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Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: An Ode To Doris Wishman

Pornography usually sends shivers down the spine. Whether it’s shivers of disgust or pleasure isn’t the issue, so much as the fact that this particular genre stands out among the other droll-sounding categories of drama, comedy, etc. It is presumed that women aren’t interested in porn, shy from it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and maybe feel plagued by the stereotypically unnaturally perfect bodies that they could never achieve anyway. And do women enjoy sex, or need the cuddly interaction afterwards to appreciate it? Do you even need a companion, or is it simply okay to masturbate?

The first woman to stick out from this usual mold, like the hilarious sore thumb she was loved for being, was Doris Wishman. With a career that spanned four decades, Wishman began a one-woman crusade to demystify all the taboo lore associated with portraying sex on camera. On Saturday, August 10, 2002, the film world lost this most spritely, amusing, eccentric icon, when Wishman passed away at 75 years of age.

Carving a niche not normally attributed to her gender was most likely not easy. Looking at any of her films, it’s easy to tell they were shot on the cheap. The same room was dressed and redressed, a glaring factor if you look at the position of doors and light switches. There’s nothing particularly visually inspiring about her work (seen in movies like A Night to Dismember and Keyholes Are For Peeping), she didn’t create any camera angles that auteurs will be mimicking in the years to come. Her actors aren’t necessarily convincing as they utter their simple dialogue.

But the lack of normal film sophistication that most people require turned to Wishman’s advantage over the years. Because she was preaching something entirely different than a quick fix: the spirit of enjoying sexual pleasure in any way you wanted, man or woman. Use toys, try different partners (safely of course), whatever works. This key theme ran throughout her tenure and slowly, gracefully, tore away the invisible barrier to many presupposed ideas of feminine sexuality, specifically as it relates to moviemaking.

Furthering a departure from what made pornography famous, Wishman’s actors were often average people, no fake boobs or model looks, a practice she sustained from the early days. The typical Wishman film takes you through daily routines of easily identifiable people, a practice that greatly assisted in building her underground popularity. By laughing at the mundane rituals we’ve all experienced and complained about, the familiarity relaxes our sense of shame against societal constrictions we may have internalized.

This year’s New York Underground Film Festival boasted the world premiere of Wishman’s latest, Dildo Heaven, which is still traveling the festival circuit. Though technology, audience, and sexual issues have drastically changed since Wishman began her career, her cinema remained as simple as it ever was. It’s not about character development, constructive dialogue, or even exploitative nakedness so much as accepting realizations of personal preference, whatever that entails. Contrary to what you might assume from the title, you won’t see a bunch of women pleasuring themselves, but her reliably consistent cheesiness is flavorfully frivolous enough to chuckle and respect this old icon. It was an unexpected surprise to find the ratio of thoroughly pleased men to women in the room about equal. A charismatic presence at the Q&A session that closed the screening, she answered each raised hand with, ‘Oh, you would!’

As a female critic and filmmaker, I will personally miss Wishman’s presence in the film community. Maybe I haven’t seen all her films, and maybe I couldn’t even sit through them all, but I understand what her sermon was and highly respect her for it. Fighting against a glass ceiling with spunky charm and meager instruments, she certainly made a mark on the entertainment world that will not be soon forgotten.

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