Review of Making Sex Public and Other Cinematic Fantasies by Damon R. Young. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018 (paperback). 320 pages.
REVIEW BY ADAM HERRON, NORTHUMBRIA UNIVERSITY
Opening with the passage, “In 1968, while French students occupied the halls of the Sorbonne, Barbarella fucked her way to freedom,” Making Sex Public traces the ways in which sex has permeated screen media between the 1950s and 1970s through a series of revolutions in French and American cinema, proposing that women and queers became privileged figures in the project of screening sex (1). As the latest entry in Duke University Press’s Theory Q series edited by Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Damon R. Young pairs feminist theory with queer theory to examine tensions regarding the role of cinema in making sex public on- and off-screen, expanding upon previous work initiated with Linda Williams’ Screening Sex. Consequently, the central thesis of this text explores two conflicting conceptions of screened sex and their potential applications in interpreting gender and sexuality during the twentieth century: “on the one hand, the fantasy of a liberal sexual subject as an autonomous, pleasure-seeking agent; on the other, that of the republican social contract, rejecting the idea of sexuality as an individual attribute and insisting on sexual difference and the ‘heterosexual family as constitutive of the social’” (8).
Making Sex Public follows a trajectory of cultural, judicial, and political developments through the critical lens of cinema in its introductory chapter, using film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) to demonstrate a methodology rooted in textual analysis that will be repeated throughout. The body text is structured into three sections titled ‘Women’, ‘Criminals’, and ‘Citizens’, each composed of several case study films and their importance in mapping gender and sexuality in the twentieth-century. The book concludes with a chapter on the emergence of postcinematic sexualities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main avenues of inquiry throughout is what ‘making sex public’ actually means. Drawing from a variety of French and North American source material, including the films Et Dieu… créa la femme (1956), Barbarella (1968), Une vraie jeune fille (1976), Word Is Out (1977), and Shortbus (2006), Young outlines various complexities precluding the neat resolution of clashes between liberal and conservative conceptions of sex. For instance, in spite of the increased visibility of sex on-screen in the work of European auteurs, sexploitation cycles, and avant-garde experimental films during the 1960s and 1970s, it is argued that this visibility did not automatically generate solutions for the problem of sexual difference. The autonomous orgasmic power of Barbarella contrasts with the Sadean dissonance between face and sex experienced by the protagonists of Catherine Breillat, with the latter argued as constituting “the subjectivity of a subject trapped in a social world where markers of gender, age, race, and class are not transcended but rather stick fast” (70). Nor is making sex public simply a matter of observing the rituals of sex in public, in spite of William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) being described as “the final nail in the coffin of the closeted representational system that kept homosexuality unrepresentable in Hollywood cinema during the Code era” (125). To this end, Young’s contention that “the project of making sex public is no longer describable in terms of resistance, critique, or transgression” (233) rejects any notion of sex in public as an inherently subversive act, embracing the banalities of sex as more powerful than its inverse mobilisation as taboo.
Building upon arguments initiated in germinal essays such as ‘Thinking Sex’ and ‘Sex in Public’, a significant strength of Young’s theoretical framework is its synthesis of diverse influences from established scholars and early career researchers, while a willingness to challenge canonical work from authors such as Foucault, Mulvey and Sedgwick produces fertile terrain from which the deconstructionist roots of queer theory flourish into fascinating lines of inquiry. The motif of permeability is used to evaluate the queer dynamics of gaze theory in divisions between public and private spheres, highlighting the extent to which Nouvelle Vague filmmakers raised questions of what it means to be a woman while preserving heterosexuality as “existential a priori” (99), and to examine the improvisational nature of queer culture through a dependence on “ephemeral uses of space as its conditions of possibility” (172). The ambition of this monograph cannot be understated as multiple decades of film history are forwarded for consideration, with organising logics between case studies sometimes struggling to keep up with the plethora of theoretical context and sources cited. Although the final chapter is fascinating, the decision to end a study predominantly concerned with the 1950s to the 1970s on an epilogue in the twenty-first century is confusing. What remains to be said is that Making Sex Public is an innovative and creative work, with rich potential to advance further interventions relating to feminist theory, queer theory and cultural studies.
Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. ‘Sex in Public.’ Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (1998): 547-66.
Rubin, Gayle S. ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.’ In Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, edited by Gayle S. Rubin, 137-81. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Williams, Linda. Screening Sex. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Adam Herron is an AHRC-funded Northern Bridge Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Arts at Northumbria University. His doctoral research project is an investigation of sexual spaces in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, examining nostalgic remediation of the grind house movie theatre and queer sexualities in the Times Square district. His research interests include genre, gender, media history and media audiences.