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SXSW Panel Talk 'Girls,' Changing Rules for Women and Sex on TV

Thompson on Hollywood By Valentina Valentini | Thompson on Hollywood March 10, 2013 at 5:05PM

It was a poor SXSW panel showing with only about 50 people in the room for one of the most provocative discussions in television: sex. In just one hour, Alyssa Rosenberg's "Changing Rules for Women and Sex on TV" panel packed everything in from body dysmorphia and Patrick Wilson to rape and fertility. Although each of these topics could use any number of hours (or days… year) to be properly mulled over, no blow job, lube or fantasy corner was left untouched.
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Changing Rules for Women in TV Panelists Alyse Rosenberg, Noreen Malone, David Haglund, Sarah Shapiro, Anna Camp
Changing Rules for Women in TV Panelists Alyse Rosenberg, Noreen Malone, David Haglund, Sarah Shapiro, Anna Camp

It was a poor SXSW panel showing with only about 50 people in the room for one of the most provocative discussions in television: sex.

In just one hour, moderator Alyssa Rosenberg's "Changing Rules for Women and Sex on TV" panel packed everything in from body dysmorphia and Patrick Wilson to rape and fertility. Although each of these topics could use any number of hours (or days… year) to be properly mulled over, no blow job, lube or fantasy corner was left untouched.

Here’s just a peek into it all:

'Girls' is changing who gets to have sex on TV.

David Haglund, editor at Slate: In hindsight, [the Patrick Wilson episode of 'Girls'] was Lena Dunham being very deliberate at playing with conventions we’ve gotten used to. From the very beginning she’s been interested in challenging preconceptions and she does it very well. That show is more interested in sex than any other show.

Noreen Malone, writer at The New Republc: I think 'Girls' is expanding tons of discussions around body image on television, but perhaps to the point of obscuring what Dunham is trying to do.

Sarah Shapiro, writer/director of Sequin Raze: There is a subjective gaze that women get to use on shows like 'The Bachelor.' But what does that do in terms of looking at ourselves sexually? If you rate other women, and then turn around and rate yourself, how do you move forward from that? Airing out the sheets - pretty sex versus ugly sex.

Anna Camp, actress: I tend to be drawn to characters that have a lot going on inside. Maybe its because I’m from the south where you talk about the weather, and you definitely don’t talk about sex. But I love doing weird shit [through my characters]!  (That would include the Don Draper blow job in the car on 'Mad Men,' and sex with a female stripper in a restaurant bathroom in 'House of Lies.') You do expect to see a gorgeous woman having sex [on TV], but I’ve just shot a short where my character doesn’t have great sex, and I like that it defies that assumption.

Malone: All of these shows are using sex for different reasons. On 'Scandal,' it’s wish fulfillment, on 'Happy Endings' it’s a punch line, on 'House of Cards' it’s used as a power tool. But sex can also just be a dramatic element. I want to see a very different sex scene when I turn on 'Girls' from when I turn on 'Happy Endings.'

Haglund: Before I came to this panel, I thought yea, sex on television has made all this progress. But as we sit and talk here, I feel it might be impossible to actually do so. Unless it’s completely subjective portrayals, are we really helping anyone? Presenting sex on camera in an honest way may not be sexy at all.

Sexual assault can be dangerous for the viewer and for the character.

Shapiro: Shows like 'Mad Men,' 'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Game of Thrones' have all had sexual assault plotlines. And I think it’s really important to admit that rape can be an actual fantasy for some people, and rightly so, but I freak out thinking about myself at 14 or other young people I know. On TV it’s often not shown that there is a real aftermath to victims of sexual assault. So sure, a rape fantasy can be really hot, but when it’s real it’s not at all – so showing it on TV is really dangerous.

A teenage wasteland.

Haglund: In the 'Mindy' episode called “Hooking up is hard to do,” there was a real honesty with what she was trying to achieve. Teenagers aren’t looking to be told what to do. I mean, as a teenager I wasn’t looking for the conversation between parent and child about sex – for me it’s more like ‘how do you do this?’ And Mindy did that in that episode. It addressed the assumption that once you’ve had sex once, you always get to have sex, and good sex.

Malone: Yea, in 'The New Girl' Jess screws all of her post-breakup dating stuff up. That’s a pretty honest assessment of real life, I think.

To have or not to have. Issues with fertility on TV.

Malone: I was angry that 'The New Girl,' one of my favorite TV shows, was inciting this panic [when Cece is told that she might not be fertile as long as some of her peers]. But I took a step back and realized that I was panicking because it is what we think about. Why not take that on? Sex is not divorced from childbirth, and the creators of those shows would be leaving rich territory unexplained if they didn’t look at it. They just need to do it in a way that isn’t telling us to leave our jobs and go procreate now.


This article is related to: SXSW, Girls, Lena Dunham, Mad Men


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.