Marcuse on De-erotizaion vs. HBO’s Girls
“The mobilization and administration of libido may account for much of the voluntary compliance, the absence of terror, the pre-established harmony between individual needs and socially-required desires, goals, and aspirations.” (Marcuse Ch. 3). Here Marcuse is saying that the ever present theme of sex throughout society actually enables our own repression. By integrating sex into many aspects of our lives (television, movies, advertisements), we are over-stimulated and under-eroticized, allowing for controlled satisfaction. This is true is a lot of ways. Sex in popular culture is often displayed in ways formally confined to pornography. Take for example, a commercial about chocolate. Often you’ll see an extremely attractive woman seductively eating a piece chocolate as if it will make all your sexual fantasies come true if you just buy that chocolate. We see this and do not even blink because we’ve become desensitized to the constant sexual stimulation found in this and many other examples in popular culture, making society as a whole complacent yet unfulfilled. Marcuse sees sex as repression not liberation, but when sex is not eroticized, like in HBO’s Girls, can it be liberating?
Girls follows the lives of four 20-something year old girlfriends trying to figure out their lives. Like any other HBO, sex scenes are numerous, but they mostly revolve around the character Hannah Horvath played by Lena Dunham. Along with being frequent, these sex scenes are fairly graphic, involve multiple partners (over different scenes, not together in one scene), and just overall explicit in nature. But one thing they are not is erotic. Personally, I have watched this show since episode one, and not once during a sex scene has any sex-related emotions been induced. If anything, I feel a mix of cringe-worthy and awkward emotions, often followed by a feeling of understanding when Hannah undoubtedly makes some offhand insightful remark. These scenes evoke real and relatable sentiment. During the first sex scene Hannah is engaged in on the show, she voices her concern over to her partner over whether she is doing enough during the act. Other episodes show her obviously uncomfortable with what she is doing. During one episode, her sort of boyfriend Adam accidentally sends her an explicit photograph of himself meant for someone else, to which she replies by sending her own nude picture. Adam basically tells her how weird the picture was, instead of responding in the expected, “That picture was so great/sexy/hot” way.
Is this liberating instead of being repressive? If we define liberation as changing some aspect of the status quo, then Girls is liberating. Popular culture would have society believe that the only sex that should be discussed is between two perfect people, having a perfect time, and achieving the perfect end simultaneously. Girls shows people of all shapes and sizes engaging in a carnal act in ways that are not perfect nor necessarily satisfactory for the individuals involved. To better demonstrate how this, let us focus on one group that is underrepresented in popular culture: women who are not “beautiful.” Sex or sensual scenes often take place between two exceedingly attractive people, with the focus being especially on the woman’s ideal body. Girls’ Lena Dunham is pear-shaped, has a stomach, has short often frizzy hair, is flat-chested, with a plain face. But it is this completely average looking woman who is shown having sex most often throughout the program, and she does not apologize to the audience for watching her imperfect being having imperfect sex as opposed to the over-eroticized display they are used to. In season 1, episode 3 of Girls there is a scene where Hannah and Adam are hanging out together, post-coitus. Adam begins to play with Hannah’s stomach fat, telling her if it bothers her so much, then she should just lose the weight. In reply, Hannah says, “I’ve decided that I was going to have other concerns in my life,” instead of focusing on her weight. That response there completely goes against the entire foundation that the popular culture and the media have built up around women being nothing more than sexual objects who should be good to look at. There are bigger concerns than how a woman looks.
Can sexual representations be liberating? Based on Girls, I believe so. In Marcuse’s mind, sexual representations is probably only liberating if it goes against the accepted view such as the adultery of Anna Karenina. “It is beyond good and evil, beyond social morality, and thus it remains beyond the reaches of the established Reality Principle, which this Eros refuses and explodes.” (Marcuse Ch.3) Perhaps Eros is no exploding in Girls, no one is cheating on their spouses then committing suicide. No one is questioning the morality of their sexual escapades. What the show appears to be questioning is the blasé and unrealistic way sex is being represented in the mainstream. If sex is presented in a more realistic light, then possibly things will change, and some of those changes could be exactly what Marcuse wants.