Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Importance of Context in Discussing Sexuality

How the Films, Kinsey, Milk &, Juno illustrate the Importance of How Questions of Sexuality are Framed

How often have we heard in our relationships with others, “It’s not what you said it is how you said it.”?  The method of information delivery directly influences the outcome.  Context is important when giving instructions, obtaining information, providing information and making decisions.  Context influences how we react to every topic.  The manner in which a topic is framed directly effects how receptive we are to either receiving or providing information.  It also influences our ability to make critical decisions about the information we receive.  There is no place that information is twisted and contorted to influence the outcome is better represented than in the consideration of sexuality.    I am going to discuss context using three films: Kinsey, Juno, and Milk. In this discussion I am going to explore how context influences our attitudes regarding sex and those having sex, our prejudices to gender roles and expectations, and the way we make decisions regarding sex and sexuality.
Developing Attitudes
Kinsey(2004), starred Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.  The film opens with Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Neeson)  teaching an interviewer how to frame questions in context to get the most accurate answers.  The interviewer is asking Dr. Kinsey about his sexual habits, which is the spring board for an autobiographical narration of his sexual past.  Opening in black with the voice over of Dr. Kinsey saying: “Don’t sit so far back.  Anything that creates a distance should be avoided.” Further instruction to the interviewers include avoiding facial expressions that create judgment, phrasing of questions, tailoring questions to the education level and social status of the subject.  This opening scene is important for two reasons.  First, it gives context to how his study was conducted and offers, to the viewer, credibility to the study outcome.  The second gives context to his foundational information of sex and sexuality. 
Kinsey was raised by a Methodist minister.  The opening scene quickly establishes that 19th century attitudes for sex were at the core of Dr. Kinsey’s upbringing.  Not unlike today completely uncorrelated causes were being blamed for decay of morality in their society.  “Lust has a thousand avenues; the dance hall, the ice cream parlor, the tenement saloon, the Turkish bath.  Like the hydra it grows new heads.  Everything, even the modern inventions of science are used to cultivate immorality. The gas engine has brought us the automobile joy ride and an even more pernicious menace, the roadside brothel. Electricity has made possible the degrading picture show. Because of the telephone a young woman can hear the voice of her suitor on the pillow right next to her. And let’s not forget the most scandalous invention of all… the talon slide fastener otherwise known as the zipper which provides every man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion.”, preaches Kinsey’s father. 
Dr. Kinsey’s formative sexual education is passed on to his peers in his late teens.  He uses a text book that again takes puritanical or maybe more appropriately a Victorian view of sex and specifically of masturbation.  His friend nervously reports, “I had one of the old fits again. I tried to stop it.”
The young Kinsey reaches for his texts and reads, ”Any habit that causes the sex fluid to be discharged must be resisted.  Doctors link it to an assortment of illnesses including: insanity, blindness, epilepsy, and even death.”
“What if it happens while you’re asleep?”
“It is said that the loss of one ounce of seminal fluid equals the loss of 40 ounces of blood.” , reads the young Kinsey.  His friend notes the absurdity of the passage by noting that he is killing himself and he is not even awake.  The opening setups nicely the context by which Dr. Kinsey learned his basic sexual information and why his forthcoming research was so important. It further sets up the context for the societal expectations of sex and the climate in which he is starting his study. 

Of the three films I am using to discuss context, Juno (2007) is the only one based upon a fictional character.  When we discuss context in this film, the characters Juno (Ellen Page) and Bleeker (Michael Cera) are metaphors for our contemporary views on teenage sex and sexuality.  The film opens with Juno making the cavalier assertion that the sex she engaged in was planned and by the result we can assume that it was not protected.  At the convenience store the pregnancy test is pulled off the shelf and used in the store’s restroom.  There is some irony in this scene as the result of the pregnancy test is juxtaposed against the prominent display of Trojan Brand condoms behind the checkout counter.  There is an assumption that the teens who are sexual active should know that they at risk for pregnancy and as a result they should have planned for it.  Leah (Olivia Thirlby) asks Juno, “So you were bored? That’s how this blessed miracle came to be?”
                “No no.  The act was premeditated. I mean the sex. Not the whole let’s get pregnant thing.”
                “So when did you decide you were going to…. do Bleeker?”
                “Like a year ago… in Spanish class.”, smirks Juno.  It is quickly established that Juno loves Bleeker and the sex occurred as a progression in that relationship. 
The film immediately and maybe somewhat disingenuously explores the options Juno has for dealing with the pregnancy.  However what the film does establish is that in the context of teen sexual relationships, there is an absence of investment by or with adults.  There is evidence presented that Juno had information regarding “safe sex”.  There is a scene where her health teacher is seen rolling a condom over a banana as she explains that she hates the ambiguous term “sexually active”.  There is little evidence that there is good communication between adults and teen that results in an exchange of ideas, discussion of values, or a forward focus.  In fact it is quickly established that Juno and Bleeker both have communication challenges with their parents.  Juno’s are working class non-nuclear parents and Bleeker’s mother comes off as judgmental and controlling.  Juno let’s her father and step mother know she is pregnant.  It is apparent they love her but are disappointed in the choices she made and the resulting pregnancy.  Furthering the idea that cursory information about sex and the assumptions we make about teens and sex is illustrated by the exchange between Juno and her father. “Juno I’m coming with you to meet this adoption couple. You’re just a kid and I don’t want you to get ripped off by a couple of baby starved wingnuts.”, says Juno’s father Mac Mcguff (J.K. Simmons).
“Thanks Dad.”
“Boy I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.”
“I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.”, said Juno, who is painfully acknowledging her father’s disappointment.   In a reflection of our popular attitudes toward teen sex, the first 25 minutes of this film shows teens engaging in sex, talking about sex, and keeping secrets about sex with the belief they know how to handle the consequences. 
Milk (2008) is the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his rise as the first openly gay City Supervisor in San Francisco.  While Milk, is most relevant to the second and third category I outlined in the opening paragraph, the filmmaker immediately provides context for contemporary attitudes regarding homosexuality.  The film opens with stock media footage of police in the 1960’s rounding up gay men at what can be assumed a gay night spot in Miami, Florida.  New York newspaper headlines, “Homosexuals and Police Clash.” flash across the screen.  Seeming conservative dressed men are rounded up and the headline from the Los Angeles Courier January 19, 1967,”Tavern Charges Police Brutality” expands in to view with soft but slightly discordant music playing in the background. 
1978: the narrative begins with Harvey Milk foreshadowing his death with a recording only to be played upon his assassination.  We can assume, as the viewer, he has been assassinated because we are hearing him recording his story.  Harvey Milk’s assassination is confirmed with stock news footage.  The filmmaker places us in a position to assess, in the context of the greater civil rights movement and resulting activism, how we feel about the injustice we see on the screen.  These are not men who are rioting in the streets and their only crime is congregating with like men who have similar attraction.  The writer is not asking us to look at how Harvey Milk became gay; but, how we perceive homosexuality.  For some viewers the reaction might be one of disgust.  Maybe simple acknowledgement of the way the men are treated poorly is the reaction.  Once the writer has provided the environment for us to assess the context in which we, as a culture, have developed our attitudes for homosexuality and provided us the opportunity to feel some empathy; he immediately challenges our level of comfort with it as we see Harvey hook up for the first time with a younger man in New York City, 1970.  Harvey meets Scott Smith (James Franco) in the stairwell of the New York subway in the evening of his birthday. It is established that Harvey is turning 40 and works for corporate America.  Scott is a curly headed 20 something.  “You’re not going to let me spend my birthday all by myself are you? “
“Listen Harvey you’re pretty cute but I don’t date guys over 40.”
“Well then this is my lucky night. “
“Why’s that.”
“I’m still 39. It’s only 11:15.”  Harvey then kisses Scott and Scott reciprocates.  The filmmaker then uses extreme close ups of their eyes and mouths adoring each other and obviously in the throes of passion and then a short montage of Scott and Harvey’s relationship as they move from New York to San Francisco in 1972. 
Now that the filmmaker has pulled you in with empathy and challenged your comfort with men kissing each other; he again checks to see if you’re still on board as Harvey moves into the Irish Catholic Castro District in San Francisco and opens a camera store.  He is ‘greeted’ by a local business owner who noticed Harvey’s affection for Scott.  “If you open those doors, the merchants association will have the police pull your license.”  When asked under what law, the local business owner responds. “There’s mans law and there’s God’s law in this city…. The San Francisco police force is happy to enforce either.”
Gender Roles and Expectations
                In Kinsey’s narrative gender roles and expectations are first discussed in the context of marriage.  Kinsey implores his love interest Clara (Laura Linney) to marry him stating, “I see marriage as a lifetime partnership between equals.  You’re a brilliant scholar with a keenly perceptive mind and a profound respect for nature.  You’re a capable hiker and camper and a champion swimmer and you’re the one girl in a million who is as interested in insects as I am.“  This line of dialog does two things.  It first establishes, while Kinsey may value a woman who has the same values he does,  it is not the expected norm.    Kinsey runs into sexual difficulties on his wedding night, because Clara’s hymen is too thick and does not rupture, resulting in extreme pain.  The condition is corrected by surgery and the resulting mutual sexual exploration occurs because she is seen as vital to the relationship and her comfort and pleasure is of consideration.   The partnership Kinsey has with his wife and the fact that he judges her to be his intellectual equal, is very important to his future studies.
                The above is contrasted by the relationship dynamics between Kinsey’s father and his mother.  After their wedding the newlywed couple travels to Kinsey’s parent’s home.  Dr. Kinsey is asked by his mother to tell her what he is working on.  He starts to tell her and his father interrupts, ‘Don’t bother Al.  She won’t be able to follow you. She has only had a fourth grade education.”    Later in the conversation Kinsey’s father asks Clara, “So I assume you plan to start a family soon? Don’t rush it. Once you have children you are tied down for ever.  Your life is over.”  Clara does eventually have children and does give up her graduate studies to raise the children.  However I believe this has less to do with gender roles in the case of the Kinsey’s and more to do with who has the established career.  It is fair to note there was a period expectation that she would stay home with the children.
Gender roles are further challenged as Dr. Kinsey starts teaching sexual education, finds himself experimenting with another man, and challenging the conventions of monogamous marriage.  It is in the context of gender roles that Dr. Kinsey runs into problems with his sexual research.  Dr. Kinsey published his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.  The book, according to the film, was well received.  There seemed to be little issue discussing the sexuality, sexual promiscuity and sexual shortcomings of the American Male.  Where he runs to trouble is in the publishing of its companion… Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.  His studies run into problems when they realize that the women providing the sexual histories and submitting themselves for sexual research and observation were mothers and grandmothers.  While it was acceptable to obtain information from research and observation on males, with women, there was little knowledge even in the field of medicine, so the same research was scandalous.
Juno in contrast, challenges conventional gender role stereotypes through a teenage girl who seems to be the one who is in control.  There is, at least in the beginning, an air that Juno can handle her impending delivery on her own as well as the adult decisions and adult relationships that involve the adoption of her baby.  Bleeker, the male is not assertive and in many ways is portrayed as incompetent.  Her father, while a stronger and a fatherly character, is aloof, and to some degree clueless.  Her step-mother in contrast is a strong and assertive character.  The potential adoptive mother is again a strong if not overbearing woman.  The adoptive father is a man who failed to grow up and reluctantly takes on the responsibility.  There is some commentary that occurs from the challenges of gender roles in this film. Challenges to gender roles do not really shake up convention. They do further some negative stereo types, i.e. assertiveness in female characters is not shown in a desirable light.  In the context of gender role expectations ,what the filmmaker does show, it is not really the sex of the individual but the age and character that determine positive outcome. 
In the film Milk, Harvey and the other members of the homosexual community in 1972 Castro are not commenting on their gender role expectations, they are commenting on ours.  The characters are presented how they are.  In the portrayal of homosexuality and the homosexual community they do not represent the homosexual community’s growth or an attitude metamorphosis within in the community.  What the filmmaker does is show us our metamorphosis over time.  Harvey Milk meets many of the stereotypes we have for homosexuals.  He is promiscuous, flamboyant and crude.  He and his contemporaries kiss in public, hold hands, and dress outrageously.  Harvey learns to use gender expectations and stereotypes to his advantage.  Playing on the old adage that homosexuals recruit otherwise straight people, He opens his campaign for city supervisor with the tag line, “My name Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” 
Our attitudes toward the stereotypes of homosexuality are played back to us in news clips.  Anita Bryant, America’s Orange Juice Sweetheart, is shown making broad generalizations about homosexuality that were just not true.  In attempting to repeal a Dade County Florida law she made the following claims, “I believe that, more than ever before, that there are evil forces round abouts,  even perhaps disguised as something good. That would want to tear down the very foundation of the family unit that holds America together.”  In a Tom Brokaw interview she states, “You see if homosexuals are allowed their civil rights, then so would prostitutes, or thieves or anyone else.  God puts it in a category of morality… I believe homosexuality should be illegal.”   Though these attitudes were presented as recently as the California Proposition 8 referendum, they no longer hold the same credibility. 
 Milk, also gives us an interesting twist in gender roles when Harvey Milk brings in a woman to run his campaign.  The gay males in the campaign office are noticeably threatened and suspicious of her.  Even after it is revealed she is a lesbian they still are suspicious of Anne Kronenberg  (Alison Pill). After bantering about a couple of obvious racial and gender stereotypes Anne asks this question, “Sir my girlfriends say you guys don’t like women.  I am just asking, is there a place for us in all this or are you all scared of girls?”  The question ‘is there place for us in all this?’ was the right one and a question being asked of the viewer rhetorically.
Decisions Regarding Sex and Sexuality
In Kinsey, a couple of married students ask to meet with Dr. Kinsey to discuss a sexual problem they are experiencing.  The husband is unable to arouse his partner.  She feels relatively nothing.  He asks them about their habits in the bedroom including foreplay and oral sex.  They assert that they do not engage in oral sex because they have heard it cause babies.  Dr. Kinsey learns they developed their attitudes from a text that purports authority.  “Ideal Marriage-its Physiology and Technique. (reading from the text) ‘Oral contact while acceptable for stimulation is pathological if carried through to orgasm and possibly injurious… the hand should never be used for the purpose of excitation.  There is but one finger of love what which to approach the female genitals with and that is the male organ.’  It’s all Just hooey, morality disguised as fact” Because it claims to have authority and is written in textual form the couple was not willing or comfortable to explore the possibility of alternative sex play.  Additionally the information provided in the Hygiene course taught by Professor Thurman Rice (Tim Curry) provided this information, “The idea that men need sex is a lie.  If it were true they boy who exercises his sex organs regularly would achieve the greatest sexual experiences in later life; where in fact that boy is likely to be sexually dead by the time he reaches adulthood.  Abstinence poses no difficulty to the college age male. Men don’t reach their sexual peak until the age of 40.  It is the lower class male, often the negro, who finds it difficult to control his urges.”  The quality of information received effects, ultimately, the risks you are willing to take.   
                In  Juno, the quality and context of information make all the difference in how choices are made.  Juno, even with the sex education course under her belt, seems surprised that she became pregnant.  She reports she guesses the day they did it, Bleeker went “live” and that was why “he got that look in his face.  Additionally, I suggested earlier that the film disingenuously addressed Juno’s options.  Her choice to obtain or not to obtain an abortion is directly influenced by her chance meeting with Su Chin.  Su Chin is standing outside of the women’s health clinic and we can immediately assume by the dialog that she is emotionally unstable as is Juno.  At no point in the process did Juno actually meet with an adult who could assist her with the post family planning options. 
                Bleeker is completely in periphery when it comes to decision making regarding the child and kept at arm’s length.  One is left wonder how the story might have been richer if he had been involved and nurturing.  Instead Juno makes the decisions and does not consider his feelings for her or how he has a role in the outcome when the decision is made. 
                If Juno had the information regarding the real status for Mark and Vanessa’s marriage; would she have chosen them to be the adoptive parents?  Would Juno’s parents have tacitly allowed the decision?  Finally, would she have crossed boundaries putting her in the situation to be seduced by Mark? 
                Probably the most interesting discussion in context on this film came from the viewing audience.  It hit the theaters and in its genre was criticized for making light of teen pregnancy.  I knew of several parents who told their teens they were not allowed to see it.  As a comedy, I agree it does make light of a tough subject.  It is also classified as drama and a romance by the Internet Movie Database.  I would add that is also a tragedy.  I saw this film with my wife and really enjoyed it. I did not think that it was a vehicle for sexual delinquency but rather an opportunity for dialog with my children.  It was also an opportunity for the broader community to have an open discussion on teen sex and sexuality.
                Milk, doesn’t challenge what the homosexual community does with information on sex and sexuality, but how we use the context of the treatment of the homosexual community,  flanked by Harvey Milk’s assassination to form our opinion of them.  For me the questions that arise are: Did our community allow for an environment for homosexuals to engage in pro-social sexual relationships?  Did we provide them with a safe place to establish societal norms inside our community?  Does sexual preference diminish the homosexual community’s needs for equal rights and the right to have housing and jobs? 
                The thing that makes the Harvey Milk story interesting is not that it happened but that the progress has been slow in answering the questions posed above and in many ways they are still an issue.  In one scene in the film Harvey Milk receives a phone call from a young homosexual boy who is about to be institutionalized by his parents because he is gay. The boy says, “My folks are going to take me to this place tomorrow…  a hospital…  to fix me.”
To which Harvey responds, “There is nothing wrong with you. Listen to me. You just get on a bus to the nearest big city like Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco… it doesn’t matter just leave. You are not sick and you are not wrong and god does not hate you.  Just leave.”
As the camera pulls back you see that the boy is confined to a wheel chair.  He says, “I can’t leave.  I can’t walk.”  In that interaction the films writer, Dustin Lance Black, ask us if we have the capacity to accept homosexuals for who they are because ultimately they cannot escape who they are.  In that context can we accept them?
The conversation regarding sex spans many topics.  The context of those discussions is important as we ask is homosexuality deviant or normal.   We ask questions about whether teen pregnancy is really preventable and is our conversations with our youth enough.  What is normal sex behavior in humans and what are the consequences of withholding that information?  Milk shows us that homosexuality is a topic that still needs our attention.  We need to examine our attitudes, the choices we make regarding the homosexual community and how our prejudices toward homosexuality inhibit not only their community but ours. Juno shows us that we owe it to our children to have conversations about sex.  To help them find to the context by which they develop healthy attitudes about sex and sexuality.  Juno illustrates prejudices about teen sex merely close the conversation down. We cannot just throw a condom their way or sit them in a class room but that the conversation is much more complex. Finally, Kinsey, tells us to not be afraid of the questions. We need to find answer through studying and observing the problem.  We should not tolerate bad information that purports to come from sources of authority.  Ignorance in our education and denial of the evidence does not further the species.  When we get any information about our sexuality and are put in a position to influence others in matters sexuality we should ask, “In what context.”

Works Cited
"Juno (2007) - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). 11 Apr. 2011 .
Juno. Dir. Jason Reitman. Prod. Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, and Mason Novick. By Diablo Cody. Perf. Ellen Page and Michael Cera. DVD. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007.
Kinsey. Dir. Bill Codon. By Bill Condon. Perf. Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell. DVD. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004.
Milk. By Dustin L. Black. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emilie Hirsch. DVD. Focus Features, 2008.

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