Netflix’s “Unorthodox”: a feminist rejection of the pain of sex

Spoiler alert: this is a detailed analysis of the sexual experiences of the protagonist in “Unorthodox”, and as such includes spoilers.

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Within four one-hour episodes the 2020 Netflix miniseries “Unortodox” tells the captivating story of a newly pregnant 19-year old Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who flees the Williamsburg-based Satmar Hasidic community where she has grown up, as well as her husband, in an attempt to begin a new life in Berlin. The series is co-created by British-American screenwriter Anna Winger and German-Canadian filmmaker Alexa Karolinski who get inspired for the production by the bestselling memoir of Deborah Feldman named “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” in which Feldman shares her personal journey away from the Hasidic community.  In an attempt to depict the Hasidic community accurately, the production team consults with a number of linguistic and cultural experts, spends some time visiting Williamsburg and meeting with Satmar residents, as well as employs former community members as actors.

A culturally sensitive storytelling gem with a powerful female lead and a perceptive, nuanced representation of secondary characters, “Unorthodox” provides multiple themes for discussion and reflection. However, the portrayal of protagonist Esty Shapiro’s challenging first sexual experiences accompanied with social pressure, goal-orientation and disregard for her emotional and physical well-being serve as a catalyst in her decision to seek escape. The film series, therefore, sheds light into a reality that few cultural works acknowledge, let alone deal with: that for women sex can be greatly painful even when consensual, and that for many women it is.  Using fragments from the miniseries as evidence, in this article I will demonstrate Esty’s rejection of the treatment of her body and the sex she partakes in as communal property, and her later discovery of sex as an enthusiastic, energizing, and pleasurable experience with intimacy, spontaneity and mutual enjoyment as some of its key conditions.

For Hasidic Jews who form an ultra-religious sect of Judaism marriage plays an important role in restoring the demographics of the Jewish community which has suffered a great human loss during the Holocaust. Hasidic women and men marry early, and are expected to have many children. As portrayed by “Unorthodox”, failure to give birth shortly after getting married is considered shameful for the couple, and especially for the woman unable to conceive. Lack of offspring within the first year of marriage is regarded as a legitimate reason for a husband to divorce his wife.  It is in this cultural environment that newly wed Esty quickly discovers that she is allowed little if any privacy in relation to her sexual encounters with her husband Yanky Shapiro. 

Prior to her wedding Esty meets with a somewhat older woman from the community who explains to her that she is there to teach her “how to be a wife.” As a good student, Esty picks up a pen and starts taking notes as the “marital relations” teacher explains to her that “the physical relationship between a man and a woman is holy. It’s purpose is to create a family. And family is everything.” With her grandma sitting nearby but supposedly minding her own business, Esty quietly asks how it (sex) is supposed to work. 

Although living in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods of New York City, Satmar community members are not permitted to watch TV, use the internet or own a smartphone. The instructions that Esty receives in relation to having sex are as simple as they are enforcing traditional gender roles: “man is the giver, woman is the receiver”; “he must be on top, she must be on the bottom”. Marital relations should happen every Friday night, granted the wife is not menstruating, in which case she is considered “unclean”, (as well as until 7 days have passed since her period has ended) and must sleep separately from her husband. As the woman who is expected to educate Esty on all things sexual explains the mechanics of sex as pieces of puzzle fitting together, it turns out that Esty has never seen “herself”, and doubts she has the right attributes. The sex teacher kindly encourages her to go in the bathroom and look, and off she goes… 

The described “sex workshop” is the first of multiple rituals which Esty undergoes prior to her wedding and which increasingly invade her personal space and privacy. For instance, prior to getting her mikvah, the woman who is there to accompany her through the ritual gives Esty a list of rules to follow while getting ready; she then scolds her for not taking more time to prepare herself, inspects and further cuts her nails. Esty’s first private conversation with Yanky is closely followed by his mom and her aunt through a window glass. At their wedding the newly-weds are told by the waiter serving them dinner that they have seven minutes to do whatever they want without others seeing them. Interventions in and surveillance of other community members’ performance, we soon find out, are not limited to their religious duties, but even their most intimate experiences. 

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Religiosity, exceptionalism, community traumas and desire for group preservation all mix up and find display in how the families of Esty and Yanky respond both to Esty’s inability to conceive and later – to her disappearance. Within a week of their wedding, Yanky’s mom goes to visit Esty concerned that they still have not been able to complete sexual intercourse. She brings her daughter-in-law a box of lubricant, and tells her with a tone of urgency and annoyance: “You should figure it out before the boy loses confidence. Do you understand? Yanky is very sensitive. You have to make him feel…” “Like a king?” – Esty asks, “I know. A man should feel like a king in bed. Does that make me a queen?” Upon hearing Esty’s question Yanky’s mom looks aside, and chuckles without a word. Her leaving words are: “Don’t disappoint me, Esty.” In addition to continuously being harassed by Yanky’s mom and sister about the need to get pregnant, the young bride doesn’t find any support even from her own side of the family. When she asks her aunt if she can temporarily move back to her grandma’s, the aunt refuses, stunned, and instead of showing any empathy for her niece, worries about what people would say, and asks Esty what is wrong with her – after all Jewish couples have had babies even in the concentration camps! 

With sex strictly framed as a mean to an end, whereby the goal of conception is elevated above other considerations, sexual acts between Hasids take place under clearly defined and strictly enforced religious guidelines. These guidelines, the miniseries suggest, are concerned with getting the job done, no matter what the cost for the woman participating. In the bedroom scenes between the young couple there is no kissing, no cuddling, no skin-to-skin contact. Both are dressed in traditional white night gowns which they keep the whole time during the sexual act (or attempts of), lights off, missionary position. The scriptedness and awkwardness of these encounters turn them into an ordeal which Esty would avoid at any cost, if only it were possible. Instead she is led to believe that she is at fault for not being able to relax and handle herself. 

As a result of her inability to comply with her marital obligations, Esty is pushed to give up taking piano lessons, the single thing she has been doing for herself somewhat in secret because Hasidic women are not allowed to play instruments or sing in public. When her “marital relations” teacher returns for a new series of lessons, Etsy learns a few of the allowed ways to give pleasure to her husband because as she gets told “pleasuring your husband’s body will give you what you want”, that is a baby. She then has her stress levels measured with an “anxiety machine” by the same lady who inadvertently tells her that she is to blame for the couple’s lack of success in the bedroom, and diagnoses her with “vaginismus”. The lesson concludes with a brief, to-the-second breathing exercise which Esty should practice before bed, as well as instructions to “do exercises” with a type of a dildo she has just been given. As she is about to leave, the woman assures Esty that she’ll have her pregnant in no time. 

You don’t have to be a member of an ultra-Orthodox religious community to experience social pressure in relation to procreation. Women around the world deal with varying extents of pressure for social conformity to give birth, or in other cases to limit the frequencies of their pregnancies. The practices to police the female reproductive system lack a male parallel. Reproductive pressure is a burden that rarely impacts men in equal proportions, a reality which also gets portrayed in “Unorthodox”. Esty’s husband, Yanky, a young, goodhearted, if naive and inexperienced religious devotee, does nothing to improve the situation, yet further adds to the social pressure Esty is overwhelmingly surrounded by. Throughout the episodes of him and Etsy conversing and attempting to have sex, Yanky pressures his wife to essentially “suck it up” no matter how physically painful and emotionally exhausting their attempts to have intercourse are for her. He compares her to his brother’s wives, reminds her of their religious duty to create new life, and prior to her secret departure from Williamsburg tells her that he is planning to divorce her because she has not been able to get pregnant in a year. Clearly, as part of the Satmar community he also feels pressure to fulfill his religious obligation to have offspring, however, while his interests and feelings are accounted for by his mother and other family members, and his pleasure considered, neither Esty’s existing pain nor her potential enjoyment register as significant to the other characters in the miniseries vis-a-vis the importance of conceiving a child. 

What the Netflix production succeeds to bring to light is the social indifference towards females’ physical pain during sexual intercourse and its normalization. In the series’ most striking and revolting scene amidst a fight Esty angrily consents to have sex with Yanky merely to get it over since she can no longer take the social pressure. She does her breathing exercise in an attempt to relax her body, and allows him to penetrate her, covering her eyes and mouth not to scream, her face tensed up in excruciating pain. 

What follows is a crushingly realistic depiction of what unfortunately many women experience sex to be – a torturous exercise in extending the boundaries of your pain tolerance, and exerting patience for an unspecified amount of time for the benefit of procreation and male pleasure. Thankfully, in this case the time is short. Yanky reaches orgasm pretty quickly, and lies next to her ecstatic. As a woman observing this scene, I found the portrayal of their contrasting experiences deeply unsettling and unfair. Following the sexual act which could be equated to a “consensual rape”, if such a term did not point to its own inadequacy, Esty is trying to catch her breath and perhaps find some solace in the fact the sex is over for now, while Yanky is looking at the ceiling smiling and laughing as never before, calling the experience “amazing”. 

Since most of the episodes from Esty’s life in Williamsburg are presented as memories that re-emerge in her consciousness while she navigates her first weeks in Berlin, as viewers we get to follow Esty’s pace in revealing her motivations to run away. The more we learn about the ideology of Hasidism and its lived practice, the more we are confronted with Esty’s inability to fit in that environment, and the more we can recognize the multitude of ways in which she has simultaneously tried to work within the confines of this specific cultural milieu, as well as push the boundaries in order to craft space for herself.  

In Berlin Esty undergoes an emotional but uplifting process of individualization and rediscovery of dreams and passions that have previously been forbidden to her. While her memories of her “marital relations” with Yanky are depicted as frankly nightmarish, along with finding new friends among an international group of conservatory students and pursuing a music scholarship, away from Williamsburg Esty reclaims her sexuality, and discovers sex anew.  In addition to performing a traditional Hasidic song on stage during her scholarship audition, in the final episode of  “Unorthodox” Esty joins the music students to see a friend perform at a techno nightclub. As the bodies around her move entranced, she notices something about how her German friend, the first person she had met after arriving in Berlin, looks at her. They start dancing, and soon leave to look for more privacy. In his dorm room Esty kisses him clumsily (it’s her first kiss!), and stops herself as if shocked. He gently holds her face, and kisses her again slowly. She has never undressed before another person, but allows him to take off her shirt. Their naked bodies match in a hug. The scene ends there, and next we see Esty sneak out of his room in the morning, a bit awkward, but not unhappy. By engaging in a sexual experience in direct contrast to the ones she has had before – out of passion, spontaneity and desire for mutual pleasure, and with awareness of and care about her boundaries – Esty discovers that sex can be an energizing, and pleasurable experience, and naturally there is no going back. 

Although the miniseries do not lack examples of different ways in which Esty has struggled to gain agency and respect for her needs in Williamsburg, her loudest and most impactful action of resistance takes the form of her secret escape to Berlin. In the last episode of “Unorthodox” Esty is confronted to speak with a regretful Yanky who has come to Berlin to look for her, and had undergone a bit of a transformation himself, following a conversation with a sex worker about what gives pleasure to women, allowing himself to watch TV, and seeing Esty sing on stage during a music audition. Although in order to show her his desire to change and remain with her, he performs a grand gesture by cutting his traditional Orthodox side curls, her answer is that it is too late. 

Whereas it depicts the experience of a young woman navigating a very traditional and particular cultural landscape, “Unorthodox” carry messages young women all around the world can benefit from. As women, we all face social expectations and pressures that push us to act in socially desirable ways that are simultaneously rooted in and reinforcing patriarchy. Our feelings, wellbeing, pleasure and pain should matter – to us, and to those  we allow to get close to us, as a minimum. As poet Rupi Kaur writes in response to the question “What is the greatest lesson a woman should learn?”, Esty’s journey to freedom is a reminder “that since day one she’s already had everything she needs within herself. It’s the world that convinced her she did not.” And so do we. 

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