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When the story of four single women and their sex lives hit TV screens 25 years ago this week, it was considered landmark television.
Since Sex and the City aired, the show’s premise has become increasingly unremarkable: independent women think about, write about and have sex, so what? Ironically, even in the show’s heyday, the sex being had – at least by Carrie – was far from remarkable. Putting women’s pleasure centre stage was the really ground-breaking element of the series. Only a few decades ago, that concept would have been deemed unthinkable.
“Sex and the City” stars in the show’s heyday.Credit: Reuters
The History of the Sitcom, screening on SBS, traces many social developments via television shows, including women’s rights, gender issues, and, of course, sex. It argues that America’s changing attitudes toward social issues have been mapped out on the screen.
Sex and the City’s creator Darren Star says in the documentary he wanted make the show because he thought it was time to finally lighten up about sex. “I wanted to explore this world of female sexual relationships and do something really, really, frank.”
What is depicted on our screens, especially when it comes to sex, often reflects what is happening in the real-world. While Sex and the City appealed to a particular audience, it was very white; Girlfriends was created by Mara Brock Akil in response, about four black women in LA.
Lena Dunham’s Girls (2011-2017) took things a step further, the creator/writer and star used her lived experience. Instead of being fabulous, her characters were real and messy and their lives reflected a much more real version of life than anything before it. Significantly, full sex was shown, not alluded to, and current issues such as dick pics were discussed.
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath, Jemima Kirke as Jessa Johansson, Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna Shapiro and Allison Williams as Marnie Michaels in Girls.Credit: HBO/Foxtel
Phoebe Waller-Smith’s Fleabag illustrates how far we have come, a revelation in terms of what is possible in television, which mirrors a more progressive society. Intimate and personal, Fleabag breaks the fourth wall, looking at and talking straight at the camera – sometimes while she was having sex. It also referenced the real world and current events. In one memorable scene, she masturbates while fantasising about Barack Obama. “Who didn’t!” laughs one interviewee in the SBS doco.
Fleabag sleeping with a priest reflects the giant leap in how sex is treated in television from its chaste, conservative early days. Back in the early 1950s, even as a married couple Lucy and Desi Arnez in I Love Lucy were not shown sharing a bed.
Scott McKinnon, research fellow at La Trobe University, agrees there has been a significant evolution in what networks will put to air, but says it’s been a long, slow process. He says while gay characters featured in a range of shows, producers did not depict them behaving as straight couples did; even the most basic shows of affection were deemed inappropriate until recently.
Cam and Mitch in Modern Family.
McKinnon cites Will and Grace, which ran from 1998 to 2006, which included several seasons before gay character Will ever kissed a male partner. Even though Modern Family’s Cam and Mitch are represented as part of a loving, inclusive family, living together and having adopted a child, it wasn’t until season two that they exchanged a kiss. Even so, that representation is important, no doubt helping normalise other than heterosexual relationships. When the couple marries on-screen, it’s a direct reference to the fact that same-sex marriage has been legalised in the US.
Dan Levy, who with his father Eugene wrote, directed and produced Schitt’s Creek, helped push the conversation forward, addressing issues he hadn’t seen explored in television that he was witnessing in life. Reflecting part of the real-world population who prefer not to specify their sexual preference, he plays David, who is pan-sexual and sexually ambiguous. At one point he has a fling with his best-mate Stevie – who happens to be female.
Ellen Degeneres has long argued that coming out in her sitcom, Ellen, which ran from 1994 to 1998, led to the show’s demise and her struggle to reignite her career. Conservatives and religious groups were certainly vocal in their protests about the episode. But at the same time, society was edging forward, people were opening their minds to a more diverse picture of relationships.
Television has become braver, especially in the past decade with landmark programs such as Transparent starring Jeffrey Tambor as a father who comes out and transitions. In the SBS documentary, creator/director/executive producer Joey Soloway – who in Transparent was telling a story based on their own life experience – admits they weren’t sure how the show would land. “Even when I started making Transparent and going, okay, there are trans women and lesbians here, this is not going to fly. I was confused about what America could handle,” they say. “I had major misunderstandings about trans-ness, I had to go through a major learning curve.“
Women’s rights have also been charted alongside contemporary issues in television. Given the recent overturning of the landmark legislation Roe V Wade, ensuring women the right to have an abortion, it’s fascinating to hear actors and writers talk about Maude, the 1970s sitcom starring Bea Arthur, best-known in recent years for her Golden Girls fame. A two-part episode called Maude’s Abortion used the issue as a storyline and many stations across America refused to air it.
“We weren’t shoving it down anybody’s throat,” says actor Adrienne Barbeau, who played Maude’s daughter. “We were making them laugh and, hopefully, making them think.”
History of the Sitcom is on SBS and SBS On Demand.
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