Pushing back against the extremes of sex positivity, Lena Dunham established her reputation. She authored and appeared in the second episode of the television show Girls, in which her character submits to a sex partner’s desire that they live out a nymphet fantasy. It will undoubtedly make others wonder “Why is this self-respecting lady doing this, and if so, is she a self-respecting woman?” Lena predicted at the time. Then she went on to explain her reasoning: “In our contemporary Facebook, texting, and Twitter environment, relationship statuses are becoming more and more ambiguous. And from being damaging, it may also be incredibly interesting. You don’t realize how invested they are in you.
What’s become of Lena? That is one of the thoughts that went through my head when I finished Sharp Stick, her first film since 2011, after two tries. What is wrong with this movie, they asked? Is it a measure of the folly of modern critics? Or is she trying to get us to rescind her? Or has she always been as stupid, egotistical, and narrow-minded as her nastiest detractors claimed?
Even explaining the movie’s plot makes me feel nuts. Sarah Jo, the main character, is a 26-year-old caregiver for a youngster who has Down syndrome who begs his man-child father to take her virginity (she had an emergency hysterectomy at age 17, which sexually stunted her). She instantly changes into a childish nymphomaniac as a result of this. The mother, a sarcastic and domineering businesswoman played by Lena herself in some twisted self-hating gesture, finds out quite early on in the occasionally mushroom-fueled, occasionally porn-fueled romance. She discovers this information on the kitchen floor after slipping in a puddle of her own amniotic fluid. After losing her job, Sarah Jo seeks comfort in a moral porn star who resembles her ex-lover. (He says things like, “I feel so connected to you,” and “I love your commitment to women’s own expression” to the camera.)
Sarah Jo sets out on a voyage of self-discovery after realizing she’s not very good at sex. Along the way, she hangs primary school arts and craftsy checklists of extreme sexual activities about her apartment and asks guys to partake in them via fetish apps. She occasionally leaps out of the bushes and yells, “I did bukkake!” at the family she once worked for. The infant and crippled child react in distress.
The movie has garnered some positive feedback, as can be seen in Instagram advertisements with suggestive images of Kristine Froseth, the movie’s entirely conventionally attractive star and a model for Chanel, Armani, and Prada. It was “both ludicrous and enlightening,” according to Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair labeled it “Supremely Funny” (in fairness, they were running an interview with Lena; to be honest might have been impolitic). However, most sources have criticized it in a welcome display of sober judgment in the face of a star-studded movie that was quite diverse—possibly to awkwardly rebuff critics of Girls’ whiteness. There’s no point in listing all the reasons I detest it, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times once said.
Perhaps because of a puzzling issue surrounding the making of this horrible movie, critics feel uncommonly free to be candid about it. In order to consult on the movie, it appears that Forseth, who plays Sarah Jo, contacted Amy Gravino, an autistic activist well-known for her “Why Autism is Sexier Than You Think” TedTalk. Following that, the writers decided Forseth’s character would not be autistic. Gravino, however, claims that the character is “obviously” labeled as being autistic and that the “dehumanizing” movie contributes to the “infantilization of those on the spectrum.”
A baby-talking bartender tries to teach Sarah Jo how to drink while she clutches a wine cup with two hands like a sippy cup and repeatedly smears yogurt all over her mouth. She is dressed in the upscale baby clothes that are so popular among overweight and wealthy people today. Her mother inquires, “Is it a wiping issue?” when her sister requests her to quit publicly scratching her genitalia. And it goes beyond credulity and into broad comedy for this 26-year-old to react to “Can I go down on you?” with (bug-eyed smile, high-pitched squeal): “Down where?!” She is the devoted sister of a popular TikToker who cannot identify the father of her child.
The movie’s marketers also provided me Lena’s “Director’s Statement” and a screener, telling me it was “worth reading.” The last three movies I’ve reviewed all posed the same exegesis: is this occurrence a sign of patronizing audiences or apprehension of their wrath? The Statement appropriately shown that this movie is philosophically infallible: amid the epidemic, the chronically ill Dunham began to think back on her life. She created a character in Sarah Jo who underwent a full hysterectomy as a result of severe endometriosis, and who also dealt with emotional difficulties, such as “frequently feeling as if life and romance, and womanhood on the whole, are a secret that everyone is in on except for me.”
When Lena thought about how sexually active women are portrayed in movies, she considered how frequently they are either killed off or at the very least go through “a torture of judgment, of questioning, of self-doubt and loneliness and regret over choices that should ultimately just be part of the fabric of self-actualization as it can be for their male counterparts.” She “started to see a figure whose sexual journey would be completely unique, untarnished by shame or self-hate or the projections of others. She would use sex to heal her body from a history of medicalized trauma and cultural projection rather than to destroy it. Sarah Jo’s “private and judgment-free sexual adventure” was born out of this.
How do you depict that? “I pushed myself to create this script with honesty and a certain insane purity,” Lena says in her closing statement. When I inquired as to what this story required of me, I just heard Sarah Jo say, “Please don’t attempt and make me cute.” So I gave in to her fury.
Although Sarah Jo may have a certain “demented purity,” is it really countercultural to portray her empowering herself by watching porn and zipping through the “categories” with nameless strangers? Do modern media narratives really underestimate female pleasure in a world where yonic prostheses are advertised on public transportation? Is it really subversive to portray a Scandinavian model pleading for more shot while dressed in the newest trends? Girls, in contrast, had the guts to portray Lena Dunham in her undressed, naked state.
Lena has always been brilliant because she pays attention to the setbacks of sexual emancipation. When I was 17, I saw her debut movie, Tiny Furniture, at the neighborhood arthouse theater; it stood out among a sea of EU-funded international WWI dramas and mumblecores about chubby Portlanders with terrible tattoos because it was so brutally current. One of today’s best depictions of the hook-up culture’s false promises occurs in the film’s last scene, in which Lena’s character ultimately seduces the hot guy by allowing him to pull down her pants and briefly use her in a disused drain pipe.
What ever became of that Lena? She has always had the appearance of being a dreadful person, but in her early writing, her failings were shown with a sharp focus that cut through the clutter. She appeared to be aware of how horrible each of her characters was. Why does she now assert that “I think we have enough message in society, and perhaps in my 20s I contributed to it, that stated, like, “porn is ruining sex, and it’s making it so hard for people””?
The rubbernecking curiosity of the worst railway disasters is what makes Sharp Stick interesting. However, the coming-of-age via kink here lacks so much realism, let alone nuance, that it almost looks like a dystopian parody of a 2010s sex frolic. Though Lena has always been so terrible, if her strange, borderline paedophilic fantasy fails, it’s a shame because she used to be so remarkable rather than a vindication. Lena is either one of the generation’s worst losers or the most talented performer ever.
Why this desire of painless sex and secret meetings with shady online strangers? Why in the world would this be a method of recovering from sexual trauma? Since the movie Sharp Stick ends in classic white knight style, I guess the director had trouble convincing herself either. A dashing porn industry PA who won’t have sex with her before getting to know her (which she’s not interested in) is Sarah Jo’s savior. Instead, he makes extraordinary efforts to “heal her trauma.” He exchanges her fan mail with the moral porn star she is infatuated with in a selfless act, and the star advises her to be “proud of your fucking scars.” Finally, she concedes to his affection by deviating from the script and allows him to tenderly caress her.
Do female characters really desire the hyper-effective, attachment-free anti-intimacy of their male counterparts? I believe this is a common issue with feminist art. Women don’t get an Alfie, as Lena lamented in her Director’s Statement, but do they want one? Even Carrie Bradshaw eventually fell in love with Mr. Big, and in Sally Rooney’s most recent book, a few hundred pages of light BDSM neatly tie up in two couples with a newborn baby. Primogeniture and patriarchy are undoubtedly the worlds from which the marriage story emerges, but perhaps letting go of all sentiment and sensitivity is also a patriarchal illusion.
The carefree mother in this story is a cautionary tale, as is the sister who, as her mother callously admits during what seems to be an abortion party, is unable to carry a baby into the “living realm.” I don’t think Lena could resist a little nuance. The sole sexy scene in the movie is the final, gentle, vanilla one; the (lazily repeating) montage of Sarah Jo and her numerous partners is by no means seductive.
The title of this article may give it away, as Sarah Jo claims that her sexual quest will be similar to when she was a child and the doctor was drawing blood and said, “This will just be a sharp stick,” but I knew it would hurt more than they said, so I beat them to it in my mind and that was my power.
‘I knew it would hurt more than they said,’ I believe Lena said in reference to the supposed sexual liberation.