Girls on Film: Christopher Columbus, the Spice Trade, and ‘Dirty Girl’

Girls on Film: Christopher Columbus, the Spice Trade, and ‘Dirty Girl’

Oct 06, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


"Spice Bazaar Closed" Screencap

“In fourteen-hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” The intrepid explorer we’re celebrating this weekend wanted spice, and he set out to sea in hopes that he could sail his way to Asian fineries. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas and neighboring islands over and over. A horrifically stubborn man, Columbus never admitted that he failed to sail to the East Indies. He called the indigenous tribes he came across “Indios,” or “Indians,” and though the masses have known better, they followed suit, using the same downright wrong terminology for hundreds of years.

Today, there are no quests for a new spice route, but there is a cinematic quest for spice – a yearning for titillation that has created stubborn habits and ignorance. Spicy sexuality has been sprinkled over the artistic form since its inception, and women are thrust into the center of the spotlight. With men historically in charge and behind the camera, sensuality is packaged in the female form and movement – the curve of the feminine body, the sheen of long locks, and the purr that erupts from the painted mouth. Women are packaged as the sex, and men as the beings who frame the spice and conquer it – and this dichotomy crafts our notions of sexuality and how women are seen on the whole.

Women are film’s titillators, presented most often as the whore, the seducer, the sexually corruptible, and the conquest. And as much as those depictions have changed over the years as women have fought for equal footing in the world, most “empowered” representations can still be boiled down to a spicy basis. The whore might be the entrepreneur, or the boss, or the sexually charged woman proud to be lascivious. The seducer might be a scientist instead of an unhappy housewife, and the conquest might be the spunky woman who can hold her ground mentally, but still yearns for the man to complete her.

The modern defense: It’s okay because the women are strong, or smart, or successful, and even more problematic: The actress did it well. All too often redundant and reductive female characters are excused because of what the actress in question had to do. She was brave enough to reveal her body, to be vulnerable, to explore those emotional depths. The spice is reframed as “empowerment” and all context is thrown out the window.

It’s funny that this repetition is generally accepted and doesn’t become tiresome to the public at large. If Lindsay Lohan has another run-in with the law, sighs of exasperation (at her and the media covering it) can be heard far and wide, yet hundreds, thousands of women playing prostitutes is still considered fresh. Hell, portraying one is often considered a step towards dramatic legitimacy. However, as challenging as it might be for an actress, you can be sure there are a million films and portrayals she can refer to for inspiration, that there are classic works her performance will inevitably reflect or mirror because every manifestation of prostitution has already been explored.

Cinematic sex has become an empty simulacra of images with no real meaning. For the most part, the film world tackles sex like Andy Warhol tackled Campbell’s soup cans. We’ve seen closed-mouth kissing, wild make-out sessions, oral sex, straight and gay sex, simulated sex, real sex, and even a man singing the “Star Spangled Banner” into another man’s derriere. 9 ½ Weeks is now over 1300 weeks. It’s all been done; a lot and often. The spice isn’t spicy anymore, and seems a whole lot like Columbus’ American “Indians” – a word still in use but completely devoid of real meaning.

The question is: Where do we go from here? While it would certainly make for an intriguing world if we imposed a moratorium on spice and forced the cinematic machine to produce content without it, that’s not realistic. We can hope for a smaller volume, but that’s not really enough. What’s desperately needed is a little humanity – a move away from black and white separations and into the grey world of misguided intent, context with action, and the use of sex as a jumping point for discussions of the other areas of life.


Juno Temple in Dirty Girl

Girls on Film Pick of the Week: Dirty Girl

So far, Dirty Girl is having a rough go in the critical world; reviewers aren’t so charmed by the foul-mouthed, ‘80s-scored road trip between a promiscuous girl Danielle (Juno Temple) and her closeted new friend Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). But on top of being a better embodiment of the theme than the similar Bam Bam and Celeste, there’s a repeated sense of the world behind Danielle’s actions, something that can work as a nice jumping-off point for new looks into teenage sexuality.

Early on Danielle says: “If it’s a man’s world, God wouldn’t have made me.” In her adolescent rationale, she believes that sleeping with all the cute boys at her school is a manifestation of her power. She struts around like nothing can stop her, until she’s moved to the school’s remedial group and is shunned by the boys who were once hungry for her.

The nostalgically quirky premise is powered by this undercurrent of reality, which transforms straight-forward raunch comedy into something more. Danielle is a teen who feels all smart and powerful, who is continually slapped with moments of reality – that libido only goes so far, that genuine caring is more powerful than manipulation, that even a clearly lacking mother (Milla Jovovich) can be a source of deep love and support. Though set in 1987, she’s the modern girl practically shouting that her tight clothes, skin, and sexuality are her power – she's too immature to realize that it’s merely one of many important facets, and utilized poorly, can give her the exact opposite of what she yearns for. It’s spice speaking more to emotion and naiveté than sexiness and titillation.

Director Abe Silvia describes the film as “the juxtaposition of where you want to be in your life versus where you actually are,” and there’s certainly a palpable sense of whimsy. Dirty Girl takes the real, gritty, dark world, infuses it with the sarcasm we employ to make it bearable, then drives off into a sunset of dreams that reflect our nostalgic twists of memory just as much as the fact that life gets a little more bearable once its lived outside of high school’s rigid restraints.

And it doesn't hurt that Juno Temple is quickly becoming an acting force to be reckoned with. Perhaps her undeniable charisma has to do with her cinematic tastes.

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