Neither the 19th-century doctor nor his contented new patient, Mrs. Daldry, realize that the electrical contraption he has designed to cure hysteria, a common female ailment in the Victorian era, is actually a sexual aid or that her sensation of “dancing on hot coals — and down — down there — cold and hot to the touch — my heart is racing” has anything to do with erotic pleasure.
The point, as Ms. Ruhl shows, is how much control the mostly male medical establishment exercised over women, and the degree of ignorance women (and men) frequently had about their own bodies.
To a 21st-century audience, bombarded 24/7 with graphic sexual images and language, such prim naïveté is hard to imagine. American culture so openly embraces sexuality that you practically expect souvenir vibrators to be sold in the lobby of the Lyceum Theater, just as umbrellas with parrot heads are for sale nearby at “Mary Poppins.”
But as Ms. Ruhl herself acknowledged in an interview, today’s overexposure can exert its own brand of tyranny over attitudes toward sex. The difference now, say media, feminist and cultural critics, is that the mostly male-run film and television industries, as well as the profit-driven medical and pharmaceutical establishment, can aggressively promote their own self-interested standards of beauty, sexiness and normality.
“Men comprise the majority of the creative community,” said Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, and one result is “male fantasies of women’s sexuality.” Dr. Lauzen studied the 2008-9 television season, surveying more than 2,100 of the most powerful jobs in prime-time network broadcasting, and found that only one out of four was held by a woman.
She did a similar examination of the film industry, which revealed that of more than 2,700 people who worked on the top 250 films at the domestic box office last year, women accounted for 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors. Nearly a quarter of those films employed no women in any of those key jobs.
Focusing on directors, the Lauzen team found that women made up a mere 9 percent of the total — the same as in 1998.
The way that these mostly male creators and executives portray female sexuality include women who resemble Victoria’s Secret models, voracious female libidos and routine pairings of older men with women 20 and 30 years younger. The new film “Crazy Heart,” released this week, which matches Jeff Bridges, 60, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, 32, is just the latest example.
“The Proposal,” a hit over the summer that starred Sandra Bullock, 45, and Ryan Reynolds, 33, is among the few films that switch the age disparity. Generally, in these sorts of films, Dr. Lauzen noted, “the entire story has to revolve around explaining that relationship, because how can it be that a younger man would find an older woman attractive.” An older man-younger woman relationship, by contrast, is “just accepted, no explanation needed.”
Exceptions to the male view are “startling because you almost never see them,” Dr. Lauzen added, mentioning as an example the TNT cable series “Saving Grace,” which stars Holly Hunter and was created by a woman, Nancy Miller, who also serves as executive producer. In scenes that depicted Grace’s lover fulfilling her sexual desires without reciprocation, “it was about her pleasure, not his pleasure,” Dr. Lauzen said.
One twist in the new film “Up In the Air” is that a female character exhibits what is considered typical male behavior: sex without emotional attachment.
Ms. Ruhl, who spoke from her home in New York, said: “We get a lot of the male gaze on female sexuality. In the theater, a lot of woman have to be naked onstage.”
In “In the Next Room,” Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) ends up standing in front of the audience, nude, while his wife (Laura Benanti) does not.
“I don’t take it lightly to ask an actor to take his clothes off onstage,” Ms. Ruhl said, but added that she felt that it was important in this context. “It is about his character’s vulnerability, but also about her looking at him. I feel we see a lot of examples of men looking at women, and audiences’ being asked to take the male point of view. We’re so unconscious of it.”
What has largely disappeared from the media are distorted portrayals of women as frigid or uninterested in sex. What has replaced them, however, are shows like “Cougar Town,” “Private Practice,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” — all on ABC — that frequently portray women as rapacious sexual predators, always in the mood for sex and without qualms about bedding down as many men as possible.
Lenore Tiefer, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center and a sex therapist, complained about “the standardization of sex.”
“Everybody has to like sex, want sex, be good at sex,” she added. “In the face of that, it’s inevitable that people feel insecure.”
Older “characters who look their age and have sex are still taboo,” Dr. Lauzen said, adding that on screen, women “age faster” than men.
Normal signs of the passing years are erased, so that anyone over 35 still has a whipped-cream complexion and an ice-cream-stick figure. Because viewers are so unaccustomed to seeing faithful renditions of older women, when they do appear, people assume that the characters are older than they really are. The rampant use of Botox, facial fillers or cosmetic surgery among female celebrities has caused the eyes to readjust.
Not propositioning anyone this week or engaging in passionate love before the dinner dishes are cleared? Perhaps it’s because you have a low sex drive or wear a size larger than 2.
These impressions spill into everyday life. Plastic surgeons have said that a newfound interest in “vaginal rejuvenation” is due to widespread images on television, films, the Internet and in magazines. Women have become conscious of how their own genital features stack up against others’.
No reliable statistics exist, but Dr. Tiefer said anecdotal evidence about a growing number of surgeons offering such procedures and the first global symposium next month in Orlando, Fla., on a “new subspeciality,” genital cosmetic surgery, are evidence of a trend. (All the listed speakers are men.)
More common — and contentious — is the grab bag of conditions frequently categorized under female sexual dysfunction. Last month a German pharmaceutical company announced that it was starting the pivotal Phase III trials of a drug intended to treat a form of this dysfunction and increase a woman’s sexual desire.
While Viagra treats a man’s mechanical problem — by directing more blood to the penis — this female medication, flibanserin, switches the terrain from the body to the brain. The company, Boehringer Ingelheim, is assuming that a failure in brain chemistry is at the root of the problem, though it admits that it does not really know.
Psychologists and physicians dispute whether such a disorder even exists, with some noting that the medical establishment has a long history of pathologizing normal female experiences. For decades, for example, male physicians treated menopause as if it were a disease requiring pharmaceutical fixes. Female sexual dysfunction may have no more substance than the hysteria epidemic among women in the 19th century.
In 2003 The British Medical Journal published an article that called female sexual dysfunction “the freshest, clearest example we have” of a disease created by pharmaceutical companies. The author, Roy Moynihan, pointed out that two scientists who had publicized information on this so-called affliction had financial ties to Pfizer, which was developing a drug for the condition.
In reality, scientists understand very little about female desire and the interaction between the mind and the body.
“I’m happy if women 50, 60, 70 have sex,” Dr. Tiefer said, explaining that what she objects to is the stigma that has become associated with not sharing those feelings and sensations. The problem is “the mandatory participation in high-frequency, high-pleasure, high-desire culture,” she said, the pressure to have “sex womb to tomb.”
In “In the Next Room,” Ms. Ruhl said, she was interested in the search for an authentic connection between the physical and the emotional, between two people and within an individual as well. “Neither terrifying silence nor an excess of speech really helps that,” she said.