Quick show of hands: how many of us are actually comfortable talking about sex? I don’t mean in a roundabout way, or in a joking way, or even in a clinical way. I mean an honest, open discussion about the kind of sex that happens every day, maybe even the kind of sex we are having on a regular basis (if we’re lucky). I’m not imagining a lot of hands are up right now, even among the health teachers out there, and there’s a good reason for that. Well, not good, as such, but a well-documented one at any rate.
There’s a puritan taboo in the American culture and psyche regarding sex. We can discuss violence, death, psychological trauma, divorce, even Pauly Shore movies with minimal discomfort (well, maybe not Bio-Dome, that thing scarred me), but we simply can’t have a frank discussion about sex. I can laugh about it with my friends, dance around it with my mom ever since THE TALK, and never, ever admit it happens when my in-laws are around. If I turn to the one source of knowledge that informed my youth, television, I discover that sex consists of two people wearing pajamas kissing goodnight and sharing a bed, with a soundtrack of “oooOOOOOOooohhh!!!” If I rely on its younger sibling, the internet… you know what, I can’t even repeat what the internet showed me. I just need to go wash my eyes out. With industrial strength cleanser.
Obviously I can’t step outside of my own cultural baggage and experiences to say whether or not this is “unhealthy” or “bad” or “disturbing as all hell”, especially in comparison to other countries, where they seem to serve soft-core porn with the soft-serve ice cream. All I can say with certainty at this point is there has to be some better way, some sort of middle ground that neither glorifies sex nor demonizes it. There’s so much that sex can be, any discussion or portrayal of it is by definition going to be incomplete. However, I can take a look at some of the portrayals of sex in American popular culture (no, I will not now nor in the foreseeable future consider the internet to be “popular culture”) and see what common pitfalls there are and if I think anyone is getting it close to right.
First, I think most of the shows on HBO and Showtime today are getting it wrong. The sex is gratuitous, which I couldn’t care less about, but more importantly it is irrelevant. Every time I see sex show up in one of these shows it seems to exist purely for titillation, rarely if ever to drive the plot forward. That’s not to say the characters’ sex lives don’t drive the plot forward, but the portrayal itself adds nothing. In particular I am thinking of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and House of Lies. At least when they do violence or politics (medieval or office) on those shows they get it right.
On the other end of the spectrum is broadcast television, which in spite of the FCC has gotten to the point of acknowledging that people do, if fact, have sex. Not on camera, of course, but at least it does occasionally get discussed. Even here though it is oblique, rarely referenced except in the most banal and inoffensive ways for fear of some octogenarian degenerate somewhere filing a complaint just to get their jollies off by telling everyone else what to do. I would cite examples, but really, just watch primetime TV.
So what are some good examples? Not that I was ever a fan, but the few times I was forced to watch it, it seemed like Sex and the City got the balance right. The sex scenes, while sometimes graphic, always had a purpose and lent weight and credence to the situations and characters. In the same vein, I’m not loving Girls on HBO, but the few episodes I have watched have some very uncomfortable sex scenes that make very important character and story points I just can’t see being portrayed as clearly and compactly without just putting it out there, for lack of a better phrase. One show that I do like a lot that I think gets the balance right is Lost Girl on SyFy. Considering the protagonist is a succubus, there’s pretty much a guarantee of a lot of sex, but it is for the most part done tastefully and within context of the needs of the story. They don’t linger just for the sake of a few cheap thrills, but they don’t shy away either.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m some kind of prude who’s afraid or ashamed of sex. Not to go into too much detail, but I was once a twenty-something male with a credit card and access to the internet. There’s nothing wrong with cinema whose greatest contribution is the archetype of the Pizza Delivery Boy or the Pool Cleaner. But if that’s all you’re aiming for, then by all means don’t waste my time with dialogue and story. On the other hand, if you are attempting something a little more highbrow, don’t insult me by assuming I either can’t handle seeing naked skin or you have to have gymnastic bedroom exploits every five minutes. Focus on the story, and if sex is a natural part of that story, let it happen naturally. Maybe then we can start to treat it as something natural.
Recently the FCC got slapped, although not spanked (and certainly not tied up and paddled on primetime television) by the Supreme Court. Well, yippee. I know I should be more excited by this, especially considering my vast love for the First Amendment in all its forms, but the truth is this ruling was about as mamby-pamby as any I’ve ever heard out of the Supreme Court, which considering it was a unanimous ruling in a strongly divided court isn’t much of a surprise. Still, at least we got a little something, which is to say a small shred of common sense in government: hey look, you can’t just decide post facto that something is indecent and levy fines here but not there for the same activity.
But why shouldn’t we be grateful for the FCC? I mean, after all, won’t somebody please think of the children? If it weren’t for the FCC, public television might look more like cable, what with the sex, violence, and bad language. And we all know nobody actually wants to watch shows like The Sopranos, Sex in the City, True Blood, or anything like that. And even if there were a few sick bastards out there who did, the rest of us would be helpless in the face of their Vast Media Empire. It’s not like we could, I dunno:
- change the channel
- turn the TV off
- go read a book
- play outside
- go for a walk
- build a model
- play a board game
- call a friend
- go to the theater
- look at lolcatz on the interwebs
- read a blog
So yeah, we’re pretty much stuck looking at the same handful of channels, making sure we all have the same culture. One might even call it “popular culture.” Not because it’s all that popular, but just because everyone is familiar with it, and because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, and it never challenges us. If we didn’t have that, if our entertainment somehow became fractured, we might not all have the same basic outlook on things, and what would that do to our society? Our politics? Our country?
We might all start finding things that appeal to our deepest beliefs rather than the muddy middle, and then we’d have to go one of two ways. The one would be a cultural and political revolution, but in a good way: we would have to honestly start to engage with one another, and stop pretending that father knows best, admit eight isn’t enough, and we just can’t leave it to beaver. We would need to go to a place where everybody doesn’t know your name, and start to lean each other’s’ names, as well as each other’s hopes and dreams and deepest beliefs. Then we would need to work out our conflicts in a meaningful way, and not just try to force our own ideas of what’s right and wrong on each other, either through blatantly through the political machine or subtly through the mass media.
The other would be a disaster: some sort of bipolar system in which we become horribly polarized, swinging back and forth politically and socially until the entire system cracks apart from the stress because we keep talking past each other instead of talking to each other. But that could never happen, right?