In a world that has more resonance with The Handmaid’s Tale than anyone should be comfortable with, it’s sadly not surprising that women everywhere are still fighting for their right to be sexual beings. Barbara Miller’s empowering documentary “#FemalePleasure” shows us why that fight is so important — and how it connects women across distances both geographical and cultural.
The film introduces us to five disparate women: Deborah Feldman, who was raised in a strict Orthodox Hasidic community and ultimately fled it to find freedom; Leyla Hussein, a passionate Muslim activist against female genital mutilation; Rokudenashiko, a bubbly Japanese artist whose work is inspired by her own vagina; Doris Wagner, a German nun who was raped by a priest and wants to hold the Catholic church accountable for its long history of abuse; and Vithika Yadav, a Hindu woman who was raised to deny her sexuality but now spends her days creating innovative online sex-ed tools.
All five women have learned, often through painful personal experience, the value of agency, autonomy, and being free to express who they are and what they want. And, on a basic level, that want is very simple: to be able to enjoy everything life has to offer and to ensure that others are able to do the same. Each has her own way of speaking up and speaking out. Hussein’s unflinching tales of FGM torture may feel like a stark contrast to Rokudenashiko’s cute, pink vagina sculptures, but both women are making a real impact — and so are all of the others.
In providing viewers with her subjects’ wide range of stories and experiences, Miller underlines the fact that women’s struggle to embrace and own their sexuality in a world dominated by misogyny is universal. But by introducing us to these five brave, tenacious, proud women, she also offers role models to those who are ready to take up the mantle and fight by their side. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: “They’re practicing patriarchy, which is a universal religion.” Leyla Hussein, a Somali-born activist who is trying to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which she suffered as a 7-year-old girl, utters this line in Barbara Miller’s wide-ranging documentary #Female Pleasure. Her remark pretty much sums up the religious and societal rules and customs enforced by the targets of the film: the Catholic Church, Hasidic Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, and the Massai of eastern Africa. Hussein, ex-Hasidim Deborah Feldman, Japanese vagina artist Rokudenashiko, ex-nun Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav, the Indian founder of the love and sex education website Love Matters, tell the stories of how women are abused, shamed, killed, and otherwise put in straitjackets all over the world. The facts are sobering, but the strategies each woman employs to help change attitudes among women and men are ingenious and brave, from showing how FGM is performed on a clay model to a group of horrified men to outing abuses in book form. The contrast between a Shinto fertility festival during which little girls are allowed to suck on penis-shaped lollipops and Rokudenashiko’s obscenity trial for uploading images of her vagina to the internet is the height of absurdity. Women, show this to the men in your life.
Leslie Combemale Don’t be fooled by the name of Barbara Miller’s documentary’s name, #femalePleasure. Though it has its share of positive, upbeat moments, it isn’t a celebration of women’s bodies. Rather, it’s a reaffirmation of how far we, as women, still have to go, in gaining bodily autonomy and respect for our sexual experience and expression. Through profiles of five women in the US, Europe, Japan, Africa, and India, the film examines how patriarchy still has a damaging effect on perceptions about rape, artistic representations of female genitals, the continued practice of genital mutilation, and control over the sexual choices of girls around the world. The women represented are inspiring, fearless, and their stories will leave viewers considering their own lives, and how freely they and their loved ones are in their sexual expression.
Loren King In this timely and powerful film, writer/director Barbara Miller gives us five of the most passionate and eloquent women you’ll ever meet who are doing the tough work of changing culturally entrenched, deadly attitudes and beliefs about women and girls. This is their story, but it is a global one that resonates in every corner of society. Read full review.
Sheila Roberts From genital mutilation, to shaming, to the use of patriarchy and religion to legitimize existing power structures, Miller covers a lot of ground in her excellent 90-minute film and succeeds in raising some very relevant issues as seen through the eyes of five remarkable women. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson Barbara Miller’s amazing movie is so essential, just for saying out loud so many things that need to be said out loud, things women say among ourselves that don’t get heard in the larger culture, about how our realities are denied, our bodies derided and abused, our desires and needs ignored. Now, how do we get men to see it?
Susan Wloszczyna: Swiss filmmaker Barbara Miller’s globe-spanning documentary #FemalePleasure will give pleasure to any woman who has ever been made to feel ashamed for being a sexual being or has experienced physical and mental abused by males without them facing any repercussions. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Barbara Miller’s enlightening documentary shows how the repression of female sexuality continues to be an issue around the globe and celebrates five women who, within their own cultures, are valiantly fighting against it and making a difference. A must see film for all — and especially for men.
Nell Minow: The focus of the film is on repression of female sexual expression and enjoyment, usually in the name of “religion” or “culture,” as though either should be more important than the autonomy and happiness of half the population. But as these compelling stories make clear, denial of women’s sexuality is primary a way to deny her brain and her voice.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Barbara Miller’s thought-provoking documentary #FemalePleasure follows women around the world who have dealt with oppressive patriarchal communities and cultures, including a Jewish feminist who escaped an insular Hasidic sect, a Somali-English activist and counselor who educates against the practice of female genital mutilation, a Japanese manga artist who’s been labeled (and imprisoned!) for obscenity because of her unapologetic artistic use of vaginas, an Indian healthy sex-and-relationships journalist, and an outspoken former nun who was repeatedly raped by priest. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s a fascinating and important exploration of the myriad ways women everywhere are exploited, assaulted, humiliated, manipulated, and abused.
Cate Marquis Throughout time, the patriarchy that pervades many societies has felt threatened by female sexuality. This is not just historical fact but something that persists in the present, a topic explored in the documentary #FemalePleasure. This insightful documentary focuses on the present rather than history, and particularly on the roles that religion and culture play in imposing restrictions on women and their sexuality. #FemalePleasure tells this story by giving voice to some women from various cultures and religions, including a Jewish woman who left her Hasidic community after an arranged marriage, a British-Somali Muslim woman who endured female genital mutilation and a German ex-nun abused by a Catholic priest, all of whom are now speaking out against their abusers. The film also gives a platform to a women’s activist in India and an artist in Japan, who highlight the shame and secrecy around women’s bodies and sexuality in their cultures. Although every woman is familiar with these restrictions in their own culture, this is an enlightening film underlines how these restrictions built around women’s sexuality pervade the globe, sending a message to both men and women that women’s rights are human rights.
Directors: Barbara Miller
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Running Time: 97 minutes
Language: English, German, Japanese, with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Documentary (Barbara Miller)
Distribution Company: Abramaorama
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin