Purity, Pleasure, and Liberation in Ti West’s ‘X’
Televangelism is the soundtrack and the backdrop to every pivotal moment in Ti West’s X. Early on, a preacher spews words from a gas station TV as the attendant looks on at Maxine (Mia Goth) and her friends with disdain — they are about to make a pornographic film, after all. The preacher talks in the way we know preachers do: loud and generic, damning and accusatory, assertive with a sliver of salvation. In the gas station, his words offer a moral compass to contrast with the pornography film crew who film scenes while filling their van with gas. Maxine and her boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), also the pornographic film’s producer, buy snacks for the trip while the station’s attendant looks on in disgust as if already recognizing the stench of sex on their bodies.
This conception of sex is a taught response, though, and in the film, the televangelist is the moral antagonist as the upholder of a purity framework. X takes a look at the hooks of purity culture and moves beyond the virgin/whore dichotomy, letting Maxine smash the binary glass.
The idea of sexual purity in evangelical Christianity has been around for a while but gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s due to Elisabeth Elliot’s writing. Elliot is the widow of missionary Jim Elliot who died during an evangelistic mission to Indigenous peoples in Ecuador. The legacy of the couple lives on because Christians continue to view Jim Elliot as a martyr and Elisabeth Elliot as the perfect example of a pure Christian woman. X, while taking place in the 1970s, references the still relevant moral panic about sex and degeneracy. In general, the American attitude toward sex is often considered prudish compared to the media of other Western countries. The prevalence of regressive, cis, and heterosexual-focused sex education and evangelistic reproductive health policies also tie into purity culture.
In bringing the problem of purity culture to the 1970s, West creates a tension between the old and the young, both now and in the time of the movie. The 1960s and 1970s brought along second-wave feminism, which, among other things, led to Roe vs. Wade and increased women’s equality. Women were no longer objects or purveyors of a sexless life. Maxine embodies this new woman, a woman so unafraid of her sexuality that she has no qualms with her sexuality and actively embraces it, which creates the conflict for the kills.
She and her crew arrive at their destination — a cabin on an elderly couple’s rural property — and they begin filming The Farmer’s Daughters, a pornography film. Maxine’s part has yet to shoot, so she decides to go exploring and finds a large pond in the woods behind the cabin. Here, she is fully able to be herself. She takes off her clothes and begins swimming, unaware that Pearl, the old woman in the elderly couple (also played by Mia Goth), has followed her. In this moment, Maxine’s nakedness is for neither purity nor sexual pleasure. Instead, she represents an Eve-like character, a natural state of nudity that means nothing. West’s camerawork here ensures that the audience doesn’t see Maxine as a sexual object; she’s a woman going swimming and that’s it.
Except for Pearl.
Pearl’s perception of Maxine’s nudity is key here because Pearl becomes obsessed with Maxine’s apparent sexual liberation. As a beautiful young woman, Maxine is free to celebrate her sexuality in this new liberated America, an experience we infer Pearl would have been punished for.
Mia Goth playing both Maxine and Pearl make the dichotomy between the two women even more intense because at their core they are two sides of the same coin; at their core, they are identical. This further creates tension between the two characters. As Pearl watches Maxine partake in sexual acts (or perceived as sexual acts), she’s reflecting on her own body, wondering why she cannot have the same freedom as Maxine.
The two continue to play off of each other when Pearl leads Maxine into her house and offers her a glass of lemonade. The suspense heightens during this scene as Maxine wears her fear and confusion plainly on her face. The scene is also intercut with scenes from The Farmer’s Daughters, imbuing fear with sex. The back-and-forth between the two scenes plays into the thematic underpinnings of the film, questioning if sex is something we are meant to fear.
Maxine then leaves Pearl’s house and gets ready for her part in The Farmer’s Daughters. While Maxine is acting, Pearl walks up to watch the actress through a window, witnessing her having sex. Pearl may or may not be aware that Maxine is just filming sex; it doesn’t matter. When she sees Maxine, she sees an unadulterated love for lust. Where Pearl sees Maxine reveling in her sexuality, Maxine continues to take no notice of the framework that’s been adopted about sex. The idea of purity may still exist, but it doesn’t matter to Maxine because that’s not what guides her decisions. It’s not just about pleasure, either. While Pearl watches Maxine, she sees herself as Maxine, once again enjoying the pleasure of sex.
When Pearl meets with her husband later, he laments about not being able to give Pearl what she needs. He’s simply too old. He might have a heart attack and die. Pearl’s jealousy of Maxine’s sexual youth leads her to murder the others involved in the pornography film. The kills are about sex, but more so about the freedom that Pearl sees Maxine experiencing. Restrictive purity and the yearning for pleasure are part of the motive, but the underlying curse is that the framework exists at all.
At the end of the film, Maxine faces off with Pearl one-on-one, ultimately killing the old woman before escaping. Pearl held up the idea of purity vs. pleasure and by killing her, Maxine escapes another place that tries to hold her under its grip.
When a policeman investigates the house the next morning, the televangelist yells about the woes of sexual impurity through the television, and then the screen reveals that Maxine is the man’s daughter. The pastor’s passionate, damning pleas about his daughter being lost to the world are the impetus for Maxine’s actions. The hatred and disgust she faced every day led her to reclaim not just her sexuality, but her body. His evangelism carries through the film because he’s chasing Maxine with his puritanical message, but Maxine continues to elude its grasp because she’s realized rejecting purity culture isn’t enough — she has to reject the idea that it must exist in the first place. 🩸
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She writes and edits the fortnightly newsletter Thursday Matinee. Read her work in Film Cred, HASH Journal, Cultured Vultures, and other places. Find her online @sydboll.
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