by Kathleen Bradean
I recently re-watched the movie Pal Joey, starring Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth in a love triangle. Kim loves Frank; Frank loves Kim; Frank loves Rita’s money; Rita loves Frank’s cock. Of course, they aren’t as obvious about that last one as the rest of it. They even cleaned up the lyrics of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered so audiences wouldn’t be scandalized by her remarks about his pants fitting his hot body so well. But the story makes it clear that once Frank fucks Rita, she’s willing to do anything for him.
The story goes like this: Frank comes to San Francisco and looks up an old acquaintance who isn’t terribly thrilled to see him, because Frank is a jerk. After presuming his way into a job performing at the nightclub where this guy as the band leader, Frank starts hitting on the guy’s female friend, Kim, in this odd way where he treats her like shit. Girls dig that, don’t you know. He even takes a room in her boarding house so he can scam his way into her pants. The performers are hired to do a gig at Rita’s house as she’s raising funds for a children’s hospital. Frank recognizes her as a former stripper who married well, so, following his ‘chicks love to be treated like crap” routine, he announces to all her wealthy friends that she was a stripper and now she’ll perform the number that made her famous. She’s furious, but sings and dances, only she limits her stripping to tossing away a glove. Later, she humiliates him in retaliation, then he fucks her so well that she decides to help him open his dream night club – as long as he fires Kim. Instead of firing Kim, he tells her she’s going to do the strip number. Kim decides she’ll do what he asks because he obviously loves her and needs her to do it, but at the last second, Frank stops her. Rita gets pissed off and tells him the club won’t open. It ends with Frank and Kim walking away. Really a shitty story. Why was Rita the villain? Frank was using her. He treated both her and Kim horribly. Rita was fine until he barged into her life and she was poorer in many ways for having met him. But she was the villain, because she was a woman who wanted, and enjoyed, sex.
That got me thinking about the politics of desire.
For the recent Disney movie Tangled, the writers created a whole new story rather than going with the original German folk tale. In this day and age, it was dismaying to see that they chose – once again – to make the villain an older woman who so fears aging that she’s willing to go to any length to retain her youth. (But I love Terry Gilliam’s vision of the price of that quest in his brilliant movie Brazil) Why do writers reach for that plot device so often? Sure, it’s rife in fairy tales, and Countess Elizabeth Bathory provided a real-life example (if that wasn’t a political put-up job. I mean, the person writing the stories about her was in the employ of the King, who owed her so much money that he had reason to smear her then have her walled up in a tower as sort of a personal debt-forgiveness plan) but why use it nowadays? An equally powerful story – and one even kids would understand – was if the witch had kidnapped Rapunzel initially for ransom but had come to fear being left alone again so much that she decided to keep the princess as her daughter. Or maybe that’s too real-life scary for kids. How about she sold Rapunzel’s hair as a magical elixir and didn’t want to lose her source of income? That worked in Pinocchio. There are a million different ways to handle it, none of which requires trotting out that old story that older women are the natural enemies of younger women, or that they’re pathetic, evil, and devious.
Why would a woman want to look younger? And why would she seek to destroy younger women? In stories it’s usually because of lovers – although that makes no sense in Tangled because the two women live alone in an isolated tower, but whatever. Older women are portrayed as predatory hunters of men, but ones who can’t compete with the natural purity of younger woman. Their desire is shown as a warped thing. Is that because women who act on their desires have agency? Is this the real crime here?
Desire is the driving force in erotica. Most non-readers don’t get this, but erotica generally celebrates women for expressing and acting on their desires. It’s such a healthy mindset, and a real boon to our readers who get such negative messages from the rest of the world about their sexuality. Thankfully, our genre also seems more age-positive than many other genres. If there’s an older woman and an ingenue in an erotic story, they’re much more likely to run off together than make fools of themselves over a guy.
Erotica – it’s more subversive than you thought, and not just because it graphically portrays sex. No wonder Amazon and their ilk keeps trying to hide it from everyone! It’s a political move as much as a religious one. No one in charge wants a bunch of confident women feeling as if they can take on the world and win. Because they will. So carry on, you radical writers. We’ll find our readers, and our readers will find us. Desire is one of the most powerful drives in the universe. Let’s embolden our readers to follow theirs.