A Brief Survey of Sexually Autonomous Women in Film


Another “it happened one crazy summer” film opened this weekend, but this time it’s a young woman kick-starting her own sexual awakening. The To Do List, starring Aubrey Plaza, is the latest female-centric film to attempt to bridge the gender gap in the buddy/romantic/sex comedy genre, following on the heels of The Heat.

“Brandy Clark is clearly a feminist, but she’s also boy crazy and I think that’s totally fine too. She’s just like a normal teenager who’s curious about sex,” director Maggie Carey said of Plaza’s character. “This is a female perspective that you don’t always get to see, I’m not saying this was intentional, but it challenges a lot of things. As much as it says about women, it’s also saying about men. We’re all three-dimensional. You can’t put any person in any kind of a box due to their gender or anything.”

In praise of female sexual autonomy in film, here is a brief survey of women exploring their desires in movies that attempt to push the boundaries of female formulaic conventions.

Turn Me On, Dammit!

Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s teen sex comedy is a welcome change from the American movies starring horny boys humping apple pies and young women as objects to be conquered. The coming-of-age tale centers on a 15-year-old girl in a small Norwegian town. Hormones raging, Alma (Helene Bergsholm) explores her burgeoning sexuality through awkward phone sex sessions and encounters with a crushable classmate. The young girl’s mother doesn’t quite know how to deal with it all. Alma believes her feelings are natural, but her classmates stigmatize her for the same behaviors men are applauded for. The film smartly portrays adolescent sexual frustration with honesty and wit.


Shortly after Deep Throat made the crossover to mainstream audiences in 1972, Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle followed suit. The glossy, erotic classic was widely distributed by Columbia Pictures in the States during the second-wave feminist movement and became a worldwide success.

Sylvia Kristel stars as the young wife of a diplomat who is encouraged to explore her sexuality in their open relationship. She happily does so — with other men, but especially other women. Her transcontinental adventures become increasingly daring.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Kristel summarized part of the feminist argument surrounding the film:

“In France, the feminists complained that Emmanuelle was a femme objet — an object of male fantasies. But the Japanese feminists were rather delighted with the film because they thought Emmanuelle was dominant, just because of this one scene where she climbs on top of her husband. That was the moment when all the Japanese women stood up and applauded.”

A rare portrait of a woman in control of her sexuality to some, a cliché fantasy exploiting female sexuality for the male gaze to others, Emmanuelle continues to inspire important discussions about women and sex in cinema.


Rosanna Arquette’s Gabrielle, a member of the erotic car crash cult in David Cronenberg’s 1996 film, Crash, embraces her status as the sex symbol of leader Vaughan’s (the severely underrated Elias Koteas) underground group. A scarred blonde bombshell encased in leather and metal leg braces, Gabrielle cultivates an image of kink incarnate — including an orifice-shaped scar on the back of her thigh. She flaunts, teases, and thoroughly enjoys putting on a show (for men and women) with a self-aware wink. While other characters in the film frequently regard their lust for twisted chrome and steel at an icy distance, Gabrielle owns it completely.


Jennifer Lyon Bell founded company Blue Artichoke Films, because she wanted to create the movies she wanted to see.

“Part of our appeal to modern women is that our stories and situations aren’t bound up in monogamous romance,” she writes on her website. “Pop culture is rife with messages for women that sex is only awesome once they’ve found True Love. Love is lovely, but we think that hot, meaningful sex can also happen between total strangers.” Her movies straddle the hazy line between indie art drama and (intelligent) porn, presenting sexual and emotional authenticity.

In an interview with The Rumpus, Bell discussed her most recent movie, Matinée, and the emphasis on the female character’s sexual autonomy:

“It’s a story of a couple portraying lovers in a play in Amsterdam and the woman, Mariah, struggles with whether or not to actually have sex on stage with her partner on stage. The play is a struggle and she wants it to be a success. It’s very much her, Mariah’s, story. I want people to be into her and invested in this boundary she decides to overcome. She doesn’t let him know what she’s decided to do, so when it comes to her making this move and having sex with him, you’re completely into it, and you want her to have a good time.”


Flirting is a mature, sensitive, coming-of-age film about a young couple at a boarding school in Australia during the 1960s. Danny (Noah Taylor) is the awkward poet, bullied by his peers. Thandiwe (Thandie Newton) is wise beyond her years and faces a different kind of discrimination: racism. Despite their struggles, the two form an intimate bond. Thandiwe exhibits a refreshing confidence and self-determination when it comes to sex and relationships — something often lacking in cinema featuring women of different races. She tells Danny early on that she rarely finds someone complex enough to maintain her interest. Thandiwe isn’t afraid to take the lead during their encounters, reassuring Danny when his awkwardness rears its head. At the same time, she’s not afraid to be vulnerable around him. Flirting takes young adult relationships, and women, seriously.

Antonia’s Line

Marleen Gorris’ feminist fairy tale about generations of mothers and daughters portrays mature women as sexual beings, contains female characters that pursue their desire to have children without a husband, and celebrates female independence with heart.

The Meetings of Anna

Filmmaker Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) travels throughout Europe to screen her latest work and meets with friends, lovers, and strangers during her journey. We witness her life through the dreary commute from train station to taxi, and in hotel rooms where Anna gazes at the night sky. Her multiple sexual encounters are detached, but she remains in control and boldly rejects men on a whim. Permanence of any kind is alien to her. Director Chantal Akerman’s tale of introspection and isolation shows a woman adrift who has become as stark as her surroundings.

La Collectionneuse

Eric Rohmers’ languid beachfront tale of unapologetic female sexuality and smug male superiority reveals a conflict of desire, morality, and intellect. Two men convince themselves that a hedonistic, confident, young woman, dubbed a “collector of men,” wants to seduce them. An attraction develops despite their best intentions. Haydée is indifferent to their conceited fantasy and remains forever out of reach.


A Czech New Wave sex farce, directed by a woman (Vera Chytilová), Daisies substitutes the sexual appetites of two young women with a lust for food (phallic sausages and bananas galore). The girls, both named Marie, construct fluid identities for themselves, keenly aware of their sexuality, toying with the men who pursue them. It’s an exhilarating, surreal, anarchic experiment, framed by the turbulent 1960s.

All About Anna

All About Anna is one of the hardcore porn films marketed for women that Lars von Trier’s company Zentropa created. Directed by Jessica Nilsson, Anna follows a woman who prefers sex with no strings attached. She’s weary of becoming involved with another man after losing the love of her life. That doesn’t stop her from having fun, but she finds herself torn between a new partner and her old relationship. Nilsson cast the film with non-actors, which offers naturalism frequently absent from mainstream pornography. An emphasis on erotic independence, realistic emotional confusion portrayed with sensitivity, and sensuality versus sleaze is the focus — even if the results are uneven. The narrative is predictable, but All About Anna is an interesting experiment nonetheless.