For the Annual Review we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment and one of those topics is sex. From BDSM in 50 Shades of Grey to hook-ups in Hulu’s Casual to bed-breaking superhero romps in Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix, 2015 had a lot to say about sex. We catch up with Rachael Taylor of Jessica Jones and Tommy Dewey of Casual to get their take on it.
For all the incredible benefits of technology, there is one major concern that refuses to go away: are we losing our ability to connect with each other IRL? The opposing result of our hyper-connected lives is that sex has become easier than ever to have, bordering on transactional. Researchers are suggesting that technology has brought on the biggest shift in our patterns of sex and relationships second only to the introduction of marriage to the human race. “Hook up culture,” made easy by a slew of apps and dating sites, is the norm now and marks a massive shift in society: a growing acceptance of casual sex.
Pop culture is so full of people hooking up it’s hard to imagine turning the TV on and not catching a sex scene between two uncommitted people. Sex sells after all, especially the casual kind. But this year started off with a whole different sort: an infamous BDSM relationship between the twisted Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) and the prudish Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). And boy did it sell; 50 Shades of Grey grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide and is currently the 15th most watched release of the year.
For all the controversy it generated, 50 Shades of Grey portrays a distinctly retrograde view of relationships which might have something to do with the target audience: women in their 40s and 50s who dated, married, and birthed children before Tinder was a sparkle in its founders’ eyes. The relationship between Christian and Anastasia is anything but casual – in fact he requires her to sign a contract – but 50 Shades of Grey is more of a sexual wish-fulfillment fantasy than a counterpoint to our current hook-up culture. To many, the film’s only cultural relevance comes from the portrayal of Anastasia’s sexual freedom and identity, or lack there of.
“The movie itself was saucy and fun. Dakota Johnson was stunning and brave, good for her. But it had me asking a lot of questions,” says Rachael Taylor who plays Trish Walker in Marvel’s Jessica Jones. “Is the female portrayed as having full authorship over her choices? Is she making choices from a place of empowerment? From a place of self worth? From a place of knowledge? I think girls need to know the importance of fully empowered choices and ownership when it comes to sex and what they are into.”
Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which premiered on Netflix in November, is one of the most buzzed about shows of the year and its unprecedented sex scenes did not escape the attention. Onscreen superheroes are usually devoid of any real sexual desire, but Jessica Jones shows another side: an honest and unapologetic sexuality. The incredible thing is that this comes mostly from our lead, Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter). A survivor of hideous abuse and struggling with the resulting P.T.S.D., Jessica is haunted and messy, but in charge.
“Her sexual desires fit within a broad exploration of all of her desires and complexities as a character,” Taylor says. “I mean she’s numbing out with alcohol, she’s suffering from P.T.S.D. and she’s sleeping with someone who she has a heartbreaking and terrifying connection to, and yeah it’s very carnal and very real and very sexy, as well. My point is, when you approach sex and sexuality from a place of character and humanity, it’s a complicated and nuanced topic. And Jessica Jones allows it to be complicated.”
In Hulu’s new comedy Casual (which has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best TV Series, Comedy category) cohabitating brother and sister, Alex and Valerie, and her daughter, Laura are all working out their sexuality in totally different ways. Alex, a commitment-phobe, is the founder and algorithm writer of a dating site, Snooger. Valerie is a recently divorced psychotherapist trying to date again. And 16-year-old Laura is enlightened and sexually adventurous, an attitude at odds with her mother’s unease in this modern dating landscape – the one her brother has helped to write.
You can’t escape the thought that Alex’s penchant for casual sex is a coping mechanism he uses to deal with issues from his childhood, or that Valerie’s journey into modern dating (and casual hook-ups) is equally terrifying and thrilling for someone who just got out of a lifeless marriage. Casual sex plays out in many different ways here from a means to gain back some self-confidence to a manner of distraction to a way of getting revenge, and none of them seem to be lasting or massively beneficial.
“I think that keeping things casual and real love can coexist insofar as a casual beginning can lead to something more meaningful,” says Tommy Dewey who plays Alex. “Alex's problem is that he uses casual dating and sex as a band aid for a number of issues - depression, estrangement from his parents, etc. Alex has a hell of a lot to sort out before he can have a healthy relationship. And the romantic in me would like to think that monogamy, even for people like Alex, can work.”
Despite our growing culture of casual sex, research shows that nearly 43% of people who have uncommitted sex desire a deeper, romantic relationship. “My feeling is that while hooking up has gotten easier and may be happening more frequently, our basic human wants and needs haven't changed - we still value real connection,” Dewey says. “Hook-up culture might be positive in that it allows you to test the waters with a number of different people in a short amount of time, before committing to a relationship. It can also be fun (this is all theoretical, of course). It becomes negative when it's so distracting that it keeps you from finding something deeper and more lasting with one person.”
Rachael Taylor echoes the sentiment: “I met my partner in a pre dating app world and I haven’t used it personally, but I see both sides to it. In theory it could promote greater connectivity, you could meet the love of your life, have some great sexual experiences. But there are some dangerous implications. My main concern is that it dehumanizes people and dehumanizes intimacy. The virtual reality frontier could be a terrifying addition to sex.”
Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck takes us on a journey – one usually reserved for male characters – of a woman who likes her booze and one-night-stands to one intent on overcoming the deeply-embedded mantra of her father that “monogamy isn’t realistic.” At first it doesn’t seem like it is – Amy disposes of men left and right and tests the limits of the only guy she’s kept around for longer than one night (a musclebound and hilarious John Cena). Eventually when Amy finds herself actually feeling something for a sports medicine doctor she’s been assigned to profile for the magazine she works at (feelings that go beyond a desire to take him to bed), the two start a real, monogamous relationship that looks messy and honest in all the real life kind of ways. Trainwreck re-writes the usual script – sex is central to a woman’s identity, too, and objectification can happen both ways. It also turns out that monogamy might be realistic afterall, but it sure as hell isn’t always pretty.
“I think we are discovering the importance of a more gender-balanced perspective on sex and creating some space for a narrative about sex that isn’t exclusively mainstream. So, overall, some positive forward momentum,” says Taylor. “That’s not to say we should throw ourselves a graduation party or anything, because there is obviously still plenty of sexual objectification of women happening in the media. But my neighbor who is in her 70’s said ‘I promise you there has been progress! It used to be so much more restrictive and male skewed than it is now! I was there!’”
There was a common thread through the films and shows of 2015 where sex was a central theme or key ingredient: reality. We saw Gaspar Noé’s film Love, which premiered at Cannes this year, take that even further by filming real sex scenes in stereoscopic 3-D. Though the sex takes place within the context of a committed relationship, you’d be forgiven for calling it pornography.
We saw the sex scene between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the stunning Carol.
There was the one-week-stand turned accidental pregnancy and subsequent marriage in Amazon’s Catastrophe, which goes on to hilariously chronicle the new relationship between two people (Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan) who never meant to be together.
There was Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which sets up his season-long journey of self-examination at the start of the first episode when a condom breaks in the middle of a hookup.
Sex this year looked less like Hollywood and a little more like us. It’s complicated and messy and personal. It doesn’t always happen between men and women. Sex is part of the human identity, not just the hetero-male's. And even though technology has put sex just a click away – we still seem to long for real love.
And, even when sex is the point, it’s rarely that simple.
This article was originally posted in Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review where we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment.