|Jemima Kirke as Jessa and Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls; Esme Bianco as Ros in Game of Thrones.|
"It's hard to write good sex," she said. "It always just sounds like porn."
I remembered this conversation when I read a piece about the sex on (what else?) Girls in the New York Review of Books. The author, Elaine Blair, rhapsodizes about the "unexpected frankness and naturalism" of sex scenes between Hannah and her not-boyfriend Adam, while taking to task those who find those scenes uncomfortable and clearly one-sided. "We can find something sexy and even liberating in that sex scene in spite of our strong identification with Hannah," she says, referring to a scene from Girls's second episode in which Adam masturbates on Hannah's chest while spouting some very uncomfortable dirty talk. "Sexy" and "liberating" are somewhat odd descriptors for a sex scene in which one partner doesn't reach orgasm and is clearly not fully comfortable with Adam's particular brand of turn-ons.
Don't get me wrong; I don't object to the sexual acts happening onscreen in and of themselves. I agree with Blair that Hollywood movies and TV shows have an unfortunate tendency to equate sex with, as she says, "mutually rapturous face-to-face vaginal intercourse," and that it would be nice to see other kinds of sex portrayed as normal rather than deviant. The problem is that Girls doesn't really do much to take these atypical portrayals of sex out of the realm of deviance and into the mainstream. Yes, the characters do have many different kinds of sex - oral, autoerotic and doggy-style are but a few of the varieties on display - but, as of right now, only one female character has actually been seen enjoying any of this sex. Not coincidentally, she's the one who shows up accidentally pregnant, a moment that doesn't exactly read as judgment-free.
Blair is arguing against an underlying notion that she never actually articulates, and the results are less than compelling. Her criticisms hinge on the problem that my college friend articulated: good sex doesn't look like quality literature or cinema, but like porn. The author comes close to acknowledging this idea when she says "a dose of porn, judiciously applied by an extremely intelligent director, can save cinematic sex," but she shies away too quickly and doesn't get at the heart of the issue. (The sex scenes on Girls also aren't porn per se, but rather pornographic conventions as filtered through the lens of an intellectual indie filmmaker. But that's a different issue.) The other writers she cites call the sex on Girls realistic because it's bad; Blair is trying to say that representations of sex can be both naturalistic and good, but she's hobbled when she tries to skirt the underlying assumption.
But even if Blair were to address that assumption, her argument would fall apart. She can talk around the issue all she wants, she can encourage the audience to identify with Adam and his fully articulated sexual desires rather than Hannah and her confused longings (on a show that, let's not forget, is called Girls, which indicates a serious problem with this line of thinking), but the fact remains: sex on Girls is bad. Not just bad but weirdly, conservatively moralistic. After all, the first four episodes contain an unplanned pregnancy and an STD diagnosis, two cliches that wouldn't feel out of place in an after school special about the dangers of promiscuity (particularly in an environment where the Pill, condoms and the Gardasil HPV vaccine are ubiquitous).
I'm not saying that Lena Dunham is condemning her characters for their sexual desires. I can't read her mind. What I'm saying is that introducing your most sexually liberated character's unplanned pregnancy before you know anything else about her sends a very particular message about casual sex, and it's not the message that Blair (or, I suspect, Dunham herself) has in mind.
The thing is, that message has to be there. The cultural discourse that equates "good" sex with porn and "bad" sex with realism demands it. Girls is undeniably a realist show that is trying to deal with sex in a realistic way, and our cultural expectations demand that "realistic" depictions of sex be traumatic. It might be the small trauma of Hannah failing to orgasm due to Adam's selfishness in bad, or the large trauma of Jessa's pregnancy, but there has to be something bad happening somewhere. If there isn't, you're just watching porn.
This deeply rooted assumption about the nature of realistic sex can also help explain some of the hand-wringing conversations about the second-most sexually charged HBO series, Game of Thrones. (True Blood doesn't count, because it essentially is porn, both in terms of sexual content and plot coherence.) Anna Holmes of The Washington Post wrote a piece lamenting the "outlandish" eroticism that "often overshadows or distracts from the actual story." In her words,
One could also argue that the series’ creators are only trying to communicate Westerosi society’s disregard for the lives of women or trying to establish a connection between the way they are objectified and the accompanying, constant threat of assault, but the show’s softly lit and erotic staging of any scene involving a naked woman evokes Playboy of the 1960s and ’70s more than it underscores sexual politics or a culture of violence.It's Holmes' evocation of the "softly lit and erotic staging" characteristic of both Game of Thrones and, apparently, Playboy that links her to Blair. Both of them are basing their arguments on a discourse that defines the realism of a sex scene as inextricably linked to its unpleasantness. Sex on Game of Thrones can't really be about sexual politics or violence or the gender imbalance that reduces so many of the female characters to the status of property, because it looks like porn, and porn isn't real.
The thing is, by undermining the assumption that all good sex takes on the trappings of porn, and all bad sex is bound by the strictures of realism, Game of Thrones is exploring "bad" sex in a fascinating way. This isn't the bad sex of Girls, with its sense of ennui or vague dissatisfaction, but exploitation, incest, rape and violence, dressed up in what Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker referred to, in a wonderful turn of phrase, as "creamy nudity." What the show does brilliantly is use the pornographic dressing to draw the viewer in, to make them complicit in the objectification of the characters onscreen before things turn sour.
The most powerful example of this is the scene with two prostitutes, Ros and Daisy, and one psychotic boy-king from this season's "Garden of Bones." (If you watch the show you're already probably cringing.) The scene in question begins as a seemingly straightforward HBO soft core sex scene, with all the elements that entails: lots of exposed flesh, girlish giggles, explicitly performative girl-on-girl action. It's these elements that drew the viewer in, making them complicit in the objectification happening onscreen even as they sense that something bad is about to happen, which it does, and the sexy titillation quickly turns into a nightmare of abuse and violence at the hands of Joffrey Baratheon. As Daisy screams and Ros, cornered like a hunted animal, realizes there is no way out, the scene lands like a punch to the gut. This isn't the gratuitous "sexposition" that has gotten so much flack, but a physically painful look at a nearly nonexistent border between objectification and exploitation.
The advantage that Game of Thrones has over Girls is an awareness of the connection between "bad" sex and realism, coupled with a willingness to subvert it. Where Girls puts pornographic situations in the midst of a realist narrative in order to comment on the joylessness of the sex, thereby simply taking certain sex acts out of the realm of "good" sex and into the realm of the "bad," Game of Thrones plays off the aesthetic conventions of unrealistic, pornographic sex in a way that makes the inevitable turn towards the painful and traumatic all the more viscerally compelling.