Nick Davis, in his essay “The View from Shortbus” offers several theoretical frameworks that I find very helpful when thinking about sex in cinema. While I don’t necessarily agree that the borrowed notion of Michael Warner’s “counterpublic” is such an ideal fit for approaching the operation of “real sex” in the films cited by Davis, a couple of the points he arrives at through this line of thought do stand out. I disagree that the rubric of challenging hegemonic boundaries of public and private unites the films more than the ways in which they depict sex, because I think that the inclusion of sex scenes which show genitalia frankly is a rather specific boundary to cross; However, I deeply appreciate his claim that these films are better looked at as varying and comparable approaches to disrupting what narrative film and popular media can do, as opposed to analyzing any one of them in relation the media as a whole, given, as Davis points out, the extremely disparate contexts in which each film was produced and the danger of producing a “one-dimensionally transgressive” standard of subversion when drawing generals from a particular example (634-5). Additionally, Davis’ pointing out that “real sex” tends to refer to a straight and phallocentric definition of “sex” – i.e. the uncensored penis as the indicator of realness – helpfully shows the limits to the subversive potential of any discussion which uses such terminology as “real” or “authentic” without examining what sets that standard (633).
The only film I’ve actually seen amongst those discussed by Davis is the titular Shortbus, and having seen it I find Davis’ analysis both illuminating and lacking. Where it’s illuminating for me is where Davis points out that two of the (narratively) climactic sex scenes are exceptional in being the only ones not to show the act explicitly, suddenly reverting to more typical cinematic representations of montaged, expressive, waist-and-up shots of those involved. This certainly does recast the film’s earlier refusals of such depictions, but not in such a conclusive way for me as they seem to for Davis. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that some of the other evidence Davis cites for his analysis are simply not valid readings of the text; in particular, he reads Severin’s narrative as disappointing for implying that “her ‘human interactions,’ including the sex in which she participates, are not ‘real’ because of her preferred erotic mode of S/M” (emphasis from Davis), labeling this shortcoming as a “reactionary boundary” of the film (631). Davis apparently missed that Severin’s status as a dominatrix is very explicitly painted as a job for her, and at that, one which she repeatedly makes clear is not her “preferred” occupation. To me, the film’s acknowledgement that sex is, for some, a job, and as with any job, that this can ruin the ability to enjoy its more personally fulfilling potentials, is an acknowledgement of a seldom addressed but not uncommon reality that strengthens the movie overall by providing yet another alternative of what sex can be in a person’s life. I also have to disagree with Davis’s reading of a reactionary kernel in the pairing off of boys at the film’s end, given how strangely these couples fall apart and/or come together and the shifting sexual boundaries amongst them, and how illegible this would make them within any normative framework for what constitutes “a couple” (631).
Davis, Nick. “The View From The Shortbus, Or All Those Fucking Movies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.4 (2008): 623-37. Web.
Shortbus. Dir. John Cameron Mitchell. THINKFilm, 2006. Streamed Online.