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The world around us constantly puts naked women and their genitalia on display. But many women are still deeply prudish when it comes to the relationship with their own body. VULVA 3.0 looks at sex education and censorship, the airbrushing of ‘misshapen’ labia in pornographic images, the cosmetic genital surgery and the work of activists against female genital mutilation – and in doing so celebrate the diversity of the female body.
German documentarians Claudia Richarz and Ulrike Zimmermann examine attitudes towards women’s nether regions in an age when nothing can’t be "fixed" by plastic surgery.
Amusing and horrifying by turns, but consistently fascinating throughout, documentary Vulva 3.0 surveys attitudes towards and depictions of women’s genitals through history to the present. Although this voiceover-free survey never preaches, it’s not hard to spot that German co-directors Claudia Richarz and Ulrike Zimmermann are old-school feminists who want to explore how attitudes towards women’s nether regions have changed over centuries -- or, depressingly, in some cultures, changed all too little. Obviously, up close and personal images of lady bits in all their glory will severely confine the film’s distribution prospects, which in itself speaks volumes about how phobic folk are about this vital part of the human anatomy.
As readers of women’s magazines and lifestyle publications will be aware, genital cosmetic surgery is now available to help those who feel unhappy with the appearance of their vulvas, and procedures are increasingly in demand to make the stuff down there look smaller, tidier, more symmetrical, what have you. So, with clinical -- in every sense -- detachment, the opening scenes show female doctor Uta Schlossberger injecting a collagen-like substance into a patient’s outer labia to make the vulva look more enclosed. (“Very American but it’s beautiful,” says Dr. Schlossberger, satisfied with her handiwork.)
The filmmakers never come right out and judge anyone for choosing such surgery. However, it’s clear from the juxtaposition of footage showing photo editor Ulrich Grolla meticulously retouching explicit pictures that the idea that vulvas should look a certain way is something promulgated by the pornography industry. Elsewhere, medical historian Marion Hulverscheidt advances the fascinating thesis that medieval depictions of vulvas were much less prurient and sanitized than 20th-century ones, while author Mithu Melanie Sanyal recounts the tragic story of Sara Baartman, an African woman who was put on public display in the early 19th century for her supposedly "freakish" outsized genitals, and whose biography inspired Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2010 film Black Venus. The intersection of race, culture and sexuality naturally extends into a discussion of female circumcision, explored via footage of campaigner Jawahir Cumar showing plainly horrified German health workers the different kinds of female genital mutilation they might encounter among clients.
In a more positive, celebratory mode, Richarz and Zimmermann intersperse images throughout taken from artist Morgan Hastings’ The Big Coloring Book of Vaginas, which lovingly depicts a variety of vulva shapes and sizes with delicate pen drawings, supplemented by close-up medical photographs. Elsewhere, imagery is drawn from a number of works by pro-pudenda artists, such as Marina Abramovic’s fanny-tastic Balkan Erotic Epic (2006) and slick still photography from publisher Claudia Gehrke’s yearbook series My Secret Eye.
In the edit shown in Berlin, the film ends with an extended sequence where cosmetic surgeons watch a colleague surgically reduce a patient’s labia. The operation footage was digitally smeared, presumably to spare faint-hearted festivalgoers, but as a result the scene seems pointlessly extraneous, ending the otherwise compelling documentary on a flat note. Perhaps, like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, there will be eventually cut and uncut versions in circulation.
The Hollywood Reporter
The mysteries of the vulva are often bewildering even to those who possess one of their own. Coming face-to-face with one’s own inhibitions is only the beginning in this revealing film. Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes: some are big, some are small, some are symmetrical, others are much more freeform. But as the influence of pornography and cosmetic surgery have made apparent there is only one version that is socially acceptable: tidy, tucked away, and decidedly non-threatening. Even teaching women about their own bodies has proven difficult. When teenage girls are unwilling to even look at images of real vaginas, educators are forced to use more creative means. Stuffed velvet replicas, designed to be pretty, are used to explain the physical layout of women’s genitals. What exactly is everyone so afraid of, one might ask? The film offers up a plethora of academics, researchers, and scientists to explore the vulva’s little known history. In one of the most fascinating sections, medical historian Marion Hulverscheidt makes the argument that we’ve regressed in our understanding of female anatomy. According to Hulverscheidt, medieval illustrations of vulvas were far more accurate in their depiction of the size and shape of the clitoris. Not a tiny little button, but a large muscled organ.
But even as the women’s movement advocates for a more thorough assessment of women’s bodies, in many parts of the world, female circumcision continues to mutilate women. As women’s health advocate Jawahir Cumar lectures a group of German health workers, she recounts a story of a pregnant woman shocking a room full of doctors with her circumcised vagina, so much so that they performed an immediate C-section. Animated sequences inspired by Morgan Hastings’ The Big Coloring Book of Vaginas provide a graphic (in the best sense of the word) look at the multi-flowered garden varieties of vulvas. -DW
Anna Tatarska: What was the starting point for the film?
Ulrike Zimmermann: I think we started with realization that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not solely an African thing, it also has to do with Europe.
Tatarska: I didn’t know that.
Claudia Richarz: We didn’t know either.
Zimmermann: There was a point when we were shooting [another film] in Iraq and I started a research, finding out that in northern Iraq the Kurdish women are circumcised. I was really irritated upon realizing that my view of a person changed afterwards. I meet someone, we talk, then I’d find out she was circumcised and my idea of the person changes. It was interesting. One of our experts, Marion Hulverscheidt, a medical historian, was extremely helpful with the research. In her work she investigated the subject of FGM in Europe from the mid nineteenth century onwards. She found out that the last clitoridectomy to avoid hysteria happened in London in the fifties. Twentieth century! At this point I contacted Claudia [Richarz, co-director] and we started conducting the research together. We wanted to understand what FGM meant. Not only symbolically but literally. It turned out we didn’t know enough about anatomy. Even the surgeons don’t.
Richarz: We did very extended research, met with many experts, some of which you see in the film. At that point we also started thinking about sexuality. Because a general approach towards circumcised women is that they are sexually impaired, don’t feel anything. They are perceived as only half-women, who are not fully fledged sexually. But this is just what we think. How about them? What do they think and feel? Many women who judge circumcised women have their own problems with sexuality, can’t even talk about it. And they don’t see it! This is how we came to find the main narrative thread in our film.
Tatarska: You’ve gathered many different specialists from different fields to talk about this subject…
Zimmermann: I think we started with Marion Hulverscheidt, afterwards we picked up the surgeons, didn’t we? I think the idea of talking to Marion was to understand what FGM (female genital mutilation) means for Europe.
Tatarska: One of your protagonists is a photo editor Ulrich Grolla. His job is all about retouching R-rated pics. Most of the times he’s photoshopping the labia. There is a an esthetic code, one way vulva’s suppose to look like, promulgated by the pornography industry.
Richarz: I’m always curious to meet new people when making a film. I talked to him on the phone, then went to meet him. He was very welcoming and friendly. What he does and how he does it really surprised me. He likes his job, he’s very good at it and convinced it is a good thing. His website is very popular, especially in the BDSM scene. It’s absurd—he’s retouching many pictures with women posing as slaves, submissive, bruised. And yet all he cares about is the labia! At one point in the film he says he would be OK if his partner’s labia looked different than the photoshopped pics, but ‘luckily,’ she’s ‘perfect.’ He actually showed me naked pictures of her, and was very proud of it, because she doesn’t need retouching. He’s a middle-aged man with a certain esthetic, a middle-class idea of beauty.
Zimmermann: Women don’t know how to draw their own vagina, but they know how it ‘should’ look like. Because they see the pictures he and the likes of him had taken. And he has no idea what impact the work of his and his kind does…
Tatarska: Another protagonist of your film is a female doctor Uta Schlossberger. She specializes in labioplasty, injecting a collagen-like substance into a patient’s outer labia. At one point on of her patients says ‘anyone who care about their appearance should have it done.’
Zimmermann: It’s Bella Joy, the erotic dancer. But we know from Dr. Schlossberger that all sorts of women visit her clinic. And they always want the same procedure. We know a lesbian feminist who was also there, but she wanted to remain anonymous. I think the popularity of this procedure has also to do with capitalism. Whatever we pay for is good.
Tatarska: It’s incredible—the youth cult!
Zimmermann: Right? Think about it: can you imagine a man complaining his scrotum is wrinkled, or testicles are hanging too low? He would never! But actually a scrotum lift is a performed and popular procedure. A fact not to well known to the public… But I can easily imagine if there was a common conviction that such things signify elderly age, all men would run to the surgeon and get it tweaked right away!
Tatarska: There’s always something oppressive and taming about the language used to talk about vulva. Even medical terms are connected with tweaking, symmetry, making it ‘better.’
Tatarska: Where does this tendency come from?
Zimmermann: My answer has to be straightforward. People are afraid of female sexuality. Everyone. Even the women themselves. That’s the answer.
Tatarska: Many people confuse ‘vulva’ with ‘vagina.’
Zimmermann: There is a misunderstanding between vulva and vagina. Vulva is an organ with vaginal opening that leads to vagina, vagina is a part of the female genital tract. If you’re talking about a vagina you’re talking about a standard heterosexual copulation.
Richarz: And it’s a reduction.
Zimmermann: A reduction to something you can penetrate, a ‘hole.’ Maybe the very act of penetration is fun, but such thinking is objectifying. And old fashioned.
Richarz: It suggests it’s only useful for penetration—and then giving birth.
Zimmermann: Following such thinking, if you sew it together, like it’s done during FGM, the woman becomes useless. But the thing is: vulva’s still there! And people don’t realize it, because they are looking for a vagina.
Tatarska: There’s a very interesting thread in the film presented by Mithu Melanie Sanyal, an author. It links FGM to sexual power of the labia. The longer the more powerful, therefore—trim it, disarm it.
Zimmermann: We have so many misunderstandings on this field. We talked about relationship between age and length of intimate parts, both female and male. There is a common assumption that when women get older, their inner labia extends. It is completely false, an absolute misunderstanding. Actually the opposite is true. But no one knows, because no one listens, no one cares. All the women who get their labia trimmed during a labioplasty procedure at twenty or twenty-five—I don’t want to know what happens to them at fifty… It will lead to pain! People are afraid of the visible, longer labia. It’s culturally linked to this idea of something animalistic, something that can’t be tamed and can hurt you.
Tatarska: Hence the pornographic way of perceiving the female sexuality, clean, trimmed, safe? It’s almost became political.
Zimmermann: A quick remark: let’s not reduce pornography to a negative term. It can also mean joy, lust and fun. It’s nothing bad. Heteronormative pornography is. Reducing a woman to a vagina is. But if you realize there is a vulva, it gives you another idea of power of lust and joy, the sexuality. It is suddenly not only connected to delivering children. Sexual energy is very important to us all, every day, every hour, every minute. You usually have this connotation with men, they are perceived as sexual beings, always ready for action. Women are supposedly ‘shut’ until they are approached by a male partner. All of us know it’s not true. [Laughs]. I think our film is one more step forward to turning this image around. To realizing women and men are both equally sexual. Same sexual energy, power.
Tatarska: This thought of sexual equality is poignantly presented in one on the scenes, when we can see old anatomical drawings of female anatomy. As Marion Hulverscheidt points out, it looks almost exactly like a penis…
Richarz: When we found out about it, we were astonished as well! To bring this image back was one of the aims we had while making the film.
Zimmermann: To show the full size of the organ scares people. We prefer to think there’s just a button—clitoris—that we can press. But twenty years ago even the clitoris wasn’t present in the sexual discourse and depictions. Can you imagine what will happen when we complete our next project—a film about female ejaculation?
Tatarska: The film’s title is obviously a reference to Web 2.0. If this is Vulva 3.0, what were its previous versions?
Zimmermann: American journalists keep on asking this question.
Richarz: We didn’t really think about 1.0 or 2.0…
Zimmermann: I’d say maybe 1.0 was in the 16th century, 2.0 in the 18th and 3.0 now?
Richarz: No, 2.0 must’ve been 1968 and the sexual revolution. [Laughs].
Tatarska: You’ve decided to repeatedly introduce subsequent images from Morgan Hastings The Big Coloring Book of Vaginas, forming sort of chapters in the film.
Richarz: This book presents a variety of vulva shapes and sizes in a very sensitive and affirmative way. They are tastefully drawn and supplemented by close-up medical photographs. We thought it was perfect for the film. It also provides drawing exercises, connect-the-dots. In the end the readers are asked to draw their own vaginas.
Zimmermann: Vulva 3.0 is a talking heads film, some people are irritated by the the amount of information they get. We needed sort of chapters or breaks. What was also important is that Hastings book is for children.
Tatarska: Germany’s perceived as a liberal country. What’s the state of sexual education in German schools?
Zimmermann: It’s very complicated. In the sixties and the beginning of 1970s we had a lot of books about free sexuality. There were photos of naked children playing, also watching their parents having sex. All sorts of naked couples. Those images got mixed with the pedophilia debate. It was really harmful. Now it is forbidden to show children naked, no matter the context or purpose. How can we educate children about their bodies if there’s nothing to work with?
Richarz: The pedophiles look for pictures of sexualized children. We don’t but still we cannot show any pictures at schools because of the pedophilia debate. Also the sex education in Germany is very much reduced to the function of sex, giving birth and contraception. This is what Angelika Beck, a sex educator and teacher we have in the film, showed us: you see the picture of penis and vagina and then—bam!—pregnancy. It’s never about desire, pleasure or lust. That’s why she made a complete model of her vulva.
Tatarska: In Poland, where I come from, many conservative politicians or church oppose sex education, claiming that it leads to erotization of kids and promiscuity.
Zimmermann: Even the German feminists, like Alice Schwartzer, think like that. We have all this conservative backlash. Women are victimized through their sexuality. If you have ‘women’ and ‘sexuality’ together—first idea is ‘victim.’ We have to get rid of that. I hope I’m still alive when it happens. We’ve been trying to achieve that during the last thirty years.
Tatarska: Often fear of sex influences not only educational or scientific nudity, but also art.
Zimmermann: I think it’s a poor reduction that tells us more about society than anything else. Why fear a naked person or make anything special of their nudity? It’s just a naked body! What’s all the fuss about?
"A wonderful start to a conversation about a socially taboo subject, deserving of more thorough exploration."
Verite Film Magazine
An enthralling documentary.
The Huffington Post
Festival & Awards
Berlinale - 2014
DOXA - 2015
Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival - 2014
Western Psychological Association Film Festival - 2015
What we talk about, when we talk about the cunt, easily becomes a drab account on mucous membranes. Vulva 3.0 is anything but. Adorned with both scientific knowledge and mythology, the film lets the pussy out of the bag. It’s a fresh breeze amidst the hypersexual imagery of every muff photoshopped into a Barbie slit.
The film sees the beaver as a source of pleasure and sexual self-esteem, bypassing reproduction and sexual health almost altogether. Not shying away from difficult issues, it also takes on genital mutilation – the knife marks of both shamans and plastic surgeons.
The gash comes in many guises, but Richarz’s and Zimmermann’s documentary steers clear from euphemisms and avoids the embarrassing pitfalls of sex education. So just lean back in your seat, raise a glass to the diversity of female bodies, and enjoy the slippery slope down the most wondrous of all human cavities, the cunt.