Feminist Fandom: part 3 of 6

The past two weeks I have begun posting my undergrad dissertation in bite-size chunks. Part one is here, part two is here.  This week, you get part 3 (this one’s longer than the others, so bear with it):

Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word (Part 3 of 6)

Sex and sexuality: Thinking Outside the Box

Few could have failed to remark that a central feature of both series’ is that they both centre on a group of sexually experienced/liberated women; it would not be inappropriate to posit them as pioneers in attempting to promote a progressive view of female sexuality on television and indeed this may be a contributing factor in both series’ success. As well as being a key aspect of their makeup, it is also an unmistakable element of their feminist appeal. According to Astrid Henry, “[o]ne of the defining issues of the generational struggle between feminism’s second and third waves is sex”.[1] During the second wave, much work (both on academic and grassroots levels) was done on the issue of women’s sexuality – the “male-centered, heterosexual model of human sexuality”,[2] it was argued, undervalues women’s sexual fulfilment, and the imbalances inherent in the conventional paradigm for heterosexual relationships carry over into the bedroom to create a situation in which men’s pleasure is valued above that of women. However, a source of controversy was the overemphasis by certain feminists of women’s victimhood; theorists such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin viewed sexual intercourse primarily as a site of danger and oppression. In general, third-wave feminists have rejected the “puritanical and anti-sex”[3] aspects of second-wave discourse, while seeking to reclaim and carry forward the more liberating insights of previous generations.

One of the major concerns of feminists has been to promote “clitoral literacy”[4] and encourage women to redefine the sex script:

From as far back as the Kinsey report in 1953, intercourse has been found not to be the most effective means for women to experience the full range of their sexual response, and yet, penis-in-vagina sex remains ne plus ultra (sic.) of sexual activity. Other methods of achieving orgasm and sexual pleasure for women are considered second-rate, not “real” sex.[5]

It is easy to situate SatC and TLW in this attempt at reclaiming female sexual power. Both series’ almost always position women as sexual agents and frequently emphasise the importance of clitoral stimulation. According to Astrid Henry, in SatC “cunnilingus signifies female sexuality, with the clitoris symbolising female potency”[6]. Similarly, TLW “explicitly dramatises sex that does not centralize a penis, stressing how it allows for more participatory sex with varied possibilities and pleasures”.[7]

TLW is arguably better placed to advocate the exploration of the full range of female pleasure – the portrayal of lesbian sex practices free of the obligation of the customary phallocentric script facilitates the freedom to recognize a fuller scope of sexual expression, as well as women’s sexual pleasure entirely on their own terms. Furthermore, Moore argues that TLW beneficially cultivates the heterosexual male gaze. Reconsidering the initial perceived heterocentrism of the pilot episode,[8] she argues:

…these two scenes subtly introduce straight viewers to an experience with which queer viewers are intimately familiar…By opening with queer sex and then patterning heterosexual sex on it, the show gives straight viewers a gentle version of the representational alienation well known to queers – that of eroticizing a scenario without recognizing oneself as a viable subject within it.[9]

For queer viewers, this is a vindication; for straight ‘tourists’ this may encourage them to view their own sex practises in a refreshing and perhaps more egalitarian light.

However, while we should laud these progressive steps in the depiction of female sexuality (particularly when such content risks public objection), economic factors and industrial convention may compromise the integrity of both series’ portrayal of female sexuality. TLW, with its need to secure a broad audience, is particularly susceptible to mediating its sex scenes through Hollywood or pornographic conventions. While it has been criticised for its voyeuristic appeal to heterosexual male viewers, I reject this claim on the grounds that regardless of marketing influences the series was written predominantly for a lesbian audience[10] and therefore the scenes are designed to titillate the queer female viewer as well. Moreover, I find problematic the idea that heterosexual men gaining visual pleasure from lesbian sex scenes is intrinsically wrong, particularly while this is a pleasure clearly permitted to queer women. My criticism therefore lies not in the idea of sex scenes as titillation, but in the myths these scenes perpetuate; although they are well-placed to refute the heterosexual intercourse-based sexual script, they reproduce another sex-based myth: that of the perfectly choreographed sexual encounter.

In television drama, particularly programmes such as TLW and SatC that rely so heavily on fantasy and aspiration as well as the ratings-pull of sexual content, sex scenes must conform as well to viewers’ expectations regarding visual pleasure. The sex portrayed on both series is for the most part idealised and uncomplicated, when in reality female sexuality is complex and relies heavily on communication. The popular mind-set of sex being performative has been identified by feminists and sexologists alike as a hindrance: “Most experts agree that spectacular sex isn’t something that just happens, but rather is consciously cultivated”.[11] Here, Chalker advocates a sexuality based less on performance and more on exploration between partners.

Sex scenes in both series’ are designed to be either titillating or fun to watch.[12] This means they are perfectly arranged, well lit and fast-paced. For example, blogger Crissu verifies that on TLW “the physical parts of the scenes…are always choreographed pretty much down to the very last detail”.[13]

The problem with this visual perfection is that it can perpetuate unrealistic expectations and demand a ‘sexiness’ that has little to do with real female desire and experience. Tracey Cox attacks the “artful and seamlessly smooth” depiction of sex, upholding that “[r]eal sex is messy, clumsy”.[14] Sex bloggers Em & Lo identify several ‘sex myths’ common to mainstream Hollywood cinema, many of which apply to TLW and SatC: “Women can orgasm in three seconds flat…Everyone comes together, every time…No-one ever pauses to put on a condom”.[15] Blitzgal, commenting on the blog Feministing, notes the impact these myths have had on her sex life:

…it takes me a while to get there (usually at least twenty minutes) and most of the guys I’ve been with just don’t take the time…For a long time I thought of myself as “broken”, because everything that’s out there in the media portrays women getting off just from a few moments of intercourse.[16]

Chalker puts this into a scientific context by explaining the concept of “orgasmic process” proposed by researchers Whipple and Komisaruk:

During sexual response, as sensory messages are sent toward the brain, increasing numbers of nerves become activated, reaching and then surpassing a threshold for activating another system. In other words, when one system reaches a certain peak of excitation, the nerve activity that it generates “recruits” or affects the next system along the chain…This concept reveals, I think, why many women don’t have orgasms all of the time. They simply aren’t getting enough of the kind of stimulation and rhythm for a long enough time to recruit all – or enough – of the systems to cause [orgasm]…[17]

It is difficult to imagine how this problem might be overcome. ‘Clumsy’ or ‘messy’ sex, as well as the depiction of women who take a long period of time to reach orgasm, would interrupt narrative flow and visual enjoyment of a scene. However, it is clear that the current model is not working for women and that female-friendly sex scenes in the media are not necessarily a viable solution.

Another related point frequently emphasised in feminist discussions of sexuality is the importance of communication between partners. Feminist blogger Jeff Fecke explains:

In Movie Sex, both partners know everything about each other through psychic connections…In real life, of course, sex is less scripted, and getting things right requires — I know, this is crazy — communication. Discussion. Talking about what works and what doesn’t.[18]

One thing that stands out regarding sex in SatC and TLW is that every single principal character engages in hook-ups and one-night-stands, which is portrayed as some of the most ecstatic sex in the series’. A positive aspect of this is that it helps destigmatise behaviour that in anti-feminist accounts often leads to ‘slut-shaming’ (and that in television and cinema frequently results in punishment of the sexually active female character), as well as problematising gendered assumptions about sexual behaviour. However, as becomes apparent from reading feminist discussions on the topic, in reality women’s enjoyment of casual sex varies.[19] Some women cannot experience pleasure/orgasm in this context due to the communication barriers it entails. The fact that every character in both series’ engages in one-night-stands suggests that perhaps this is not due to a genuine aspiration to honestly depict a wide spectrum of female sexual response but rather a desire to exploit the visual pleasure and narrative possibilities of such situation. This is compounded by the effortless way in which such sex is depicted onscreen.

An illustration of this lack of acknowledgement to the complexities of casual sex is TLW’s episode 5.2 (“Look Out, Here They Come”) in which there are four separate sex scenes, each revolving around a hook-up situation. All four scenes are marked by very rapid, ecstatic climaxes (described by vlogger Jill Bennett as “a little over-the-top”[20]). Interestingly, the sexual activity is fore-grounded by a heated discussion between Tina, Jenny and the producer of their film at the beginning of the episode about the marketing advantages of including more lesbian sex scenes; this discussion points to a self-awareness on the part of the series’ writers of the industrial demands behind the sex scenes later in the episode. They are included primarily because ‘sex sells’. The discussion in the opening scene could very well be read as a half-hearted apology to the series’ feminist-minded viewers.

Although freed from the compulsion to attract a heterosexual male audience, SatC fares little better on the communication front. In episode 1.12 (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) Miranda has only just started dating ‘Catholic Guy’, yet in all three sex scenes they manage to orgasm at exactly the same time. While there is no reason why this might not occur in reality, the ease with which they achieve simultaneous orgasm every time considering the length of their relationship, coupled with the numerous other scenes throughout the series in which sex is depicted as effortless, risks producing a sense of inadequacy and frustrated expectation in viewers whose experience of sex is more complex than screen-friendly representations might suggest.

Just as neither series provides us with an adequate model for communication during sex, they often fail to provide us with adequate template for communication before sex. A perfect example is the relationship between Miranda and Skipper in season one. They have sex, but afterwards discover that they each want different things from the relationship – while Miranda is happy to continue seeing other people, Skipper is in love and wants a relationship, winding up heartbroken. This could have been a good opportunity to either challenge gender paradigms or to advocate adequate communication of expectations. Instead, the incident is not commented upon and Skipper disappears from the scene. For David Greven, the male characters in the series are frequently handled in a “cavalier” manner, like exhibits in a freakshow:

Implicitly, something must be irredeemably wrong with every potential suitor – some hideous quirk or disturbing truth will be shortly revealed…once we have witnessed this revealed horror, the curtains close; the freak is banished to the realm of episodic TV-nothingness, never to be heard from or seen again.[21]

Skipper’s pain is thus glossed over and disenfranchised, and we are aligned through familiarity with Miranda; interpreting “inside the dominant code”[22], the viewer is intended to chuckle at him. I can only hope his emotional response is not intended to be the quirk we are meant to chuckle at.

In season six, SatC attempts to address the issue of communication: in episode 6.2 (“Great Sexpectations”) Carrie and Berger have horribly disappointing first-time sex. Second time around, there is no improvement. Samantha insists the problem lies with Berger, not their lack of communication: “Dump him. Fuck me badly once, shame on him. Fuck me badly twice, shame on me.” Carrie then employs Samantha’s tried-and-tested method of sexy lingerie and dirty talk, with cringe-worthy results. Eventually, the couple admit there is a problem, and agree that they “should be able to talk about these things”. However, apart from the admission, there is no genuine discussion; their sex magically improves, just like that, with no indication of what a real conversation between a couple hoping to improve their intimacy would entail. Furthermore, the very important issue of negotiating an authentic sexuality in a media-saturated and sexually homogenized world is glossed over.

TLW tackles the subject of communication with considerably more success through the burgeoning relationship of Alice and Dana, two best friends who had been resisting falling in love. They eventually embark on a relationship in season two, and TLW uses this to portray sex “as a learning curve that depends on complex negotiations based on trust”.[23] Their first-time sex in episode 2.5 (“Labyrinth”) is clumsy and humorous (e.g. when Dana falls over trying to remove her jeans), and their subsequent journey through communication about sex maintains this level of human sincerity. When discussing how to incorporate toys into their sex life in subsequent episodes, their conversation is by turns embarrassed, excited, mischievous, awkward and loving. Dana is mortified during the couple’s visit to a sex shop,[24] and expresses discomfort with Alice’s comparative lack of naivety. Overall, the subject is covered with a level of honesty rarely seen on television.

However, this nuanced exploration of sex is an exception to the rule. My fear is that in casting off old sexual constraints SatC and TLW are simply advocating new norms instead of creating a safe environment for both men and women to dialogue honestly about sex, not just among friends, but with our partners.

The ‘freakshow’ treatment of Skipper’s character discussed above relates to another concern so frequently broached that the series itself makes reference to it[25] – that of sexual consumerism:

…there is nothing political, progressive or even vaguely amusing about the way women talk about men as if they were faulty appliances.[26]

In SatC, every detail of the men’s sexual performance is hashed out over lunch the next day. While this can be undoubtedly cathartic for both the characters and the female viewers, and perhaps deserved in some cases,[27] it hardly contributes to an atmosphere of trust wherein a couple can be transparent and authentic with each other without fear of ridicule.

A valid counter-argument to this is the idea that the characters’ sexual behaviour is to be understood and enjoyed as serving a psychoanalytic purpose. Ien Ang suggests that “fiction is not a mere set of images to be read referentially, but an ensemble of textual devices for engaging the viewer at the level of fantasy”.[28] We can approach this idea by considering SatC’s portrayal of Samantha. The character’s cartoonish promiscuity is evidently anticipated to be read ‘at the level of fantasy’ – for example, in episode 5.4 (“Cover Girl”), her seduction of a postman is improbably camp (‘That’s quite a package!’); the scene is brightly-lit, engendering a harmless fantasy of a potentially dodgy situation (fellating a stranger). This is typical of Samantha’s sex scenes – her consumption is usually performed to comedic excess, implying that she is to be read not as a paradigm for actual behaviour but as a character through which the viewer can vicariously and without judgement live out behaviour in which s/he wouldn’t engage in real life. Likewise, on TLW, Shane’s implausibly prolific seduction skills are likely intended to be read on a similar level.

However, although some modern critics have tended to downplay the role of ‘images of women’ in favour of psychoanalytic theory, I can’t completely dismiss the significance of representation. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault calls attention to the ways in which sexuality is in part produced through cultural discourse,[29] and many prominent contemporary feminists agree that “television, like any other cultural artefact, participates in the construction of our reality”[30]. Hawkes writes:

In the promotion of lifestyle sex, anxieties about inadequacy and boredom are partially clothed in guidelines to attain orgasmic bliss…Good housekeeping has been replaced by ‘good sex-making’.[31]

From this perspective, domestic burdens on women have been replaced by a new set of pressures revolving around sex. Because it is through processing narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, as well as through our own life experiences that we form attitudes to different areas of our life and to society, these constructions risk bleeding into women’s lived realities.

Ariel Levy, as one of the few feminist writers to interrogate SatC’s approach to sex, has criticised the series for its promotion of sexual consumerism. While she focuses almost entirely on the series’ negative aspects in order to support her book’s argument (that feminism has been misappropriated and corrupted in popular renditions of female sexual empowerment), and does not give adequate due to the positive ways in which sexuality is presented, she nevertheless makes an interesting assessment:

Like the teenagers that put the cart before the horse and want to “get” sex before they feel desire, the protagonist of Sex and the City often thought more about the way she was experienced than about what she was experiencing.[32]

This is an inaccurate evaluation of the series itself, as it implies erroneously that Carrie does not accord much importance to her own satisfaction. However, it could be a useful way of scrutinizing the potential effects of both SatC and TLW’s perfectly choreographed sex scenes on their audiences. Is it possible that their airbrushed contribution to the cultural construction of sexuality could leave certain viewers with a sense of inadequacy about the way they are being experienced?

This idea may be corroborated by research indicating teenagers who watch programmes such as SatC that feature sexual content are more likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant. Ignoring for the time being the problematic and simplistic notion that a television show has a direct correlation to teenage pregnancy, I would instead like to focus on the fact that the study was of teenagers that were already sexually active. I would posit that perhaps they are forsaking condom use in order to emulate the ‘cinematic’ sex they see on-screen. Regardless of what conclusions we draw from the study, it highlights that cultural constructions of sexuality do in fact have an impact on private behaviour.

Because of the parallels between the understandings of sex and sexuality presented by both SatC and TLW and contemporary third-wave discourses on the subject pointed out at the beginning of this section, it is perhaps reasonable to be generous about the motivations behind the series’ portrayals of female sexuality. That is, we can legitimately imagine that the programmes’ creators had a certain amount of concern for representational issues. Nevertheless, even if we assume such interests, these are always muddied by financial and industrial pressures, and the positivity of the discourses presented on both programmes surrounding sexuality is no substitute for media literacy and comprehensive sex education.

Ultimately, the endorsement by both series’ of “sexual opportunism”[33] is a dubious objective. Promoting edification, reflection and dialogue about female sexuality, orgasm and pleasure, however, is not. Regarding the latter, third-wave feminists will find much in both texts to celebrate.

Next week: Part 4 – “Fashion and Beauty Practises”

[1] Henry (2004a: 115)


[2] Chalker (2000: 14)

[3] Henry (2004a: 102)

[4] Chalker (2000: 66)

[5] Chalker (2000: 22)

[6] Henry (2004b: 77)

[7] Moore (2007: 138)

[8] In this episode, Jenny watches Shane and another woman having sex in the pool next door, and later re-enacts the scene with her boyfriend Tim. Many critics were initially dismayed at the casual, voyeuristic nature of the lesbian scene compared with the intimacy of the heterosexual scene. See Moore (2007: 122).

[9] Moore (2007: 126)

[10] Warn, Sarah (2004) ‘Interview with Guinevere Turner’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 27-31

[11] Chalker (2000: 169)

[12] I make the ‘either/or’ distinction as there are several sex scenes in both texts (particularly SatC) that are intended primarily for comic purposes.

[13] Crissu. (2008). ‘ L 5 convention, Blackpool 14th-16th November 2008 ‘. TiBette [online]. Available: http://www.tibette.com/l5.html. Last accessed 24th December 2008.

[14] Cox, Tracey (2008) ‘Screen loving (and how to escape from its shadow)’, The Independent [online]. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/culture-of-love/sex-doctor-screen-loving-and-how-to-escape-fromits-shadow-938528.html. Last accessed 6th March 2009.

[15] Em & Lo (2008) ‘Hollywood Sex: What’s Hot or Not?’, MSNBC [online]. Available: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23280091/. Last accessed 24th December 2008. Examples of episodes where these ‘ sex myths’ are exemplified include 2.1 (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) on SatC and 1.13 (“Limb from Limb”) on TLW (“No-one ever pauses to put on a condom”); 1.12 (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”) on SatC and 3.9 (“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way”) on TLW (“Everyone comes together, every time”)

[16] Blitzgal, comment on Martin, Courtney. (2008). ‘Fakin’ It Ain’t Feminist’ (sic). Available: http://www.feministing.com/archives/011362.html. Last accessed 28th December 2008.

[17] Chalker (2000, 59-59)

[18] Fecke, Jeff (2008) ‘Dennis Prager: Men are From Mars, Women are Frigid Bitches’. Alas, a Blog [online]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2008/12/30/dennis-prager-men-are-from-mars-women-are-frigid-bitches/. Last accessed 1st January 2009

[19] See comments section of Martin, Courtney (2008a)

[20] Warn, Sarah (2008) ‘We’re Getting Nowhere: “The L Word” 5.2’. AfterEllen [online]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.afterellen.com/blog/sarahwarn/wgn-video-blog-lword-5-2. Last accessed 16th March 2009

[21] Greven, David (2004) ‘The Museum of Unnatural History: Male Freaks and Sex and the City’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2004a) Reading Sex and the City. London, I. B. Tauris: 34

[22] Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’, in Hall et al. eds. (1986) Culture, Media, Language. London, Hutchinson: 136

[23] Moore (2007: 138)

[24] Episode 2.9, “Late, Later, Latent”

[25] In episode 5.6 (“Critical Condition”), Carrie is accused of treating men as “disposable”.

[26] Merck, Mandy (2004) ‘Sexuality in the City’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet, eds. (2004a) Reading Sex and the City. London, I. B. Tauris: 59

[27] Josh’s inability to locate Miranda’s clitoris in episode 2.4 (“The Shoot Single People, Don’t They?”) stands out as a good example of this.

[28] Ang (1990: 92)

[29] Foucault, Michel (1981) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books Ltd: 100-101

[30] Chambers, Samuel A. (2006) ‘Heteronormativity and The L Word: From a politics of representation to a politics of norms’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 81-98; see also Friedman, Jaclyn & Valenti, Jessica (2008) Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Berkeley, Seal Press

[31] Hawkes, Gail (1996) A Sociology of Sex and Sexuality. Buckingham, Open University Press: 121

[32] Levy, Ariel (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York, Free Press: 174-175

[33] Levy (2006: 32)

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Feminist Fandom part 2 of 6 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

  3. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 4 of 6 | head into the heavens

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