Movies like Daphne depict casual sex among women as a sign of low self-esteem, wholly divorced from desire
Sex, I was informed by the book my mother bought for me when I was 10, meant that mommy and daddy love each other very much. But like all the fairytales I read as a child, Ive since learned that this book presented a somewhat sanitised view of reality. I am now of an age where I know sex can mean many things: validation, forgiveness, boredom. But currently it means only one thing in popular culture when it comes to women: misery.
Yesterday a new film, Daphne, was released in the UK, which tells the story of a young woman, played with extraordinary depth by Emily Beecham, and it is, to use one of Daphnes own lines, lovely, in a traumatic sort of way. But in one regard it feels all too familiar. Daphnes sex life is chaotic and joyless: she has sex with a man that is so unsatisfying, she takes cocaine afterwards, looking to feel anything, and then has sex with another who so repulses her, she swats his face away from hers as he comes. Daphnes promiscuity is an externalised expression of her unhappiness, and if thats ringing any bells for you, its probably because you watched Fleabag, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, or any of the many movies and TV shows depicting casual sex among women as a sign of low self-esteem, wholly divorced from desire. Here, sex is another thing that needs to be fixed.
In Fleabag, the bleakest and by far the best of these, the lead characters sex life is an inefficient coping mechanism for past trauma. Trainwreck took the eye-rollingly conventional view that a woman who engages in guilt-free sex (AmySchumer) must, at some point, be punished and settle down. Even Bridesmaids had a bizarrely retrograde attitude: Kristen Wiigs characters sex life was an act of constant self-loathing, in which she sleeps with a man who treats her like dirt and pushes away one who doesnt. Melissa McCarthys character goes after men with delightful boldness but this, according to the movie, is laughable, because her character is derided for being weird. Reminder: this movie was made in 2011, not 1811. All of these movies, incidentally, were at least written by women. Daphne was written and directed by men, which shows how established the self-loathing promiscuous woman trope has become.
Promiscuity in male characters, in movies such as Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Swingers, is portrayed as immature but amusing a rite of male passage. Boys will be boys! But women who do so are tragic.
Female characters who have sex as casually as men have long been punished in popular culture, but a few decades ago things looked as if they were changing for the better. In the 1980s, against the background of Aids and Reaganite conservatism, female characters were repeatedly shown wanting, having and enjoying sex. Yes, there was Glenn Close wreaking havoc with adomestic pet in Fatal Attraction but there was also Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Cher beingliterally swept off her feet by Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck. Susan Sarandon, before she was known for her political idiocy, made a career out of playing gorgeously sexual characters, in movies such as Bull Durham (an older woman who sleeps with baseball players) and White Palace (an older woman who sleeps with a yuppie).
Then in 1990 along came the most cynical romcom of all times: Pretty Woman. He was init for the sex and she was in it for the money, butthe message studios took was that audiences like fairytales. This sparked a decade of absurdlychaste romcoms, often starring Drew Barrymore, which led to Sex And The City, whichwas seen as a necessary corrective untilthat, too, disappeared up its own belief that the fairytale wedding ending was the only happy one for women.
Todays writers are trying to take a new tack on female sexuality, putting womens emotional lives at the centre of stories, which is a good thing. But using sex as a signifier of female self-alienation is already hardening into a cliche, and hardly a universally true one. Yes, sex can be asign of self-loathing but so can celibacy and, funnily enough, no ones making a movie about an unhappy woman who watches Frasier on her own every evening (the title of a future memoir about my mid 20s); its only the ones who grimly shag the nights away who get the feature-length treatment. In attempting to show anew side of female sexuality, todays writers have fallen for one of the most conservative narratives, equatingfemale sexuality with self-degradation. And sex, contrary to what my book said, has more than one meaning.