It was a scene that made many cringe, but it signaled a transformation in the television landscape. Some of this is a result of technological changes.
New streaming services, not bound by industry rules and norms, are taking bigger risks, such as the Amazon show Transparent about a middle-aged father coming out as transgender.
And the growing number of platforms is making room for a more diverse array of writers on shows like Girls, Transparent and How to Get Away With Murder. This new generation of dramatists is disposing of the straight, often white male point of view and approaching sex from the female, gay or trans perspective.
One thing is certain though: We are in a new age of sex on TV. TIME spoke to six of the showrunners who are taking sex seriously.
The titular character on Maude decided to go through with an abortion in Billy Crystal played the first openly gay character on Soap in But by the early s, faster Internet speeds became increasingly common and with them easily accessible pornography. No longer did kids have to visit a friend with an HBO subscription to see nudity. Access to graphic sex online spurred networks into what became a nudity arms race.
This was especially true of popular shows among teens like The O. FCC rules have always been extremely vague. According to the group, genitals and nipples are not allowed on network or cable versus premium channels like Cinemax or HBO , but what characters can say or reference is more of a gray area. So you can really focus once again on character, and those characters can engage in sex the way actual humans do.
But many new shows use the bedroom as an integral storytelling vehicle rather than a cheap trick to spice up the plot. The politicking on House of Cards, for instance, leaks into the bedroom. They wanted to restore an equal power balance in the relationship. This would have long term consequences on the show as Elizabeth and Philip struggle to establish trust with their daughter while hiding their identities. If showing a man give a woman oral pleasure is rare, the 69 is the unicorn of TV sex.
The first question the director of the episode, Thomas Schlamme, asked was how they would position the actors. That was a specific choice. It was about boobs. This feels more honest. It means the flaky Jessa Jemima Kirke skipping out on her abortion appointment to hook up with a stranger in a bar bathroom. It means Hannah buying spider-web-like-lingerie to try to fix her relationship. It means two people realizing they are sexually incompatible when one person cannot or does not pleasure the other.
It means interruptions, complications and awkward conversations that inevitably arise in real life. These plot lines often carry feminist undertones—after all, Dunham is one of the few young women who have been given the chance to make her own TV show. I just want people to pay attention to the character as much as they do to his sex life. Not so for minority characters who, by virtue of being historically ignored by mainstream television, come under much greater scrutiny. Writing complex gay, female, trans or minority characters becomes a challenge: Large media companies are at their core risk-averse and therefore slow to change.
It was there that she realized very few female characters on TV could be sexually liberated without being judged or punished by the show. This may not seem revolutionary, but Soloway says that Brenda was a feminist hero for not falling into the two categories writers often place women: When men are producing, directing and writing, she argues, they produce material that makes them feel safe.
Soloway wants to wrest control of the dominant narrative from men. If women are looking at a naked man, what is a turn-on for them? Do people want to see male full-frontal nudity on TV? Is a man without an erection too vulnerable to show?
Can you even show an aroused male body? Mark Duplass acts on Togetherness, occasionally in the buff. Take, for instance, an episode in the second season of Girls when the writers explored the blurred lines of consent. As early as the pilot, Girls fans knew that Adam had particular interests in the bedroom. Some called the scene forceful and awkward. Others labeled it rape. Had Adam stopped to listen, he would have known she was unhappy.
And yet that situation is familiar to both those who misread signals from their partner and those confounded by when and how consent must be given. It fueled the online debate about what qualifies as consent, especially when alcohol is involved.
Transparent, which starts its second season on Amazon sometime this year, broke new ground in a different way, showing something that few people have experienced, let alone seen on TV. Midway through the first season, Ali goes on a date with a trans man named Dale Ian Harvie.
At one point, they sneak away to a public bathroom with a recently-purchased sex toy. Things get uncomfortable as the two try to pry the box open and navigate the mechanics of the act. Eventually, Dale drops the dildo on the bathroom floor, killing the mood. The scene could have easily been structured as a lecture—this is how a transgender man might have sex—which Soloway says she intentionally avoided. The show and its leading actor, Jeffrey Tambor, won Golden Globes for its freshman season, and in the months since, transgender issues have come to the fore.
The media are looking to Soloway as they report on Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and reality celeb who is transitioning to a woman. After Soloway dedicated her Golden Globe to Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen who committed suicide after her parents forced her to go to conversion therapy, the White House also cited Leelah as their inspiration for endorsing efforts to ban such therapy practices for gay and transgender youth. And when the show took on the debate over bathroom access for transgender people, politicians began to take sides on the issue.
The transgender movement may have helped Transparent make it to air, but the show has also educated people about the fight for transgender rights. This symbiotic relationship between television and social movements is nothing new: In the first episode, a woman is choked to death during sex. These showrunners may have as much influence as politicians to change the tide of public opinion on social issues, and perhaps more. Please update your browser at http: