ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The Fake Orgasms of Meg Ryan

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Meg takes sexual cover under the umbrella of Jennifer Jason Leigh's busty dress

By Karina Longworth

Florentino Ariza stated it another way:
"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,
and therefore she knew that he knew that she knew. 
                                                              – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
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.
 In 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 her face--literally.
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 up.”
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 recoils.
 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.

 But wait 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 get enough!”
 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!"
 Is 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.
I'm 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.
 Just 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.



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