Today, I feel optimistic about the future, and that’s because of the sex Aidy Bryant is having on TV.
Sex on TV has come a long way in my lifetime, and the credit for that goes to a lot of different creators. The positive impact of Sex and the City in the 1990s and early aughts is hard to overstate, though it tends to get drowned out by all the criticism the show has come in for in recent years, much of which is completely justified. Yes, the wealth of its protagonists is almost enough to elevate them way beyond relatable. Yes, the product placement on that show is insidious, which I hate to admit because my dad totally told me so. Nevertheless, Miranda and Carrie and Samantha and Charlotte had sex that ranged from boring to weird to off-putting to joyful, and they talked about it with each other. Object all you want to the direction the show took in the end, and object with fiery passion to the decision to make not one but two strikingly offensive film adaptations: this show at its best took for granted that sex ought to be good, fun, fulfilling and empowering, and that bad sex was reason enough to reconsider a relationship. I had never seen anything like it.
For all its daring and originality, it’s amazing how dated some parts of Sex and the City look in the year 2019; you can’t not see its ubiquitous whiteness, wealth, and heteronormativity. I can’t help but wonder (ha!) - would it even get made if someone pitched it now? Probably, but only if it did some serious overhauling of its aesthetics. Four straight white women in model-thin bodies and Manolo Blahniks ain’t gonna cut it anymore, and that’s a good thing. We should all be glad that Sex and the City was made the way it was made, though, because if anything, it shows us with striking clarity the need for something different. It was essential, and it was not even close to enough, as Girls went on to show us several years later. Like its predecessor, Girls was a much-maligned series with flaws entirely worth criticizing that nonetheless made an essential contribution to the pantheon of women fucking onscreen in showing us Lena Dunham’s naked body with casual flair and startling frequency.
The conversation around Girls has been utterly dominated by debates about the likability of the characters and the creators, but do not underestimate the impact of seeing a body like Hannah Horvath’s (Dunham’s character), unconventional by HBO-nudity standards, shown to us as normal, sexual, desirable. And yet, the way viewers responded to the show’s provocations have unfortunately crowded out the very important feminist work it did. Remember all the screeching about the Season 2 episode (“One Man’s Trash,” 2013) in which Hannah spends an entire weekend having really good sex with Joshua, played by conventionally-hot Patrick Wilson? It hurt my feelings deeply and personally to read the Slate recap in which two men ping-ponged (much like Hannah in the episode itself) back and forth, wringing their hands about the “implausibility on top of implausibility in this scenario”: “Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched—in style, in looks, in manners, in age, in everything? Why is he kissing her and begging her to stay over?” It hurt to learn that what Dunham was doing, “literally standing naked in front of [viewers] and daring them to say that she [wasn’t] deserving of a gorgeous, successful man,” was too much for so many people to handle. My own body, like most people’s bodies, is a lot closer to a Hannah Horvath than a Carrie Bradshaw, which made it hard not to take the criticism of Hannah’s frequent nudity as a personal rejection. For that reason alone, even if these were painful realizations, I was glad that Dunham was forcing them into the light of day.
It has been nearly six years since that episode aired, and notwithstanding my pessimism and sadness at the time, it actually feels like a lot has changed. For one thing, we are actually seeing some male frontal nudity on HBO for once - thank you, High Maintenance! Even more importantly, Issa Rae’s Insecure celebrates the sexiness of black women through its (frequent, hot) sex scenes without any kind of white mediation or approval. I didn’t even realize until I found myself in the thrall of that show how rarely - if ever - I had seen black people having sex onscreen, especially emotionally satisfying sex. We have needed this, and finally we are getting it.
And now, thanks to Hulu’s Shrill, we get to see a fat woman have good and fulfilling sex onscreen, and no matter what you think of the rest of the show, that all by itself is a big fucking deal.
Annie, played by Aidy Bryant of SNL, is desirable on this show. Her body neither a joke nor an object of pity nor a middle-finger to Shrill’s audience. The show doesn’t posit Annie’s having sex with attractive men as a defiant rejection of expectations the way Girls did with “One Man’s Trash”: as Tracie Egan-Morrissey wrote in 2013, “Lena Dunham is literally standing naked in front of [viewers] and daring them to say that she isn't deserving of a gorgeous, successful man. And then they did!” This is different; Shrill takes for granted that Annie is both beautiful and sexy - which is not to say that she herself does. Five minutes into the first episode, we get a sex scene that is strikingly, refreshingly ordinary from a visual perspective: the camera shows us two people who are into each other and having a good time together, nothing extraordinary about any of it. Annie, however, keeps her bra on and her body more or less covered, both during and after sex. Even as the show wants to celebrate her sexuality, she herself has some work to do before she’s on the same level with it.
Most of the sex Annie has on Shrill is with Ryan (Luka Jones), who infuriatingly invites her over to fuck (he doesn’t have a car unless he’s borrowing his mom’s) and then makes her sneak out the back door so that his friends won’t see her. He sucks, no question, and watching Annie think so little of herself as she keeps letting his shitty behavior slide is genuinely frustrating. The chief criticism of the show that I’ve heard lies precisely in this meekness of Annie’s: how can this doormat be the onscreen embodiment of such forceful source material? While it’s of course worth saying that Annie needs to get a whole lot louder than the version of her we see on Hulu’s Shrill, it would be hard to believe that she could fully become Lindy West, author of the book Shrill (2016) and slayer of bullies, over the course of six episodes. A lifetime of fat-shaming does not give way to defiance and self-love in a single week of someone’s life. Annie does not yet channel the volume of Lindy West, 2016, the Lindy West who finally had the words and the force to call bullshit on a lifetime of mistreatment, marginalization and erasure. Annie is not there yet. But then we watch her heave a cinderblock into a motherfucking car at the end of Season 1. Don’t worry, Shrill is saying, we just getting started. Settle in.
Sex and the City left its mark on the world with its casual depiction of women having sex - good sex - as an everyday occurrence. Shrill makes another vital, inestimably important contribution by showing a beautiful, fat woman having sex and by treating it both casually and thoughtfully at the same time. Without taking anything away from Annie’s inherent sex appeal, the show also argues that we should want better for her than someone who flagrantly undervalues her like Ryan does. We get a tantalizing look at what that might be like when a gorgeous man she’s known for a long time (Lamar, played by Akemnji Ndifornyen) tells her that he’s always had a crush on her. At this, I held my breath, praying that the show would get it right, and it did, leaving me in tears at the end with its tenderness and sincerity. Watching Annie be wanted and desired like that brought years of body exclusivity crashing down on me. These were the scenes - the “I’ve always loved you” scenes - that I as a high school girl would watch longingly, knowing as I did that they weren’t made for me. It wasn’t just sex that was always reserved for thin, conventionally-attractive people, but love and desire, too. I would sit down right now and rewatch all of Shrill Season 1 just to watch Annie’s and Lamar’s scene together one more time. It is powerful, and I wish it had been around when I was seventeen and watching Sex and the City for the first time. As much as I loved the show and felt some of the empowerment it was handing out, I still didn’t feel like it really spoke for me, much as I wished it would. Shrill is yet another expression of what I love about television in 2019: the stories being told by Shrill, Pen15, Big Mouth, Sex Education, to name just a few, are not new to me, but seeing them fictionalized on TV, paradoxically, has made them feel even more real and worth telling.