Getting off on John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus: American sex and sexuality
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center
It is a common truism that reality can’t be copyrighted, but it can be manufactured, packaged, and marketed. Increasingly in our interconnected and digital world we are confronted by a plethora of images designed to influence us to buy certain realities. No images are more prevalent or artificial than the images of sex as products that circulate throughout American culture. From marketing pitches, to romance novels, to feature films, to internet peep shows: we are a prudish society that feeds on illusions of sex.
In these circulating narratives, from the idealistically romantic fairytales of Hallmark and Hollywood to the mindless sexual Olympics of contemporary pornography, sex is represented as a skill to be mastered in an individualistic quest to be number one. Interpersonal relations are psychological mind games which involve prescribed “rules” for success, and the pursuit of sexual fulfillment becomes a modern variant of bucket-listing as we check off various acts necessary to feel good about ourselves.
If we fail to perform to the level of these constructed fantasies then there is a new pharmaceutical pill (for a price) to make us hard, to renew our vigor, or to chase away our anxieties. If we feel our interpersonal skills need polishing there is always the advice of a new guru, in a multitude of packaged forms, presented for a fee, available to ease your anxieties.
Unrealistic body images, as destructive as they are in the development of our self-image and self-confidence, are doubled in their effect by the unrealistic expectations of contemporary sexual myths. In American society, sexuality is often understood as a private and sacrosanct aspect of our identity. Fragmented, separated, isolated, impermeable, we become easier targets for unrealistic myths and romantic fantasies.
John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus is an honest exploration of a society that fetishizes sex, but rarely truthfully addresses issues of human sexuality. Despite the uncensored trailer’s emphasis (easily googled), the very real sex in the film is minimal, although very explicit. Instead, Shortbus is a powerful exploration of our psychosexual hang-ups, our collective/individual pain (the setting is post 9/11 New York City), the need for a candid exploration of human sexuality and, most importantly, the redemptive power of human engagement.