A young girl—still a virgin—is called a slut simply because she lives in a group home. At the age of 10, another girl overhears her principal whisper “slut” as she walks by in a pair of short shorts. Yet another makes the mistake of kissing a boy and ends up being shunned by her classmates for all of high school.
These are real experiences from women who understand all too well that four little letters can pack one stinging, and lasting, punch. Two documentaries screening together at the Atlantic Film Festival, Slut by Patricia DiTillio and Rina Barone, and Sluts: The Documentary by Andrea Dorfman, dismantle the controversial word’s power by exploring its origins, myths and the pain it has caused generations of women.
The two films, in production at the same time but unaware of each other’s existence, have similarities. Both sets of filmmakers sought out women to share their experiences through classified ads. Both use 1950s bobby-socked vintage footage (Jenny has funny feelings about Johnny but everyone will think she’s “fast” if they go park) as tension relief. Some of their interview sources overlap as well—Leora Tanenbaum, the awesome author of Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, who uses her personal experience as the basis for her social criticism, appears in both. So does a surprisingly articulate Ron Jeremy, the furry porn star better known for the size of his member than his commentary on women’s issues.
Still, Slut and Sluts: The Documentary do complement each other, and by their very existence, they validate the need for more discussion. Slut takes more of an academic approach in its attempt to yank, pull apart and eventually retire the word. According to co-director DiTillio, a bit of serendipity played into their decision on how to tackle the sensitive subject. “We weren’t sure how we were going to structure it,” she says, from her home in Toronto. “We knew the word had a lot of negative connotations and impact but we weren’t sure how we were going to express it.”
During production, the women were given an article about Doug Ose, an American Republican from Sacramento, California, who was fighting to ban certain words from television. Angered by live cursing by Bono and Nicole Richie, Ose’s proposed Clean Airwaves Act would ban the “seven dirty words” made infamous by comedian George Carlin (shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits), “including its verb, adjective, gerund, participle and infinitive forms.”
“That’s when we started to think we needed to take a post-modern look at this,” DeTillio, who visits Oso in Slut, explains. “Because what he’s saying is that these words—these filthy, naughty words—are so bad that they should be banned. Really, if you heard the words piss, shit or fuck, is it really going to bother you that much? Does it really have an impact? We thought it was so silly that there are words that you can say that really do hurt and have an impact.”
Slut digs into the origins of the word and why even a casual mention instantly takes some women back to a time they’d rather forget. Laura is still haunted by the sing-song “Slut, Slut” that other kids would chant every time she entered the cafeteria. “The word’s a monster,” she says, the pain of the memory still visibly evident. “It has teeth.”
Teeth with super-strength, apparently. Jack Chambers, a linguistics professor from University of Toronto, traces the word’s Middle English origins back to the days of Chaucer. During the 1300s, the word slutte literally meant “mud.” Even Ron Jeremy, who has appeared in over 2,000 porn titles (classics such as Terms of Endowment) and directed over 100, refuses to use the word in the title of his films. DeTillio and Barone discovered its incisors first-hand when they pitched the documentary to the W Network.
“They really liked the idea. They were interested in the topic, but they wanted us to change the title because it made them feel uncomfortable. ‘Wow, you just proved our point,’” laughs DeTillio. “But, wait, the film is about the word slut and it how it makes people like yourself feel uncomfortable, and how it’s misunderstood and misused. But once I think we got to that point, we knew we were onto something good.”
Former Haligonian Andrea Dorfman’s film Sluts: The Documentary invests a lot of time into telling the women’s stories, and it pays off. Although there are appearances by Ron Jeremy, sex columnist Dan Savage, singer and self-proclaimed slut Peaches, and “post-porn modernist” sex educator Annie Sprinkle, it’s the women’s heartbreaking stories that stand out—especially Margaret, an 82-year-old woman who still gets emotional talking about how she was ostracized almost 70 years ago.
Dorfman’s film is inspired by Emily White’s book Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. White attempts to deconstruct the myth of the high school slut: the girl who everyone claims screwed the football team, the one who everyone knows is sleeping around, the one who fucks for cigarettes (a strangely common rumour). In her research, White found that many of these girls experienced an early puberty, many were ethnically different from their classmates, and many were victims of childhood sexual abuse. A school slut may be sexually active, but then again, she may still be a virgin; that doesn’t matter. She is usually chosen, often the victim of a rumour gone wild.
DeTillio can relate to White’s book as well; as a high school drama and art teacher, she is all too familiar with these scenes: “It’s funny. Last year was one of those years where it wasn’t the guys picking fights, it was the girls. Mis-hearing rumours; groups of girls against different groups of girls. But it’s not like you can tell these girls what to do because they don’t listen.”
After watching both films, it’s apparent there’s a heck of a lot more listening that still needs to take place. Hopefully as more women bravely tell their stories, and there are filmmakers like DeTillio, Barone and Dorfman to capture them, we might let go of a word that’s well beyond its expiry date.
Slut and Sluts: The Documentary, 7pm, September 23 at Park Lane 4.