In a recent country-wide survey of search terms entered into the website Pornhub – the Internet’s largest repository for all things pornographic – it was revealed that the single most searched-for word in the entire country, bypassing the 2nd-place term by a substantial margin, was the word “lesbian.” It was followed, weirdly enough, by the terms “step-sister.” I guess when you don’t leave the house – as internet culture dictates – you begin having sexual fantasies about your live-in siblings-by-marriage.
I know several lesbians, and, I admit, I have consumed lesbian-themed pornography. It is a fair assessment, I think, to point out that there is certainly a two-fold definition to the word “lesbian.” On the one hand, it describes a real-life female person who is attracted to other females, and who is equipped with all the complexities and foibles of an everyday human. On the other hand, it is a taxonomic subgenre of porn, constructed for the consumption of heterosexual and bisexual males.
Before you jump down my throat, yes, I know there are women in the world who consume visual pornography. Indeed, with the proliferation of the form, more and more women are consuming it than ever. But it would be unwise – and incorrect – to assume they hold any sort of lion’s share of the vast porn industries. The bulk of pornography is consumed by men, and is consumed at a substantial margin. A perusal of the internet reveals that the number of regular female consumers of pornography can be as low as 3% (unlikely) and as high as 18% (perhaps closer).
I state all of this as a framing device for exploring the themes of Park Chan-Wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden, quite easily one of the best films of the year, and certainly the most feminist. The Handmaiden is a film that tackles – head-on – the very salient notions of The Male Gaze in the modern world.
The Male Gaze, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is used in media studies – and notably in porn studies – to imply that all film and TV has a very particular point of view. When it comes to the way women are depicted in media – and the way they are persistently sexualized – implies that most media is made by men for the consumption of other men. Do you think women want to watch Jack In the Box commercials that are populated by Plasticine bikini babes? I’m guessing not.
The Handmaiden is a film that is about, among other things, the ill uses of pornography, an important topic in the modern age. I don’t want to retrace the film’s plot too much, as it is a wonderfully twisted web of rococo theatrics, melodramatic twists, and deliciously lurid storytelling that I feel the viewer should experience on their own. In brief, The Handmaiden is about a young con-woman (Kim Tae-Ri) who is ordered into the employ of a reclusive Japanese noblewomen (Kim Min-Hee) with the task of guiding her into the waiting arms of a con-man who would wed the noblewoman and strip her of her fortune before committing her into a mental institution. The first twist is that the young con-woman/handmaiden ends up falling in intense love/lust with the noblewoman herself. The noblewoman, meanwhile, seems to have her very first romantic stirrings toward the handmaiden.
There are then 50 more plot twists.
We eventually learn, however, that one of the reasons the noblewoman has been so cloistered away from the world is that she has been forced, in a twisted form of sexual indentured servitude, to enact and read ancient pornographic texts for a waiting audience of male onlookers who seek to buy the hottest smut history has to offer. The seller of the smut – an aging creep – demonstrates his wears by training, from girlhood, certain women to enact what’s on the page. Kim Min-Hee is his latest slave.
These men, these buyers of smut, have entered into a state of mind that may seem all to familiar in a porn-saturated culture. While I am positive on the proliferation of pornography – I feel it’s a great way to keep sexuality a more active part of the cultural conversation – one would be irresponsible to ignore its negative aspects. A lot of young men have entered into a dangerous world where porn has invited them to see, with a stronger and stronger sensibility, that women are only sexual objects. Indeed, that all women are now expected to be slutty dynamos who regularly do more and more extreme sexual things. In their own minds, many modern teenage boys – even if they are virgins – fancy themselves to be the Marquis de Sade.
Most teenage boys consume pornography healthily, but I have encountered – and you likely have to – a dangerous tendency for men to eroticize and verbally abuse every woman they meet. They see women as objects to masturbate with, and are open in their dark language about treating women roughly and callously. It’s part of what has come to be known as rape culture. An afternoon on 4Chan will reveal this. By the way, an afternoon on 4Chan is not something I recommend to anyone.
The Handmaiden, while a period piece, seems to be addressing this dark side of the male gaze directly. If you live in the deep trenches of porn for too long, and you don’t have a sexuality beyond what you’re masturbating to, you can grow into a creepy porn-monger who seeks to use women, and who sees lesbians as performers for your own titillation.
Of course, what place to actual lesbians have in this universe? It’s here that the feminism enters the picture. In a universe where gazing males seek to marginalize women as sexual objects, their intelligence can be underestimated. And, as you will discover over the course of The Handmaiden, a pair of female lovers can outwit, outsmart, and, most importantly, out-sex their male counterparts. There are damning scenes in The Handmaiden wherein a pair of women actively destroy large amounts of porn that had been eroding the minds of the men who had them read it. This is not only cathartic for the characters, but offers a timely catharsis for the women in the audience. Is this what makes men treat you like shit? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s certainly not helping right now.
The film is not moralizing about its anti-porn stance, though; it doesn’t seem to object to porn in principle. It does, however, have a point to make about the way porn is too often taken too far by too many men. Porn can indeed harm one’s perspective if they lose sight of its humanity. The people in porn are just people, and it’s fine to enjoy sexuality. But don’t let the porn stand between you and human beings.
Indeed, the final scene of the film is an explosion of sexual energy, wherein two women take the time to, essentially, “take it back.” Lesbians enjoying sex is not done for your benefit, bub. It’s done for them.
An analysis of modern porn culture is just one of the many facets of a rich, glorious, gorgeously made film, however. The Handmaiden is also just a corker of a thriller that you will not predict, and will keep you guessing. It’s theatrical and lurid and beautiful and enjoyable, and just happens to be the most feminist film of 2016.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.