Say what you will about the early days of the pandemic, but quarantine delivered some of the hottest television to come out of the last decade (hello Normal People, Outer Banks, and Elliot Stabler returning to the Law & Order SVU franchise to breathe heavily in Benson’s general vicinity!!). My personal favorite to product of this sexually frustrated era of television, and the horniest of the horned-up melodramas, was Netflix’s Sex/Life.
Sex/Life stood out from the pack to me for a number of reasons. Yes, the show was undeniably hot (even the Kama Sutra is less graphic) and the cast was supernaturally good-looking (the romantic lead got a bumble bee tattooed on his hip bone and instead of gagging I added that to my list of turn-ons). But the best thing about the show was that it seemed to prioritize female pleasure in a way that highlighted women in all their different identities. Mothers, party girls, grad students, boss bitches–all of them seeking pleasure. Daring to want. It was refreshing for once to watch a show about women taking instead of giving. And yet, the show didn’t always deliver on its promises.
The show is about Billie Connelly, the perfect wife with the perfect life, slowly melting down from the mundaneness of it all. Instead of a little red corvette, Billie’s mid-life crisis manifests in x-rated journal entries about her ex Brad and convincing her vanilla husband to fuck her before noon. Look a little deeper and the show isn’t so much about Billie’s wet dreams as it is women feeling like they have to give up parts of themselves for marriage and motherhood. “I don’t feel like myself,” Billie repeats throughout most of the first season. “I feel like I’ve become an ordinary, boring wife.”
Billie’s fantasies about Brad reawaken her desire–and not just sexually. Brad is a symbol of what her life was like before, when she was able to prioritize herself first. When she was a rising academic star in the field of psychology, partying it up in Manhattan with her bestie, and gorging herself on love and sex not because she made a vow to do so, but because she genuinely wanted that. Now she walks hollowly around her mansion in billowing nightgowns mumbling “those were the days” and staring at her children as if they were her own personal hostage negotiators. Nevermind that Billie’s hellscape looks straight out of an Architectural Digest spread and that many women would compete in a lululemon-sponsored Hunger Games to live in it. The heart wants what it wants, I suppose!
Billie’s crisis reflects the question the show is framed around: can women have it all? Can we be mothers and wives and have careers and still be fulfilled? Sex/Life’s showrunner Stacy Rukeyser has said that the show is “an honest exploration of what happens to us as we grow up,” a modern attempt at answering the age-old question of can we have it all. But while the show may have good intentions about positioning feminine desire first, in doing so they revert back to the patriarchal narratives they wanted to rewrite in the first place.
“It’s not enough,” Billie says at the end of season 1 right before blowing up her perfect life. “I do want it all.” And this is the crux of my problem with the show. “Having it all” may be an age-old question, but it’s a misogynistic one. We certainly don’t ask men if they can have it all. If one of the show’s goals is to show that women lead full, messy lives then framing their happiness as all or nothing sets them up to fail. It puts women in the either/or patriarchal structures the show is so desperate to break: we can either be wild women in the city or happy domesticated wives in the suburbs. We can’t be both.
Many real women have figured out what the show hasn’t caught onto yet. The idea of “having it all” is impossible. The show even frames it as a fantasy: something Billie pants after in her diary but could never exist in her real life. And to try and make that fantasy a reality comes at a cost for the character. You can achieve “all” but only by completely taken up with or absorbed by something else. In the Sex/Life universe, women are punished for taking the pleasure they deserve. The moment Billie asks for more in her marriage, it starts to fall apart. Her husband stops trusting her and, worse, stops talking to her.
Season 2, which premiered earlier this month, returns to its original ethos but attempts to answer a new question: how do we have it all? In the opening scenes we discover that Billie has left her husband for Brad but Brad has already moved on with someone else. Where season 1 prioritized female pleasure, season 2 tamps down the horniness in favor of its other feminist mission: female independence, and how much its women have to suffer for the pleasure they seek.
It’s worth mentioning that–SPOILER!!–both Billie and Sasha eventually do get their happy endings. Billie and Brad find their way back to each other and Sasha marries her longtime on-again/off-again love and gets to keep her Oprah-esque book deal. It’s just that their happiness is only found after both have survived six of the bleakest episodes of the series. In season 2 the series aesthetic went from Hot Sex to Straight Depressed.
It’s a bummer that the show continues to stick to the patriarchal narratives that hold it back from its mission, especially considering so many women connected with the original script (for reference, season 1 reached 67 million households in its first four weeks; in the two weeks since its release season two has only reached 8.5 million). So many times feminism and feminine pleasure are not paired together, and while this show tried, viewers ended up with the same message that they’ve already been given by society at large: pleasure will cost you.
If Sex/Life is going to go all in on prioritizing women’s experiences it needs to accept the premise that women can have pleasure and also not destroy their lives. You don’t need to sacrifice all of yourself for a sexually fulfilling relationship. Maybe instead of asking “can we have it all” we should be asking “do we have enough?” Do we have enough support? Enough sex? Enough pleasure? Enough identity? Billie’s mistake is in hiding her desire, and shaming herself for being hungry for it in the first place. And what does this tell the millions of women tuning in to watch Sex/Life? Starve yourselves and you can keep your home, your family, your children; gorge on desire and end up hating yourself for it.
Hunger is something women are so used to denying themselves. Instead of suppressing that hunger–or women embracing it and being punished for it–we need to get comfortable with allowing it to simply exist. We need to get comfortable with letting ourselves be ravenous. And as for how that manifests in our pop culture, call me crazy, but I think a show can have both porny plotlines and a serious feminist agenda. After all, is living in a world where we see prosthetic penises and full frontal male nudity not what our foremothers marched for?