Originally published on Elements of Madness
Among the list of things that you might expect to save your life one day, perhaps one of the least likely is a night with an escort and a headfirst dive into the world of feminist pornography production. For middle-aged housewife Morgana Muses, who had silently suffered through a loveless, sexless marriage for years, it just so happened that the simple act of holding hands with an escort while on a date to the theatre was exactly what she needed to start fighting back against overpowering suicidal thoughts. In a fantastical documentary about her life, which is simply titled, Morgana, this housewife turned porn-star shares the story of how she left behind a hollow, meaningless life to pursue a career in adult films, embarking on a healing journey that would give her the identity and community she had always craved. Directed by the feminist dynamite duo of Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess, Morgana is not just a documentary about porn and sex-work, but an invitation to flourishing self-love. As an official selection of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Morgana gives women of all shapes, sizes, and ages permission to seek out people and communities that can meet their basic human needs, sexual or otherwise.
The story of Morgana’s early life is one that, in some form or another, has haunted women for generations. As she was growing up, Morgana’s parents and community made their expectations for her very clear: get married, make your husband look good, meet all his needs, raise children, and fade into the background. Under immense pressure to fulfill her “purpose” as a woman by becoming a wife, Morgana got married before really taking the time to get to know herself. Fast forward 20 years or so, and her mental health had totally collapsed. With no sense of identity and a husband who constantly claimed to be embarrassed by her, Morgana planned to end her life. In a last attempt to experience some kind of intimacy, Morgana contacted a male escort and set up a date. In this sexually taboo act that her family and community shunned, Morgana discovered all the things that her current life denied her: friendship, intimacy, conversation, touch, and, of course, pleasure. Inspired by her newfound sexual confidence, Morgana soon became involved in the feminist pornography movement and started making her own films as a sort of therapy. Morgana, a surprising and emotionally honest film, delightfully captures this story and pushes for thoughtful conversations about the damage of sexual shame and repression.
While Morgana itself does an excellent job of explaining “feminist pornography,” for those who haven’t heard the term before, it refers to a movement that encourages ethical erotica and works to deconstruct the idea that sexual expression in women is always either unnatural or exploitative. For anyone who balks at the idea that pornography could be ethical in any context or genuinely help someone struggling with depression, Morgana’s emotional and courageous retelling of her early life illustrates the fact that the “polite” and sexually “modest” community in which she grew up in is exactly what robbed her of identity, hope, and joy. This is not a story about someone turning to the empty pleasure of a one-night-stand to get a high that will carry them to the next day, but a story about a woman who found genuine community. It wasn’t necessarily sex with an escort that saved her, but simply touch and being able to hold hands with and hug someone. Morgana’s strong background story sets a humanistic tone right from the start, appealing to the audience’s emotions and inviting them to consider how taboo acts and practices can actually be freeing. While Morgana is certainly a sex-positive film that supports ethical pornography, it is also about finding meaningful connection, whether through sex or something else, and listening to your own body over the expectations of a restrictive community.
Feminist pornography also seeks to celebrate sexual expression from bodies of every size, shape, and age, a theme that permeates Morgana from beginning to end. Anyone who has struggled with body-image and the ridiculous popular definition of what it means to be “sexy,” a definition heavily influenced by heterosexual male-driven pornography in which all the women tend to look the same, will find Morgana immensely refreshing and uplifting. While becoming involved in pornography production isn’t the answer for everyone, we are in desperate need of images like those in Morgana that show confident, overweight, older women embracing their sexual desires. With its bold, colorful, and fantastical images, Morgana normalizes sexual desire in women who don’t look like the typical porn-star and gives Morgana Muses the space to talk about her sexual fantasies and needs. As with every other topic she discusses throughout the film, Morgana is straightforward about her struggle to love her body, and she emphasizes the simple yet life-changing revelation that women don’t have to look a certain way to want and enjoy sex.
However, Morgana also illustrates the fact that no one can beat depression and build self-esteem overnight. While Peppard and Hess could have presented feminist-porn as a quick and simple solution to all of Morgana’s problems in order to promote their feminist message, they instead stay true to the reality of Morgana’s story by illustrating that depression takes years to overcome. After highlighting all of Morgana’s success as a porn director and actor, the film takes time to explore her continued struggle with body-image and self-worth. The tone of the film follows Morgana’s own emotional ups and downs, and, in the end, leaves the audience with a glowing sense of hope and stability. To further illustrate Morgana’s emotional journey, the film is sprinkled with short fantastical vignettes that create visual metaphors by using miniature sets and elaborate costumes and makeup. The brief bursts of fantasy give Morgana just the right amount of edge and flair that it needs to balance out its heavy, difficult subject.
Morgana’s greatest success is its honesty. Throughout the film, there is never any indication that the directors pushed Morgana to manipulate her story in a certain way for dramatic effect. Instead, it’s clear that Peppard and Hess worked closely with Morgana to create a documentary that she can be proud of. Morgana is bound by camaraderie and sympathetic understanding between women who want to uplift and support each other. The result is a touching narrative that wraps you up in its motherly arms and lets you know that you are loved.
Currently screening at select locations.
Final Grade: A
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."