Female Filmmakers Come Clean With the Hard Truth about Women, Identity, and Sex

Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet in Girls/Photo © Mark Seliger/HBO
Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet in Girls/Photo © Mark Seliger/HBO

Sex is in the air. It's springtime, after all, and even Big Media has been feeling frisky, venturing out into some pretty risky behavior, experimenting with (sotto voce) this fringe notion of desire that originates in, gasp, women. This week, before the summer's bottleneck of superhero origin stories hits theaters, will see the debut of an original story of a different stripe with Tanya Wexler's "Hysteria," starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal chronicling the advent of the vibrator. Then there's the giddy debate surrounding the frank sex scenes in HBO's "Girls." Is series creator Lena Dunham a masochist or a cynic for revealing her own sexual degradation week after week? Or is she simply bold enough to offer the first lights-on glimpse at the shabby state of human intimacy in the age of YouPorn?

The answer (clearly the latter) is kind of beside the point. Yes, much has been made recently of Hollywood's female problem. Nicole Sperling and John Horn's groundbreaking investigative piece in the LA Times landed like a, um, bombshell, with its statistical proof that the Academy's white male demographics rival that of a 1950s gentleman's club. And female directors didn't fare much better in this year's Cannes lineup. But we'd argue that there's been a groundswell of boundary-pushing projects by, for, and about women taking agency over their own happiness and, dare we say it, pleasure.

Just this weekend, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko confirmed that she'll be spearheading an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's stunning wilderness self-discovery memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This news also comes with a slight caveat: Reese Witherspoon is attached to play the emotionally unstrung twentysomething, who, reeling from a recent divorce following the loss of her mother, presses the reset button on her life and sets out on an eleven-hundred-mile hike that would take her from the Mojave Desert to Washington State over the course of four years. Beyond being an exquisite piece of (wo)man vs. wild wilderness journalism, which combines the built-in suspense of a survival story with the journey from hubris to humbled in the face of nature's power trajectory of Jon Krakauer's best work, Strayed (who studied fiction writing at Syracuse with George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill) infuses Wild with a novelistic wit and introspection while never allowing herself to dip into the solipsistic digressions Elizabeth Gilbert indulged a little too often in Eat, Pray, Love.

Wild, however, isn't about a woman owning her relationship with sex per se. It plays with some of the same themes of owning agency and finding power and a perverse thrill in a stripped-down state of vulnerability in a literary milieu -- wilderness survival -- often dominated by men (think: "127 Hours" or "Into the Wild"). This is definitely new terrain for Cholodenko, whose previous work has been firmly rooted in such heady urban milieu as the New York art world ("High Art"), LA's Rock n' Roll libertines ("Laurel Canyon"), and upwardly mobile lesbians ("The Kids Are All Right"). But Cholodenko's unique gift for mining startling emotional truths out of even the most extreme situations -- remember the scene in "The Kids Are All Right" when Annette Bening's character gradually melts in on herself as she learns Julianne Moore has cuckholded her with Mark Ruffalo? -- could guide this adaptation beyond the tropes of its somewhat formula-bound genre into uncharted emotional terrain.

As it happens, Julianne Moore is at the center of this weekend's other sign that women filmmakers are increasingly putting their own stamp on stories of female sexual angst and awakening. In this case, Moore has signed on to Kimberly Peirce's remake of Stephen King's Carrie in the role of the title character's fanatically religious mother who wages a crusade-like battle against her telekinetically endowed daughter's budding sexuality. The original film, directed by the 1970s pioneer of sexual thrillers, Brian De Palma, offered a groundbreaking exploration of the angst (religious or otherwise) surrounding a young woman's sexual coming of age. This is an inspired choice for Peirce, who made her directorial debut with "Boys Don't Cry," a searingly visceral take on the panic surrounding a teenage girl's sexual identity (as a guy). Among the many reasons this project fascinates us is the rare  rare opportunity it affords to compare and contrast how our views of young women and sex have evolved since the '70s, and the differences between a male and female director's point of view on the bloody battle to survive high school, hormones, and one hellishly controlling mother.

As much as we've appreciated bold works like Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," which have asked tough questions about the lingering effects of the Judeo-Christian discomfort with women and sexuality, we're particularly excited to finally get the "she said" version of the story. What are your thoughts on the sources -- political, cultural, social -- of this sudden surge of female sexual sovereignty on film and TV? What are some of films and books -- past, present and future -- you feel have best captured the terror and exhilaration of coming to terms with our inner sexy beasts?