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Thinking pop culture

Sex Motives and Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’

The trailer for Margaret (now showing at selected independent cinemas)

An Upper West Side shopping trip proves devastating when teenager Lisa (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) becomes embroiled in a fatal bus accident. The pedestrian victim, Monica (The West Wing’s Allison Janney), dies in Lisa’s arms thus prompting an anguished attempt at processing the unfathomable.

With a woman close to thirty playing a seventeen-year-old, with an embarrassing glut of underutilised talent (think Jean Reno, Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick) and at a whopping 150 minutes long, there’s a lot here to find irksome. More positive however, there’s also a couple of reasons to find Margaret fascinating: as a sex researcher, I’m going to focus on the sex.

At the centre of the film is Lisa, a teenager without the nous, wherewithal or life experience to process what has happened. She harbours an amalgam of never cleanly articulated feelings – anger, guilt and anomie just for starters – and attempts to handle them with a variety of misguided tactics befitting a teenager.

One method is ridding herself of her virginity.

In the fantastic film High Fidelity (2000), there’s a scene when – after her father’s funeral – Laura (Iben Hjejle) propositions ex-boyfriend Rob (John Cusack):

Listen, Rob, would you have sex with me? Because I want to feel something else than this. It’s either that, or I go home and put my hand in the fire. Unless you want to stub cigarettes out on my arm.

Arousal is the expected reason why people have sex. Followed closely by love and intimacy. Sex however, is often had for a multitude of other far more interesting, far more complicated reasons. Laura in High Fidelity wanted to feel something – anything - other than her grief. Lisa was similarly motivated; her yen made particularly interesting because it involved virginity loss.

I’ve written about virginity before, noting the social and cultural pressures on women to treat it as something special, as sacred, as prized.

In Margaret, Lisa bucks this expectation. Eschewing sex with the lovely Darren (John Gallagher Jr) – who’s thoroughly besotted with her – instead she chooses the local stoner Paul (Kieran Culkin) for an afternoon of orchestrated bedroom awkwardness.

Rather than imbuing her first time sex with magical or transcendental properties, Lisa’s objectives centred simply on difference. She chose sex with someone who didn’t matter to her, who she had no feelings for, to create an experience that was motivated purely to feel otherwise.

Lisa’s motivation, of course, can be considered as slightly self-flagellating – the experience wasn’t particularly pleasurable – but the sex wasn’t intended as love-making, wasn’t motivated by arousal and most certainly wasn’t a quest for orgasm.

Lisa’s decision highlights that no sexual decision is ever made in a vacuum. Politics and culture and in this case psychology each motivate our choices. It also reminds us that the meaning of sex is rarely stationary or universal.

For Lisa, sex functioned as a way to feel something other than pain. It didn’t fix everything - a woman just bled to death in her arms, what possibly could? – but it did work to aptly illustrate the complexities regarding motivations for sex.

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