A Haunted House, Sexy Baby, and our nation's porno culture

Posted by Ben Sachs on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 4:49 PM

An unsettling home photo shoot in Sexy Baby
  • An unsettling home photo shoot in Sexy Baby
The documentary Sexy Baby, which Chicago Filmmakers will present tonight at Columbia College and on Saturday in Andersonville, voices concern with the unrealistic images of female beauty and sexuality in contemporary mass culture. The movie argues that the ideal woman as conceived by fashion magazines, music videos, and primetime television aspires above all else to be sexually desirable—and that mainstream media defines sexual desirability increasingly in terms of exhibitionist behavior and the willingness to be sexually degraded. Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus don't have to search very hard for examples. In a few scenes they present their subjects surfing the Internet and cable TV, and images of the new sexiness seem unavoidable.

Bauer and Gradus are sober in their approach, but their movie isn't a work of puritanical outrage. (At no point do they imply a call for tougher censorship of mainstream media.) Rather, they present this glut of unhealthy images as an upsetting given and suggest that women should be more vigilant about recognizing them as bullshit.

The three primary subjects of Sexy Baby vary in their degree of vigilance. The least self-aware is a 22-year-old teaching assistant and erstwhile model who's been saving up for cosmetic surgery on her labia. Sweet and soft-spoken, she projects almost nothing in the way of an inner life; her desire to resemble a Barbie doll becomes, sadly, her strongest trait. By comparison, the 12-year-old wealthy Manhattanite (who gets the most screen time of any of the subjects) is shrewder and more confident; the filmmakers introduce her staging a school play about feminist issues. She seems at first like a sign of a progress—a smart kid who's able to resist the influence of pervasive media. But then puberty hits, and her immune system breaks down. The directors chart her growing interest in boys and sexy outfits; in one unsettling development, a friend convinces her to take alluring photos for her Facebook page. If a girl this resolute can't resist the zeitgeist, the movie asks, then who can?

It's the movie's third major subject, a former porn actress trying to start a family, who serves as the most compelling voice of reason. She still participates in the adult industry as an agent for strippers and as a personal trainer who teaches aerobic pole dancing. But she's been objectified enough to know she doesn't find it fulfilling; it's poignant to hear her talk about settling down as though it were something exotic. The inadvertent subtext of Sexy Baby is that increased exposure to degradation might make people more appreciative of such traditional pleasures as monogamy and child-rearing.

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Perhaps porn websites can start posting that message as a disclaimer; it would be a surefire way for it to reach a wide audience. According to an intertitle in Sexy Baby, nearly 80% of Americans have looked at online pornography, a number that's more than doubled in the last 15 years. I'm not sure where the filmmakers found these statistics, but they would still sound right even if they're demonstrably inaccurate. Online pornography has so proliferated in mainstream culture that no one objects when Family Guy refers to some of the most heinous specimens in their throwaway gags. It's one of the roots of the problems that Sexy Baby commendably addresses—as does, in its own crass way, the new Marlon Wayans comedy A Haunted House.

I seem to be more forgiving of this lowbrow gagfest than many of my peers, who have justly criticized the movie for its antigay and xenophobic caricatures, as I find it forward-looking in its depiction of heterosexual relations. The film seems more invested in the jokes about cohabitation than those about horror movies, with the best gags involving anxieties faced by many newly serious couples (at times it feels like a gross-out remake of Barefoot in the Park). Chief among those anxieties is having another person see you at your ugliest; to illustrate that point, Haunted House shows its lovely female lead (Essence Atkins) farting, sitting on the toilet, and muddying her face before bedtime with stupid ointments. Yet these gags don't encourage the spectator to laugh at Atkins, but rather at the cultural taboo of acknowledging that pretty women biologically function like everyone else.

Daly, Ubach, Atkins, and Wayans in A Haunted House
  • Daly, Ubach, Atkins, and Wayans in A Haunted House
The movie also gets in some good jabs at our pandemic porno culture. Wayans' character is obsessed with videotaping himself having sex, and he gets his comeuppance for this a few times—most humiliatingly when a ghost sodomizes him on camera. Wayans and Atkins are also friends with another couple (Andrew Daly, Alanna Ubach) who keep pressuring them to have group sex; these two are so enthralled by the idea of recreating online porn that they can't hold a conversation without bringing it up. Like Sexy Baby, A Haunted House implies that pervasive perversion won't go away, but that good people are capable of shutting it out when it gets too threatening. (The film advocates for monogamy as explicitly as Baby's former porn actress.) For better and for worse, those sex freaks are the protagonists' best friends. As free as they feel to talk openly around their hosts, they don't put up a fight when they're asked to leave.

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