According to the wisdom of half-hour American sit-coms, most “normal” women are either not interested in sex, or they use it as a control mechanism. The usual scene on these shows plays out something like this: A middle-aged husband and wife are sitting up in bed, reading or watching TV. The man tries to bargain for the sex that his wife—naturally—is withholding. She feigns a “headache,” and hilarity ensues. Ha, ha. At the end of the scene, the woman looks like she is in charge, but she also looks like a giant prude, while the husband looks like a humiliated child who is denied his lollipop after dinner.
Perhaps in the 1980s this was a new kind of trope, but in 2014 it is more than tired. There are too many problems with this scene for me to address here; for example, in real life, it is actually much more likely to be the middle-aged man with the “headache” in this scenario. You would think given the frequency with which Viagra commercials fly through the air that people would pick up on this, but, no, even the men in Viagra commercials are horn dogs—even when they aren’t. The crux of television often getting sex scenes so wrong, especially in scenes involving characters over the age of 40, stems from the writers of these sit-coms and television commercials, who are mostly 20-something men who have no real idea what goes in the bedrooms of people over 40. Still, people watch and laugh.
The good news is that women are gaining traction in television writing and producing. Lena Dunham of “Girls,” Mindy Kaling of “The Mindy Project,” and Elizabeth Meriwether of “New Girl” are laying the groundwork for a new era—hopefully. As much as I’ve venerated television pioneer Tina Fey on this very website, she is decidedly conservative in expressions of sexuality. Her character on “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon, treated sex as a chore she was willing to tolerate in exchange for a sandwich. The positive influence of Liz Lemon lay more in her unrelenting individuality that made the following statement: women are people, too. Liz Lemon’s best contribution was further breaking down the notion that women are either good girls or bad girls, ingénues or crones, whores or madonnas.
Dunham, Kaling, and Meriwether are young women. Unfortunately, there is no one seriously addressing the sexuality of women over 40 on television right now. “Sex and the City” worked its magic until those women were in their 40s when the franchise sadly jumped the shark in the second movie. But, again, I fault the writers. Who wrote that scene in which Samantha had her underwear around her knees in order to apply youth-restoring creams in the workplace? It most certainly was not a talented and self-aware woman over 40. Thankfully, Dunham, Kaling, and Meriwether will—eventually—be over 40.
Other good news for the future of female sexuality on television comes from the actresses over 40 who are still going strong—and from the fact that some of the best material for women is being written for television rather than movies right now. The working actresses over 40 are laying the all-important groundwork for a better future; the more they become viable on screen, the more issues important to older women can be addressed. The current list of successful actresses over 40 is unprecedented in Hollywood history, a list that includes Mariska Hargitay, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchet, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Helen Mirren, Sandra Bullock, Diane Keaton, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, and Gwenyth Paltrow. These women started the crack in the glass ceiling, but it will not be completely shattered and a sea change will not really be made until there are enough mature female writers, producers, and directors who work in both television and movies to remove the old boundaries altogether.
Why it is important that television gets it right? The answer should be obvious: television forms the ethos of America. And, this is no new idea, born with television. Aristotle said that drama and comedy are cathartic for society, holding up a mirror so that the audience members can see themselves reflected in it, usually for the purpose of rejecting bad behavior and embracing the good. From television, children learn values, the intricacies of relationships, and how they should feel about their sexuality. In addition to being entertained, older people want to gain insights into their own lives as well as into those of others. In some ways, young gay men have gained more ground on television than straight, especially older, women. With shows like “Glee” and HBO’s new “Looking,” television writers, producers, and directors are taking the relationships of gay men seriously. Sadly, there is still very little realistic female sexuality being portrayed on television. The biggest gain has been that normal women have sex at all. But, beyond that, little is known about what normal, straight women are like, least of all women over 40. (By “normal,” I mean any woman who is not a sex professional, like porn stars, strippers, or prostitutes). Young women are usually still simply lumped into the dichotomous categories of slut or girl next door, while older women…ugh! They have been saddled with that god-awful label of “cougar.” I am praying that this term will go the way of “hussy” and “gal” and become antique quite soon.
As long as we leave the portrayal sexuality of women to 20-something men, young women will continue to be objectified on the one hand, or dismissed on the other as simpletons who just want to cuddle and watch cute puppies on YouTube. And, older women will continue to remain a-sexual, seen only as mothers and grandmothers, or deemed crazy for having a healthy, human sex drive at all. I recall my own grandmother, who lived to be about 100 years old, watching hunky men on television with great interest. Indeed, the older I get, the more self-assured I am about what I want and what I need—even as opportunities to get what I want and need dwindle by the day.
Recently, in Vogue magazine, Lena Dunham expressed this sentiment: sexuality is “hardly a perfect puzzle…people get involved with one another for a whole range of reasons.” Let’s face it, sexuality is complicated, and ultimately, it defies labels if we are really honest about the way people actually live. I always say this, a similar sentiment to Dunham’s: people like who they like—regardless of age, race, and sometimes gender. I want to see more of that on TV.