There are authors who say that their books write themselves. It’s due to a kind of momentum that is initiated by the creation of the characters and the premise. Once you establish what a character is like, and you place that character in a given situation the narrative simply unfolds as a result of the givens.
Chatterbox’s given is a talking vagina. This premise alone is enough to propel a myriad of ideas into a chaotic wrestling match of comedy, ideology, and drama. Of course, the film did not write itself, it was written and directed by Tom DeSimone. DeSimone’s career does not speak well for his skill as a writer or director. He made a lot of bad porn, and low-quality grindhouse fare but he managed to construct an interesting enough premise in Chatterbox that the film stumbles into very interesting territory.
The fun begins in Penelope’s bedroom. She is having what appears to be routine, pleasant but anorgasmic sex with her lover. Their encounter is interrupted by Penelope’s vagina who/which protests that she/it (the vagina) is unsatisfied and unimpressed. Penelope is terribly embarrassed by the uncontrollable commentary emanating from her private parts and tries desperately to get her lover to disregard them, but he leaves in a huff. It is apparent that up until this point Penelope had an unproblematic, if unexamined, relationship with her vagina. However, now they find themselves at odds. The estrangement is so complete that Penelope’s vagina insists on having her own name, Virginia.
This dis-integration of Penelope’s body is at the core of the film. Why her vagina is suddenly able to speak is never addressed but it becomes a means of illustrating issues of female sexuality in the context of 1970s America. A society obsessed with sex and tangled in mixed messages about freedom and decency. Women were coaxed into liberating their sexuality only to find themselves shamed in the very next breath.
Virginia constantly badgers Penelope for sex and shows a complete disregard for Penelope’s wants and needs. Early in the film, Penelope is sitting at home when Virginia begins her bullying demands. She calls out to Penelope “Vagina to Penelope, Vagina to Penelope, hit the streets, hit the streets!” Penelope then gets dressed up in provocative clothing and drags herself outside where she wanders the streets unsure of what to do. She has lost control over her life and now must defer to whatever Virginia says.
The scene in the streets begins with a male gaze tour of Penelope’s body. We see shots of her legs, her butt, and her breasts as she walks down the street but we do not see her face until later. Her body is a compilation of sexualized components that have lost their connection to her as a whole. Her body speaks more loudly than her mind or ego, leaving her sense of self stranded in silence.
The shapes and proportions of her anatomy have been so objectified, so scrutinized, measured, and aestheticized that she can no longer relate to it. Her body is a foreign object separated from her identity.
This estrangement is further aggravated when Penelope’s doctor, Dr. Werner Pearl begins exploiting her as a medical oddity as well as a pop star. Penelope’s vagina not only talks, it sings. There are several interminable musical numbers that pad out the movie. By pushing Penelope into the spotlight her body is again separated from her as it is turned into a salable product. Just as Colonel Sanders’ face is a trademark owned by KFC which in turn is owned by the Yum Company, so is Penelope’s vagina a commodity that can be exploited for profit.
Objectification is not always sexual. A person can be treated as a marketable object instead of a sexual one. You can take Michael Jordan’s face, or Taylor Swift’s name and put it on anything and it will make it more valuable. The carefully branded image these stars are fitted to co-opt their “true” identity and replace it with a commodity. You can give Kanye West a blank piece of paper and simply by signing his name he can turn it into money. That signature is not backed by gold or the government, it is backed by an image, a fantasy of who West is, and with each reinforcement of the fantasy, West becomes more product and less human. He is trapped in the semiotics of what he or his visage represents.
In the film, Penelope explains her predicament to a doctor who is of course shocked by her condition and remarks “You’re a Wonder, Ms. Pitman,” but he is interrupted by Virginia who interjects “Now let’s just get things straight here. I’m the wonder she’s just tits and ass.” Here the objectification is intensified. Now even her body is disregarded and the only thing that matters is her vagina. Not only is she reduced to an orifice, but that orifice has disowned her. This seemingly extreme metaphor is not so far from reality. Women are often referred to by parts of their bodies particularly as “pussy.”
This rending of consciousness and body is painfully illustrated when Penelope performs for the first time on television. She stands on a podium dressed as Marlyn Monroe (the quintessential victim of objectification) and cringes as her dress is hoisted open by ropes and her vagina begins to sing. We watch Penelope suffer while everyone around her cheers and applauds. She’s a big hit but no one seems to notice her obvious distress, they are only concerned with her vagina.
Penelope struggles to reconcile her new situation and tries explaining how she feels to Dr. Pearl who has now become her agent, but he uses the language of women’s liberation to dismiss her, “Look Penny, up till now you’ve had a different notion about sex, and about your sexual organs. You have been conditioned to feel guilty. Look, Virginia is simply that part of you that is speaking up to be heard… She is pure libido, all she wants you to do is enjoy yourself.” However a sentence or two later his true intentions are revealed when he explains, “Virginia knows what’s best for you Penny, If you’ll only listen to her believe me you’ll be worth millions.”
Dr. Pearl is capitalism incarnate, uninterested in anything other than profit, and constantly looking to up the ante. He is eventually joined by Penelope’s mother who is happy to participate in the exploitation of her daughter for fame and fortune.
Chatterbox was released in 1977 one year after Sidney Lumet’s Network. Chatterbox pales in comparison to Lumet’s masterwork, but they do overlap. They both concern themselves with the toxic union of the media and capitalism. Together the two systems are a relentless machine indifferent to what it depicts, concerned only with consumption. Humans are like lumps of coal thrown into its ever-hungry flames.
In making Chatterbox DeSimone provided an opportunity to examine the volatile and complex world of 70’s feminism. He may not have fully understood what he was doing but he managed to effectively highlight some of the more interesting and complex facets of objectification and its intersection with capitalism.
This article should have ended right here. This is your chance to just stop reading and walk away. Just tell your friends you didn’t see that there was more, but if you are like me and your curiosity gets the better of you, there is, unfortunately, more to the story.
In researching this article I found out there that there are several talking vagina films. I managed to find two, or really one, and its sequel, Pussy Talk and Pussy Talk Two. The two films are pornographic in nature and so differ from Chatter-box, but the explicit sex is not really what makes the films different. The important difference is that Chatter-Box was made in America and The Pussy films were made in France. This means that the comedy and satire of Chatter-box are replaced with trauma, a contempt for the bourgeoisie, existentialism, and all the characters being cruel and obnoxious.
Pussy Talk was made in 1975 two years before Chatter-box. It seems very likely that Pussy Talk, or Le Sexe Qui Parle, helped to inspire Chatter-box. As in Chatter-box our main character, Joan, is made aware of her talking vagina when it reproaches her husband for being a poor lover. There is also a scene where Joan’s vagina forces her to go out and have anonymous sex in a porn theater. I suppose it’s quite meta, with Joan watching porn and having sex which is in itself porn, so as she watches the screen and tugs on the members of the two men next to her, we watch our screen and, oh whatever.
The husband brings home a psychiatrist to interview his wife. I’m not sure why he thought a psychiatrist was the right person to help a talking vagina, but it doesn’t matter because they all end up fucking in the living room anyway. That’s all fine and good but then Joan’s vagina coerces the female psychiatrist into performing cunnilingus. I’m not sure how many people would have the courage to engage in such an activity with a talking vagina, but more importantly, it gives the demented director a chance to shoot the oral stimulation from the vagina’s point of view. Actually, it’s not really the vagina’s POV because it’s from inside the vagina. I suppose if a vagina had eyes they could be located either inside or outside, but the point is we see the open mouth and lapping red tongue vignetted by Joan’s pubic hair and labia as if we were a fetus watching from within.
There are few scenes in Luca Damiano’s version of Alice in Wonderland that show the same view with a penis approaching, but it’s not quite as disturbing as a ravenous mouth. I apologize for reproducing the imagery here but someone has to document this landmark in cinema history.
It turns out that Joan’s “problem” stems from childhood trauma. We see in a dreamy flashback that her father tried to rape her. The two are interrupted by Joan’s mother who shoots the father and then, out of grief shoots herself, leaving Joan on her own. As to why this horrific episode is included in a pornographic comedy I can only sigh and reiterate that it is French.
The rest of the movie is a mix of flashbacks to Joan’s earlier sexual experiences and to scenes of Joan and her husband trying to figure out what to do. The husband’s answer to the problem is always more sex. They talk and strategize, then she cries, and then he grabs at her breasts.
The sex scenes themselves are pretty gross. They are all very close up and very brightly lit. Worse than that they often wander into surrealist territory. There is one scene where Joan dreams of being inside a car surrounded by masturbating men. She writhes in arousal while they all ejaculate on the windows. The semen is simulated with something that looks like giant globs of drippy white milkshake. This is nightmarish enough but then she turns on the windshield wipers. I’m serious, she turns on the windshield wipers and smears it all over the place.
There is one more moment worth mentioning and then I’ll stop I promise. There is a flashback to her teenage years when she decides to satisfy herself with a Pinocchio puppet. This is not so shocking, but she breaks her hymen and bleeds on Pinocchio’s nose. The flashback ends with the puppet lying on her bed, its nose dripping in blood and its dead-eyed face frozen in a cartoon grimace.
So, as is standard in all French movies all the characters do nothing but bully each other until Eric fucks Joan so hard that he stuns her vagina into submissive silence. As Joan lies half-dazed on the shag carpet Eric goes into the bathroom to wash up. As he wipes his face with a towel he is interrupted by a booming voice emanating from his penis. The film freezes on his tumescence and the credits roll while we are stared at by the one-eyed beast.
Where Chatter-box fumbles through feminism, Pussy Talk flounders in sexist patriarchy. There is the initial empowerment of Joan’s sexuality wanting to be heard but it is seen purely as a derangement and both Joan and her vagina are put back in their place by the master phallus. Pussy Talk feels closer to Little Shop Of Horrors than anything else. Joan is beset by a hungry talking beast that must be destroyed. Pussy Talk might have been improved if her vagina, like the plant from Mr. Mushnicks, started eating people. Just so long as we didn’t have to see it from the inside.
If you enjoyed this article click here for more