Mary Steenburgen. A woman who, to me, will forever be Red Riding Hood from Shelley Duvall’s 80s extravaganza, Faerie Tale Theatre.
Flash forward too many years and Steenburgen joins Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Jane Fonda in Book Club, a film that makes you wish it was merely as boring as the title.
In one scene Steenburgen is multitasking with pretty decent aplomb: reading 50 Shades of Grey while watering pot plants. Pushed deep into the soul is a moisture meter. As she reads, as she waters, the needle on the meter tells us that things are good and sodden.
Book Club, alas, is replete with scenes just like this. Scenes where female arousal is hinted to but understood as something that has only one means of remedy—a remedy that centres fixedly on a penis.
The gist is that four female protagonists have spent forty years in a book club, and this month they’re reading E.L. James’ every-so-slightly kinky bodice ripper. And, perhaps expectedly, each woman has a very visceral reaction.
So far so good.
This should have been a 7-minute story arc with the deployment of two or three fingers, or alternatively, a suitably shaped object/buzzing device, but instead, audiences are exposed to 104 minutes of women dealing with their horniness in a series of needlessly convoluted ways.
Had Steenburgen (at 65 years old), Keaton and Bergen (both at 72) and Fonda (81) just masturbated, it might have been memorable. The idea of women having sexual needs and then addressing them in ways that don’t normally take 104 minutes might have made for some new and even liberating content. A statement, perhaps, about older women’s sexuality; about sexuality more broadly. Book Club doesn’t offer this.
Instead, the desires stirred by Christian and Anastasia’s red room shenanigans get channelled exclusively into a desire to couple up and maybe have an itch scratched by a dick.
I watched Book Club after months of noticing my social media feed progressively fill with ‘Days Without Sex’ memes.
What I wanted to post—every single time—was: has no one ever thought to just masturbate?
Had Mary Steenburgen just masturbated already, I wouldn’t have had to experience the indignity of watching her slip a blue pill mickey into her husband’s drink so that she could jump him. (Just imagine had the sexes been reversed!)
Had Diane Keaton just masturbated already, I wouldn’t have had to endure the agony of watching her cavort on an inflatable swan with a super sleazy Andy Garcia.
Had Candice Bergen just used her fingers for self-pleasure rather than trolling for talent on Bumble, I wouldn’t have had to watch her trussed like a Turkey in Spanx.
Most schools do a poor job educating kids about the normalcy of arousal and the ways it can be handled that don’t involve someone else. This inadequacy heightens the potency for the depictions we see in pop culture. Alas, film and TV do a pretty shoddy job at presenting masturbation as anything more than just something that young/dumb/full of cum boys do, or alternatively, something that sexy women do in sudsy baths for the viewing pleasure of a salivating audience.
It’s not as if there aren’t better-than-decent screen examples, if you search hard enough. Jane Fonda also stars in the excellent Grace and Frankie, which actually delves into masturbation in later life. And perhaps this is what made Book Club so jarring. There’s Grace! But she’s forgotten everything she learnt about taking care of the business herself and instead is frolicking in a fountain with Don Johnson, a man she hasn’t seen in 40 years but who has, seemingly, returned just when she’s good and soaked.
All because the film doesn’t want to go anywhere near masturbation.
Four women. Four, apparently, well-read women. And none could find her own clitoris?
Book Club opens in cinemas on August 23.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of nine books on gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture. She co-hosts Radio National’s ‘Stop Everything!’ pop culture show and Mamamia’s ‘Sealed Section’ podcast and can be found at: www.laurenrosewarne.com