Friday, February 11, 2011

Take a Pill: Orgasm Inc

If you are a woman having trouble reaching satisfaction, you can’t blame “big pharma.” They really, really want to help you. The pharmaceutical industry’s race to develop a female version of Viagra is sort of the subject of Liz Canner’s Orgasm Inc. (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

It started with an odd gig. Canner was hired by Vivus, a small but enterprising pharmaceutical company, to edit together some adult videos for use by test subjects in the clinical trials of their prospective female orgasm drug. Intrigued, she began documenting (unflatteringly, needless to say) their efforts and the controversy surrounding FSAD, Female Sexual Arousal Disorder.

In the current regulatory environment, a drug company cannot simply develop and market a pill that will help women get where they are trying to go, even if they can conclusively prove it is safe and effective. It might benefit a number of women (not to mention the self-esteem of their partners), but to be approved, a prospective drug must treat a medically recognized condition—hence, the efforts to hype so-called FSAD.

Are drug company’s motives mercenary here? Absolutely, but at least they are cut-and-dry and subject to the regulatory process. Much murkier is the chorus of voices in the media (led by Oprah Winfrey), suggesting FSAD and the lack of pharmaceutical treatment was the result of Patriarchal society. Like MTV circa 1982, women were encouraged to demand their orgasm drugs, with the call seeming to come the loudest from Drs. Laura and Jennifer Berman, twin specialists in women’s sexuality, who sound like an invention of an adult film, but are evidently budding stars on the Oprah circuit.

Frankly, Canner buries her lede, glossing over the ethical implications of their message of sexualized feminist self-empowerment. Indeed, O Inc might have been quite an intriguing film had it used FSAD as an opportunity to explore the two conflicting feminist responses heard in the film: the give-us-satisfaction faction represented by the Bermans and the skeptical wing personified by Dr. Leonore Tiefer, who resists attempts to inappropriately medicalize (and thereby create victim status for) conventional problems, such as those re-conceptualized as FSAD.

Unfortunately, Canner is not interested in going there. Instead, we get a scattershot film that looks like it was shot by a cable access crew. We sit through tangentially related segments on cosmetic vaginal surgery—yes, it’s totally gross. Periodically we see teasing clips of adult movies and take trips to vibrator stores. Of course, there has to be a villain, so Canner logically chooses Pres. Ronald Reagan, whose deregulation led to the end of the world, even though—spoiler—the FDA refuses to approve a FSAD drug during the film’s big climatic hearing. Just so we do not miss the point, Canner periodically shows us a Reagan caricature cavorting with animated drugs, which is rather tacky considering the film releases just as the iconic president’s family and admirers are marking his centennial.

An underwhelming disappointment, O Inc depends to a great extent on the a priori agreement of its audience, particularly with respect to the pharmaceutical industry. While there is a fair amount of smart commentary throughout the film, Canner lets it die on the vine, preferring to play it safe (and politically correct). The skippable O Inc opens today in New York at the Quad.