“I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe,” Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill snarled in a song with a title that is unprintable on this website. Her declaration applies to what Huffington Post critic Maureen Ryan describes as television’s “sexual revolution,” a shift from a giddy, teenaged enthusiasm for showing naked body parts (mostly belonging to women) to a new creativity in depicting sex, particularly in a way that acknowledges that women like sex, too.
Declining to depict sex as it actually happens on screen, in favor of depicting it in a way that maximizes the camera’s access to actors and actresses’ bodies, is not simply a matter of politics or equal opportunity lust. It means sacrificing characterization and story to audience expectations, pulling us out of stories instead of luring us in. That some of the best shows currently airing on television are also among the frankest and thoughtful about sex is no accident.
On “The Americans,” showing us deep-cover KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) engaged in good old missionary position sex would not have done nearly as much to communicate the way their marriage shifted from a sham to a real union as a scene of them engaged in mutual oral sex did.
Similarly, the detailed, close-shot sex scenes on HBO gay romantic comedy “Looking” provided an actual reflection of the intimate lives of gay characters, who are often depicted as relatively chaste on television, and introduced straight ones to the details of sexuality between men. Watching the characters debate which acts are casual and which are deeply emotional helped give the first season of “Looking” a gratifying depth. That new candor about sex between men showed up in the premiere of ABC’s drama “How To Get Away With Murder,” too, though critics were so busy parsing other unusual elements of the show that it hardly merited attention.
And the deeply uncomfortable sex scenes on Lena Dunham’s “Girls” are striking not least because the sex does not look pleasant or pleasurable, but because of what they say about what Dunham’s characters are willing to endure for intimacy and how poorly those characters communicate with each other.
As Ryan wrote about the wedding and wedding-night episode in time-travel drama “Outlander,” which paired World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) with eighteenth-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan): “The whole act was amusingly devoid of cliche: no ‘sexy’ camera angles, no golden light, no instant nirvana. Jamie wondered if they should do it like the horses in the fields; later, Claire stopped things at one point to tell him he was accidentally crushing her. It didn’t last long. It was awkward first-date sex, and it was achingly, amusingly real.”
The choreography was also appropriate to the story. It would not have made sense for any new couple, much less an anxious virgin (Jamie) without the benefit of contemporary sex education and decidedly un-contemporary value set and a woman (Claire) who is sexually liberated and experienced even by the standards of the 1940s, to have a seamless first time.
This new sexual revolution may mean that women’s bodies are on less dramatic aesthetic display on television. Maybe that is a loss for folks who tuned into “The Sopranos” in part because of the promise of scenes at the Bada Bing club. But if the current crop of excellent television is any indication, paying more attention to what women want from sex could be awfully good for men — and male characters — too.