By: Ashley perez
A few years ago, I wrote one of the most terrifying pieces of writing in my life. I wrote about how sex was painful for me, how in eight years of sleeping with one partner, I had never achieved orgasm, how sex felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. I was sure that I was alone and that there was something wrong with me.
Shortly after, I was introduced to Cris Mazza via email, where I spoke with her for The Nervous Breakdown about her memoir, Something Wrong With Her. We talked about the repeated phrase (and its internalized trauma) “there’s something wrong with me,” as well as our distaste for our own bodies, amongst other things.
Since Cris lives in Chicago and I live in Los Angeles, I never got to tell her in person how much our candid conversation meant to me. When I heard that she was making a documentary that continued the conversation in Something Wrong With Her, I was eager to watch the film and see how she used her distinct voice to highlight a topic that is still not getting enough attention.
Anorgasmia, Mazza’s follow-up to Something Wrong With Me, is a further exploration of her body, gender, and sexuality and continues with the premise that Mazza is not being sexually authentic with herself—that she’s unable to orgasm because she’s conforming to roles that don’t feel true to who she is. Anorgasmia blends fiction with memoir as Mazza experiments by presenting herself as a man to understand the differences between gender and sexuality, all while navigating her relationship with her partner, Mark. Mazza’s docufiction highlights an important aspect of the conversation around gender, sexuality, and identity.
The film starts with Mazza taking a photograph of herself while describing the parts of her body she doesn’t like. Mark comes in, and she explains this is part of her “transgender experiment.” Mark is visibly confused and upset, but I was with Mazza from the beginning. The ultimate concept of the film is less about orgasms and more about her trying—for the first time in her life —to figure out who she really is. She explores the idea by cutting her hair, shopping for men’s clothes with Mark, and wearing these clothes in public.
As the film continues, Mazza struggles to find the words for what she is feeling. When Mark says repeatedly, “I don’t think you really have it in to be a man,” Mazza is frustrated at the sentiment. But she brightens when she meets a person she connected with on a trans website, who explains the difference between gender and sexuality. Mazza smiles and laughs when she realizes, “Yes, I don’t think I’m a man, but I’m just not a woman.”
The scene that easily wins for the most awkward segment is when she goes to her colleague’s house for dinner wearing traditional masculine clothes. His family is visibly uncomfortable interacting with someone who is not what they expected. As Mazza (introduced as David for this dinner) is leaving, she overhears her colleague’s wife, Molly, explain to their kids that they did not treat David nicely while admonishing her husband for bringing a trans friend home without warning. Molly expresses that David was probably asexual and not trans. I was getting a little heated while watching, wanting to reach through the screen and say, “You’re mixing gender and sexuality!”—but cue the next scene, where Cris learns the differences between terms describing gender versus sexuality.
It was gratifying to watch Cris gain the words to put to her feelings: that she can be gender nonconforming and asexual but feel hetero-romantic toward her male partner. In an earlier scene, she talks to friend, colleague, and writer Gina Frangello about her confusion about the precise, current phrases to describe sexuality, and Gina leaves Cris with the idea that maybe “it doesn’t matter where they land” as long as it’s “somewhere more authentic.”
“Writing was the way I expressed myself to the world. Writing was the way I existed. Maybe writing was the me I was going to know,” Cris says when talking about her work. I share her frustration near the end of the film, when she discusses the small reception of her memoir, and feel this is a writer who speaks for many and that her work should be more widely known.
Throughout the film, Mazza’s relationship with Mark is intricately explored and developed. He was an early part of her sexual life, and after thirty years apart, they reconnected. That connection came at the crucial time when Mazza needed to do this experiment and put words to those feelings inside her—feelings you can see written across her face as she puts a binder over her chest and buttons up a men’s shirt. The viewer feels her pain acutely when it seems like she is being forced to make a choice between being authentic to her true self or comforting and assuring her heterosexual male partner that this won’t affect him, which, at times, comes off as almost a punishment for her honesty and vulnerability as he progressively grows cold and distant with Mazza.
Anorgasmia is one of the best pieces of blended memoir and fiction I have ever seen. It’s educational, especially about an older generation of gender nonconformists, yet it also leaves the audience under the spell of good fiction in terms of what will happen to the characters of Cris and Mark after the cameras stop rolling. I highly recommend the film for its vulnerable and honest look at how identity is perceived and the impact identity can have on sexual desire and fulfillment. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Information about and viewing of Anorgasmia can be found here
Cris Mazza is also the author of Something Wrong With Her, a hybrid memoir published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014, a companion piece to Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls. She has authored over fifteen books, mostly novels and collections of short fiction. Mazza now lives in the Midwest and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Ashley Perez lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She runs the literary site Arts Collide and does work of all varieties for Women Who Submit, Entropy, Jaded Ibis Press, Midnight Breakfast, and Why There Are Words. Her work can be found at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, Red Light Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.