It’s About Time TV Let Ladies Seize Their Sexuality
In a world where the male gaze reigns triumphant and the patriarchy looms over us all, it’s hard to find television series that allow women to take control of their own sexual destiny and engage in the pursuit of pleasure. Women’s sexuality has been largely ignored for decades of storytelling on both television and in film – their bodies are frequently treated like eye candy and playthings. Shows like Game of Thrones have frequently come under heavy criticism for their use of titillating female nudity, brutality against women, and sex scenes almost exclusively featuring male erotic pleasure (though there have been a few exceptions, particularly in a season four scene that depicts Daario undressing while Daenarys watches). In general, however, the consistently male-driven depiction of sexuality across the board on television has become tired – because it’s no secret that women want sex, too. Enter the past few years of television.
We’ve been gifted with a slew of series that put women at the helm – Girls, Jane the Virgin, Top of the Lake, Harlots, I Love Dick, Fleabag, and The Handmaid’s Tale are just a few of the variety of shows that are pushing boundaries and shifting the archaic climate that has long plagued the portrayal of female sexuality on television. When Girls began in 2012, we were presented with a group of four very different women who were in very different sexual places in their lives, and there was absolutely no shame in being open about sexual needs and erotic pleasure with their partners. Many of the storylines that were put into the play over the series’ six seasons depicted the sexual exploration and self-discovery of these characters as they learned to ask for what they want, and initiating sexual situations wasn’t intended to come off as taboo (though it certainly made a fair share of critics uncomfortable). Because of the women behind the camera (and Lena Dunham‘s vision), the nudity we’d been conditioned to find titillating and used for male pleasure was suddenly thrown into the mix because it was an accurate representation of the behavior of women in real life.
About halfway through Girls‘ run came Jane the Virgin, a perfect little dramedy on The CW that beautifully told us from the beginning that there was no one correct way to be a woman; it was acceptable to save yourself for marriage, and it was totally okay to bring home a different dude every night. The sexual evolution of the show’s lead, Jane (played with an unparalleled vulnerability by the extraordinary Gina Rodriguez) has been a fascinating, exciting one to behold – she’s gone from dedicated virgin to mourning widow to fling-seeking horndog – and while she initially struggles with the shame that she’s been conditioned to feel as a child by her Catholic grandmother, she soon leans fully into pursuing her own sexual pleasure (with steamy, satisfying results!). The object of her affections is often put on display for female pleasure, glistening abs, smoldering expression and all. In an age where women are typically the ones who have their bodies ogled by the camera for male pleasure, it’s completely refreshing to see these overplayed techniques turned on their head – and for a woman’s sexual endeavor to be featured as a leading story.
Female sexuality and desire takes center stage over the eight episodes of Amazon‘s I Love Dick, and it’s messy, sexy, occasionally cringeworthy stuff. It fully embraces the fact that female sexuality exists on a spectrum, and sometimes, desire is weird and taboo.”I was born into a world that presumes there is something grotesque, unspeakable about female desire,” Chris (Kathryn Hahn) narrates. Television has traditionally fallen into this presumption as well – but the gradual shift that has become evident in this slew of series is finally in motion.
One of the most stunning examples of the complex nature of female sexuality on television this year comes from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While a large part of the series’ premise rests on the fact that fertile women have been subjugated as what are essentially sex slaves and ceremoniously raped once a month, the fifth episode of the series, “Faithful“, was nothing short of revolutionary on a sexual level. The series could have easily gone in the direction that so many others have and portrayed Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who has been repeatedly sexually assaulted, as a damaged victim now disinterested in sex altogether. Instead, however, Offred maintains her sexual autonomy and pursues Nick (Max Minghella) in what becomes the first fully nude sex scene on the series. She’s loud, she’s aggressive, she’s dominate – and she’s not afraid to pursue her own pleasure. It’s a radical, shameless sequence, one that is demonstrative of just how far we’ve come – and how far we need to go to make this the norm.
By putting women behind the camera and diversifying writers’ rooms, the female gaze is allowed to grab hold of the lens a story is told through and ensure that women are portrayed as dynamic, deep entities with a vast array of wants and needs. Harlots‘ all-female creative team is living proof of what can happen when sexual situations are set up with a lady’s touch, and employing showrunners like Jennie Snyder Urman, Jill Soloway, and Jane Campion ensures that these stories are told with the shorthand that comes from having lived the female experience. It may have taken entirely too long for television to allow women to indulge in their own erotic pleasure, but as the industry shifts, so will representation on screen – let’s keep up this momentum. We’re long overdue for some satisfaction.