From Mav: Regular listeners know that I adore the Riverdale (some people are saying it’s the best show on television!). You might have also heard me mention that I love Nancy Drew or The 100 or all of the Arrowverse shows. Basically, I love the CW TV formula. Everyone is pretty… everyone has abs… everyone is bisexual… and everyone is super horny and they kiss between saving the world. When Riverdale premiered four years ago, the trailer could best be summed up as “This is Archie. He’s a good American kid! He has pep! He’s 16, he has abs, he’s sexy, and you’re going to watch him fuck! Soooo much! This isn’t your grandma’s Archie! This Archie fucks! A lot! Watch Riverdale!” The Nancy Drew trailer basically promised the same thing “Remember, the Nancy Drew books, you read as a kid? Well, just you wait because now you’re going to see Nancy and Ned fuck! It’s not just the CW. Another of my recent favorite TV series was The Magicians. There’s a lot to say about The Magicians, as a whole, but the basic premise is “this is Hogwarts but everyone is superhot, superbi, and superhorny!” That’s also the appeal of The Boys on Amazon… “what if the Justice League… but you got to see them fuck!” And those are just the shows I like. There’s also shows like All-American or Dynasty or Gossip Girl or whatever the newest incarnation of Pretty Little Liars is called. it doesn’t matter what the genre is so long as it’s sexy. Because now, “sexy” is the genre.
I saw a viral Facebook post a few times this week. Maisha Z Johnson complained about Zazie Beetz portraying Stagecoach Mary in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall. Johnson’s contention is that by casting Beetz, a drop-dead-gorgeous, lithe, sex symbol in a corset as the real-life, 6-foot, 200lbs Stagecoach Mary, the production misses an opportunity to portray alternative body types as acceptable and powerful. And Johnson has a point. However, she is not allowing for the fact that that’s not what the movie is. Like so many of the things we discuss on this show, there is a question of nuance. Johnson wants a different movie. A fine movie to want. But I think THIS movie is important as well. Sure, the film could have cast Lesile Jones (Johnson’s pick) to play Stagecoach Mary, and that likely would have been more accurate. Also, lord knows there need to be more roles for darker women of color, particularly those that are not heteronormative sex-symbols. But, that’s not what this role is. Beetz is a phenomenal actor. But she was cast in this movie because she looks hot in a corset. The story this production wants to tell is asking you to equate her body with sexuality. For good or for bad. It is relying on a male gaze in order to get the viewer to consider the sexuality of the character in the film, not so much the real person that the character is based on. Johnson’s way would have been a good step for representation, however, it would not have played into the male gaze. The story would have been about the strength of this powerful black woman rather than her sexuality. Should it be this way? No, of course not. But it is. Part of the power of the male gaze (or any other gaze) is in using normative social shortcuts to force the viewer to consider certain aspects the creators want to imbue in the storyline.
And that’s what we want to talk about on this next episode. We’ve talked about the male gaze, the female gaze, the queer gaze, and even “the fanboy gaze“. Often, when we speak about gazes, we are talking about the way they disrupt (or enhance) the narrative. Usually, when someone brings up a gaze it is in a negative sense. Even when we bring it up as a positive, it is usually in the context of “how is the ____ gaze utilized to underscore the theme of ____”? For instance, I would point at the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Sure a big part of that show was the soap opera element. You wanted to see Apollo and Starbuck get together because you’re shipping them. The show wants you to ship them. But the sex there in service of that. It is a means to an end. I think the Sexy Genre is something else. Compare Battlestar Galactica to Riverdale. The entire premise of Riverdale is “let’s take Archie Comics and sprinkle some sexy on it!” Riverdale exists so that viewers get to see Archie fuck! Not have sex! Not make love. Not even really to see him have relationships per se (though he has many). It’s not about promoting a certain kind of emotional intimacy. The show was about getting to SEE sex from these sweet innocent teen icons we’ve been reading about for eighty years. We want to see every combination. We want to see them go to town on each other. In five seasons, I’ve seen Archie fuck Veronica, Betty, Josie, and even Miss Grundy. And If I don’t get to see him and Jughead rail each other before the show is over, then what the hell are we even doing, here?
Because really, I think what is going on is that we have hit a level of media where sexy fanfic is a driving postmodern narrative style. I’ve talked before about how in my head canon there is quite a lot of sex in Harry Potter. Specifically, I am 100% absolutely positive that in Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Harry and Hermione absolutely positively fucked in the tent in the woods. And I’m not alone… literally thousands of fan-written stories exist simply because anyone who read those books knows that they don’t make any sense UNLESS Harry and Hermione hook up at least once. Sure, you never see it… but you knows it’s there. And once you get over the stumbling block of throwing naughty scenes into kiddie lit, your mind will take you to the point where you have to deal with the fact that Ginny very clearly fucks EVERYONE. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that she is a healthy, sex-positive, bicurious, polycurious young woman who is not going to be tied down by heteronormative, mononormative convention. Especially not when her boyfriend is off banging her brother’s girlfriend in some tent in the woods. And BUT, the book will never show us this. Instead, we rely on fanfic to fill int he blanks in our head canon. In fan fiction studies we might call these “paratexts.”
But now we’re at this point where exploring sex in these desexualized worlds which are protected by IP laws is an end in and of itself. When you have something that’s public domain like fairy tales you can just do something like Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy. If you want to be ridiculous, you can do something like the Axel Braun porn parodies. But beyond that it’s hard to get a sexy genre version of an established non-sexy property. 50 Shades of Gray famously began its life as Twilight fanfic. And I didn’t just pick Magicians as a joke; I meant it! Magicians is entirely a reaction to the stunted sexual development (at least on the extant page) to the primary three characters in the Harry Potter franchise (at least that’s the current most popular, it’s also SUPER obviously heavily influenced by CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and a bunch of other things). Much like 50 Shades grew beyond it’s influences and origins, the Magicians did the same. It wasn’t just about showing kids at the magic school “doing it” it was about EXPLORING kids at the magic school doing it. My head canon includes a lot of Ginny exploring her sexual identity in Rowling’s book because she’s a mostly blank slate character with enough hints of a sexual awakening that she can represent something that I want that world to have. The Magicians is NOTHING BUT that exploration… it’s continual pairings of varying couples (or trios or more) of sexually fluid characters as they figure themselves out. Yes, maybe the Sexy Genre starts out with “let’s see the hot people hook up… with magic…” but that allows for a deeper exploration of sex positivity that actually has been missing from television until recent years.
So that’s what I want to talk about on this episode. We’ll be partnering with the team from the Sex, Love & Literature podcast to talk this through. There’s a lot of sexy TV out there. Is it its own genre? Am I right? Is there a greater purpose to than just salacious entertainment or is it pure carnal tititilation (not that there is anything wrong with that either)? Is Sexy TV a genre? What are your thoughts? What are some other examples? What am I missing? Let us know in the comments below.