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Gwyneth Paltrow On Food Stamps: Shiva Baby, Sex Work And Suburbia
Leila Sackur , June 19th, 2021 16:29

Emma Seligman's feature debut about a young Jewish woman navigates the excruciating suburbs and overbearing family with rare wit and authenticity, finds Leila Sackur

There’s the sound of a woman crying out, climbing towards orgasm, almost definitely faked. “Yeah daddy!” she yells from a crisp white couch in a sterile, cold apartment. Her phone rings, and it’s her actual parents. “Are you coming to the funeral today?” they want to know, and after pocketing a wad of cash and a diamond bracelet which looks like a handcuff, she hastily departs from her lover. “Another client?” he asks, and she says yes.

In Shiva Baby, the debut feature from writer-director Emma Seligman, Danielle’s life unravels almost in real time as her bodily autonomy is snatched away from her. In her college life in New York City, Danielle works as a sugar baby, offering sex with older men in exchange for cash. Working alone and in private, Danielle carefully curates the consumption of her body and her life narrative. She tells Max, her sugar daddy, that she’s a business graduate saving for law school, and he’s only too happy to help out a “young female entrepreneur”. But this isn’t Pretty Woman or How to Marry a Millionaire: Danielle is not an impoverished young girl with any need of money (her parents pay all of her bills.) She’s in the industry because, in her own words: “It’s easy, sometimes, and it’s nice to have power and to be appreciated.”

But turning up to a suburban shiva for a family friend Danielle can barely recall, she loses any semblance of that power over her body or her narrative. Although in New York, Danielle can invent some excuse to Max and be off on her way, at the shiva she cannot escape the prying eyes of her close-knit, all-seeing Jewish suburban community. The watchful closeness and conformist hell of suburbia has been covered by a whole host of directors and writers – think The Stepford Wives, Blue Velvet, Revolutionary Road, or All that Heaven Allows. In George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, the author calls the suburbs a “line of semi-detached torture chambers”, where the personal freedom of men was constantly policed by their wives, coworkers and neighbours. Seligman reinvents this trope from the perspective of a queer university student returning home. Throughout the film, the camera remains stuck to Danielle’s face like a sweaty strand of hair. The tightness of the community is emphasised when Danielle runs into not only Max, but also her high school ex-girlfriend Maya. The claustrophobia and anxiety this produces is intense; Danielle is frequently filmed literally backed into corners as her parents converge, shouting about introducing her to Max, the wife she didn’t know he had, and their screaming baby.

At the shiva, not only reminded by her parents that she is “on [their] payroll,” but without a car, Danielle’s total dependency on mommy and daddy is constantly reinforced. When she asks one parent if they can leave, she’s swatted away, told to ask the other. Certain social performances are required of Danielle to maintain her reputation within her community. Outside the shiva, Danielle and her parents strategize on her “soundbite”: “You’re finishing up your finals,” her mother drills into her, “You’ve got a few interviews lined up.” It’s like the opening scene of The Graduate (“I just want to say one word to you, Ben — plastics”), except it never ends. Mention of Danielle’s bisexuality and any signs of flirtatiousness are strictly prohibited. Forced to participate in these performances and wait out her discomfort, she has no choice but to back into bathrooms when questions from family friends get a little too intimate.

Amongst family and friends, whispered judgements and outright confrontations about Danielle’s weight convey a warning disapproval for how she uses her own body. As she avoids eating, repeatedly loading and unloading her plate, the volume of background conversation is turned up. “Do you think she has an eating disorder?” one family friend asks, whilst another adds, “I just feel so sorry for her mother.” Moving from her independent urban life to a suburban family one forces Danielle to bear her body for public consumption. When she’s sugaring with Max, this is a private privilege that he pays for. At the shiva, near-strangers grab at her waist and her face. Her parents stand with Max, oblivious, cooing over pictures of his baby. For Danielle’s mother, her daughter’s weight is simultaneously a point of pride and fear. At once, her mother wants her to enjoy her “little little little body”, but simultaneously her patience grows thin. “You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way,” she admonishes neurotically. Danielle’s eating habits are her concern only because of the clear disapproval of the other matriarchs around them. Moving through the wake and stuffing down finger food, Danielle’s secret snacking is observed by a room of gossiping onlookers. Scarfing smoked salmon, Danielle forgets she’s just told the room that she’s a vegetarian, and this small act of self-sabotage is only the prelude to a bigger one, which always seems right around the corner.

Danielle internalises the atmosphere of shame and repression that surrounds her body and her sexuality. Although she rejects the corporate feminism of Max’s wife Kim, proclaiming, “I don’t really want to be, like, a girlboss” she feels compelled to invent a narrative of corporate ambition to sanctify her work as a sugar baby, claiming that she is pursuing this line of work for the noble cause of funding law school. Even as her parents blow her cover, she still insists that she’s “babysitting” to save for property. Discovering the reality of her sexual desire, Max delightedly goads Danielle that she must “really be in love” with her work, before cruelly dumping her after rejecting a last-ditch attempt at getting him off. Part of the reason Shiva Baby is such anxious viewing is that Danielle's experience of paranoia becomes our own. Like her, we’re never quite sure of what the other guests know or don't know about her life, although we can always anticipate how they will react when they find out. On discovering her sex work, Maya threatens, “I love your parents… I just wouldn’t want them to know their daughter is a fucking whore.” Feeling the pressure, spiralling into free-fall and unable to spill her secrets, Danielle repeatedly and cryptically asks her mother if she’s ashamed of her. It is the menace of moral panic that threatens to undo Danielle by the end of the film; her final breakdown is a direct consequence of the policing of her bodily autonomy by other people.

It takes a village to raise a kid; so the old proverb goes. But what Danielle wants most of all is freedom from being “raised”. Like other coming-of-age films of its type; namely The Graduate and Secretary, Shiva Baby sees Danielle use subversive and illicit sex to pursue freedom in her own body, and to escape her casting as a child by her community. But in The Graduate and Secretary, Ben and Lee respectively find freedom from their parents by forming their own nucleated private existences within the confines of their own, new family lives. Although this doesn’t look like an option for Danielle, in the final scene, strapped up in the back of her dad’s van, she reaches for Maya’s hand. It’s her final, tiny act of subversion. Although Shiva Baby is a film primarily about the alienating consequences of social judgement on a young queer woman, Danielle is still able to reclaim her autonomy at the end. She will survive, she will make a new life for herself, and there is hope and power in that.

Shiva Baby is now streaming on MUBI