After three and a half years of work, journalist Jill Bauer and photographer Ronna Gradus premiered their new film, "Sexy Baby: A Documentary About Sexiness and The Cyber Age," at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday.
The film follows Nichole, a former porn star making a life for herself beyond the business; Laura, a 22-year-old elementary school teacher having labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery to decrease the size of her labia); and Winifred, a 12-year-old Manhattanite exploring what sexy means in the age of Lady Gaga and Facebook. HuffPost Women spoke to Bauer and Gradus about why they made the film, why chose the subjects they did, and what they learned about how porn and social media are impacting women's sex lives.
What inspired "Sexy Baby"?
Ronna: I was shooting a pretty boring story about a noise ordinance, [involving] the club scene in Coconut Grove, Fla., and it was College Night Out. All of the mainstream clubs had poles. Girls were dancing on them, and their classmates and other guys were putting tips in their shorts. It was total stripper behavior.
I went clubbing in high school and saw plenty of crazy things, but there was some sort of vibe here -- something about this was really upsetting to me.
I called Jill, and I was like, "I had the weirdest experience, and I can't figure out what it was." Later in the day, she looked through the pictures and helped me articulate what was so weird.
Jill: I noticed in one particular picture [that] the girls were really trying hard, dancing and writhing on the pole and doing all sorts of stuff to get the guys' attention, and the guys were a little bit checked out. It wasn’t as titillating as it should have been, and that really intrigued me. I thought, "This is the kind of thing that would be, I don’t know … interesting to guys, so why are they not that glued to it?"
R: It's like they were all sort of just role-playing, kind of on autopilot, like, "This is what we do now, we dance on stripper poles."
J: I said, "I don’t exactly know what this story is, but I feel like there is a story here."
R: We knew it was going to be a huge challenge. How on earth are you going to pitch an idea, sell an idea, to people? "There is a 12-year-old, a lady of having this operation and a porn star, and it totally makes sense." We knew it was going to be really difficult, but we went for it anyway.
How did you find Nichole?
J: She was at a porn convention, at a booth. I saw a press release for a convention in Miami Beach, and I said, "Ronna, we should really go to this. The mainstream world visits these big porn conventions -- maybe we could find some young kids who are idolizing porn stars." So we had three days of full-on porn convention. It was really intense and incredibly draining.
R: The first day was kind of fun. We had our little interview with Ron Jeremy, and then after that …
J: At a certain point, you’re just like, I can’t see anymore --
R: -- boobs. No more porn.
What was Nichole promoting at the porn convention?
R: This company called X-pole sells portable stripper poles that you can install in your home.
J: Nichole was selling these poles to housewives, college girls…
R: … frat houses.
J: We were talking to her, and she said, "I don’t get it. These moms post videos of themselves dancing around the pole and their little 4-year-old [is in the video, watching]."
R: "They think it’s so cute," she said, and she was just sort of like rolling her eyes, like, "I don’t. I don’t think that’s cute."
J: That came from a former porn star. We found that pretty interesting.
What about Laura, the labiaplasty patient? Why did you choose her?
R: We found her through [her doctor]. We actually wanted a teenager, someone as young as possible -- he does have some young patients, but it was much more complicated to get that permission.
We really liked the fact that she was from North Carolina, a teacher -- someone you would not necessarily expect to want this surgery.
We get to know Laura the least of the three women in the film. Why is that?
R: We followed her much more than it shows in the film. We really were trying to get the deeper, more complicated story to get the real relationship she has with her body, and what’s really going on here, and we just couldn’t.
J: We went clubbing with her and her friends, and there was an amateur night at the club, and I guess every couple of weeks they give away a boob job. Laura and her friends were all sitting around saying, "That’s so cool."
R: There is not a lot of questioning that happens. Big boobs are the thing, being sexy is the thing, looking maybe a little more like a porn star is the thing, and she didn’t really question it. It was just sort of like, "I want to fit in and feel sexy."
J: And we spent a lot of time in [her doctor] Dr. Stern’s waiting rooms -- he has one in Florida and one in Virginia. We sat in on consultations. We heard the entire back-and-forth between him and the girls, and Laura is really not that rare.
Dr. Stern comes across in the film as somewhat duplicitous and self-congratulatory. He seems pretty candid in his interviews with you guys, but then he clearly plays the salesmen when he's speaking to Laura. Do you think you portrayed him accurately?
J: I guess probably all plastic surgeons are salesmen to a degree. I don’t think we did anything sensational. We let him speak for himself. We didn’t angle it at all.
Even when he started reading testimonials from women thanking him for changing their lives?
J: He reads testimonials a lot. He is still reading us testimonials. If you come to Tribeca, he will read testimonials to you.
R: I think it is really gratifying to him, when he sees how happy the girls are.
J: We have one interview with him -- I don’t even know if we used parts of it -- but towards the end he really said, “Hey guys, I’m just providing a service. There’s a demand, and I’m providing a service." So what comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Laura says she wanted labiaplasty because she got this ideal in her mind and couldn’t get it out. Were you concerned that people seeing this documentary would get the same standard in their minds?
R: We really never thought about that until the film was done. Hopefully our film gives enough information that people would put it in context.
J: And we definitely show that it is painful.
What have you learned about what men think of labiaplasty?
J: It is a generational thing. The two of us actively date. I’m 48, and Ronna’s 34. When I go on dates, men ask, "What is your documentary on?" I tell them, "Okay, so there are three characters," and of course I always mention Laura and the surgery. The guys I go out with, who are in their 40s, early 50s, have no idea what I’m talking about, none.
R: And the guys that I date either they know exactly what it is, or they’re like, "What’s that?" Then I tell them, and they’re like, "Yeah, I can see why some girls would want that."
It is an exposure thing. We basically think [that mind-set] comes right out of porn.
J: That's why we wanted to go into the next generation and what everyone is seeing and how [adult entertainment] is ubiquitous, more ubiquitous than it's ever been.
Let's talk about Winifred, your third subject. Why feature such a highly educated kid from Manhattan? Is she representative of how kids are thinking about sex across the country?
R: We didn’t set out to tell this story through the eyes of a really privileged New York City kid. We did a ton of searching for this character. Did we want a bad kid? Did we want a kid who was going to crazy house parties, exhibiting the whole "Girls Gone Wild" behavior?
J: We went to this town, Ridgewood, New Jersey, to the public high school there and did a round table with the kids. We trespassed in the dorms at Hofstra University.
R: Someone tipped us off to Winifred's acting troupe, and we just thought she was so extraordinary and smart. That’s why we approached, and then the first time we went home with her, we were like "Whoa, this is quite an apartment."
We decided that even though a lot people might not be able to relate to the things she has, it is very, very hard to find a deep, soulful, articulate 12-year-old.
At one point Winifred says, "I don’t have the guts to watch porn." Did you believe her?
R: We would ask her all the time, "What have you seen?" We were finding out that 11-, 12-, 10-year-olds had seen porn. And she was like, "Nothing. Seriously nothing," and her dad was like, "I don’t know if I believe her, guys." So we never quite knew. Is she lying to us? Is she telling us the truth?
I think whether or not she had seen glimpses [of porn] or not, she was probably scared of it. I personally would have totally been afraid of it at 12 years old.
J: Ronna, I think you’re still afraid of it. We’ve had to watch a significant amount of porn to be able to make this movie, and I always tell Ronna that she just shouldn’t do it because she is a little bit destroyed after it.
Did you ever worry that by including Winifred in the film, you were exposing her to more than she was ready for?
J: The thing that made us feel ultimately like we had done the right thing was when a Winifred saw the film about a month ago, and she completely understood.
R: When we turned on the lights, and we were sitting in there with her parents, we were like, "We are really sorry you just had to see all of that -- was that shocking to you? Did we corrupt you?" And she rolled her eyes and was like, "Are you kidding?" So it was sort of like, Case in point.
What did you learn from making "Sexy Baby" about how people define sexiness and attraction now?
J: It's more computer-focused, Facebook-focused. Like, Like, Like -- 20 Likes, 30 Likes, 40 Likes, wow, I’m a superstar -- versus I’m just going to pass you a note in class and admire you. Instead of "I’m going to hit you on the playground because I’m telling you in my way that I like you," it's "Let me slap you silly because I saw it in porn."
R: Watching Winifred put up her pictures on Facebook, I just kept thinking to myself, thank God this was not around when I was coming of age.