Everything the movies taught us about sex is a lie

Alex Casey talks to the women behind Body Double, a show in the Auckland Arts Festival that seeks to destroy traditional ideas of sex, desire and female passivity in the bedroom.

It’s 9am and the Q Theatre cafe is blasting the song that, we’re excitedly informed, Julia Croft lost her virginity to. ‘The Truth’ by Handsome Boy Modelling School, in case you were wondering. “We’re quite used to sharing intimate details like that,” chips in Karin McCracken, Croft’s co-performer in Body Double, currently playing in the Auckland Arts Festival. Created by Eleanor Bishop (Boys) and Croft (Power Ballad) with McCracken (Jane Doe), the casual virginity soundtrack reveal might as well be a moment straight out of the show itself. It’s just as personal, disarming and unexpectedly funny.

Using everything from corny sex scene supercuts to aerosol cream and saggy inflatables, Body Doublesmashes through traditional ideas of desire and female passivity in a series of frantic, increasingly messy, vignettes. Think Tolstoy, a rain-soaked Gosling and dates at Coco’s Cantina. Drawing heavily from their own experiences with sex and dating – which are generously detailed but bound by white, able-bodied, heteronormative privilege – the scenes in Body Double will be relatable to some and confronting to, at the very least, the white-haired people who shuffled in their seats in front of me throughout the entirety of the show.

Obviously, this show has been percolating for a while, has there been any impact on Body Double through the #MeToo era?

Karin McCracken: It has changed how other people frame the show, but not how we frame it.

Julia Croft: #MeToo started when we were in rehearsal, and I think it’s 100% right that it has coloured how people viewed the work. We never intended for it to be a direct response to that, although those themes are sifting in there somewhere.

Eleanor Bishop: I mean, #MeToo wasn’t the start of people talking about sexual violence in a very public way, the 60s and the 70s started that. But it’s shifted up to another gear recently.

JC: Our show is more about the gender dynamics in spheres that are consensual and sometimes loving, the idea that even private, positive, sexual experiences might still exist within pre-existing structures. We’re looking at it from the other end of #MeToo, basically.

KM: It’s a response to it to the extent that it must be – because all these things are connected – and it is very difficult to talk about experiences in sex without no peripheral recognition of that stuff. But it’s certainly not a focus.

So the show is less interested in outward “violence” and more about power?

EB: Yeah, it’s also less about the other person and much more narcissistic, I guess. We centralised ourselves as the main subjects, because so often I have felt like I am not the main subject in my own sexual experiences. You spend all this time worrying about the other person, and what you’re supposed to be doing, or something that has happened in the past. Or even, when you are younger, wondering about how you even orgasm in the first place.

JC: Previous to #MeToo there was that fourth wave feminist idea of ‘just ask for what you want’ which is great, but is also deeply simplifying something that is incredibly complex. For me, as a woman, even knowing what you want and saying what you want is built into a lot of learned narratives and bad 90s films. I think a lot of online feminist discourse around that is too simplified, so we are trying to unpack a bit of that.

KM: And I think once you know what you do want and you know how to ask for it, to actually implement it in your life is really, really difficult.

JC: And that’s not just about sex, right? That’s about is everything.  

EB: That’s capitalism!

JC: That’s the world!

Ask for that pay rise, girl bosses!

EB: LEAN IN!!!!

So there’s Roland Barthes and Anna Karenina popping up in the show, but can you tell me more about the 90s film texts? I know, Julia, that Titanic is a big part of your… situation

JC: It is. We talked a lot about those key films that you still feel the ripples of in your adult life, Titanic is a big one for me and The Notebook is big for these guys.

EB: I really don’t know why She’s All That is just sort of hanging around in my brain. It’s very embarrassing. There isn’t even a sex scene! I think it’s the idea of the pursuit. And the really hot boy finally seeing you for who you really are and being changed by you.

JC: I know this shit it deeply problematic, but I still love it. I love Titanic, I don’t want to stop watching it when I feel like I really need to have a good cry. I can’t be someone who watches exclusively 1970s feminist films. Fuck no, I want to watch Titanic. I want to love it and realise that it’s also a singular narrative.

If we cut to 10-15 years later, could it be that porn is now replacing movies as these formative sexual awakening texts for young people?

JC: I’m so fucking grateful I came of age before porn. But, for me, it wasn’t about the sex in Titanic – although it is beautiful – it was more that idea of waiting for your one true love. You look at them, and you just know. Love at first sight and all that.

KM: In The Notebook, there’s the idea that the best sex you’ll ever have is going to be with the person you are with for the rest of your life… that’s fucked.

JC: I think young people now are dealing with a different landscape that we had to deal with. It’s deeply concerning. I did some research for The Real Sex Talk about young people and porn and it seemed like everyone came to the conclusion that they don’t really know what the impact was going to be. Gut feeling? It’s not going to be good.

And then, of course, the sex robots are coming.

JC: Totally. I was watching a documentary about them the other day and started thinking: why are they are all really thin, attractive, white woman? And then I started to get buzzed out by Siri, why is she a women’s voice? Why have they chucked in a bit of a dulcet tone in there? Can Siri talk dirty?

The show is intensely personal to you three but also touching on very current feminist issues, is it possible to consider inclusivity when you are dealing in such specifics?

JC: It’s really uncomfortable and it’s really challenging. I got a fright halfway through making the show when I realised that it absolutely wasn’t intersectional in that way. But I think that leaning into autobiography is our response to that.

We are not trying to say this is about all women, this is about me and Karin and Eleanor’s experiences which will be through a particular lens. The hope is that the specificity of it will touch on a certain universality, but we are not giving a complex view of sexuality as a whole.

EB: I would just love to see more shows like this made by different people in this sort of space. People have a tendency to think ‘oh here’s the one show about this one thing and now it’s all done’, but there’s lots of this work going on in Auckland at the moment.

Tell me more about the female gaze. What is it? Where is it?

JC: Have you heard Jill Soloway’s speech at the Toronto international film fest called The Female Gaze? For a while, I read that everyday as a manifesto. It articulates really well what the female gaze could be, not just shifting the gaze – so looking back at the male body – but the idea of looking with feeling, if that makes sense.

There’s this shot in Transparent where the camera is at gut level going up the escalator with a character, up and up and up. It creates this really sick feeling that doesn’t just show you the thing, but gives you an embodied experience of what it would feel like. It’s a gaze connected to another logic, one that might be more of the body.

So it’s not just Carlos Spencer in a bathrobe?

KM: Well, let’s not discount that.

EB: That’s part of it too.

Who is Body Double for?

JC: Women. It’s great if men come along, there’s weirdly been one dude on his own in every show. But my feeling is that it is not consciously made for men. They can come along and enjoy it, but it’s not for them.

KM: My answer is always that it’s for anyone who shows up. I think, if you are engaged, anyone will get something out of it.

EB: I know that some couples have had some very robust discussions out of it.

Anything else you want to say?

JC: Just… come.

KM: Pun?

JC: No pun intended.


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