Reclaiming female sexuality in pop culture

One of the more striking moments in How to Get Away with Murder — a show already filled with striking moments – has to be in the pilot, when we see Annalise behind her desk getting oral sex from her lover, Nate Lahey. It’s a powerful and compelling scene that sets the stage for the coming season, the statements that will be made in the show, and Annalise herself. This is a character who owns her sexuality in a way that might be startling and uncomfortable for viewers, and it made for utterly fantastic television.

It wasn’t the only instance in which Annalise exercised her sexual autonomy, nor was she the only female character who took control of her sexuality. They join a growing list of women on television, in books, and in other aspects of pop culture who aren’t just having sex, but are enjoying it, and are quite open about that fact. That scene is about pure pleasure on Annalise’s part — sure, Nate may enjoy the emotional and physical exchange with his partner, but we very rarely see a man focusing on a woman’s pleasure in pop culture, and it stands out.

I’m used to seeing female sexuality as a very passive entity in pop culture, and women who are both sexual and daring enough to enjoy it are often punished for it, even if indirectly. They’re raped, they’re called sluts, they get pregnant, and sometimes it’s in service to the plot, and it’s even designed to be a commentary on how women are treated, but it makes for a refreshing change to see women taking back their sexuality and forcing the conversation on who ‘gets’ to receive pleasure and how without being penalised.

We see it with Claire in House of Cards, involved in a relationship with her lover in addition to her complicated marriage with Frank and her other relationships. One thing that particularly intrigues me about their relationship, of course, is its transparency. They’re clearly poly and open about who they have sex with and how — and while I’m used to seeing men use women (as Frank did Zoe), the sight of a woman doing the same thing to men is striking in pop culture. Instead of just seeking fulfillment or connections, Claire is actively taking control of her environment, and it makes her a much more powerful character.

Conversations about female sexuality in pop culture have been going on for decades, and we’ve seen some movement on the subject, but it sometimes feels like we haven’t seen the fundamental changes we need. Women are often passively sexual, and their needs are the subject of whispered comments and tiptoeing. Those who are sexually assertive are treated as aggressive and transgressive, which has implications for the real world, where women with similar approaches to interaction are also punished for it. Annalise Keating likes oral sex and demands it. Claire uses sex to get something she wants, while retaining autonomy over her body. These are things that unnerve viewers because they strike a little dangerously close to home in some cases.

What does pop culture look like when female sexuality is depicted authentically and when women are empowered to control their own bodies? It looks very different than the landscape we are facing now, particularly when it comes to areas of pop culture like young adult literature, where a growing number of authors are pushing to put their female characters in control of their sexuality. Their work is pushing at the boundaries and transgressing what girls are ‘supposed’ to do, and, tellingly, YA is still written off as an unimportant thing for girls.

The girls have news for the people who would write them off: They’re reading some seriously subversive media, and they don’t care if you want to trash them for reading it. While people rail against the death of fiction and claim that adult literary fiction is some kind of pinnacle of social commentary, girls in YA are doing much, much more than those in adult fiction, for the most part. The women of adult fiction are often hamstrung by norms and mores that keep them captive to outdated attitudes about female sexuality, and when women do strike out on their own, surprise, the books get classified as trashy romance and chick lit on the grounds that their characters are doing girly stuff — like having sex and enjoying it, apparently.

The idea that women might have sex and derive pleasure from it seems deeply threatening to some critics, who attempt to find grounds to attack media with confrontational depictions of female sexuality without openly admitting that they’re misogynists. There’s always a reason to dredge up for not liking a narrative that centres female sexuality, which means that such works are continually pushed to the background and their creators are penalised for telling stories that go against the norm. Moreover, the public learns important lessons about female sexuality (it’s something to hide, it’s something to be ashamed of), and resists the idea of sexual autonomy for women in the real world as well as in pop culture.

What’s most disturbing is that some of these critics are women. It’s ludicrous to demand complete fealty and solidarity across an entire gender when there are so many complicating factors going on, but it’s both telling and frustrating when women assault works of pop culture that depict empowered women, especially when they try to hide their discomfort behind something else. Yes, seeing women have and enjoy sex is an alien experience for some critics — but it shouldn’t be.

Image: Viola Davis, ABC Television, Flickr