New York City
Seaphilia: Displacing Objectification and the Unrelenting Historicity of the Female Body
Seaphilia is a short film that I created with my frequent collaborator, Stephanie Burgess. The clip, starring actor Leisa Soleil, also acts as a trailer for a hypothetical larger feature. The piece deals with ‘deviant’ sexual desire and challenges what we constitute as objectification. Throughout, the female body provides an undercurrent that is exposed as deceptive because of what cinema has historically attributed to it even as it narratively represents an instrument of sexual liberation.
As the name of the piece, ‘Seaphilia’, suggests, the film is about sexual desire for, literally, the sea. While cinema has dealt extensively with sexualities at contradiction with hetero-normativity, sexual desire is usually still targeted towards another living, breathing entity- be it in homosexuality, exoticism, beastiality and even pedophilia. With Seaphilia, the attributes usually seen as sexually attractive- beauty, strength, powerful movement- are isolated from the conventional bodies they are usually communicated through and instead embedded in the depictions of the sea in the film.
The film runs for 60 seconds. It shows a woman walking in the early hours of the morning on a beach. She lays down her picnic blanket and basket and then proceeds to undress. The rest of the film shows her in a state of sexual arousal evoked by the Sea. At the stage of orgasm, the woman’s motions accidentally hit the basket and an apple rolls out. At the end, the foam of the sea- a playful metaphor for body fluid and a reference to Greek mythology where the ocean was seen capable of birthing Aphrodite- envelops the apple, caressing the very fruit that, biblically, proved to be the downfall of Eve- and hence led to centuries of women being seen as inherently sinful.
Much of the film’s visuals are reminiscent of Maya Deren’s 1944 short film, 'At Land', in which a woman is washed ashore and her body engages with the sea. To have Seaphilia reflect the same elements- the female body, the sea- but to enhance them through nudity for the former and objectification for the second, was not a conscious choice but offers an interesting comparison: Was Deren challenging the objectification of her own body as well? Was her character actually engaging with the sea in an unconventional way? It is hard to tell.
Though not as iconic as the female body on celluloid, the apple has long been a fruit that has had an interesting relationship with women- both as its relationship to the biblical story of Eve as well as its ubiquitous mediatized representations as a fruit symbolizing sin, desire and beauty.
The foam of the sea- caressing the apple at the end- is similarly a reference to the many after-sex sequences in films where body fluids are visibly seen.
Even in films like Catherine Breillat’s ‘Romance’ (1999) or Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), where women who are not satisfied with their romantic partners find sexual pleasure with other people, sexuality itself has a highly constrained exploration. In Seaphilia, the female body is seen in the nude and state of orgasm but the intent is to objectify the sea, not the woman. However the nude female body has been visually objectified so much in history that it becomes a challenge to direct the gaze of the viewer towards another stimuli.
Bram Dijkstra’s 1998 book ‘Evil Sisters’ explores the depiction of women as ‘evil’ and ‘seductress’ at length- all the way back to the 1915 film ‘A Fool There Was’. Not limited to film alone, Dijkstra explores the subject in forms ranging from literature to art and argues that these artifacts are not the result of ‘misogynists’ responsible for their creation but rather the common and accepted viewpoint of the entire society. With such a long and well preserved tradition of the sexualized and vilified female, it is no to be expected that the visuals in Seaphilia are interpreted in terms of what they have traditionally meant rather than what they could be if seen for the first time.
Nonetheless, nude and ‘sexualized’ as the female protagonist of ‘Seaphilia’ may be, she is ultimately a woman exploring her own definition of sexuality and what pleases her- regardless of what societal or ‘logical’ expectations might be. Such purposefulness is the act of sexual liberation at the heart of the film.
Sexuality and sin have been intrinsically linked in the public’s conscious minds. The use of the ‘apple’ to denote a sinful temptation is tongue-in-cheek because even though conservatives would assume the sinfulness to be intrinsically embedded in the act of nudity and orgasm, the sin here is externalized and embedded in another entity altogether: the sea. Hence, when the foam from the waves finally wet the apple, it is the sea that has committed the act of sin within the film’s framework.
When a man is seen as a sex object, he is often described as ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’. A woman is admired for her movement and her nurture. In ‘Seaphilia’, these attributes- that are shared by the Sea- are used to objectify an entity that is conventionally not seen as a possible sexual stimuli because it is not living or (in the case of necrophilia) a human/animal body. Such displacement challenges the bourgeois conceptions of what is seen as sexual and sexuality.
Would the gaze of the camera and viewer divert from its sexualization of the female body and interpret another entity altogether as the stimuli? Not very likely. But Seaphilia questions why that is the way it is and ventures into the rich and largely unexplored territory of the sexual displaced from the conventional.