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At Last, Television Shows Have Figured Out What Sex Is Like for Women


When “True Detective” debuted on HBO last January, it was immediately heralded as the best thing on TV, filled with philosophical depths that could only be fathomed through rabid Reddit threads and feverish readings of H.P. Lovecraft. But, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in a brilliant The New Yorker essay (with the even more brilliant title, “Cool Story, Bro”), it was in many ways business as usual for pay-cable TV: a dark drama plumbing the psychologies of tortured men, with women’s bodies as decorative backdrop. When it came to sex, Cary Fukunaga’s showy directing slipped into a generic visual grammar of writhing, moaning, and thrusting, all of it choreographed to keep bouncing breasts in full view. The first we see of Maggie (Michelle Monaghan)—the most prominent of the show’s thinly drawn female characters—is her bare thigh splayed on the bed, the camera slowly inching up her body.

This portrait of sex was frustratingly familiar for anyone who has kept up with the last decade of cable TV. Even shows with more thoughtful gender politics, like “The Sopranos,” tended to throw in T-and-A as part of the scenery. You don’t have to be a puritan to find this alienating. For many women, the aggressive male gaze is a constant reminder that this wasn’t made for you. But if the critical backlash over “True Detective” was encouraging, the past year of programming offered an even more thrilling response to TV’s woman problem: an abundance of series that showed sex from a female perspective, in all its dirty, awkward, steamy forms.

Surprisingly, this was kicked off by “Game of Thrones”—the show that only weeks earlier had aired a controversial rape scene that the director somehow failed to realize was rape; the show that inspired the portmanteau “sexposition” to describe the kinds of scenes where one character explains decades-old history to the audience while two naked prostitutes lick and fondle in the foreground.1 For a few brief seconds in this season’s seventh episode, though, “Game of Thrones” turned the table. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), the mother of dragons and queen of armies, orders Daario (Michiel Huisman) to take off his clothes. And so he does, and what followed was more gripping than any of the show’s acrobatic sex scenes. The camera settles on his naked body from the back, and within the frame we see Daenerys, reclining, drinking wine, and gazing appreciatively. In an insightful essay in Salon on prestige TV’s sexual marginalization of women, Lili Loofbourow wrote that the scene caught her off guard, reminding her how rare it is to be “invited by the camera to regard a naked man in an explicitly erotic context as a woman.” A few moments later it was over, and there was nothing like it in the rest of the season.

But that image—a woman surveying a man’s body for her own pleasure—kept turning up in television this year. In “Orphan Black,” Tatiana Maslany’s most domineering clone orders a buff employee to strip so that she can inspect his body. On “The Mindy Project” (which also had the cojones to air an episode about negotiating anal sex on network TV) Mindy Kaling has displayed a shirtless Chris Messina almost every week; one episode ended with Messina performing a long striptease. For “Broad City,” objectifying men was a regular part of Abbi and Ilana’s unapologetically bawdy friendship. 

And then there was “Outlander,” a show I didn’t actually like that much that also happened to air the most startlingly sexy hour of TV I’ve seen this year, an episode that Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan called “nothing short of revolutionary in its depiction of nudity and intimacy, and in its willingness to entertain the female point of view.” An adaptation of a bestselling series of time-travel romance novels, the Starz show is about Claire Beacham, an English nurse who is mysteriously transported from 1940s Scotland to 18th-century Scotland, where she has to wear corsets and avoid being raped by marauding soldiers. Hailed as “Game of Thrones for Ladies,” “Outlander” wasn’t my cup of tea—too much moony voiceover, too many soaring bagpipes. It followed a promising pilot (featuring some abandoned-castle cunnilingus) with boring clan politics and cheesy mysticism. 

But then! After six episodes of chaste foreplay, “Outlander” finally aired “Wedding,” marrying Claire (Caitriona Balfe) off to hunky highlander Jamie (Sam Heughan) and showing us the entire wedding night. The scenario itself was unusual for TV: Claire, who has a husband back in the 1940s, is confident and experienced; Jamie is the timid virgin. The sex is awkward, honest, and heated. “Jamie, you’re crushing me,” she tells him at first. At one point, she asks him to take off his shirt: “I want to look at you.” She slowly circles his body, and so does the camera, lingering on sinewy muscles and soft flesh. After a few silent moments, she reciprocates. Unlike in “Orphan Black” and “Game of Thrones,” Claire’s desire isn’t part of a power play. It’s something much gentler, part of two people getting to know each other, bodies included.

As recently as a year ago, this kind of sexuality was impossible to find on TV. Now, the small screen is filled with shows that are re-writing the visual conventions for sex and giving space to to a non-heterosexual male perspective. “Looking” shows the nervous couplings of a group of San Francisco gay men with intimate, low-fi aesthetics. In “The Americans,” the sex gives us an intimate view of a couple’s inner life. And “Orange is the New Black” spends some time ogling the female form, but it lets all its characters be sexual beings. In one of my favorite scenes from this past season, we see Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee topless, a 54-year-old woman allowed to be naked and strong and desirable. When “True Detective” comes back next year, it may have more nuanced, less porn-y gender dynamics. But with so many other smart, surprising shows out there, does it even matter?

  1. In an interview a few years ago, “Game of Thrones” director Neil Marshall described an HBO exec who pulled him aside to while filming to say, “I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” In the “Saturday Night Live”-skit version, the show employs a horny 13-year-old to ensure each episode has requisite boobs.