An interview with Savannah Magruder on her latest short film Debbie Does Dilators.
Far too often women’s health issues, especially sexual health issues are not addressed—notably in this era where we fear not having accessible birth control (amongst the myriad of other horrifying women’s health concerns). It’s an anxiety ridden existence but I do find peace in artists who are making the point of view of women known, such as Brooklyn filmmaker Savannah Magruder.
Her latest short film Debbie Does Dilators explores women’s health issues through her delightful deadpan humor, female fronted storyline and her impeccable camera work. The film takes you through the sex life of a porn set personal assistant, Debbie. The contrast of her experience of intimate adventures and awkwardness of hooking up to the over the top portrayal of sex in porn is an honest, sweet and real portrayal of dating that provides an often unseen female perspective of trying to find pleasure for herself and not just her partner.
Part way through the film it is revealed she is being treated for vaginismus, a condition that effects 1-10 women, which causes women extreme pain upon penetration. The interaction between her and her partner brings us in to her point of view. It brings up the emotions of her feeling shamed for not being able to pleasure her partner and, at the same time, pissed off that her sexual desires and health is not taken into account by the hot, bass playing musician she hooks up with. By creating a film that portrays Debbie navigating her sex life it is a huge win for talking about female pleasure, which is important for all of us to be aware of!
Sex is complicated and no one should feel shamed. Through talking about women’s sexual health we can break the taboo and find healthy sex lives that serve both partners. So to Savannah Magruder, big-ups for making a fantastic film that begins to break down the female experience in an artful and succinct short film. This week I had the lovely opportunity to interview Magruder. Read more about her crew of women and non-binary folks on set, women’s sex health in film, and what’s next below.
Films for women by women are an important part of film making. Can you speak to why Debbie Does Dilators is important for everyone to watch? What do you hope viewers walk away with?
When I wrote Debbie Does Dilators I had a few different goals in mind. I wanted to depict sex honestly – with all the awkwardness, communication issues, pleasure, pain and playfulness portrayed authentically and from a woman’s perspective. I think too often in mainstream cinema and TV, sex is portrayed as something simple, easy and always pleasurable, with both partners effortlessly climaxing at exactly the same moment. Often, sex is a bit more complicated than that, especially if it’s with a new partner. These idealized depictions discourage us from properly communicating within sexual encounters for fear of appearing inadequate, making it awkward, or being rejected. We have a systemic problem, where (cishet) men are almost 50% more likely to orgasm during sex than (cishet) women, and I think the average portrayal of sex in mainstream entertainment greatly contributes to that. Heterosexual women are enculturated to put their male partner’s pleasure before their own. Sometimes this means faking an orgasm, and sometimes it means enduring pain during sex but saying nothing. Which brings me to another goal in making this film—to spread awareness about vaginismus, a condition which affects 1 in 10 women, but has seen little to no portrayal in film or TV. I hope that Debbie Does Dilators will validate the experiences of its viewers in whatever way they can relate – whether it’s because they’ve experienced vaginismus, been sexually rejected, had an awkward sexual encounter, or been with a partner who failed to listen to them or pay attention to their body language.
I think if they are explored and explained at all in a film, that in itself is huge. Women’s health issues, especially sexual health issues, are generally pretty taboo. Narrative film is a great way to explore them – depicting an experience through complex and relatable characters is a great way to shed light on an issue, and can allow the viewer to gain a deeper understanding or new perspective. With Debbie I found exploring the issue with a darkly comedic tone made it more digestible to a wide audience, as topics like this can be hard to swallow. I also made sure that, even though I personally experienced vaginismus, I talked to several other women who had different experiences from mine. I talked to doctors who had seen and treated thousands of patients with the condition. I involved women who had experienced vaginismus in the production of the film. When portraying these issues, it’s imperative to do proper research.
For this film you had an all female film crew. Can you speak towards how that changed your experience on set?
The crew was almost entirely comprised of women and non-binary folks, yes. Honestly, it was quite similar to the coed sets I’ve worked on in the past, which was kind of what I wanted to prove: that this set would run just as smoothly, be just as productive and efficient and professional as any other set comprised of mostly men. The gender disparity in the film industry is nonsensical. We are equally as capable of creating beautiful and meaningful content. For this project it was important to me to have a majority female/NB crew because of the content of the film. I wanted to ensure my actors were comfortable, and as the writer and director of this personal and vulnerable story, I also wanted to feel safe and supported on set.