"‘Girls’ And The Challenges Of Depicting Good Sex"
“Why do the girls on Girls have sex?” Toni Bentley asked in a recent piece in Vogue. “This question arises in my mind while watching this terrific, smart HBO series that wraps up its second season on Sunday. The four quirky protagonists have sex frequently and easily and, hey, why not? They have the pill and we have the right to choose. But, what exactly are they choosing? Not pleasure, that’s for sure.” The rest of the piece is a disaster, including praising Adam’s disregard of Natalia’s sexual comfort for what Bentley calls his “I-am-not-a-prisoner-of-feminism chutzpah.” But it’s an excellent question, and one that gets at an important question that also came up at one of the panels I moderated at SXSW: why it’s so much easier to depict bad sex in pop culture than good sex.
The thing about Girls is that the characters actually have—or are implied to have had—a fair amount of decent sex in it. We may not see Ray and Shoshanna in bed while they’re having sex, but they certainly seem reasonably happy, and sex doesn’t come up in Shoshanna’s litany of complaints when they break up—instead, Shoshanna insists that “I can’t be the only thing you like.” Whatever problems Jessa and Thomas-John had, they weren’t about sexual compatability. When Hannah has sex with Sandy, her short-lived boyfriend from the early episodes of the season, their encounters seem happy and unfraught. During her lost weekend with Joshua, when Hannah asks him to get her off, rather than her having to oblige first, there’s nothing baroque or even particularly inventive about the encounter, but Hannah looks happy, lost in Joshua’s touch. And when Charlie goes down on Marnie in the season finale, she talks about how much she’s enjoying herself, even if she doesn’t seem particularly able to get lost in the moment.
So why do the bad moments stand out more than these? Girls has become almost notorious for its scenes where characters express their fantasies, or where characters have bad sex due to a lack of assertion, compatibility, or poor sexual communication. In the finale, Natalia, who tells Adam during sex “I can like your cock and not be a whore, okay?” before asking him to “Slow down. Can you slow down for me, babe?” appears to get at least some of what she wants out of sex, but, as their disturbing encounter in the previous episode revealed, she and Adam want fundamentally different things. Hannah’s poor sexual decision-making, like her decision to sleep with Laird while high on cocaine he helped her procure despite his efforts to maintain his own sobriety, or her compliance with Adam’s fantasies and sexual desires in the name of having experiences, have been one of the most-discussed elements of the show. When Marnie tells Charlie “This is what I keep trying to tell Hannah when she talks about all her wandering. There’s an endpoint. We have all these experiences so we can settle down,” she’s missing the point, too. The idea isn’t to stop having new experiences. It’s for those experiences to inform the characters’ sense of their own desires, and to make it easier for them to ask what they want.
Maybe part of the problem is that it’s easier to make clear that sex is going wrong than when—and to what degree—it’s going right. Watching Hannah struggle to take off her panties while lying on her stomach because that’s what Adam told her to do, or the high pitch of Natalia’s voice as she’s getting anxious, and the dip in register as she makes her displeasure clear, are easy ways to manifest discomfort. But choreographing sex scenes so that they look attractive to viewers at home isn’t the same thing as conveying what’s going on in the characters’ heads. One of the funniest, sharpest illustrations of this conundrum is the sex scene beween Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks in Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno. When the two characters, who have been close friends and roommates for a long time, finally have sex, the camera first lingers on their faces, focusing on their emotional involvement, and their reactions to what their bodies are doing, which remains off-screen. When the camera pulls out, they don’t appear to be doing anything special, and their co-producers on their pornographic movie look puzzled about what’s going on.
It’s an idea that offers some solutions for Girls if the show wants to shift its tone in the third season, and to be as notable for the good sex its characters have as well as for all the times things go awkward, and miserable, and wrong. The show’s made a name for itself by the amount of its actresses bodies it’s willing to put on screen, and the things it’s willing to show people doing with their bodies and to other people’s bodies. But maybe it’s time for Girls’ writers and directors to remember that their eyes—and a lot of their feelings about the things that are happening to their bodies—are up here.