The vagina is an enigma. Throughout history, religion has tried to hide it, politics have punished it and patriarchy has held it hostage. The rise of feminist movements in the 19th century began reclaiming ownership of the vagina, but even in the 21st century the word creates controversy and many women continue to restrain their sexual desires at the request of patriarchal regulations. But, the work of several artists has allowed for conversation to spark and has empowered females around the world to acknowledge their carnal rights. Such is the case of the film Nymphomaniac Vol. I.
This work explores female sexuality and its intricacies, from the term vagina to the nature of sex and patriarchal constructions of femininity. Nymphomaniac Vol. I acts as a space for debate and acceptance that serves to understand that sexuality is as much a biological right for women as it is for men.
One of the biggest sources of female oppression in our society is religion, specifically the faith of Christianity. Its foundations lie upon the belief that women must be chaste and pure, not sexual. Consequently, the concept of femininity promulgates this doctrine, demonizing women who don’t fall under the mold by allowing themselves to explore their sexual desires.
Women are brought up to feel guilty about their sexuality, to apologize for their actions and repress any hunger, a practice most similar to self-flagellation. Guilt is one of the most relevant elements of the Catholic faith, being the mea culpa a ritual that acknowledges humanity’s debility to sin. In this case, women are forced since birth to punish themselves for demanding sex and being close with their vagina.
The mea culpa is challenged in Nymphomaniac Vol. I, when young Joe and her friend B decide to put together a group called ‘The Little Flock’. They repudiated the idea of love seeing ‘sex as a high jinks form of youthful protest’ (Independent). Their dissent included a chant similar to the mea culpa that celebrated the vagina as a high powered priestess of sex: ‘Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva’. Lars von Trier challenged religion by including a piano tone as background music that is closely related to the devil, as Seligman explains. At first sight, it might appear that von Trier is trying to demonize the flock, but what the film does is explore alternative ways of sexuality that challenge religion and celebrate the vagina as its core.
An example of this is how Joe begins her story: “I discovered my cunt as a 2-year-old.” In this case, the discovery of her vagina jumpstarted her relationship with sex, and eventually developed into a hunt for satisfaction. But, what would have happened if Joe had never discovered her vagina? She would be one of the millions of women who have never been in touch with their vagina, as works such as The Vagina Monologues have evidenced.
(Nymphomaniac trailer, 2014)
No love allowed
The anger Joe feels towards the construction of love is exemplified through ‘The Little Flock’, as they write guidelines for their cult in order not to fall out of line, such as not having sex with the same man twice. They also recount their sexual activities for the week as an act of sharing without shame their multiplicity of partners. But, one does fail to follow the rules. In a scene, Joe reprimands her friend B for having sex with the same guy more than once, to which B responds by saying that “the secret ingredient to sex is love.” ‘The Little Flock’ allowed Joe to create a space for herself and her vagina, but when others did not follow through, she reestablished herself as an outcast, the woman who put sex before love.
The most interesting aspect about Joe’s self-diagnosed nymphomania is how unapologetic she is in the first volume. Emotions are not part of the equation, and to make sure she stays away from love, she draws up her own systems for selecting lovers, one of them based on pure chance as she decides the fate of their affair on rolling dice. Moreover, her militancy of putting sex above love and domestic comfort is her natural state of being, an act that does not comply with society’s rules for women. This is one of the reasons she describes herself as ‘a bad human being’ at the beginning of the movie. But, Seligman counterarguments that ‘if she were a man her behavior wouldn’t cause more than a ripple of interest’ (David Denby).
Joe is a beacon of the effect choice has on sexuality. She is never a victim of sex, but instead she chooses, demands and arranges her encounters and lovers as she pleases. Actions like these are most commonly associated with men, but Joe is unrelenting of her methods. But, this poses a question: is appropriating manly conducts the only way for women to be empowered? This is the only fault in Von Trier’s work: when Joe is vulnerable to love she loses her orgasm, and consequently her power.
The Vagina as Epicenter
With the pronunciation of the word ‘vagina’, or in Joe’s case ‘cunt’, the female collective becomes empowered. Though the recognition of female sexuality gravitates around the vagina, the feminist perspective of both these works does not seek to eliminate or degrade the penis. In patriarchy, both sexes are victims of gender construction, meaning that reclaiming the vagina is a fight for females as much as it is for men. But, in a phallocentric society, these works found a way to infiltrate in order to shift the focus to the vagina, a rebellious act that feminist movements have worked to normalize the presence of the vagina in mainstream art and culture.
The revolutionary aspect of this film is exactly that it opens a gate for women to be unashamed about their sexuality. Furthermore, it instigates the establishment of a relationship to the vagina, as men are instructed to have to their phallus. It seizes the public space once exclusive to the penis in order to make the vagina visible and important in society. But, as Seligman states, putting vaginas and women in sexual contexts is still a taboo, while men enjoy the liberty of sexuality.
Joe reclaims the vagina from a religion that hides it, politics that punish it and the patriarchal society that had held it hostage. ‘I am mine’, it screams, unchained at last.