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Sanger, Steinham, Wood


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January 4, 2012

By Caitlyn Spencer

Rebecca Sullivan’s studies of Natalie Wood and pornography sprang from questions left unanswered by her dissertation on nuns in popular culture. “I hadn’t quite answered why nuns were so important through the 50s and 60s and then disappeared,” Sullivan says. “It came down to sex: it was because they were virgins. Simplistic as it sounds, it began to seem more and more true. Our culture couldn’t accept intelligent, politicized women who didn’t have sex.”

As Sullivan, an associate professor in English, mused on contemporary Western sexuality, she was startled by the weight given carnal sexuality as a marker of independence for women. “Chastity and virginity are defined as a lack, something missing in your identity,” she argues. “And we don’t put that same weight on intellectual or political identity.”

Looking through an archive on women’s history, Sullivan found an unexpected name amongst the usual figures: Natalie Wood. “As I read the papers from the Margaret Sanger, Gloria Steinham, and Helen Gurley Brown collections, it seemed that every time a film was mentioned, Natalie was in it,” she recalls.

The more she read on Wood, the more she realized that the actress embodied the sexual debates of the era, which laid the foundation for our frameworks for sexuality today. “Natalie could be the bad girl on James Dean’s motorcycle, or she could marry Robert Wagner, settle down, and raise a family. She chose the latter and dropped out of history. Films that were sold as Natalie Wood films are now remembered for anything but Natalie Wood. We left nuns and Natalie Wood behind, and I fear we’re leaving many other sexual subjects behind, too,” she says.

Her research also led forward into the 21st century pornography industry. “It’s the most polarizing expression of sexuality in society,” Sullivan says. “In feminism, there’s a pro- vs anti- vortex that you can’t escape, and both sides cherry pick their examples. My goal is to challenge both ends of the spectrum. We can’t simply proclaim all forms of pornography as violence against women, nor can we simply treat it simply as an act of individual sexual expression. This either-or framework leaves women too few options for sexual expression in our society. If we don’t have this conversation in the university, where will we have it?”

Sullivan is currently finishing her book on Natalie Wood with generous support from the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, and has applied for a SSHRC Insight grant to continue her research on pornography.