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Movie Review: The Purity Myth

Posted in Editorials on June 12th, 2012

When I was at Netroots Nation, I had the chance to attend a screening of the documentary “The Purity Myth” featuring Jessica Valenti. I had read the book it is based on, which is in my opinion her best work so far, so I was excited to see the film.

The movie is short, about 45 minutes, and features Valenti explaining her thesis – that The Purity Myth is our cultural myth that a woman’s worth is based on her sexual behavior and not on her character or accomplishments – interspersed with short clips giving examples from popular culture, politicians, religious leaders and educators. The film draws heavily from the BBC Documentary, “The Virgin Daughters” about the Purity Ball movement in America.

What I liked about this documentary is that it is more open about the link between the moral panic around young women’s sexuality and religion than other panels I had attended. I was suprised that some of the people in the audience laughed while watching John Hagee rant about the “blood covenant” between a man and his virgin wife. It’s absurd, but I felt outrage, and sadness for the millions of women who approach their weddings in a state of panic instead of joy because they could potentially suffer harsh consequences if their vaginas do not bleed on their wedding night. Even in the United States, this is still a point of pride for some men.

The movie also featured a short vignette of adult women in wedding dresses, which were fairly revealing. Someone in the audience asked if they were supposed to be that sexy, and Jessica Valenti said that she was puzzled by them also and did not choose that clip. I think the film maker made a good choice here. This shows the paradox of the “sexy virgin.” Valenti explains in her book and during the film that by spending so much time and energy focusing on the virginity of young girls, we are in reality sexualizing them. I thought of the mania surrounding American weddings and that there are entire television shows about not only wedding planning in general, but just about wedding dresses specifically. The pressures put on brides to look beautiful but not too sexy are intense, and reminded me of this paradox.

The Purity Myth is a powerful idea against an oppressive cultural narrative. Valenti makes the case against it and in doing so, also against similar myths – that women are only good for sex, or for having babies. I think this film is an excellent tool for generating discussion, and for an insight into how sexist cultural messages are harming young women.

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