This documentary has Judge Kristin Munson buzzing.
We've come a long way, baby.
Did You Know:
• The Sears catalogue sold vibrators with optional attachments, so the same device that delivered orgasms could be mixing your batter or massaging your scalp?
• Owning more than five vibrators in the state of Texas can get you arrested on obscenity charges?
• During the Sexual Revolution, women would need pot holders to hang on to their overheating sex toys?
• If a woman gave any sign of dissatisfaction with the cloistered and corseted lifestyle (or even just really liked riding a bicycle) she was labeled a hysteric and treated to a course of pelvic massage which, oddly enough, left her feeling released and relaxed?
Sometimes laziness and medical incompetence can lead to great things. If it weren't for all those "hysteria" diagnoses and sore-wristed doctors, the vibrator may never have been invented. But over the years the devices left the doctors' offices and the mainstream catalogs and became associated with dirty postcards, until vibrators themselves became inherently icky. Even now, vibrator ads still have to be hidden in the classifieds and sold as novelties or gag gifts while magazines advertise Viagra and Cialis in full-page spreads, implying that a man's pleasure is a healthy necessity and a woman's is a dirty joke. Passion & Power aims to explore this hidden history and double standard, but it doesn't help that the entire documentary comes off as a fluffy little novelty itself.
Slight and cutesy, Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm takes three separate topics in the history of female sexuality, each worth a documentary of its own, and then spends 74 minutes playing coy. The early history of the vibrator, the story of a Texas teacher who could go to jail for selling sex toys, and a look at the feminist movement's connection of masturbation and empowerment are haphazardly handled.
The movie has lots to say about history, gender politics, and repression, but does so in a flighty and disorganized way. The focus suddenly skips from the turn of the century to the late '60s and the case of the Texas teacher is dropped and resolved in a text epilogue. Serious interview footage is formatted within cock-eyed picture frames that tilt and rotate around their subjects like on a campy TV show. Holy dancing dildos Batman!
Unfortunately, the distracting camera tricks undermine the funny, earthy, interesting subjects and what they have to say. Just try concentrating on masturbation educator Betty Dodson, the founder of the first feminist sex shop, a Ph.D. with a book on vibrator technology, or one of the first female lawyers in the US while the picture slowly tips and twirls. The only interview delivered straight is with comedienne Reno, who's here to crack wise and provide prop comedy.
That's right, prop comedy.
I'm sure the humor is intended to make the subject matter less threatening or embarrassing, which of course implies that you feel threatened and embarrassed in the first place. Granted, if my father ever found out what the jumbo pack of AAs he gives me every Christmas are used for I might just have to die of mortification, but otherwise I don't care who knows about my purple pocket rocket.
It's hard to ignore that a movie partly about overcoming body shame is too embarrassed to show a single vagina. Instead, there are lots of "pretty" visual euphemisms. Comparing my lady bits to a Portuguese Man O' War and a carnivorous Pitcher Plant, like the vulva is some sort of penis flytrap? That's not helpful; that's the stuff of Freudian nightmare.
All the effort to be tasteful and polite just grates. If you can't talk about vibrators and orgasms without cutting to a joke every time, why are you making a movie about them?
First Run Features presents Passion & Power in the standard full-frame, 2.0 stereo combo; nothing fancy. There are extras featuring deleted interview footage that's sometimes better then what made the final cut, a closer look at some of the old school sex toys, text bios, and a trailer featuring "The Vibrettes," a group of wobbling jelly vibrators. Give me strength.
Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm can talk about woman power and liberation all it wants; by turning a subject that's interesting on its own merits into a string of silly, barely related tidbits, it's impossible to take the message seriously.
The verdict is Guilty and the defendant can buzz off.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview Extras
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