Wobbly Bits & Real Sex: Are Portrayals of Women’s Sexuality on TV Changing?

For years, a stack of Time magazines sat on the hallway bookshelf in my now ex-girlfriend’s home. I used to pluck randomly from it on my way to the bathroom. Though I must have done it hundreds of times, for some weird reason a single issue from 1998 has always stuck out in my memory. On the cover were the faces of three apparently renowned feminists, who I didn’t recognize at the time, then Ally McBeal—she of the miniskirts, breathy voice, and ticking biological clock. The caption read, “Is feminism dead?” The answer, according to the writer: no, not dead—but it’s all getting much more complicated. Well, indeed!

Masters of Sex

“Masters of Sex”

Since the early 1990s, one of the main aims of feminism has been to liberate women from oppressive representations of sexuality in the media. A few decades on, depictions of women reveal more stark contradictions than ever. On TV and social media—between the Kardashians, The Hills, and the #thinspirational girls of Tumblr and Instagram—supposed depictions of ‘reality’ are devolving further and further into fantasy. At the same time, fictional accounts of women—in shows like Girls, Orange is the New Black, or Masters of Sex—are becoming steadily more realistic. The tyranny of a looks-obsessed culture has provoked a backlash, and for feminists today there’s quite a bit riding on it.

Some background: The feminist concern with media representation arrived towards the end of the second-wave, and though it came on hard, it was also a bit unexpected. At the same time, competing factions of feminists were reaching a bloody stalemate over issues of sex, porn, and prostitution. With virtually no agreement on whether these constituted patriarchal entrapment or opportunities for self-determination, judging what was or wasn’t a harmful representation was another vexing proposition.

Nevertheless, feminist writers embraced the task. Naomi Wolf’s 1990 book Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women exposed what she saw as the dangers of multi-billion-dollar fashion and cosmetic industries. These were fuelled, she argued, by retrograde visions of femininity and glamour embedded in Western popular culture. A year later, Susan Faludi went a step further in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. According to Faludi, the media had become a kind of self-appointed gender police force. Deviations from traditional conceptions of femininity on screen were equated with danger or selfishness, as in the case of femme fatale characters in blockbusters like Fatal Attraction (1987). Independence, vocational success, and sexual promiscuity—among the most venerable masculine traits—were portrayed in women as the product of darker underlying characteristics, namely hysteria, obsession, impulsiveness, and even murderous derangement.

These works paved the way for countless other studies of women and sexuality in the media. Soon, workout videos, glamour mags, infomercials, sitcoms, erotic literature, fantasy, and sci-fi films were all placed under the microscope. Each became the case study for how women were represented. Did the text suggest empowerment or confinement? What could be gleaned about societal expectations of women’s bodies, of their aesthetic, economic and lifestyle choices, and of their sexuality? Most importantly, what did it say about long-standing efforts to degrade patriarchal obstacles to genuine equality?

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Fitness gramming: A new kind of sexual objectification

The bad news first: Today, in most areas of mass media, but particularly on social media and reality TV, the status quo is very much unbroken. Sex still sells, maybe more so than ever, and the saleable version remains skewed against women. This is, after all, the age of Instagram, which has spawned trends apparently designed to isolate the vagina to the greatest extent from the annoying female body it inhabits. First there was the ‘thigh gap,’ the space bounded by the inner thighs and the vagina. Then came the ‘bikini bridge,’ the graceful void between bikini waistband and pelvis created by pronounced hipbones and zero body fat. Gramming squat routines (and the hard, bubble-shaped, yoga-pant-clad asses they produce) seems progressive by comparison.

Much of the entertainment industry, meanwhile, like the internet, continues to operate under the watchful vigilance of the ‘male gaze.’ On screen, women’s sense of themselves and each other is, in many cases, measured and adjusted according to how they are perceived by men. Amongst the Real Housewives and the Desperate Housewives, the age-old relationship between social status and traditional feminine standards is firmly in place. The girls of Sex and the City knew all about it. Pettiness, triviality, and materialism are the central preoccupations. And for all the cartoonish sexual exploits, the pinnacle of achievement, as Carrie Bradshaw’s long story arc attests, is to be made into a wife by the right man. Sex becomes a means to an end. Relative to that goal, pretty much everything else—careers, ambition, friendship, independence—is incidental.

In order to speed up the process, a kind of hyper-feminized aesthetic continues to evolve. In TV, film, and advertising, the overwhelming prevalence of idealized bodies—hairless, pretty face, thin waist, tits, and arse—invites microscopic attention on the way women look. Keeping up with the Kardashians is now impossible. It’s not just a show, either. It reflects and reinforces a world where appearance is literally everything. It means shopping, waxing, tanning, plucking, preening, lasering, and assiduously self-surveilling—all largely for the approval of men, no matter how egotistically maniacal they might be.

The Kardashian sisters pose in their lingerie for their sexiest photo shoot to date. Kim, Kourtney and Khloe wear bras, panties and hosiery from their Kardashian Kollection for Sears in the latest advert for the line of lingerie. Pictured: Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian Ref: SPL371283 140312 Picture by: Sears / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles:310-821-2666 New York:212-619-2666 London:870-934-2666 photodesk@splashnews.com Splash News and Picture Agency does not claim any Copyright or License in the attached material. Any downloading fees charged by Splash are for Splash's services only, and do not, nor are they intended to, convey to the user any Copyright or License in the material. By publishing this material , the user expressly agrees to indemnify and to hold Splash harmless from any claims, demands, or causes of action arising out of or connected in any way with user's publication of the material.

Riding high on their lame but very popular show “Keeping Up with Kardashians,” Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney released a lingerie line that they are more than happy to pose in (photo: Sears/Splash News)

Of course, none of this is really new. To the extent that representations of women are becoming more demeaning, though, a couple of factors are at work. First, the internet has created a more sexualized visual culture. Some hoped that self-representation on social media would break oppressive depictions of women, but it didn’t happen. Instead, the social world has moved online. Norms about the way women should look dutifully followed. The pervasiveness of pornography hasn’t helped. Sexual expectations are being remolded according to the conventions of an industry devised by men for men—and in which male dominance remains the prevailing theme. Even the Kardashian thing kicked off with a porno.

Second, the resistance is in crisis. Most women today don’t actually feel that oppressed, and if they do, it’s not by the media. Their ambivalence is understandable. The issues that matter most in women’s lives were tackled by earlier waves of feminism, and the extraordinary gains made are now often taken for granted. In the home and the office, the boardroom, and even national parliaments, women have made massive strides. While the project is by no means complete, with so many legal and institutional barriers to gender equality out of the way, the hardest work is mostly done. This has left ‘the Sisterhood’ in a dilemma: having trained its guns on issues of appearance and sexuality, its erstwhile supporters have gone cold.

Here’s the problem: many women (especially in the West) don’t see traditional aspects of femininity as being imposed on them by the patriarchy. Nor do they like to think of themselves as victims of gender Stockholm Syndrome—canaries who’ve learned to love their patriarchal cage. The reality is that a lot of women just don’t generally aspire to a masculine or androgynous appearance. They want to get married and have children, to look sexy, and be desirable to men (or women). Some women feel good in stilettos and make-up, short skirts, booty shorts, or cocktail dresses. Some, inexplicably, don’t even mind G-strings and Brazilian waxes. And they delight— often ironically, but not always—in escapist television depicting flamboyant visions of femininity taken to extremes, like the Kardashians or Real Housewives.

Unwilling to subscribe to a movement which forbids so much of what they like, many women discount the relevance of feminism to their lives altogether. Others have adopted an individualized variant, so-called liberal or choice feminism, seeking to reconcile their feminine indulgences with their core belief in the movement. For them, it’s the making of choice rather than the substance of the choice itself that is the act of empowerment. Either way, when it comes to the objectification of women in the media, neither group is really pushing back.

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“Girls” goes there: Marnie getting her butt eaten

And yet, it’s not all apathy and indifference. A rearguard action is underway in the mainstream emergence of a new female-centric school of TV drama and comedy. Exemplified by programs like Girls (2012), Masters of Sex (2013), Orange is the New Black (2013), and others, these shows, taken together, suggest a watershed moment in breaking down entrenched taboos. If a backlash is on against regressive depictions of women in the media, this is it.

For one thing, many of these shows are written, produced, and (in most cases) directed by women, itself a mini-revolution for Hollywood. Judd Apatow might have had the pull, but the genius of Girls—the talent, wit, and depth of insight, and creativity—is indisputably Lena Dunham’s. The same goes for Amy Poehler (Parks and Rec), Tina Fey (30 Rock and Mean Girls), and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City). What’s more, they’re changing the rules of the game. Female comedians no longer have to surrender their femininity to elicit laughs—think Roseanne or Rosie O’Donnell. Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer look distinctly ‘girl next door,’ yet riff unabashedly and to the point of genuine subversiveness about ‘unladylike’ matters such as anal sex, masturbation, and bestiality. These women, too, are grappling with the tension: embracing traditional femininity on the one hand, transgressing it on the other.

Traditional depictions of the female body are also being upended by a new emphasis on realism. Bodies are represented as they are rather than as society expects them to be. In Orange is the New Black, nude shower scenes are replete with fat and—shock horror!—pubic hair. Breasts show-up in direct contravention of long standing television conventions, deferring to rather than defying gravity.

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Real girl Lena Dunham plays ping-pong in her knickers on “Girls”

Once again, Lena Dunham leads the way. Unlike most women on TV, she is short and curvy. She’s cute in a mischievous, cherubic sort of way. But just as often, her character, Hannah Horvath, appears on screen looking distinctly corporeal. Dunham films herself naked in cold light, her skin pale and blotchy, her belly folded over itself, face tucked so as to emphasize her double chin. In so doing, she conveys the profoundly simple, but empowering message: “Sorry, but not every woman looks like a supermodel.” As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum points out, “These scenes shouldn’t shock, but they do, if only because in a culture soaked in Photoshop and Botox, few powerful women open themselves up so aggressively.”

Orange is The New Black

Nichols on “Orange is the New Black” sure gets around

Sexual desire, likewise, is presented realistically and unforgivingly, without moral connotations. Women fuck each other and men, and they do so as much for pleasure and gratification as for more prosaic or instrumental reasons. In one scene from Orange is the New Black, a woman induces a dog to perform oral sex. In another, a postnatal inmate spontaneously lactates during sex. An early episode of Masters of Sex, set in the 1950s, features a lengthy discussion on the logic of fake orgasms. The show explores everything from cunnilingus to the elusiveness of the G-spot climax, all while avoiding the cartoonish sexuality of Sex and the City and the self-conscious subtext: “aren’t we being naughty?!”

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The ultimate girl power: Abbi pegs her lover on “Broad City”

Finally, there’s the depiction of men, whose characters not only deal with their own brittle sexuality, but in many cases are as less central to the fulfillment of women than we have come to expect. Like women in Seinfeld or Two and a Half Men, men can now be discarded, traded in or up, or just kept passively on the sidelines. In Broad City, Abbi and Ilana routinely objectify men. They have casual hookups, demand ‘girth,’ and even celebrate the first time Abbi ‘pegs’ her male lover with a strap-on. Orange is The New Black’s lead character Piper Chapman jettisons her male fiancé to get back with the dangerous girlfriend who landed her in this shit in the first place. And while Girls does deal extensively with men and relationships, it remains, in essence, about young women their lives, their friendships, and the agony and ecstasy they encounter. In perhaps the most polarizing episode of the show, Dunham spends a dreamy weekend fucking and playing house in the Brownstone of a handsome doctor. If Seth Rogen can ‘knock up’ Katherine Heigl, she seems to be saying, women can ‘punch above their weight’ too.

Only a few years ago, this kind of sexuality was hard to find on TV. Today, the small screen is filled with shows that are dramatically re-casting representations of sex, bodies, and expectations of what it means to be a woman. If, as it seems, the consequence of a body- and sex­­-obsessed media culture is to produce a backlash, a feminist renaissance on screen that is at once hilarious, high-quality, and empowering for women, well, then it can’t be all bad.

 

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