|Meg takes sexual cover under the umbrella of Jennifer Jason Leigh's busty dress
By Karina Longworth
stated it another way:
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
"The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
He distrusted those who did not…Those who did it often, on the other
hand, lived for that alone… they
formed a secret society, whose members recognized each other all over the world without a need of a common language, which is why Florentino Ariza
was not surprised by the girl's reply:
she was one of them,
therefore she knew that he knew that she knew.
Hold on to that thought. We'll get back
to Marquez in a minute...
2003 was a good year for good-girls-gone-bad. The year began with the breakout success of Chicago,
the Best Picture winner that gave nice little Renee Zellweger a license to kill, and afforded an Amazonian Catherine Zeta-Jones
ample opportunity to laugh at her expense. Summer saw Demi Moore's much touted "comeback" turn as The Fallen
Angel of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, co-starring and produced by everyone's favorite good-girl-gone-bad-gone-good,
Drew Barrymore. By fall, everyone wanted in on the act: model-cum-actress Charlize Theron won her own Oscar for morphing into
executed lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and Madonna was more than happy to turn out Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera
at the MTV Video Music Awards, like last year's pimp introducing this year's ho's.
the middle of all of this pre-meditated mussing of pop culture's sweetest, Meg Ryan starred in a Jane Campion film called
In the Cut. This was a very deliberate departure for Ms. Ryan, a 180-degree turn from her twin signatures: "You're
in over your head, Lady!" dramas like Proof of Life (2000) and Courage Under Fire (1996), and, of course,
comedies of prudishness such as You've Got Mail (1998) or, most famously, When Harry Met Sally…
(1989). In Campion's film, Ryan plays a character, Frannie Avery, who just might be in over her head - and she certainly
pals around with the kinds of guys who would tell her that exact sort of thing - but she likes it. In the Cut gave
us gratuitous erotic spectacle, a full-frontal Meg, and a host of metaphors designed to categorize heterosexual intercourse
as the most dangerous situation a gal could willing put herself into - and, ultimately, the most relevant to the course of
said girl’s life.
In the Cut bombed, at both the box office and with most critics,
and that turn of events was generally chalked up to the "unbelievability" of the normally sexually repressed Ryan
transplanted into an erotically explicit diegesis. But to say that Meg Ryan's star sign is based on repression is not
only an understatement - it's sort of missing the point. Meg Ryan doesn't speak as much to a hiding or refusal or
short-changing of sexuality as she speaks to a fake sexuality, or to sexual fakery in general. The infamous Katz's
deli fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally … is but the zenith of a film-long characterization of sexual
posturing: out of neediness and general emotional insecurity, Meg-as-Sally spends the entirety of the picture trying to disprove
the prudishness that others assume of her. Sally is oft observed trying to convince her friends, acquaintances and lovers
that she is not only sexual, but that just, like a good hooker, she can be whatever kind of sexual anyone wants her to be.
The problem is, you don't have to be one of Marquez' "people who screw" to realize that Sally does not belong
to that club. Harry can see it, the spectator can see it - prudishness, from When Harry Met Sally… on, is Meg
Ryan's cross to bear for her the entirety of her professional life.
As our first real introduction
to Meg-Ryan's star sign, When Harry Met Sally… pairs nicely with her most explicit attempt to disavow
that star-sign to date, In the Cut. These are bookends to a career intertextually obsessed with emotional masquerades,
and sexual posturing and deception. Whereas the former film is perennially beloved, a touchstone of aging-single-woman culture,
the latter piece, essentially an excessively dark take on the same themes, basically When Harry Met Sally…
multiplied by Taxi Driver (1976), will likely in a few years be forgotten. This is an interesting dilemma, because
as a film that draws a parallelogram between sex and love, pain and death, no one should have expected it to have been a hit.
It should have been a quiet film made with a non-star by a reputation-less director, and perhaps drifted silently onto late
night cable. When Meg Ryan and Jane Campion get involved, they are asking for trouble. Of course, it's the kind of "trouble"
that was designed to save a couple of careers, but instead, it draws attention back to Meg Ryan as a brand - it forces the
spectator to take apart what America's Sweetheart has really been delivering us. Meg Ryan's fake orgasms, from When
Harry Met Sally… to In the Cut, and everywhere in between, draw a map through the 90s to the present,
invoking mainstream gender identity as a mass social disease. By following this path, we will see how even a film as self-consciously
"transgressive" as In the Cut ultimately serves to reify pre-feminist, conservative sexual ideals, in which
there is a path and there is a road less traveled, and the gal who chooses to veer from the path will end up with blood on
We're all familiar with the basic When Harry Met Sally…
narrative conceit: Boy meets Girl. Girl can't stand Boy. Boy and Girl meet again, become friends. Boy and Girl tumble
into bed. Girl has been waiting to exhale, but Boy freaks out. Boy finally gets over himself and runs back to Girl. Happily
ever aw-shucks after.
In the Cut is a little different. The dismembered
head of a young woman named Angela Sands is found in the garden of Frannie's Lower East Side apartment complex, and because
Frannie was also seen at the same bar as the now-dead girl on the night she expired, NYPD Homicide Detective Giovanni Malloy
(Mark Ruffalo) is sent to question her. The physical attraction between the two is obvious, but nothing happens until several
nights later, when Frannie gets mugged walking home. She decides to call Malloy to report the incident, and they end up embroiled
in one of the most graphic Hollywood sex scenes in recent memory, complete with an at least more-realistic-than-usual tableau
of cunnilingus. However, various circumstances lead Frannie to distrust Malloy, and more girls are mysteriously dying in the
same manner as Angela Sands. Whilst Frannie allows their affair to continue, she also begins to suspect that Malloy may be
hiding something. When her half-sister/best friend is murdered, Frannie flips out. She realizes that she and Malloy have a
bond stronger than sex - but is nevertheless convinced that he killed her sister. Frannie has to fight for her life before
learning the true identity of the killer...
On the surface,
the two films tell very different stories in very different ways, but they share common themes. In both films, Ryan plays
a character that must struggle with the fact that one man may be her destined "soulmate", and not just the one-trick
pony she had thought him to be. Both heroines are obsessed with "safety", and "trust". Sally spends a
good deal of her film explaining that Billy Crystal's Harry makes her feel "safe", that their friendship is
based not on attraction but on "trust". In fact, she always seems to be trying to find things to do with Harry that
aren't sexual in nature; when she finally breaks down and nails him, she's forced to admit nearly immediately afterwards
that her desire was born not of lust but of neediness, and is really a desire for "safety". In the Cut's
Frannie is looking for a safe space in which she can behave recklessly. She lives vicariously through her sexually voracious
sister (the always competent Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is all too eager to bed Detective Malloy - she's just unable to
take him seriously in any other manner, because he's "dangerous" - until it's proven, conclusively, that
he's the only one she can trust.
In the Cut is not a total
disaster, neither is it quite milquetoast enough to be considered eminently dismissible. That being the case, it seems like
a good idea to tease it apart a bit, to place the film in a kind of Heideggerian affirmative dialectic of defense, before
trying to pinpoint its failure.
It looks gorgeous,
and undeniably so. Thanks to the cinematographic efforts of Dion Beebe (Collateral, Chicago), lower Manhattan comes
off at once sleazy and dreamy, the perfect landscape for a tale of romance born from diabolical risk. The palette, composed
mainly of reds, greens and blacks, seems unusual for cinematic New York - it's not the brushed silver sparkle of Manhattan,
nor is it the neon-in-the-night of Taxi Driver. The warmth of Beebe's palette almost recalls the New York of
a Spike Lee film (Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, etc.) but is undercut by a tension in texture. In the Cut's tug-of-war
between the grit of, say, a crumbling sidewalk, and the gloss of a rain-slick cobblestone street, mirrors the film's toggling
between locations as diverse as chi-chi East Village latte houses and low-end Lower Broadway strip clubs. In the Manhattan
laid out by Campion and Beebe, it seems to make sense that the two men fighting over Ryan's Frannie - a 40-ish, never-married,
sexually-frustrated school teacher - could be as disparate as an excessively masculine, sexually aggressive Italian Homicide
Detective (Mark Ruffalo's Malloy), and a WASP-y, ineffectual, possibly schizophrenic actor-turned-med-student (Kevin Bacon
as John Graham, in a rather excellent yet curiously uncredited performance). It is apparent from an art direction standpoint
alone that this film is about uneasy bedfellows, in more ways than three.
And there are a lot of things,
conceptually, that are sort of genius going on here. One of them is using Kevin Bacon as Frannie's jilted lover. Bacon
is able to tap into his inherently too-slick smarminess to invoke a clinginess that would be undoubtedly unsettling to an
independent woman like Frannie, and yet he's also attractive enough so that it's crystal clear why Frannie may have
picked him up in the first place. It's the perfect casting for the One-Night-Stand Gone Wrong - but not so wrong.
Campion also suceeds in re-alerting the female populace to the sexual potency of the male detective. The cops
of In the Cut, Malloy and his partner Detective Rodriguez (Nick Damici), are really "coppy" cops, but they're
not caricatures - not like, say, Michael Keaton's Ray Niccolette of Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight
(2001). The cop as a sexual archetype is based on the potential contained within the policeman as professional guardian of
right and wrong; a woman like Frannie can enjoy the power imbalance that creates, she can allow the presumption that Malloy
wants to protect her to serve as an excuse to let her guard down in the bedroom. This comes off in the chemistry between Ruffalo
and Ryan; she responds to him as a woman happily surprised at how easy it is to relinquish control. But In the Cut also plays
with the flipside of the power equation: what if Malloy uses his power and the window it creates once Frannie allows herself
to be vulnerable for evil? Lest this all seem like some Foucaultian nightmare, Campion cannily parlays the dilemma into a
greater metaphor, sub-textually linking the chase-game of the cop and the perp to the chase-game of the girl and the boy.
Frannie and Malloy go out on a date in between their first meeting and their first sexual encounter. By all
accounts, this date is a total disaster, with Malloy's partner, Detective Rodrigeuz, coming on to the scene to bring out
the misogynist in Malloy, thus proving that Frannie can't hang with the bad boys and forcing her to run away. But before
Rodriguez shows up, Malloy offers Frannie a proposal:
“Hey, listen … I can be whatever you want me to be.
You want me to romance you, take you to a classy restaurant, no problem. You want me to be your best friend and fuck you,
treat you good, lick your pussy, no problem. Ain't much I haven't done. The only thing I won't do is beat you
Frannie is clearly made uncomfortable by this speech, but it's not clear why. It couldn't
be because he's speaking about sex, could it? After all, Frannie agreed to go on a date with Malloy, and as Camile Paglia
says, "Every time you go on a date with a man, the idea of sex should be in the air, okay? If it's not in the air.
If you're not understanding that, why are you going on a date?"(2) Could Frannie really be that naïve,
that prudish? Here we have a man who is at least 10 years younger than her, who is tragically good-looking, who is offering
to tailor their relationship to her desires. One would think this would be the sexually liberated woman's dream. But Frannie
So what does she actually want from Malloy?
Does she really want to be empowered to make sexual decisions, but just feels it's uncouth to talk about it, especially
in such coarse, cop-like language? Or does she only think she wants to let her libido run wild, when in fact what she really
wants, and needs, is for a man to tell her what she wants, to write the sexual narrative for her, whilst giving her the illusion
that it's all being done on her terms, that she is in control?
The centerpiece sex scene is paradigmatic of In
the Cut's misplaced romantic ideals, a representation of "hot sex" mitigated by common sense and
politically correct deference to "safety". Frannie has invited Malloy up to her apartment after her mugging on West
Broadway. Once it becomes undeniable that Malloy's suggestion that they re-enact the incident is really an initiation
of foreplay, Frannie tries to spin it as though the decision to have sex is hers. Campion cuts from a shot of Malloy's
fingers grazing Frannie's nipple through her dress, to a close up of Meg. "Alright", Frannie says, as
if she has to give her permission before Malloy can proceed. Knowing what we already know of Malloy's character at this
point, it's impossible to not imagine what line would have logically followed had Campion been making a film less solipsistic
in its girlish fantasy: “I ain’t waiting for verbal permission, lady. This ain't Harvard."
Cut to the bedroom. Malloy lays all of his weaponry
and cop paraphernalia on the desk, and crawls naked into bed, stripped of the protections of his profession. Luckily, Frannie
has the protection issue covered. She walks into the room fully clothed with a condom in her hand. She tosses it to Malloy,
who's response is "What's that?" He stops just short of laughing at her.
This is worth mentioning
for two reasons: First of all, despite the AIDS prevention, "Use a condom every time" hysteria of the late-80s/early-90s,
it is still incredibly rare to actually see cinematic representations of safe sex. Condom use is often a linguistic device
on television - the half-clothed teen starlet will breathily ask the WB contract player she is straddling if he has "something",
and he'll somewhat spazzily confirm that he does, and we are meant to understand this exchange as a signifier that she
is giving her permission for them to go "all the way". But to actually see a condom on screen, in a non-slapstick
context, is noteworthy. If we are to take what Hollywood is showing us to heart (or for that matter, what we see in pornography
- One Night in Paris included), no one uses condoms. Malloy's reaction here might as well be the reaction of
the spectator: "What's that? This is artsy indie-film sex, lady, not junior high school health class!"
So, secondly, if a condom is such a cinematic rarity, for Meg Ryan to walk into this scene bandying
one about is significant. This scene isn't about Frannie giving herself over to passion. It's about Frannie making
an informed, well-thought-out decision to engage in sexual intercourse with this detective. It's not about taking chances
in the name of pleasure, it's about being safe. When undressing for Malloy, Frannie doesn't even look particularly
excited about what is about to happen. She looks resigned to it. This seems emblematic of the prototypical Meg Ryan heroine's
attitude when walking into a sexual situation - "If I have to, I have to, and as long as I don't lose control it
won't be so bad." Campion spins this resignation into the fantasy by a) focusing the choreography on Malloy's
efforts to get Frannie off, and b) making sure Frannie doesn't have to do any reciprocal work in return. Frannie thinks
Malloy is going to be just like all the other guys she didn't enjoy having sex with - but then he gives her all these
orgasms! So what Ryan and Campion are telling us is that what "women really want" is a pristinely safe space in
which to be sexually passive, in which a man will cater to all of her needs without expecting anything in return. Good luck
with that, girls!
Now, if we back up a bit, there is this one beautiful shot, right after
Frannie gets attacked on West Broadway and calls Malloy for help. Rather than following the pair inside Frannie's apartment,
Campion cuts straight a close-up of a hand flipping on to the table two glasses that don't match, and the pouring of drinks
into these glasses from an unmarked bottle of booze. This says something fairly interesting about Frannie, and Malloy,
and the understanding that will lead to sex. It would be too easy to suggest that the mismatched glasses are an embodiment
of the mismatched lovers; it goes beyond that. The drink is a social contract between two strangers who are about to become
intimate. They “lower-east siders” who don't expect any artifice over that drink; they just need the booze,
because life and sex are stressful, and they need the common fact that they need the booze to have something to bond over.
And now, finally, back to Marquez: their liberated attitude towards alcohol implies a similar “straight up” approach
to sex, making them part of the same "secret society, whose members recognize each other all over the world without a
common language." Frannie is one of them, and therefore Malloy knows that she knows that he knows.
a minute! This, of course, is where it all goes wrong, because we know that Meg Ryan is not one of those people who screw.
I mean, Meg Ryan may be -- that's her business-- but Meg Ryan as a star-sign, Meg Ryan as a marketable commodity, Meg
Ryan as America's Sweetheart - that Meg Ryan doesn't screw. If anyone doesn't belong in Marquez's secret society,
it's that Meg Ryan. That Meg Ryan may want us to think that she belongs, but we know that she doesn't. We know Campion
wants us to think that Ryan "belongs", because the first time we see her on screen in the film, she is rolling around
in bed, waking from a dream, and appearing surprised to find that she is alone. "This chick,” Jane Campion is saying,
"is a woman who has sex." When Frannie first meets Malloy, he asks her if she heard anything unusual the night before
while she slept. "I didn't hear anything unusual," Frannie responds. "And I sleep with the windows open."
So Jane Campion continues: “Meg Ryan not only has sex, but her bedroom pretty much has an open door policy - she can't
So how do we know what we know about the sexual proclivities of the
Meg Ryan? Let's go back to When Harry Met Sally… The first time we see Meg Ryan in this picture, she is
driving a Volvo up to a curb where Billy Crystal's Harry is kissing a nubile young brunette. Sally stops the car and looks
out the window at the couple and scrunches up her face as if completely disgusted. She then rolls her eyes as if to say, "I
can't believe this," and honks the car horn to interrupt the young lovers. But really, what's the problem? The
make-out session in question is in no ways graphic or gratuitous, and hardly even seems passionate. There is almost a middle-school
quality to Sally's prudishness in this scene, as if she needs to make it very clear that she doesn't do "that
kind of thing" - even if "that kind of thing" is as innocent as a kiss goodbye between college lovers.
But Sally/Meg's protestations in this scene are a little too much: she may not "do that
kind of thing", but one gets the feeling that it's not for lack of wanting to. Within moments of meeting her, Harry
is able to attribute Sally's general uptight-ness to one simple accusation: "You haven't had great sex yet."
Though she has already given the audience every indication that this is in fact the case, here again Sally doth protest too
much: "I have so had great sex! I've had … plenty of … great … sex." This is so obviously
a lie that she can barely even get the words out, but beyond Ryan's delivery, we know that Sally is making a weak attempt
to tailor her sexual persona based on the company she is with, because it so clearly clashes with her unmediated response
to the kissing she witnessed from the car. So not only do we know that Meg/Sally "fakes it" before we ever see her
fake it, but she knows that the jig is up - which means that she has to fake that she's okay with everyone knowing that
she's a big faker. Which is why she has to "fake it" over tuna salad - she has to install performativity into
her sexual deception, a Sontagian twist of camp to send her fakery just far enough over the top to transform "bad"
into "good", falsity into truth.
By the time the big fake-out Katz Deli scene
rolls around, we're two thirds of the way through the film; we've seen Sally age ten years. And we still have absolutely
no indication that she has ever had a sexual experience strong enough to make it seem worthwhile to leave her prudishness
behind. Harry has directly propositioned her twice, with each advance met with total incredulity on Sally's part - an
incredulity so intense that it's clear that Sally not only thinks that sex with Harry would be inappropriate, but that
he's a total pervert for even thinking about having sex with her. Harry simply tells Sally that he finds her attractive,
and she freaks out - she's so aghast at the suggestion that he might want to have sex, not just with her but at all, that
it's like she's being shaken out of her prelapsarian world - prelapsarian here referring to the pre- fall from Eden
utopic ignorance about the body and sexual function. The prelapsarian consciousness, the Lacanian "real", is infantile;
it's the state before introduction of a known difference between "self" and "other". Harry is saying,
"You are not like me, we are not one solipsistic whole! We need to join together and have sex to ameliorate our respective
lacks!" Sally's response? "Nooooooooo! What lack? There is no lack. I'M NOT LISTENING!"
it really possible that Sally not only has no understanding of desire but that, as would follow, she has no idea that she
is The Other? She has no idea that she is necessarily, anatomically, an object of desire until Harry breaks the news? If she
was any other 20-or-30-something woman of the late-20th century, that would seem truly impossible, but the traumatic fall
from the prelapsarian state seems to be baked into the Meg Ryan sexual persona. Sally's character arc leads her from sexual
ignorance (the observation of others kissing as 'unnatural'), to a denial of sexuality (her refusal to sleep with
Harry), to an acceptance of her performative function in a post-lapsarian world (the fake orgasm), to, finally, a sex complicit
within a manipulation to ameliorate her post-lapsarian neediness (using sex to land Harry as a boyfriend and eventual husband
or "life partner" or… whatever).
This manipulation is ultimately where
every Meg Ryan character feels at home. It is the every-day-gal's post-Feminist revenge. I don't mean postfeminist,
as in third-wave feminism, as in the feminism of Elizabeth Wurtzel or Madonna. Postfeminism, as has widely argued by all manner
of cultural critics (I think maybe most effectively by Charlotte Brunsdon in her essay "Postfeminism and Shopping Films"),
is something of a misnomer anyway. As Susan J. Douglas puts it, postfeminism is supposed to refer to a time when complete
gender equality has been achieved.(3) That hasn't happened, of course, but we (especially young women) are supposed to
think it has. Postfeminism, as a term, suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism
is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it has made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, lonely, and bitter,
prompting them to fill their closets with combat boots and really bad India print skirts.
not quite as cynical about the postfeminist project as Douglas, who maintains it is a joint venture of corporate America and
the right wing to oppress working women with their own spending power. Madonna is consistently bandied about by her supporters
as the one true postfeminist success story as an independent business woman, sex may be part of the package she sells, but
it's done 100% on her own terms. I would actually hold up Oprah Winfrey as an even better model, in that she encourages
contemporary women to have the best of all worlds but acknowledges the struggles that most must go through to get there; she
embraces femininity as well as hard-nosed rationality; and let's face it: she pretty much owns Chicago. By celebrating
pre-feminist pleasure and post-Feminist power in the same breath, she reifies both.
to back up a bit: the term "Pre-feminist" alludes to a world before the possibility of real widespread gender equality,
in which female empowerment was a limited venture outside the home. But "pre-feminist" was considered a derogatory
adjective after feminism - the politically active, self-sufficient woman of the 1970s might look down on a friend who was
content to stay at home with the kids. "Postfeminism", in theory, seeks to re-integrate elements of "pre-feminist"
practice - primarily the pleasures of domesticity and participation in the beauty industry - into feminist-fueled political
and social consciousness. "postfeminism" is about having it all.
So, no, I'm certainly
not talking about postfeminism. I'm talking about the revenge that pre-feminist ideology seeks after Feminism, after the
world has been transformed by, on the one hand, very real social changes and general improvements in the quality of life for
most women, and on the other hand, the pervasive - and false - pretense of absolute equal opportunity. This revenge is not
a part or product of the postfeminist machine, which Douglas correctly asserts exists more as a media construct than something
that organically sprouted out from personal or political demand. This revenge is older than 2nd-wave, 1970s Feminism itself,
and traces of it can be seen throughout films of the studio era. But it really explodes in the mid-1960s, especially in Hollywood
and in popular media, as a smoke screen to distract middle America's attention from the burgeoning civil rights movement.
And the diabolical figurehead of this smokescreen? None other than terminal good-girl Doris Day.
C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media
- BFG LCS: 489042340244