Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend in “Passion & Power,” Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori’s delightful, even inspirational survey of the historical attitudes, treatments and controversies attending female orgasm — in particular, its stellar medical-technological helper, the vibrator. Veteran doc/educational co-helmers assemble a package that’s very smallscreen in style — synthy score, televisual graphics, somewhat cutesy tone — but its mix of archival materials and interviewees make this brief feature hard to resist for non-prudes. Pic is playing scattered theatrical gigs across the country, with more sure to follow. Already available on DVD, it could prove a sleeper date-movie (or marital aid) rental.
Framing device highlighting the often contradictory and bizarre attitudes toward women’s sexuality even today is the case of Joanne Webb, a churchgoing Texas wife, mother and Chamber of Commerce member who earned some extra cash hosting Passion Parties — an erotic-goods brand that, like Tupperware, has its female sales reps access likewise distaff customers via (non-sexual) home “parties.” When she sold items to two undercover cops posing as a sexually dysfunctional married couple, she was arrested on obscenity charges. In Texas, it seems, you can own as many guns (and as much Viagra) as you like, but having more than five vibrators in your possession is a crime.
Pic then backtracks to trace the history of such devices, notably via commentary from Rachel P. Maines, whose 1999 book “The Technology of Orgasm” inspired the docu. Originally researching turn-of-the-century needlework, she became struck by the frequency with which veiled sexual aids — usually advertised as tools for “invigorating massage” and such — were hawked in magazines aimed at women.
In the Victorian era, “hysteria” became the catchall diagnosis for a variety of women’s mental ailments, including frustrated desire. Inducing a “hysterical paroxysm” to provide temporary “wellness” got a lot easier with the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in 1883 (same year as the toaster), creating a lucrative doctors’ clientele of returning patients. These products soon found their way into the consumer market, even manufactured by Sears-Roebuck and GE. But when they started showing up in 1920s stag films, the respectable veneer was gone.
The ’60s sexual revolution and Women’s Lib brought female pleasure back into the open. Subsequent interviewees include Betty Dodson, “godmother of the masturbation movement”; Dell Williams, who opened women’s erotica store Eve’s Garden in the 70s; and comedian Reno, who offers quipping commentary throughout.
There are poignant moments here when women confess how they were misled by shaming, downright wrong popular wisdoms about female sexuality. But mostly, “Passion & Power” takes a lighthearted view of the subject that’s quite ingratiating, and is unlikely to discomfort any but the most easily offended viewers.
Angled more toward middle-class home viewers than the arthouse crowd, pic’s package isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but it’s polished and effective on a budget.