Let’s Talk About Sex On TV — And No, This is Not Clickbait
First in an Ongoing Series About The Lines About Sex in Art That Society Will Never Agree On
I’ve been meaning to write this series for an exceedingly long time. I know that even discussing the ideas I will lay bare in this article and those to come will piss off a lot of people, no matter which side I come down on.
I have thought about variations on it for a while; I have plans to write a very long article about my opinions towards censorship in general, and for a long time, I once considered writing a mostly tongue-in-cheek series about “Great Films I Found When I Was Looking for…Other Things Late at Night’. But I now realize that if we are to address the problems this country and indeed so much of the world has with sex in the media, we have to face a lot of our baggage and shame. As someone who has spent much of his life looking at so much of the reasons for this — sometimes as a critic, sometimes just as a man — I think I have a certain qualification for this that many others do not. Much of my career I have avoided discussing the subject because it did not make me comfortable. I did not realize that was a virtue and not an impediment.
So strap in, as I start a series about the discussion about sex on TV and in the movies. And let’s start with the most obvious point: that’s what has so many people up in arms when they talk about censorship. Foul language, we don’t like the idea of our kids saying these words, but we know that they can’t avoid them. Violence…don’t make me laugh. We have absolutely no problem having our teenagers see any movie in the theaters where men beat each other senseless, kill each other, blow stuff up and hell, even wipe out half of civilization, and say that’s PG-13. But let there be a single sex scene — hell, even a discussion of sex in an adult fashion — and the R rating comes out without a second thought. Roger Ebert spent the latter half of his career raging about how the ‘R’ rating stopped so many intelligent films that he thought teenagers could see without a shrug and yet somehow society had no problem with them going to Transformers even though there was endless destruction. It’s hard to say he didn’t have a point.
Now I know all the parents out there are raging about how it important it is for children and teenagers not to learn about sex until their ‘old enough to handle it;’ I have certain opinions on that too, but for now, let’s let that go. Let’s move from that to rating movies NC-17 or worse, ‘unrated’. I don’t know in the history of either if its ever been used for a movie of extreme violence. The closest example I know is The Passion of The Christ, and even then the MPAA was ultimately fine with it, and some parents had no problems taking their kids to it. Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher have shown us scenes you’d think would earn an NC-17, but that they never have All the examples I know about for sure — Henry and June; Showgirls; The Cooler; Lost and Delirious — it’s always because of sex scenes. All the years I went to Blockbuster, they never put an ‘Unrated’ version for anything Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme did. Basic Instinct on the other hand… Sex is for the privacy of your own home, and we’re not entirely happy with that idea these days.
What maddens me all the more about all of this comes to several points, particularly when it comes to anything we deem ‘pornographic’: 1, the more we try to ban it, the more people are going to want it and more importantly, 2, the standards for what we deem pornographic and what it ‘artistic’ have always been changing and always subject to review. These articles will fundamentally deal with the latter part of discussion, and because I specialized mainly in television, let’s start there.
Let’s start with pay cable. If like me, you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, there were three reasons to get HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax . The first was for movies you couldn’t see anywhere else, the second (at least for the two) was boxing matches, and the third was…a different kind of entertainment. Now anyone who knows the nickname for Cinemax knows exactly what I’m talking about, but let’s be more honest.
Some of the first real original programming for all three of the channels was essential soft-core porn TV series. They were there after midnight, sometimes a little before. I’m pretty sure all three networks would like you to forget that’s the foundation of so much of their early business (I didn’t see any mention of it in Tinderbox; the otherwise superb story on the history of HBO) but it was there. Hell, that’s probably why so many people kept renewing their subscriptions. A running joke was that you read Playboy just for the articles; I imagine many people said that they got Cinemax for the art films.
That’s not something we mention in polite circles and with the exception of Cinemax, almost all cable has been more than willing to get out of that market as fast as they could when making ‘quality’ series could be a better source of revenue. But make no mistake, it was there. David Duchovny may want to convince the world his career began with Twin Peaks, but IMDB.com does not lie and Red Shoe Diaries is there in black and white for all to see. If anything, that series was a ‘higher-class level’ of soft core in that it was essentially story based; other shows on Showtime wouldn’t even bother to deal with the barest minimum of plot (or indeed, clothing) HBO can argue as much as it was that so-much of their late night movies was from their ‘sister station’ Cinemax, but they were neck-deep in a different kind: Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions just showed that at the end of the day, they were just as invested in sex as entertainment — they just didn’t want to pay actors to do it.
And it’s worth noting that even when HBO and Showtime were getting into the original series markets, both were really hedging their bets by staying awfully close to the sex-as-entertainment format. This did not even start with Sex and the City; a full five years before the world met Carrie Bradshaw, the comedy series Dream On debuted, telling the story of editor Martin Tupper (Brian Benben) and his sexual exploits which invariably involved him having affairs with women infinitely more attractive then him. To be clear, I always liked Dream On. It never tried to be anything but a silly comedy and would often transcend the tactics of its set up. Benben is a superb actor, who can do both comedy and drama well and he was supported by a more than able cast including future acting legends Wendie Malick and Michael McKean and an exceptionally good group of guest stars. But there was enough sex going on that you could argue that it was a transition from what so many viewers had been used to from HBO in the past.
Showtime took a bit longer to start migrating towards the original series market, and when it did it generally tried a little harder to stay away from its roots. I’d actually argue that Showtime was trying to be a little more ambitious than HBO up until OZ showed up. Some of their early series such as Rude Awakening and Beggars and Choosers were a lot different than what HBO was doing. Some of their approach to programming set standards that I’d argue most of any service has yet to keep up with; there still aren’t a lot of series like Resurrection Blvd and Soul Food out there. But perhaps because it took longer for Showtime to achieve the same mainstream success that HBO had, they took a lot longer to walk away from the soft-core series that had brought them viewership to begin with — and they stuck with it longer. (I don’t know how long it was before they stopped rerunning Gigolos and I’m not sure I want to know.)
Now to be fair, when the new Golden Age began for HBO with the sole exception of Sex and the City, the fair-minded critic could say that they were series meant for adults in the un-erotic way. The Sopranos never had many sex scenes, The Wire spent time in strip clubs and in bedrooms but that was never the point, and for all the time we spent in Deadwood in the Gem and the Bella Union, there was very little actual sex and most of it the participants were partially clothed. Six Feet Under was the exception to this rule, which may be the reason it was never appreciated as much. HBO would occasionally dip into this well in the 2000s, but as it usually wasn’t successful — Tell Me That You Love Me was one of their most notorious bombs — they would stay away from sex — until 2008.
I’ve often joked with a friend of mine that the difference between True Blood and pornography is that pornography has less nudity. It was not much of a joke because for the life of me I couldn’t understand why else it was kept on the air. Yes, I know the success of the Sookie Stackhouse novels may have been part of the reason, but True Blood was not what I had come to think of us as HBO Peak TV. (Nor for the record did most award voters; the series was only nominated for Best Drama once in entire run by the Emmys.) Now some would try to argue that there was a larger story going on there; that Alan Ball, the head voice behind Six Feet Under was trying to tell stories about the excluded and the forbidden by telling stories about vampires and werewolves and witches or whatever spiritual creatures inhabited True Blood. You can make as many arguments as you want about the stories of inclusion that involves so many gay and lesbian characters.
I don’t buy that for a minute. True Blood was about as much sex and nudity as the censors could get away with mixed in a vampire love triangle. It was Twilight for people who wanted to see all the crazy sex they couldn’t get in a PG-13 movie. It was supernatural porn, plain and simple. And for better or worse (mostly worse) it took HBO in the direction that it has basically been traveling for the last fifteen years: where the idea of ‘adult television’ meant basically as much sex and nudity as you could get.
Girls was fundamentally a vanity trip for Lena Dunham. Yes, I know that some of the actress and actors in the series (most notably Allison Williams and Adam Driver) have been more than capable of showing that they were sensations working with horrible material. But when the best description you can have for it is ‘Sex and the City for the 21st Century” you’re not making an argument for great art, your making it for exploitation. I may never have liked the series and I may never be able to understand whatever appeal Lena Dunham has; I may even be the wrong audience for the series. It does not change the fact that so many people chose to celebrate the series for the nudity that Dunham and her co-stars show.
All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the exploitation on display in Game of Thrones. Now I’m grateful that so many people are now starting to criticize the sexual exploitation that was going on throughout the series in retrospect. As someone who recognized what it was from day one, I have to tell you the level of depravity that was on display there from the Pilot genuinely makes me wonder what it says about the fandom of this series — and apparently to an extent in House of the Dragon — that so many people seem to love a series where one of the main reasons for people to have sex is that they’re related. I don’t know what it says about our society as a whole that the most popular show on TV for the 2010s was one that fundamentally found every version of an incestuous relationship and in some cases, there were fandoms for it.
What makes me question this particular ‘fetish’ (to use the kindest euphemism I can) is that so many viewers’ problem with it was subjective. The two best cases of this involved two vastly different Showtime series. In the sixth season of Dexter, Deb was going through intense therapy and came to the realization that she was in love with her foster brother, Dexter. To be clear, they were not related by blood. But even the idea of it grossed many viewers out and it was never followed up on. Not a year after this Showtime was airing another series The Borgias, based on the notorious Italian family. Now there have been rumors about the incestuous relations between the family for centuries, so in a sense to address the issue between Cesare and Lucrezia was within the series rights. I do however, find it questionable that so many fans were rooting for it to happen — and were indeed thrilled when it did in Season 3. (I’ll say no more.) To be clear, The Borgias was a superbly written and acted series that I’m still mad at Showtime for prematurely cancelling. But the fact that two unrelated siblings attraction was considered horrendous and two very related siblings was considered part of the allure really makes me question the arbitrary nature of fans of these kinds of shows.
That’s not to say I don’t have questions about the ‘artistic’ value of other Showtime series too. I always found it hard to fathom why so many people were drawn to The L Word.. Yes, I’m well aware of the community that it was representing at the time, but let’s be fair Queer as Folk had already broken the mold and boundaries by the time The L Word premiered and even during its run many of the stars and creators truly thought the nudity and sex were part of its appeal. Again, I’m the wrong person to make judgments on this as I’m not the audience in question, but having seen both series in reruns it’s hard to argue that there’s something fundamentally braver about Queer as Folk and exploitive about L Word.
And all of this comes down to the fundamental question I raised at the start of this article: what is the line between pornography and art? The main one seems to be, I think, that many porn films do not view themselves with pretention. For all you can say about the exploitive nature of pornography (and I will be addressing this issue in future articles, to be sure), the actors involved do seem to know the kind of films they are making. They do not pretend that they are making films that will be viewed at Cannes with high eyes or for awards at TV series. If they decide to satirize Game of Thrones (though again, I think it’s hard to imagine a version of the series that’s more pornographic than the original) they are aware of it.
Now I realize that, at the time, there were many people who were just as determined to get shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood banned from cable or removed from the media as they are against pornography. The main difference seems to be that thirty years ago, had anyone talked about restrictions against shows like Red Shoe Diaries no one would have blinked an eye and there would have been far less public outcry than if anyone did if someone even suggested removing House of the Dragon from HBO Max. Hell, there’s an argument that the latter is infinitely more exploitive, misogynistic and offensives towards young adults than anything that aired on Cinemax for twenty years ever was. But why will so many rise to defend that? Because some people consider it art and more people consider it entertainment. What this says about society I leave in the judgment to the reader and the viewer. But if we don’t acknowledge the hypocrisy here, there is something flawed about us as a society.