It may be a coincidence that in the time of the Starr Report, the money shot so
beloved of porn finally made it into mainstream film. Or maybe it's not. In the box-office smash "There's Something About Mary" and the edgy art house release "Happiness" we saw a substance that, until the episode of "the dress," had never explicitly entered American political discourse or mainstream film. It's not just a taboo of good taste that Monica's dress and these very different
movies smash. They signify our anxiety about the end of male importance in reproduction.
The money shot once had a very specific purpose. Viewers of porn films
supposedly want to see that actors are "really" having sex. Because the female orgasm on-screen can be faked, male privacy is more open to cinematic violation than female. Thus the depiction of the male orgasm became the litmus test for pornographic authenticity. Such verisimilitude isn't required of actors in other genres; our enjoyment of a western does not depend on the actors being shot by real bullets. But the pleasure of porn is about voyeurism, not imagination. "Happiness" and "There's Something About Mary," though, are not porn. They suggest rather than depict sexual acts, and solitary male masturbation (even in the world of gay porn) rarely ranks high on the voyeuristic menu. Lonely and mechanical, it's too close to pathos.
The grunts and sighs we hear in these film masturbation scenes, the strenuous
arm motions, and the little gob of goo that follows them, make masculine sexuality seem silly. As a current Diesel ad puts it: "Men. Who needs 'em?" Above the caption, three comely young women pose in Diesel products at a sperm bank. One is selecting a test tube containing white fluid -- probably the first appearance of semen in a magazine ad -- from a rack held by an elderly nurse. The clothes the young women wear are sporty, not sexy, but then, who needs sex?
With cloning, we won't need sperm to make a baby. Eventually, we may not need a human womb either. While no one was looking, technology has made sexual reproduction obsolete. It's not clear that genetic diversity must come from
the mixing of X and Y chromosomes. What the money shot reminds us of is the impending biological irrelevance of the male. It may never happen on the level of social fact, given that raising a child is still best accomplished by two partners, but the biological family is no longer necessary.
While the fact of this irrelevance is new, its myth is ancient. Not so long
before the days of the Bible, people did not realize that a man was needed to
make a woman pregnant. The reverence attached to seed in the Bible is an
overcompensation, a reinforcement of a new discovery necessary to justify
patriarchy. (Enough of the old matriarchal culture survived, at least on the
level of suspicion, that designation as a Jew is matrilineal.) Most of us
dimly recall a biblical injunction to the effect that casting your seed upon
the ground is prohibited. Yet this vignette from Genesis, despite being taken as a parable about the evils of masturbation, is far from unambiguous on this matter. When Onan's brother Judah died, God asked him to impregnate his brother's widow -- the story implies that he pulls out at the last moment, thus engaging in non-productive coitus. Semen, according to the authors of the Bible, is supposed to make babies. Spilling seed is wrong.
When I was a little girl and complained to my mother of some sexist element of society, she, a feminist before her time, would reply: "Well, just remember that men can't have babies." I never thought much of that answer until Dolly the sheep. Science has made it clearer how the whole elaborate structure of patriarchy represses this fact, overlaying the basic uncertainty regarding the male contribution to a pregnancy with a system of patrilineal descent. Even our sexual aesthetics reinforce the importance of the male. Just think about the way menstruating women and menstrual blood are abhorred while semen is revered. If Monica Lewinsky's blue Gap dress had been stained with menstrual blood, or vomit, she would surely have taken it to the cleaners, whether or not she was "too fat" to wear it. Those fluids are accounted disgusting in our culture; semen has been a symbol of power. Lewinsky may, if these two movies foretell the future, be among the last generation to share this awe for the male seed.
The uneasy truce between the sexes that has made our romantic lives "so sugarless" (to steal a line from Hole's song "Celebrity Skin") will have to absorb the new developments in biology. Those little gobs of goo are, to different eyes, disgusting, sacrilegious or delightful. They are also, reproductively speaking, on their way to being useless. At the end of "Happiness," a family gathers around a festive table. Aside from the aged paterfamilias, there are only women, four of them. In runs pubescent grandson Billy, who announces, expecting praise upon his first masturbatory emission, "I came." The family isn't so much shocked, disgusted or amused as it might have been 30 or 40 years ago. It's indifferent, as though he had paraded the acquisition of an archaic skill.
The coming of the end of sex may be behind the embarrassing literalism of these films and so many other recent cultural phenomena. Romance used to be based on metaphor. Every now and then as a child I'd open a thick book from our bookshelves and encounter some dried flowers nearly at the point of disintegration, a memento from one of my mom's long-ago dates. The bouquet was supposed to remind her of the sweetness of those moments: It was a substitution of a physical object for a feeling. This is analogous to what we do when we make art.
Lewinsky's saving of the ensemened dress was a contemporary version of that gentler act. As President Clinton deposited the evidence of his orgasm on her dress, she presumably felt happiness, which she must have wanted to preserve. The happiness, however, was not the same thing as the semen. But true to our literal time, when the suggestion of the thing has been obliterated by the thing itself, and artists use actual blood and vomit, piss and excrement, rather than referring to them obliquely, Lewinsky saved the thing itself. Just as the adolescent son of "Happiness" might have, in another time, simply told his family, "I'm a man now," he referred to the organic act, not its metaphorical meaning.
Such literalisms are condemned by curmudgeons as violations of good taste. They surely are, but that's a dangerous ground for attacking them: Joyce and Picasso, Stravinsky and the blues all were accused of similar offenses. What's depressing about this plethora of white goo on screen -- the comedy "American Pie," due this summer, continues the genre -- is the desperate need to insist on its importance. As semen becomes less and less essential to reproduction, we brandish it even more defiantly.