Bette Gordon's interest in how sexual difference is constructed and how the gaze is split in movies–men look, women are looked at–motivated her to direct Variety, a film that uses pornography as a site of feminist exploration of sexual desire.
Feminists have avoided dealing with sexual fantasy, because pleasure in mainstream films is promoted by and dependent on the objectification of the female body. Challenging the notion of sexuality as a fixed identity, Gordon constructs a protagonist, Christine, who works in a porn movie theater as a ticket-seller.
Obsessed with watching one male client, Christine gradually succumbs to her curiosity and begins to follow him, which leads her to the Fulton Fish Market, Yankee Stadium, and the Staten Island Ferry. Significantly, the traditional roles of male as voyeur and woman as object are reversed, positing the woman as a voyeur. Working inside a booth, Christine watches and listens to the activities of 42nd Street, letting the images and sounds affect her in a way that blurs actuality from fantasy. She begins to construct elaborate fantasies about the man she follows, fictions that parallel her description of the movies she watches in the theater. The ticket booth is a central image, a transitional place between the theater and the streets, one that provides Christine with a vantage point of viewing men and their sexual desire.
In Variety, porn films become extreme examples of mainstream Hollywood–both employ voyeurism to exploit women as objects of male fantasy. However, rather than making a movie that uses explicit sex to explore these issues, Gordon raises the question of how cinema produces certain prescribed sexualities and marginalize others She assumes that because pornography doesn't tie women's sexuality to reproduction or domesticity it offers other possibilities for women. If Gordon is not interested in creating alternative feminist erotica, it's because alternative suggests marginality–the
“other place,” outside of culture, where women have already been.
Christine's boyfriend, an investigative reporter, is researching an article about the Fish Market. He talks about his work and, as usual, she listens. However, when she begins to speak, describing her fantasies, he shows discomfort–men become anxious when women express their desires. He becomes mute, as her speech takes over, hence reversing the dominance of male speech. Since speaking of fantasies is taboo in American culture, and the language of desire is male, Christine's articulation of sexual fantasy represents a new, radical activity. Variety suggests that women, even in patriarchal culture, could become active agents in the subjective way in which they utilize cultural symbols.
The audience never sees the porn movies; they hear only Christine's description. The focus on her reactions raises the questions of credibility and subjectivity. Christine has no sex in the movie–she only talks about it. At first, she describes what she sees, but then she begins to describe what she wants to see based on her desires. Following the anonymous client into a porn bookstore, Christine finds herself in a typically male space. Reversing the dominant cultural pattern, Christine becomes a viewer of male activities: a baseball game, a porn store are considered to be men's domain.
Later in the film, Christine follows the man to a New Jersey motel and searches through his suitcase–the most sexual act in the movie. But all she finds are shaving cream, a shirt, an address book, a porn magazine. She returns to work and watches films, but now she imagines her own fantasies–how the man enters the motel room and approaches her as she sits on the bed. He gets closer, she looks, he looks–all shown in slow motion.
Finally, Christine calls him to confess, “I've been watching you,” but we don't hear his side of the conversation. They agree to meet at the corner of Fulton and South Streets, and the final scene shows the dark corner in the rain. Christine doesn't show up and neither does he. The narrative enigma is never explained, seductively suggesting an unfulfilled desire. Gordon's point becomes clear: Porn offers fantasy and desire for a-promised, but seldom-found gratification.