Yesterday, while waiting to get my hair cut, I was flipping through the latest issue of The New York Review of Books and my eye happened to catch on Elaine Blair’s thoughtful review of “Girls” — the show everyone seems to be talking about these days. I haven’t seen it (we don’t get HBO) and most of the reviews haven’t really given me a reason to watch it: the fumblings of twentysomething urbanites has never been a genre that captured my attention. Blair’s review was actually the first piece I’d read that made me think the show might be worth checking out at some point — at least an episode or two.
Why? Because Blair’s essay hinges on the portrayal of sex — specifically the messy, emotionally fraught, often unsatisfying sex that I guess makes up the majority of relational sexual intimacy in the series to-date. She chooses to focus in on a specific scene in which the main character (Hannah) shows up at the apartment of her partner of the moment (Adam) for what sounds like a booty call. Adam gets off, through masturbation and fantasy, and Hannah doesn’t (not because she doesn’t want to – but because she’s not sure what she wants, and Adam isn’t present enough to pursue the question).
Nonetheless, Blair argues that the scene is not only insightful in its badness, in labeling it “bad” sex we may be too quick to condemn what is simply unfamiliar in our cinematic and televisual repertoire of “sex scene”:
The scene feels surprisingly frank. For one thing, though it is not particularly explicit visually (their bodies are always partly obscured), it is very explicit aurally: the sound of the condom snapping off, of Adam’s masturbatory motions, and of the changing lilt of his voice as he becomes further aroused all lend the scene a startling sense of intimacy. Even more startling is the choreography. How often, in movies or television, do you see autoeroticism incorporated into a scene of two people having sex? And then of course there is the fantasy about the young girl, articulated by a noncriminal person leading a normal life—another thing you don’t much see on television.
Slightly later in the article she goes on to elaborate:
If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.
And we can find something sexy and even liberating in that sex scene in spite of our strong identification with Hannah. Hollywood sex scenes are not typically interested in even hinting at the ways that people actually reach orgasm, and this is disheartening above all for female viewers, who develop a certain melancholy by the time that they have seen their one thousandth sex scene in which it is taken for granted that by sex we mean mutually rapturous face-to-face vaginal intercourse. Even though the only person having fun in Dunham’s scene is the guy, there is nonetheless a certain joy in seeing someone get off in some other way.
Emphasis mine. You can read the entire piece here.
Since I haven’t seen the episode, I can’t speak to Blair’s interpretation of the scene. What really captured my attention, though, was the way Blair read the sex scene not simply as “good” or “bad” — and not, in a reductionist sense, as “feminist” or “not feminist” (meaning was Hannah, as the female partner, enjoying herself) — but as a human interaction that involved sexual intimacy. As a scene that we can really only make sense of by considering not only who got off but how and why — and what the meaning of such a sexual encounter is for the people involved.
This is why I read and write erotica. To learn what I want. To think about what other people want. To consider what happens when something goes wrong, and how people bounce back (or not) from “bad” sex. In our culture, we so often reduce sexually-explicit material to fuel for jerking off (which in itself dismisses the power of masturbation to help you discover what you want, how your body expresses joy, etc.). As a culture, we run squeamishly away from graphic depictions of sexual acts, believing somehow they represent some sort of one-to-one equation between what happens on screen (or in print) and the actions of readers and viewers.
But most successful erotica (in my opinion) isn’t about geometry. Isn’t about arranging, paint-by-number style, certain types of bodies in certain combinations to perform a certain pre-determined series of actions. The bodies depicted on screen (or described in text) aren’t merely amanuenses, acting like the caller at a square dance, indicating what you should be doing or thinking of next. Instead, successful erotica works because it shows us why those actions have meaning for those particular people. Such meaning-making doesn’t have to involve extensive plot development — some of the most moving slash fiction I’ve read clocks in at under a thousand words. But it all comes down to specificity, not substitution. It’s about these particular individuals in this moment of their lives having an encounter that involves sexual intimacy. And they’re inviting us in to witness and honor and be moved by it.*
Blair indicates that a lot of women are upset, uncomfortable, disappointed with the sex scene described above, in part because they identify with the character of Hannah who feels bewildered, frustrated, and ultimately un-cared for in her encounter with Adam. These are all, it sounds like, completely justifiable responses. Yet Blair also suggests that “it is safer … to criticize Adam’s insensitivity than to think of him as possessing a much clearer sense of what he wants in bed than Hannah does.”
Perhaps if we, as a culture, were more comfortable with exploring “the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex” and actually “show[ed] something of the sex” on the way by, there would be fewer Hannahs in the world, and fewer Adams as well — who might know a lot about their own bodies but, it sounds like, still have much to learn about how people can experience pleasure together.
Why don’t we go enjoy some Mulder/Scully fan fiction as an antidote:
Waiting For Dawn | by Miss Lucy Jane @ AO3 (Explicit, 2,798 words)
*And yes, when I write “be moved by it” I do mean aroused if that’s your response.