Revision #2: Let's Talk About Sex
“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. When we are confronted with a view of sex that is more than the expected over the top pseudo pornography that we as a society are used to, we take notice, such as in the cringe-worthy sex scenes portrayed in HBO’s Girls. Marcuse sees sex as repression not liberation, but when sex is not eroticized, like in 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 erotic. It is possible for a person to watch this show since episode one, and not once during a sex scene have any sex-related emotions been induced. The scenes are awkwardly personal, as well as just plain awkward, and are 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 her actions are pleasing enough for her partner. 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.
This idea is refreshing. Many women walk around unsatisfied with their appearance. “Negative body image among females is so common that the average young woman can be said to exist in a state of ‘normative discontent’.” (Rosenblum 50). Up to 50% of women are globally dissatisfied with their appearance, with up to 50% of those women dissatisfied with a specific body part/area. These feelings often begin early on (adolescent age) and can stem from a number of individual factors like perception of body weight, pubescent growth, and social evaluation of physical attractiveness. (Rosenblum 50-1). The onslaught of the supposed female body ideal in television, movies, even literature tell real life women that they are not physically acceptable, and that they need to change in order to fit society’s view of female beauty. This starts young. If the Barbie doll were a real woman, she would be almost 6 feet tall, with a 39 inch bust, a 18 inch waist, and 33 inch hips. If her weight was 110 pounds, her body mass index would be dangerously low and would likely indicate anorexia. If she were real, there would not be enough room for her organs. Yet 2 dolls are sold every second and are mostly given to girls between the ages of 3 and 12 years old. (“Get Real Barbie” Fact Sheet). Right from the start a girl is shown a literally impossible standard of beauty, and as a she ages and her body begins to change, those images do not let up. This is what makes Hannah Horvath such a breath of fresh air. Finally a normal woman is represented having problems, having friendships, having sex. But leads to another question, is Girls liberating because of the kind of sex being shown or because of the kind of woman who is engaging in it?
Most sexual images we are exposed to show two practically perfect people: slim bodies, large busts, skin smooth and hairless, muscles toned but not grossly large, every imperfect photoshopped and airbrushed out until even the actors and actresses themselves can barely recognize the image as them. We can watch them have sex without even thinking. In the privacy of our own homes (or in a dark movie theater), we can get through a sex scene without really feeling any sort of discomfort. But we watch Lena Dunham have sex with a socially stunted 19 year old boy and even in the seclusion of our personal spaces we feel uncomfortable. When we watch her have sex with the well-toned Adam, we feel just as embarrassed (at least in regards to the actual sex, not the events leading up to the sex). “Society evaluates its members based on their looks according to the degree to which an individual satisfies the societal requirement for physical attractiveness.” (Rosenblum 51). So, is it the sex we are reacting to, or the fact that we are watching a woman who wouldn’t normally pass societies evaluation of beauty having sex?
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. “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 not exploding in Girls, no one is cheating on their spouses, or committing suicide in a bought of jealousy like in some classic literaute. 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. “The high level of social consensus on attractiveness and its relative stability across time suggest that individuals are likely to receive consistent appearance-contingent social feedback throughout their lives. In addition, there is evidence that individuals are treated differently according to their looks. Attractive infants receive more attention, and attractive children are more popular with peers.” (Rosenblum 52). If we can change this attitude, if we as a society begin to see the average person as just as sexual a being as any model, then perhaps we as a society will stop being desensitized and repressed by the presence of explicit images. 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.
1. Maine, Margo. "“Get Real Barbie” Fact Sheet." Body Wars, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
2. Rosenblum, Gianine D., and Michael Lewis. "The Relations among Body Image, Physical Attractiveness, and Body Mass in Adolescence." Child Development 70.1 (1999): 50-52. Print.