” depicting the inner workings of a young girl. The very fact that it concerns a girl is tremendous, as such an in depth look at an adolescent’s emotions would seem more fit for a male character. What’s more, her main emotions, happiness and sadness, are both feminine. No cheap shots are taken at a pubescent girl’s mindset or sexual thoughts, just honest discussion on universal feeling and growth.

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

Most recently, he directed the 2012 thriller “Haywire,” starring accomplished MMA fighter Gina Carano. In the film, Carano plays a covert agent who single-handedly thwarts a plot to kill her. Along the way, she beats numerous male stars that have been known to dabble in the action genre, including Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Antonio Banderas. Carano also performed all of her own stunts, fortifying herself as a capable action star on the level of any man. 

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.”

With regards to specific ties, “Brokovich” and “Haywire” operate in different styles than the wasteland where Imperator Furiosa roams. The former is a legal drama, though curiously similar to “Mad Max” as it also looks at a woman voyaging through the desert in search of justice. “Haywire” is a full throttle thriller, designed to make viewers clench their teeth in anticipation for revenge. However, all three women are the ones who execute the patriarch in their respective stories. Furiosa rips the air (and mouth) from Immortan Joe and Carano satisfyingly leaves her nemesis, played by a hateful Ewan McGregor, to slowly drown, wounded and trapped on a beach as the tide moves in. Brokovich doesn’t specifically kill one man, though she makes “the man” pay (a feat rarely accomplished in the real world). She is challenged every step of the way as a woman and a professional, yet nonetheless seems destined for triumph thanks to her perseverance and work alone.

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

Remarkably, the aforementioned films aren’t even Soderbergh at his best — that would be his 1989 debut, “sex, lies and videotape.” His breakout work focuses more on discourse than it does a visual portrayal of sex. The film depicts Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell as husband and wife, the latter claiming to hate sex and the former loving it so much he’s sleeping with her sister, Laura San Giacomo. Their stale marriage erupts when Gallagher’s raunchy college buddy, played by James Spader, arrives and is far more introverted than previous memory. The Spader character’s hobby of filming women discussing their sexual experiences drives the film, arguing for thought and attention over the standard of pure enjoyment from orgasm. The sentiment works on screen; few scenes are as captivating as San Giacomo describing her first sexual encounter, with the camera drawing closer to listen more intently.

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.

Soderbergh may have retired from making movies — at least for now — but some modicum of his sensibilities can be found in the previously mentioned “Spy.” McCarthy’s Cooper outwardly longs for the sexually cut Fine, a perverse desire that is based on care for his safety and raw attraction. Emphatically, after saving both the day and his life, Fine realizes her steadfast feelings and asks her to dinner. In a move of empowerment, Cooper declines, only to be seen in the credits having slept with Statham’s Ford. More comical than anything, it’s still fantastic to think of the two together: McCarthy, who often subjects herself to jokes concerning her body image, and Statham, a gruff action star currently dating a model 19 years his junior (coincidentally, Mad Max’s Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who portrayed the wife Splendid).

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.

READ MORE: Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is Steven Soderbergh’s Striptease Concert Film (And That’s Just Fine)

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