Film Review: Sexy Baby

Disorganized, poorly conceptualized documentary says porn and sexual imagery have become mainstream, but then forgets to say, "Oh, and here's what it might mean." Or maybe it just says it vaguely and badly.

Sigmund Freud famously asked the French author, heiress and psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, in a letter quoted in Ernest Jones' Sigmund Freud, Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953), "Was will das Weib?"—"What does a woman want?" But for this documentary that takes a feminist perspective on the mainstreaming of pornography, a less famous quote seems equally apropos, from Freud’s own The Anatomy of the Mental Personality: "Wo id, so ist es Ego sein"—"Where id is, there shall ego be."

The indie documentary Sexy Baby examines the juncture where a woman's sense of self bumps up against the enticing forbidden fruit of claiming for herself a blatantly sexual identity. Complicating matters is just how to define what's "sexy" today when images from People to Playboy to billboards to porn films appear to espouse not just a specific physical ideal but also a lifestyle that's not hedonistic—nothing so pagan or bohemian—but alluring within the media-constructed all-man's-land between the Cosmo girl at one end and the call girl at the other. With buxom, blonde, surgically enhanced Barbie dolls onscreen and in advertisements—whether pouting in black-and-white next to some half-naked man in designer jeans looking away from her into the distance, or having screaming, acrobatic sex with multiple inexhaustible partners—a woman may well wonder: Where does little old me fit in? How do I compete with that?

And if Sexy Baby had done a scintilla of digging, or perhaps chosen smarter, more articulate subjects, a variety of answers might have provided food for thought. "What does a woman want?" Better to ask, "What is this documentary about?" Ostensibly it's about sexual and pornographic imagery gone mainstream—but just claiming that this has happened isn't much of revelation. What does it mean? What are its effects? And for women trying to grasp the right balance, where do personality, a sense of humor, talent and intelligence fit in?

These are questions the documentary barely poses, let alone answers. It's a cause statement without an effect statement. Well-intended but poorly conceptualized, it introduces us to three subjects: Nichole Romangna, aka Nichole Romana, aka stripper and former porn actress Nakita Kash, 32, of Florida, who appeared on "America's Got Talent" to great success as a pole-dancing "fitness instructor"; Laura Castle, 22, originally of North Carolina, and now an assistant kindergarten teacher in Alexandria, Va.; and rich, 12-year-old New Yorker Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart, whose mom Jennifer Bonjean is a tattooed criminal-defense attorney and TV news commentator, and whose dad Ken Alpart is a financier and investment banker (which the documentary doesn't tell us). They divorced, and Mom seems to live in a townhouse while Dad lives in a multi-million-dollar Bowery duplex, from what we see onscreen and per real-estate websites.

That the documentary barely alludes to the Winnifred's family's wealth is a cheat, as everything from Whit Stillman movies to The New York Times' Sunday "Style" section show how much more precocious and jaded rich kids are compared to the vast majority of New York youth—Winnifred is a typical New York kid the way The Real Housewives of New York are real housewives of New York. Go to Queens, why don'tcha.

In any case, the three subjects "have nothing in common," reads a title card at the opening, "except for one thing"—which the documentary then proceeds not to tell us as it shoots its wad all over the map.

We see Nichole giving a mousy blonde banker pole-dancing lessons. We see the beautiful but dull-witted Laura, who has nothing interesting to say, go in for labiaplasty surgery to make her vagina more attractive to men. (You can judge hers for yourself—the camera's not shy about showing it as she spread her legs on the examining table.) Winnifred talks a good feminist game at 12, but by 14 she's dressing in a too-tight, too-short cocktail dress. All of this, the apparent argument goes, is the fault of the Entertainment-Industrial Complex—except for one teensy, tiny thing: Women (and men) have modeled themselves after media images ever since there's been media. Read a 1920s magazine article written by a 15-year-old flapper, and except for an old-fashioned word or a topical reference here and there, it sounds no different than a teen today writing about emulating Lady Gaga. Other past generations thought gyrating rock ’n’ roll hips would, like porn, lead to lust. There is nothing new under the sheets.

What about hardcore porn being a mouse-click away, whereas decades ago you had to buy Tijuana bibles and 8mm loops under the counter? Well, hardcore porn isn't a mouse-click away if you install parental controls. Oh, wow, that's difficult—takes all of five minutes to load up the software.

Are girls and women sluttier in the 2010s because porn is more mainstream? And just exactly how "mainstream" is it, anyway, when a nipple slip on national television ignites mountains of commentary, financial fines, a Supreme Court ruling and much embarrassment and breast-beating, so to speak. Some might argue it was more mainstream in the 1970s, when "porno chic" attracted the glitterati to X-rated movies. So perhaps the documentary could have provided some reliable statistics and other figures for perspective to help support whatever the filmmakers' thesis is? Oh, wait, here are some helpful numbers…running in the end end-credits!

Maybe the filmmakers should spend less time looking at labia and more time looking at other documentaries.