5 Dumb Myths About Women's Bodies We Learned From Movies
Society has gone to weirdly extreme efforts to keep women's bodily functions a secret from everyone, including most women. But it's 2018 now, and with fantastic innovations like libraries and biology classes and, of course, the internet, it's weird to see movies and sitcoms perpetuating incredibly old-fashioned myths. It's not that hard to fact-check this stuff, guys. For instance ...
Myth: To Orgasm, Women Just Need A Little Thrusting
Hollywood sex scenes tend to have a template: Two people make eyes at each other, then we cut immediately to some frantic making out, then straight to some fairly deliberate penis-in-vagina thrusting -- often while both partners are still mostly clothed. This love scene with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore from The End Of The Affair is a pretty standard example (NSFW, as it contains exactly what I described a sentence ago):
Here's a similar sequence playing out with Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. Here's a nearly identical one from Westworld (though to be fair, those are robots, so their bodies may work differently, and also we may be seeing the convergence of multiple confusing timelines there). The point is, if you're a young person using movies and TV as your guide, you'd think straight sex is a matter of some passionate kissing for a few minutes, then penetration followed by an almost immediate, explosive orgasm from her end. No real foreplay or oral sex from the guy -- just a dozen or so thrusts until ecstasy.
It's like Hollywood is trying to set our teenagers up for sad, abrasive failure. In real life, 75 percent of women can't orgasm from penetration alone. It has nothing to do with any inadequacies on their partners' end; it's just the way they're built. They need mouth and hand stuff, and quite a bit of it. Many, many men have had to learn this the hard way, if they learned at all.
So why are movies so determined to show us a brand of sex that in real life would be both unsatisfying and, well, dry? It partly has to do with the prudish standards of the MPAA. Actress Evan Rachel Wood expressed her dismay on Twitter when one particular sex scene from her recent film was cut short, and unsurprisingly, the shots that ended up on the floor were all of oral sex being performed on a woman.
That particular act is almost exclusively seen in indie films, and more mainstream films tend to shy away from it in order to avoid an NC-17 rating. Never mind that movies are more than happy to show oral sex on males (see: What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Sweetest Thing, Carrie, Casino and thousands of others), this routine act is still considered outrageously deviant even in movies that feature gratuitous sex. You are causing bad sex to happen, Hollywood! Stop it.
Myth: Water Breaking Means The Baby Is About To Pop Out
A woman going into labor is either cause for hilarious panic or high drama, depending on the genre you're watching (movies don't sell tickets unless everyone we're watching is upset in some way). But in either case, the scenes tend to play out the same way: The woman isn't quite due yet, but suddenly looks down and sees she's standing in a puddle. This -- her water breaking -- signals the chaos of a thousand wars is about to begin as other characters try desperately to get her to the hospital. "Her water broke! The baby is coming, and it's coming fast! Everybody duck!"
And of course, all of our readers remember Charlotte in the Sex And The City movie, whose water breaks after an encounter with Mr. Big. Immediately she says, "Oh, my God! Taxi!" and off they go. No time to lose! In the only slightly more horrifying film A Quiet Place, the most gut-wrenching sequence kicks off when Emily Blunt's water breaks, signaling that she is just minutes away from giving noisy birth in a world of monsters that attack anything that makes sound.
This is another bit of Hollywood shorthand that is in real life fairly rare -- only about 15 percent of women experience water breaking during labor at all. Sometimes it doesn't even break until labor is well underway, and it's unlikely to be a huge gush of liquid (which is actually amniotic fluid, not water), but more like a trickle.
And contrary to popular belief, if her water breaks at the beginning of labor, it's actually not the start of a mad dash to the hospital in order to prevent the baby from just flopping out onto the floor. More often than not, after a woman's water breaks, contractions usually follow within 12-24 hours. And if you show up at the hospital without contractions being four minutes apart (and generally lasting for about a minute), you'll be shocked to hear hospital staff calmly telling you to come back later.
All of this should be readily apparent to a medical show like Grey's Anatomy, but nope! They'll still amp up the stakes by going straight from water breakage to final delivery. You might be able to chalk these up to writers simply wanting to move the plot forward so we don't have to sit through the tedious parts of labor, but you have to wonder how much time real medical professionals have to spend correcting people on this. Likewise ...
Myth: Labor Is Just Pushing For Several Painful Minutes
Some shows, like Friends, do make the process seem a little less frantic, with characters at least making it to their rooms (beautiful, private rooms, like they're Kate Middleton or something) and getting to talk to the doctor before chaos ensues. Still, when Phoebe gives birth to her triplets, it's a familiar sequence: She shows up after her water breaks, then a couple of scenes later has her first contractions, then she's surrounded by the doctors and nurses telling her to push as hard as she can until the baby is out:
On one hand, Hollywood always makes labor look painful; on the other hand, it also makes it look fast. In real life, active labor lasts around eight hours for first-time mothers (but could also wind up lasting most of a day), and again, that's after the early labor period, which can last for days. When's the last time you've seen a sitcom character mosey to the hospital for childbirth and then ... just kind of hang out overnight?
What they're showing as labor is, in reality, the very end of the process. The pushing is generally happening in the last half hour, and it's really not up to the doctor when you push. According to the What To Expect When You're Expecting website I just linked there, women generally get the irresistible urge to push rather than waiting for instructions, and, in fact, will be told when to take a break by whatever professional is assisting. Yet, in the movie What To Expect When You're Expecting, Elizabeth Banks' delivery plays out in the typical Hollywood fashion.
So, you know, don't use the movie as your guide, if you were thinking it'd save time over reading the book. That's a pretty good life rule in general.
Myth: "Morning After Pills" Are Abortion Pills
This is a weird one, but is also strangely common and extremely dangerous.
In the second season of The Walking Dead, in an episode that made lots of people angry, Rick's wife Lori grabs a handful of pills simply labeled "morning-after pills" in order to terminate her pregnancy. Who wants to raise a baby with hordes of flesh-eating monsters roaming around? Totally understandable, Lori. Of course, after doing this, she quickly makes herself throw up, unable to go through with her post-apocalyptic abortion.
If you don't see the problem yet, well, there you go: The "morning after pill" is not an abortion pill. The morning after pill, or Plan B, ella, or One Step, is emergency contraception that prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex. It can't terminate a pregnancy weeks after the fact. There are other medications that can induce an abortion, but that is not the same thing, hence the internet anger.
If you still don't see the problem, or think this is splitting straws, then you haven't thought about how pro-life groups have tried to get abortion medications pulled from the market and, using the same logic, have gone after morning-after contraception -- they want people to conflate the two. "After all, what is contraception but a super early abortion? Checkmate, liberals!"
Yet even a recent Black Mirror episode, "Arkangel" (directed by Jodi Foster of all people), made the same mistake. It tells the story of a helicopter mother (Rosemarie Dewitt) who catches her daughter having sex with her boyfriend through a brain-embedded tracker that tells her everything about her daughter's body at any moment. In the Black Mirror future, everyone is miserable all the time!
Of course, the app also tells her sometime later that her daughter is pregnant. Desperate for her daughter to not ruin her life, Dewitt slips her some "emergency contraception" in her morning smoothie. When the daughter throws up in school, she learns that EC is the culprit from the school nurse, who both calls the pills "emergency contraception" and then goes on to say, "You're not pregnant anymore." THAT IS NOT HOW IT WORKS.
Again, this episode sparked quite a bit of internet outrage of viewers crying out about TV refusing to learn this important lesson that it's somehow been screwing up for years (a 2007 episode of Veronica Mars titled "There's Got To Be A Morning After Pill" is actually about the abortion drug, RU-486). Look, it doesn't matter if your show is about zombies or the future or sentient cartoon alligators -- if you're writing a scene about terminating a pregnancy, take a few minutes to get the facts right. This stuff matters!
Myth: Just About, Well, Everything They Say About Vaginal Anatomy
The anatomy of the vagina, in general, seems to still mystify Hollywood writers. The way this usually manifests is in the repetition of dumb myths they probably heard in locker rooms or bad stand-up routines.
First, there's all of the talk about "popping" a girl's "cherry" -- meaning breaking the hymen of a virgin, leaving a spot of blood behind. We could bring up any number of scenes from movies involving quick virginity checks or references to first-time sex always leaving blood on the sheets (it has a whole TV Tropes page). But for our example, we'll pick a scene that is at least trying to be progressive about it but still failing.
In Chasing Amy, Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams have a deep conversation about how virginity is lost. Affleck insists virginity is lost when a hymen is broken (implying lesbians like her remain virgins). Adams corrects him by saying she broke hers when she was 10 due to a bike accident. It's a fairly groundbreaking scene, considering how often lesbians get neglected altogether when discussing the subject.
But it still perpetuates the idea that the hymen is something to be pierced, which can only happen from penetration or by suffering some sort of trauma. Fast-forward to the sexy vampire show True Blood, and you'll find the conversation hasn't changed much. One unfortunate plot point features the vampire Jessica, who died as a virgin and only "loses" her virginity as an undead vampire. To her dismay, she finds out the truly horrifying and ridiculous detail that vampires who died with their virginity (i.e. hymens) intact will forever "grow" them back after sex. So Jessica is a virgin forever. Great.
In truth, a hymen isn't some strong layer of skin covering the vagina, poised for the piercing. The hymen is more like tissue paper or plastic wrap, and it doesn't completely seal things off (otherwise fluid couldn't escape). Sure, it can be broken, but it also can just dissolve away over time. They also don't have a big supply of blood, so that old myth of virgins bleeding after their first time (attributed to the hymen breaking) isn't really true either.
Then there's the whole concept of a virgin having a "tight" vagina, whereas "sluts" are loose. And women who've had kids are just unrecognizable down there, apparently. Let's start with Quentin Tarantino and his "Like a Virgin" speech in Reservoir Dogs, in which he explains the song is about a woman who has so much sex that her vagina has become huge, but then meets a guy with a big enough penis to make her feel tight again:
The human body is not, however, made of taffy. Our orifices snap back into shape pretty well. Even when it comes to childbirth, you get plenty of jokes, like in this scene from Knocked Up in which the doctor goes on about how her vagina will resemble a cave after she's had her first kid. While there might be some stretching and even tearing during childbirth (feel free to shudder now), the vagina actually more or less returns to its pre-birthing state after some healing time, especially for young women.
If there is loosening, it's usually slight and happens over time. According to Healthline, "your vagina may become slightly looser as you age or have children, but overall, the muscles expand and retract just like an accordion or a rubber band." Still, it makes for an awfully easy joke at any older woman's expense -- like in The Five-Year Engagement, in which Jason Segel's young new girlfriend says, "You're gonna leave this for saggy tits and a loose vagina?" in reference to ... a childless 29-year-old played by Emily Blunt.
Like much of this list, it's an example of supposedly progressive Hollywood being weirdly puritanical on this subject. This one plays into the ancient idea that women who've had sex are ruined for other partners, and that any woman older than, say, 25 is shamefully useless for romance. It's ignorance with an agenda, spread by people who insist they're the good guys.
Well, if you want to be some kind of positive force for women, Hollywood, maybe start by acting like you've taken a biology class before.
Andrea Romano is a comedy writer, producer, and journalist in NYC. You can find her talking about all kinds of things from feminism to cute puppies on Twitter.
What To Expect When You're Expecting is a much better book than movie.
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