ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The Fake Orgasms of Meg Ryan (p.2)

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Doris Day is a direct ancestor to Meg Ryan in terms of the Hollywood family tree. Her persona is at least as much about sexual fakery as Ryan's, maybe more so, or at least more crushingly obviously so, because Doris always told the same lie. Doris didn't really hit it big as a romantic comedy star until the early 60s, and by that time she was pushing 40. Still, her message was always the same: good girls don't. And if they do, they save it for marriage. And even then, they don't enjoy it. So I want to make sure we're clear on this: what we have in Doris Day is a perpetual 37-year-old unmarried virgin, who looks on work as pre-marital holding pattern, and sex as a necessary evil, an exchange for the social and financial stability of marriage - both being something that needs to be put up with. And audiences bought it, despite the fact that women all around, more and more, were having careers and extramarital relations, and enjoying them. Sound familiar?
 
 The Doris Day film is a revenge fantasy, much like the original Stepford Wives ten years later: it's a backlash weapon designed to reify conservative sex and gender values and practices in the face of revolution. Whether or not the impulse for revenge stems from something going on with real women, or if it's all about the anxieties of the male filmmakers catering to them, is for the purposes of this argument rather unimportant. What is important is that the revenge as it is constructed refers to an insecurity about being a woman, or being the right kind of woman, after a point where it should be okay to be any kind of woman one wants. The Doris Day character was herself a throwback, oblivious to cultural change going on around her, the last guard of the non-sexual gold digger, impatiently waiting to exhale.
 
 For the Doris Day heroine to exist, it needs to be true that there are two types of girls in this world - those that screw and those that don't - and never the twain shall meet in the body or soul of the same bubbly blonde. Campion paves the way for this in her film early on, by positing Meg, even one-night-stand hungry Meg, as the good half of the good-girl bad-girl equation. Meg's character is contrasted by her best friend/half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a busty, reckless blonde who lives above a strip club and is stalking the married doctor whom she is no longer having an affair with. Pauline is a pretty typical characterization of The Wanton Slut Who Has To Die To Maintain The Socio-Sexual Order. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her with the fluid grace of someone who is always either getting fucked or thinking about it, and carrying a few extra pounds, she ever-so-slightly spills out of her too-tight costuming - a sure sign that her libido just can't be controlled. This is in contrast to Meg Ryan, who is a beautiful woman but so thin that her girl parts are barely visible; Campion highlights this contrast by dressing her in Marc Jacobs' most prim schoolteacher couture. Pauline eggs Frannie on at every turn: encouraging her to flirt with her students and to go out with Detective Malloy, to wear sexier clothes and to mix booze with pills. Frannie responds to most of this by giggling, blushing and looking at the floor - although she does borrow a dress of Pauline's that doesn't fit her and subsequently lets Malloy take it off. But we know that, like the actress who plays her, Frannie is slumming, that she doesn't mean it, that that's not who she really is. Pauline is a bad girl and she likes to do it and she gets what Bad Girls Who Like To Do It deserve: she gets her head cut off by the same serial killer that her sister's boyfriend is chasing. Sorry, honey. Next time maybe try putting your tits away like Meg.
 
Considering all the work that has gone into positing Meg Ryan as the successor to Doris' throne of pre-feminist propaganda, she couldn't possibly all of a sudden jump ships, knowing that maintenance of her career - and, it could be argued, some kind of social order - would eventually require her to jump back. Which is why, in the end, with In the Cut Campion is forced to validate romance over sex. 
 
 For all of it's gritty realism, In the Cut is still manufactured to placate a traditional female romantic gaze. After that first big sex scene, Malloy leaves Frannie in bed and thanks her like it's been fun, but he's never going to see her again - he doesn't even kiss her goodbye. A woman of Frannie's age - or Jane Campion's age, or Meg Ryan's age - should know that men who behave that way after casual sex do not call. But these are female filmmakers, and they are imposing on to the situation an impossibly blind girlie fantasy. In "Real Life", even if Frannie and Malloy would have had to speak again regarding the investigation, Malloy would have likely kept the interaction cold and impersonal - he probably would have tried to figure out some way to pawn her off on his investigating partner, he probably wouldn't have even answered her calls. A woman might fall in love after sex like that, but a man? A young, unreasonably good -looking man who is hard-as-nails enough to hunt killers for a living? Probably not so much. And yet, for no reason at all, by midway through the film we are supposed to believe that Frannie and Malloy are actually having a deeply shared emotional experience, when all we've seen is blood and sex, and Ryan dopily walking around the streets of New York, quietly reading poetry aloud in the subway like a retard. It's probably something that most women have at one point or another fantasized about, this transformation of a really great one-time lay into a serious relationship, but taking into account the actual history of the world, one cannot expect it to actually happen.
 
 So maybe this is actually a really noble mission on Campion's part, allowing us gals to live vicariously through one woman's (admittedly fucked up) success story. This is the biggest lie, the biggest fake orgasm, of them all, and yet just maybe, in this way, the casting of Meg Ryan is a genius cop-out: Meg Ryan is a vehicle through which Campion can pretend like she's giving us a dirty, scandalous film, and yet at the end of the day reify all the themes and mandates of the contemporary romantic comedy: winning means getting your boyfriend to commit. Bad girls die, and good girls always win.
 
Good luck with that, girls!
 
 
 
 
NOTES
1.  Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. New York: Random House, 1988. Page 183.
2. Paglia, Camille. Vamps and Tramps. Vintage Books, New York, 1994. Page 243. Quoted from a transcript of the documentary Female Misbehavior [Video, 1992, dir.Monica Treut].
3. Douglas, Susan J. "Manufacturing Postfeminism".
www.alternet.org. Posted May 13, 2002.
 

KARINA LONGWORTH is a hot and cool feminist writer who lives in NYC.

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