I Don’t Have Sex But I Watch It On TV

April 29, 2007

Two recent articles in the New York Times identified opposite trends in the television and film industries. While fewer movies today are being geared toward a female audience, television networks like ABC are newly immersed in “a sea of estrogen,” their most successful shows for and about women.

In “Hollywood’s Shortage of Female Power,” Sharon Waxman reports on the decline of romantic comedies since the 1990s. Romantic comedies fare worse in international markets “than male-led action movies or fantasy adventures heavy with special effects,” and there are few women today with the kind of star power we saw 10 years ago. Back then, Julia Roberts could demand $20 million for a “chick flick,” but studios are now less willing to shell out that kind of cash on an actress. Waxman suggests a link between this trend and the shortage of women executives in the industry. Women have been pushed out of top positions at Hollywood studios and replaced entirely by men (some may have left in the apparently nationwide trend of women “opting out” of their careers—after all, the former chairwoman of Paramount says, “How long am I going to get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m., six days a week?’ Women also want to be in love…They want friends. They want life.”).

Apparently, women also want sex. In “Having Your Beefcake and Talking About It, Too,” Alessandra Stanley writes that in the last couple years, ABC has built a formidable line-up of shows that are the, admittedly better-written, “television version[s] of chick lit.” Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, and Grey’s Anatomy are about family, relationships, politics, betrayal, but mostly about sex. “Male viewers click off in droves.”

Of course, both these articles are based on the idea that men and women want explicitly different things: “Evidently the average man wants to watch sports, politics, strippers, car chases and crashes, have sex and go to sleep. ABC has figured out that women prefer to watch shows about sex.” I’m not sure where that “evidently” is coming from—ABC’s own theories about its viewers; actual Nielsen ratings; common sense? At any rate, the assumptions hold firm.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, some lament the way the studios have overlooked their female viewers. But the way that they identify this neglect of women is in the dearth of romantic comedies. Where is the company that will make the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding? asks Lindsay Doran, an independent producer who made Nanny McPhee and Sense and Sensibility: “You don’t see that. You don’t see companies saying, ‘More than half of this population is women, we should design a slate to come up with movies like The Break-Up, and ‘The Devil Wears Prada.” It just seems that this segregation between men’s and women’s movies isn’t quite this strict. Waxman’s article does concede that women in fact really like horror films, perhaps in contrast to popular assumptions. Nevertheless, there seems to me to be a whole category of movies and TV shows that have universal or gender-neutral appeal. Take House, Lost, and the CSI and Law & Order franchises.

Besides, do men really not watch Desperate Housewives? For whatever reason, I hesitate to use examples from my own life (are my friends and family not fit to represent the country?), but I know I watch Grey’s every Thursday night in a suite full of twenty-two-year-old guys—not with my girlfriends. I hate Love Actually with a passion, but I love Sense & Sensibility. I went to see The Family Stone just for Diane Keaton and regretted it. I cried at Dreamgirls, but the best commercially-released movie I saw this year was Children of Men. Meanwhile, at home, my father watches Lifetime movies on the weekends, and my mother is obsessed with CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC.

Undoubtedly, though, Grey’s Anatomy is popular with women, and as Stanley smugly points out, it has the quality of an obsession, a guilty pleasure (now available online!). What I find most fascinating about this issue is the critique underlying Stanley’s article on women’s television. She argues that a show like Grey’s Anatomy is about excess, an infinite glut of sex and chatter (“couples who talk about sex, then have sex, lots of it, and then talk about sex some more to each other and to their best friends”). It is overkill, in its surfeit of drama, unremitting sex in the on-call room, and fast-paced, nervous banter. These shows are the ultimate indulgence, likened by Stanley to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, in a stereotypical dig at women’s supposedly decadent, uncontrolled habits. She writes that “these shows dish out exactly what women want in lavish quantities that they cannot quite believe anyone would allow them to have. A little goes a long way, but a lot goes even further.” The suggestion here is that it really might be a moral weakness to eat ice cream or watch Grey’s, that perhaps women’s extravagance and pleasure-seeking is simply embarrassing.

Stanley makes another loaded statement by connecting this trend towards excess to the sexual habits of the female characters, who often find themselves torn between a number of equally attractive suitors: this is “female fantasy of the most romantic — and torrid — sort, and that’s not multiple orgasm, it’s multiple choice.” (Why does female sexual pleasure end up sounding trivial and vulgar here?) Indeed, the characters on these recent shows, much like their predecessors on Sex & the City, engage in sexually active lifestyles with a decent amount of nonchalance. The entire series of Grey’s Anatomy opened with a random hook-up. Of course, that drunken encounter then led to the three-season love affair with McDreamy. Nonetheless, the main character Meredith is known and judged for sleeping with so many men (I think the total was 2 or 3) in between relationships, and, in one episode Derek, who had just left her, comes very close to calling her a slut.

Then there’s Cristina. She has only been with one man the entirety of the show (though most recently we met her ex-boyfriend), and yet, if anyone is having sex like a man, it’s her. At the hospital, she is known for being the most ambitious, competitive, and callous of the interns. With Burke, she acts evasive, blasé, and terrified of commitment. She doesn’t tell him when she gets pregnant in the first season. He has to cajole and sometimes bully her into, first, allowing them to be an official couple, then, moving in with him (and giving up her own apartment), and finally, agreeing to marry him. Burke spent the last episode obsessing over wedding cakes, and Cristina, in her usual unfeminine way, declared herself entirely indifferent to cake (and to weddings). In the previous episode, she had mimicked stereotypical femininity by fondling Burke and trying on different shades of nail polish, in order to scare away her ex. Of course, in the end, Cristina knows exactly which one is the right cake, and Burke’s faith in her is confirmed. I don’t think that moment compromised Cristina’s character though. The show allows her to be its potentially most appealing female character—a woman who loves sex but hates to talk about it.


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