“Let it out, Ilana,” the therapist says as Ilana bursts into tears. “You’re not alone. Orgasms have been down 140 percent since Trump was elected. It’s been horrible for everyone.”
No, that’s not a real statistic. Yet Ilana hasn’t been alone in her sexual frustration. Several shows recently have been depicting women as unsatisfied. Like Ilana, they’re determined to do something about it — and a finding man isn’t necessarily part of the equation.
We know that the increase in female show-runners can lead to more diversity on screen, and all the series mentioned in this story have them. It’s also leading to deeper looks at women’s sexuality that are more explicit than ever before — and more critical of the status quo, where men are more likely to feel satisfied and women, frustrated.
Yes, yes, yes: We’ve come a long way since “The Contest,” the 1992 “Seinfeld” episode that revolved around masturbation but didn’t dare utter that word. And since “Sex and the City,” where Samantha scheduled day-long appointments with her vibrator. A generation ago, it was groundbreaking to acknowledge that women and men took control of their own sexual pleasure if there was no one around to help. (Remember how Elaine had to convince the guys that she should be part of the contest?)
Now shows are taking the next step and saying that women deserve more in the bedroom. A recent episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” for example, takes aim at male cluelessness about the female body. A millennial administrative assistant, Maya (Esther Povitsky), informs her colleague Tim (Michael McMillian) about the orgasm gap between heterosexual women and men. “Did you know that studies show that women only orgasm 39 percent of the time during sex while men finish 91 percent of the time?” Maya says. He did not. Tim is also shocked to realize that the “electric toothbrush” his wife loves so much might be another device making up for any deficits in the bedroom.
This caricature of the clueless dude is an old trope. Sara McClelland, an assistant professor of women’s studies and psychology at the University of Michigan, thinks characters like Tim let men off the hook, rather than pushing them to consider their potential role in the orgasm gap. “Lots and lots of men do know that their female partners are not having orgasms,” McClelland says, but characters such as Tim make “all men look benignly incompetent.”
“To me, there’s a bigger issue, which is not something about ignorance but more about: Some people’s pleasure is valued more than others,” says McClelland, who links this disparity to the gender pay gap. Young women are also often told that their bodies are really complicated, which makes the possibility of orgasm seem “off the table even before it’s had the chance to get on the table.”
While “Seinfeld” danced around the notion of sexual release, today’s language is a lot more explicit. Rachel Bloom, the star and co-creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” that she “had to have many conversations with legal about why it wasn’t graphic or lewd” to say the word “clitoris” on the orgasm-gap episode. The body part has been mentioned on “Family Guy” and “The Office,” but Bloom says her show is the first on network television to explain the clitoris’s function.
TV historian Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who’s written a book on “Seinfeld,” says current depictions of women’s sex lives differ in two main ways since the “Sex and the City” era. “There’s a little more female-centricity and a little more normalization,” Armstrong says. Female pleasure is seen as an important aspect of self-care and independence; on “Being Mary Jane,” for example, Gabrielle Union’s character takes care of herself in her office before heading out for a date, the implication being that, however the night goes, she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. And the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” conversations take place in West Covina, Calif. “This isn’t these exotic, wealthy, insanely thin, beautiful women of ‘Sex and the City’ that felt a little untouchable,” Armstrong says, adding, “Now it’s a lot more just part of these fairly normal-seeming lives.”
Now that women’s sexual needs are viewed as normal, not being able to fulfill them is where the shame lies. “The Bold Type,” a new Freeform show, follows the lives of three 20-somethings working at a women’s magazine. In the second episode, Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) is tasked with writing a story about her best orgasm. Slight problem: Like 10 to 15 percent of women out there, she’s never had one. Admitting as such while working at a magazine that, in Jane’s words, is “all about having the most amazing sex ever,” makes her feel like a “fraud.”
The characters on “The Bold Type” are fictional women, but they grew up in the “Sex and the City” era. Which means they might feel like a failure at being a liberated woman for not figuring out “how to be a sex goddess in addition to all the other things I’m supposed to be doing,” Armstrong says.
“We have this notion that women have the information to be in control of their pleasure and their bodies, but we’ve never given it to them,” Armstrong says, noting the inadequacy of sex education in the United States.
In her research, when McClelland asks a woman “Are you satisfied?” she usually hears: ” ‘Yeah, he makes me feel really safe.’ But safety is a thing that they’ve come to think of as usual and orgasm is not,” she says, adding that safety and reciprocity should be taught in tandem.
“Broad City’s” link between sexual and political impotence is more than a plot line aimed at connecting with disappointed liberal viewers. It’s a comment about the kind of equality McClelland envisions: where everyone has a right to pleasure, but no one person’s satisfaction matters more than another’s. So while Ilana’s mind flashes back to political rallies and Trump’s “Grab them by the p—y” comments during her attempts at self-gratification, her sex therapist tells her to go high while her world goes low. “Orgasms are a journey,” she advises. “They start in your mind. You’re frustrated that a sexual-assault-bragging steak salesman has become our president. You need to find a way to rise above it in spite of him. Look inside yourself.”
Eventually, Ilana breaks her year-long fast while picturing powerful women. Images of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Beyoncé, Maxine Waters, Billie Jean King, the cast of “Golden Girls” and dozens of others flash across the screen, a montage to remind her that even when the world seems to be stacked in favor of men, women are still in the driver’s seat of their own lives and their own fantasies.