How black-and-white stag movies changed a tomboy’s feelings on sensuality

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… yummy dummies! [?]

While I’m super secure in my gender identity, I came out of growing up an only child/daddy’s girl as an irrepressible tomboy. I may have grown my hair long and learned to walk in heels, but I’ve never known quite what to do with…sexiness? Sensuality? I don’t do that.

I like sex. I like sex-positive attitudes. But me, as a sexual being? Me, as someone another person finds sexy? Weird and embarrassing to think about. I grew up playing boy games and fighting boys and leading little packs of classmates in advances to take back the playground fort or strategems to fight for the proletariat of the high school. The idea I could act like a sensual and attractive vixen — being the object of a male’s sexual desire — makes me feel uncomfortable, capable of losing alpha dog status.

I came to understand my feelings clearly after, of all things, I spent an evening watching vintage porn. The crew of Rockethaus discovered the “Something Strange” offering on our cable’s On Demand videos. We watched hours of ’40s burlesque videos, girls in pasties playing with boats in ’30s Hollywood, and other short films on various adult and non-adult topics (like the future car!)

All the flicks we watched were… incredibly tame. We laughed a lot. Sometimes we were confused. It was easy to see they’d been tantalizing at the time they were made, but there was no writhing, none of the women simulated fellatio on their index fingers. There also wasn’t a distant, foggy look in the girls’ eyes. They didn’t talk about sex at all — let alone talk like men in tiny blonde bodies. Many of the girls wore full-length dresses or high-waisted bikinis, and most of them were cut — they were clearly dancers. No falsies here, just big-hipped, bright-eyed ladies, sizes 8-14, with baby-having hips, and hot.

I know there are burlesque troupes around the world still spreading this brand of sex-positive awesomeness! I have seen them on the YouTubes. But I have not seen them in my corner of the Midwest.

It was very odd to see so many large, real boobs.

So I marveled at the difference between these videos and modern porn. These films seemed naughty but not raunchy. I had the feeling that these movies talked about a different type of sex than what was in Busty Teen Blondes, Volume 1. The women didn’t look nervous. They had real bodies and seemed to be enjoying the attention in a playful, not sad, way. Some of the women were incredibly talented — there were a couple burlesque dancers who’d mastered the art of suspense (and one of them had the jumbliest jumblies I’ve ever seen. Maybe ever known to mankind).

My favorite vid was a 1937 short film starring Elaine Berrie Barrymore — Drew Barrymore’s great gram. It was How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. This video made something click for me. My discomfort with sexiness, with being sexy, with talking about sex as something I enjoy, came from the cognitive dissonance created out of the sexual images I learned from.

Iiii…never had a sex talk. Like a lot of Mid-Westerners, I learned about sex and relationships from TV, movies, magazines, and books exclusively. When you grow up feeding on the male gaze, you are simultaneously taught three values, listed from most to least overt:

  1. It’s okay to be sexy.
  2. Sexy women are a plaything.
  3. Therefore, sexy women have a hard time being taken seriously or retaining power.
Aw, yeah. Grainy smiling ladies in bathing suits.

You want to tell me that the music video for Hit Me Baby One more Time, which all my tween friends were obsessed with, was a good role model for us? Britney is devastated and “lonely” because she shouldn’t have “let” her man get away. She writhes in a “here I am, please come and get me!” way that… didn’t really teach us we can be confident in our thoughts and in taking control of our sex lives. This little bitty girl fucking shimmies as she sings to her lost lovah. It was one of infinite inputs which taught us — US! Women and men! — ladies are worth the sum of our body parts plus the attention we can get from boys.

On the other hand, Elaine Berrie Barrymore’s character in How to Undress in Front of Your Husband oozes self-confidence and power. Fully aware she’s putting on a show and she’s got the goods, she tells the camera, “Hey buddy. We’re on my schedule, and you’re going to enjoy it.” In her show — and in the olde timey burlesques we watched — women are equal partners in sex. We like it, we want it, and we can have fun with it.

I’ve been so lucky to have had only positive sexual experiences. But I would call myself a late bloomer and I have to wonder if my slow path to this understanding of empowering sexuality — not as an attention-grabbing tool or a demeaning way to act — would have been shorter if I’d grown up with different influences. And I have to wonder if my dad wasn’t right all along — that all the very objectified ladies in media might actually affect what kids these days learn about relationships.

When I sat down to Google the Barrymore video, I typed in, “How to undress for a man.” Not, “How to undress in a way that tantalizes your partner,” but “how to undress in a way that pleases men. Please let them like me. Please.” How to Undress in Front of Your Husband is miles away from stripping for someone. Totally a personal anecdote, but it makes me wonder if the move from “sex is for marriage” to “sex is for Snooki to have with some dude in the back of the Jersey Shore van so she might feel better about herself” hasn’t been detrimental to sex as a consenting, equal, safe act between two respectful adults. I’m trying to tread carefully here — I have an intrinsically neutral view of sex with many partners. It doesn’t make you a slut or a manwhore or a gross icky person. I don’t think people who have a lot of sexual partners are immoral or making poor choices. I do wonder if the proliferation of male-driven sexual imagery hasn’t dropped off the act of sex in a scarier and less equal place.

I realized something very surprising: my views on women and sex, as gleaned pretty much entirely from media, were completely raining on my sex parade.

In the end, I’m almost ashamed to admit what I learned from our On Demand PG-13 porn — and that tomboy stoicism makes it even harder. I laid awake in bed thinking about how Ms. Barrymore’s portrayal of a sexual woman was so different from most that I’d seen — women who finally got that elusive man they were after and oh! the value it brought to her life. Women who have to be pretty or who have to act in a way their partner likes. I realized something very surprising: my views on women and sex, as gleaned pretty much entirely from media, were completely raining on my sex parade. Deciding when and where and how to be “sexy” — and how much of that is myself versus how much of that is me playing a role I think I have to play — is something I often think about.

So, Elaine Berrie Barrymore and the pervy old dude who talked her into slipping out of her panties on camera, thanks to your 75-year-old movie, I’m totally comfortable in taking back sex, in embracing it as the equal, positive act I’ve known it was — even if I didn’t know how to deal with it as such until now.

Comments on How black-and-white stag movies changed a tomboy’s feelings on sensuality

  1. Have you read “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy? It talks at length about jersey-shore-style selling of sex to WOMEN, in the same way that beauty products are marketed to us: “Have some of this daily and men will LOVE YOU!” and the cultural myths that surround the ‘reclaiming’ of female sexuality that markedly looks like a man’s porno fantasy. It’s pretty cheap on Amazon.

  2. Can I just say, cheers? This article was well-written, completely nonjudgmental, and … well … helpful to me as someone who has trouble seeing herself as a sexy person. Because you’re right, I’ve received the message loud and clear that if a woman is sexy, she’s the sum of her parts and that’s it.

  3. I’m glad you found a way to view sexuality in a comfortable way for you. It can be difficult, and often the journey is unique for everyone, but it’s so worth it.

    • I will have to check this one out. How hard SHOULD it be to tell,exclaim, profuse, etc… your wife that she IS the most beautiful woman in the world (being your view, that’s all that should matter anyway, right?) and have her believe you? Ugh! It’s okay, though. I’ll keep telling her. I wish she could feel the (insert romantic cheese words here) when I look at her from a far. It’s unfortunate that she, and many others like her, don’t see and embrace the reflections they cast. Again, so I will keep telling her.

  4. Love this post. My entire world changed when I started owning my sexuality and enjoying it because I enjoyed it and not because I was trying to satisfy someone else’s needs (that’s just a lovely side effect). I believe that it comes down to the core distinction within the example you made: there’s a huge difference between undressing FOR a partner and undressing IN FRONT OF one, between doing something for someone else and doing it for yourself. Well-written and thoughtful– thanks!

  5. I was raised with shame linked directly to sex in my subconscious mind. I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to sort sexuality and shame into separate emotional piles.
    The moment I become conscious of BEING sexy, my whole body sort of shuts down and I trip sensuously over my feet and faceplant like a hot tomata.
    I never learned to feel pretty. I learned that I would look better, be better if–. I never learned that I could be graceful, that I could be sensual.
    I’m working on it.

    • I wasn’t raised with shame linked to sex; I was raised with silence. Total silence on the subject of sex. I realized early on that my sexuality could get me things but also realized that there was something intrinsically wrong about that situation. It made me feel icky. I’ve always considered myself a liberated woman but I have found in the last year that it has been increasingly difficult for me to be sexual in front of my partner. It sounds completely bizarre when I say it out loud, but his desire for me has become more and more oppressive. This has put a strain on our relationship because I haven’t been able to put into words until now what the problem is. I love my partner, very much. I respect him above all else. And I want him to love and respect me, which he does. But because of the way my understanding of sexual relationships was formed (via the media that proliferates our entire lives), I can’t imagine being sexually desirable and being valued as a human being. That’s pretty messed up. He and I have been working on it but I think there is still a long way to go before we will be able to be completely free of these socially-inflicted negative associations.

  6. I really like this article, but I would like to point out that “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband” has some potentially triggering sizeism. Ms. Barry’s “sexiness” is juxtaposed against a larger woman who is used for comic relief, with much clumsiness, grunting, sighing, and general lack of “sex appeal.”

    • WOW. I did not see that version. Mine was just Barrymore! I’ll see if I can find a different clip to link to. [Edit: Maybe I did? The big lady’s name sounds familiar, but I don’t remember any of the later parts with her.]

      That aside, I think it makes it clear that no one involved in making that short thought of it as anything more than a movietown peepshow. Its meaning for me just comes from seeing how different the media is, compared to something similar and contemporary.

    • I disagree. For all we know about the time, she was the woman they could get to do the role. Today women of all sizes would line up around the corner for a chance to be discovered, but back then? Not so much.

  7. Kudos, Cat! I think our generation completely got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to sexuality and sensuality. The media tells us a female must transform herself from the Geek/Nerd/Tomboy/etc to be seen as a sexual being (or pretty much any “normal” part of society). It makes it difficult for us to embrace our whole selves when we feel like certain pieces of who we are can never fit together, like being a tomboy and a sexual being or a moral person and sensual being.

    • I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here, but whenever I see something about the influence (American) media has had on the development of a person’s sexuality, I admit I’m completely befuddled. I remember watching quite a number of music videos growing up (including videos with softcore sexual content) and being intrigued but not necessarily pressured into transforming myself to be seen as sexy. I just figured with a change in posture and some Doc Martens I could be seen as a sexual human being, albeit a powerful and frightening one. Yet whenever I join discussions of sexuality among millennials, I feel left out because I was not so easily swayed in my adolescent years. If you were to ask me where this confidence came from, I wouldn’t have an answer. I’d have theories, sure, but I doubt I’d be able to answer the question. I’d hope there are others who looked at what the media offered but on some unconscious level paid it no heed while still being able to develop a whole sense of self sexually and emotionally. For all we know, that tactic may be the best way to develop a sexual identity.

  8. I know I’m ignoring the point of this post, but I just wanted to point out that on Jersey Shore, Snooki is not depicted as having degrading sex in order to “feel better about herself”. They Paris Hilton-ize her by editing her to look like a woman-child with a drinking problem, but she’s still shown as likable and easy to empathize with. A far bigger problem with the show is the male cast’s attitude that it’s ok for men to sleep around, but not women, which is not really challenged.
    And thats my Jersey Shore rant of the day (it’s addictive, forgive me).

  9. “Our beer boasts its thinning– our smokes aid digestion– our mothers-in-law would walk a mile for us– our children tell us the Facts of Life.

    But how about our women? Do they satisfy? With all these modern disadvantages, science has done nothing to make marriage safe for husbands.

    The old marriage institutes have limped along for centuries, burdened by boredom– Men have submitted, suffered, and supported long enough.
    We have decided to do our bit toward the relief of marital boredom.
    -To the ladies-
    ‘How to Undress In Front Of Your Husband'”

    This all sounds pretty unequal to me. The video goes on to teach women how to visually please your husband. Considering the time period and the text, this video was certainly aimed at young men. I think that maybe viewing these things now puts a filter on it to make it seem less misogynistic because of the (perceived) extremes that are here now, but there was no equality there. I would argue that there’s more sexual equality in pornography now, in that it’s more accessible, there’s more of it, and there’s a more open dialogue about it. There has been serious progress in these subjects; comparing and contrasting values across time periods can be tricky business, I think.

    • Totally agree. I mentioned this in a comment above:

      No one involved in making that short thought of it as anything more than a movietown peepshow. Its meaning for me comes entirely from seeing how different the media is, compared to something similar and contemporary.

    • I’d like to second this; when I watched this movie I couldn’t help but think of a show like Mad Men, which many people have taken simply the romantic aesthetic away from without understanding the show’s focus on the dangers of viewing the past through too rosy a lens.

      I think it’s great to take positive messages about body image and sensuality away from an aesthetic like that, especially given how difficult it is for a lot of women to relate to messages of sexuality we’re given today. But, let’s not forget that this was a time where women were completely unequal members of society, and the titles at the beginning of this film make it clear that (regardless of the actress’ attitude), this woman is as objectified as anyone at the end of such a lens.

  10. Google the name of your town (or the biggest one near you) and Burlesque. I bet you will find a local troupe. We are all over the Midwest! And most Burlesque performers are cool, so see if you can volunteer for them in some capacity, take tickets, stage kitten, ect. Who knows? You might find yourself on stage one night! Or start your own troupe. All you need is a space, some people willing to perform, and an audience. That is how we got started and now we sell out shows.

  11. What a fantastic post! Thanks, Cat. I remember being in a museum about five years ago and seeing a painting of a beautiful, voluptuous nude. Her curves were just like mine. I was living in Japan at the time, and struggled to find any clothes that fit. I bought a post card of the image and stuck it on my mirror. It was a daily reminder that yes, I was beautiful too.

  12. I love this! I was a tomboy up until my first year of high school where upon I started wearing what are traditionally considered ‘girls’ clothing. Technically I have never stopped being a tomboy at heart, but I slowly figured out being ‘feminine.’ I really like buying clothes now and especially shoes, mwhaha. I always liked shoes, but not my focus shifted. It was really difficult for me to figure out what was ‘sexy’ but I luckily had a long time boyfriend who was completely OK with my less than feminine aspects and understood them completely through high school.

    Now I am married and my relationship with my husband has been one long journey in discovering how sexy I can actually be, while still being comfortable with myself. I tried to dress up in what is normally portrayed as sexy and oooh it was horrible. Not because physically I didn’t look attractive, but because I was so uncomfortable with the entire thing.

    I hate how people accept that women and men are both objectified constantly in the media and they think it is OK. I have a toddler son who I am really concerned for with our modern media and lack of self-respect or respect for other people. Trying to explain that to most other people is difficult.

    • I’ve been thinking lately that I need to start an online grown-up-tomboy support group. Then maybe I will have someone to discuss hair and makeup and boobs and clothes with. I have girlfriends, but they still…seem to think it’s weird, usually, that I don’t get this stuff.

      • ME NEITHER!!!!! It took me six years to figure out how to put on makeup well. Theatre was the only reason I ever bothered with it in the first place. I still can’t walk in stilettos.

        It’s like there’s two sides of me. The side that loves watching MMA and hockey fights and the side that enjoys wearing slinky gowns and earrings.

        It would be awesome to talk to other women in the same boat.

  13. LOVE THIS POST!!! I’m also a Midwest girl with issues when it comes to sexiness. I’m not a tomboy, but from ages 15-22, my feelings about my body and sex were based on impressing and enticing men: heels, push-up bras, short dresses, cleavage, perfect hair and make-up. Oh and the constant feeling that I needed to be thinner damn it! I’ve grown into my understanding of my body and my sensuality more now, but this post is still very helpful! I never could put my finger on what disgusted me about modern pornography until I read this post. Thanks for helping me organize my thoughts!

  14. Hmm, this is really interesting to think about. Similarly, I never received the “sex talk” either – everything I learned was from various forms of media. It still feels awkward to think about myself as being a sexual being – and I’m twenty six years old, for God’s sake. Yet it’s undoubtedly because I’m perpetually comparing myself to the standards set by current media – well, I’m not particularly thin, I still struggle with wearing heels sometimes, I have unattractive legs, etc etc. I don’t ever feel “sexy” but I think you’ve brought up an interesting point as to where that ingrained definition of “sexy” is even coming from. My brain hurts now.

  15. I can really relate to this, more in a gnertional way than being a tomboy myself.

    This part really resonates:
    I laid awake in bed thinking about how Ms. Barrymore’s portrayal of a sexual woman was so different from most that I’d seen — women who finally got that elusive man they were after and oh! the value it brought to her life. Women who have to be pretty or who have to act in a way their partner likes. I realized something very surprising: my views on women and sex, as gleaned pretty much entirely from media, were completely raining on my sex parade. Deciding when and where and how to be “sexy” — and how much of that is myself versus how much of that is me playing a role I think I have to play — is something I often think about.

    Being ensconsed in the queer scene for so long, and now being with a man, I have realized a lot. Althugh queers in general are amazing, strong people, a lot of who you are is how you look and come off to people “in the scene”. There’s way too much effort on not doing certain things that may be construed as misogynistic, etc. when a lot more effort should be on truly freeing yourself enough to not be as rigid as everyone else who oppressed you in the first place.
    Anyway, thank you so much for this post!!

  16. thank you for writing this, it took me until I was close to 35 to learn to stop searching for “what would turn me into whatever a man wanted”. bleh. I’m much happier (and comfortable) now!

  17. I’m so late to this party, but thank God I found it! I too have trouble being sexy for my husband. It’s just not something I can wrap my head around. I need to find these videos.

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