We’ve been talking about the female gaze again this week — a conversation sparked by the premiere of the beefcake-savvy Magic Mike XXL , which opened in theaters this weekend. Critics are applauding the movie, praising the new sexploitation classic for its sex positivity and focus on women of all shapes, sizes, and colors. If you find yourself feeling starved for cinema that offers more to women than the usual male-centric fare, try these sexploitation films — and a few that blur genres.
Confessions of a Young American Housewife
As we’ve written before, Joe Sarno’s films were “just as concerned with each character’s emotional world as they were with their naked skin.” Released during the dawn of feminism, Sarno directed the steamy story of a 30-something housewife who moves in with her daughter and becomes drawn to the young woman’s bohemian lifestyle, experimenting with group sex and other adventures. Sarno explores the relationship dynamics in the house and captures realistic sex scenes — despite the movie’s soft porn style. And he examines his lead character’s confusion and excitement (Jennifer Welles) with sensitivity.
The Duke of Burgundy
A loving tribute to the Sapphic softcore films of the 1970s, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy wasn’t created during the reigning era of sexploitation, but it certainly looks the part. Strickland reveals the power struggle between a dominant and submissive, two women tucked away in a gorgeous countryside mansion who test the limits of control. The filmmaker approaches their relationship with a humorous eye, but doesn’t mock his characters for their sexual proclivities. It’s also refreshing to see two mature women engaging in a sexual relationship that is as imperfect as it is sensual.
Double Agent 73
One of the only women working in the sexploitation genre, Doris Wishman directed bosomy exotic dancer Chesty Morgan, famous for her 73-inch bust, as a special agent tasked with tracking down a dangerous drug king pin. A camera is implanted inside her breast so she can take photos of evidence during the investigation (yes, really, sound effects and all). In keeping with Wishman’s melodramatic style, the assassin also falls in love with a fellow agent, adding a unique twist to the spy thriller.
Angel Number 9
Boy is an asshole. Girl gets pregnant. Boy kicks her out, but no sooner gets hit by a truck and dies. Boy is reincarnated as a woman so he learns what it’s like to be treated like shit by men. Angel Number 9 has an absurd concept, but Roberta Findlay — another lone female filmmaker in erotic cinema, whose achievements were often overshadowed by husband Michael Findlay (The Touch of Her Flesh) — manages to create a feminist angle to explore the treatment of women and difficult subjects like abortion.
Any of the Ilsa movies
Former Vegas showgirl Dyanne Thorne is the star of the Ilsa sexploitation series — a woman who is as sadistic as she is sexy, but occasionally reveals a sensitive side (having a really great orgasm will do that — at least for Ilsa). Ilsa has an insatiable appetite for men. She’s powerful and defiant, using her body and brains to get what she wants. The films have the male gaze in mind, but Ilsa inspires a sense of empowerment and makes us question the struggles Ilsa and her henchwomen have to endure for equality and recognition.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
A trio of busty outlaw badasses venture through the California desert, kick (male) ass and get off. King of camp Russ Meyer loved to feature physically powerful women in his movies — often making them more intimidating than his (pathetic) male characters. Meyer’s women were ultra vixens, as one of his film titles underlines, and they were impossible to ignore. Meyer muses Kitten Natividad and Tura Satana spoke about the feminist slant in the director’s filmography in a 2004 interview:
Satana: I would say he was a feminist. He loved to make women look good. I have never seen any of the gals in his films look bad. And the men in his movies were always incapacitated in some way. They were either in a wheelchair or on crutches or short of a full deck. He liked to make women strong, make them feel that they were empowered. Natividad: He wanted to glorify women. Satana: And he always made sure there was a moral. The good always won out over evil. You will find that in any of his films.
Je t’aime moi non plus
Erotic, androgynous, and occasionally bleak, Serge Gainsbourg’s 1976 film Je t’aime moi non plus doesn’t always make it comfortable for us to gawk at the film’s attractive leads, Jane Birkin (Ginsbourg’s wife at the time) and Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro. As website A Film Canon explains:
What’s striking is that it never loses its lush romanticism: in fact, the romanticism only seems to be heightened by contrast, lending the sex scenes a quite tender and ravishing quality, even as their discomfiture seems to climax, for Krassky as much as Johnny. And Gainsbourg shoots the whole film like an extended sex scene – his sensibility is inextricably pornographic, if picaresquely pornographic – that beautifully charts out the complex relationship between pleasure and pain, not just in anal sex, but all sexual experience. And, in its yearning to experience sex in every conceivable way – as a gay man, as a lesbian, as a man, as a woman, as pleasure, as pain – it ends up virtualising it, or at least generalising it into an undifferentiated sexual access that feels quite incorporeal, a clear forerunner to both the Cinema du Look and art porn movements.
Gainsbourg’s film is not traditionally labeled sexploitation, but it’s the closest the controversial French singer has ever come with its gauzy ’70s lens. And dumpster sex (NSFW) probably makes it honorary sexploitation, right?
The Laura Gemser Emanuelle films
The “Black Emanuelle” series was created to cash in on the success of the erotic Sylvia Kristel Emmanuelle films that started with Just Jaeckin’s softcore classic. But it inadvertently grew into something unique for ‘70s sleaze, featuring a Dutch-Indo actress as a doggedly determined and super horny investigative journalist and photographer. Laura Gemser’s Emanuelle fights corruption and female oppression (Emanuelle Around the World, for example, finds her hunting down trafficked women), but takes a few detours along the way for hedonistic pleasures (with men and woman). Warning: some of the Joe D’Amato-directed Emanuelle movies feature several controversial and troubling scenes that the talented Gemser objected to (but were shot anyway, sometimes without her knowledge using body doubles). Do your homework before you watch.
If Věra Chytilová’s Daisies was a grade B ’70s hitchhiking softcore film, heavy on the screwball comedy, it might be similar to Teenage Hitchhikers. Two girls seek their independence on the road and get caught up in the predatory whims of, oh, just about everybody.
Tinto Brass’ films
For Brass’ sexploitation side, see 1976’s Salon Kitty and get an uncomfortable crush on Helmut Berger in a Nazi uniform. But if you prefer something on the art porn side of the spectrum, try All Ladies Do It, in which a sexually adventurous woman who is happily married goes on a libidinous spree — all while her husband approves and gets off on it. Brass’ movies feature female protagonists who are unashamed of their sexuality and question the rules of traditional relationships.