I am boldly unapologetic that the listing of “Sex and the City” on Indian television introduced the word “sex” to my dictionary. As a South Asian born and raised in India in the 90s, I confess, I learned more about sex-ed from television than from biology lessons in school. Opening up the Indian economy and allowing the private networks to broadcast popular dramas on Indian television ensured that there was uncensored access to international television and pop culture in the late 1990s, which impacted many of the social and cultural lives of many.
Between the Sex and the City (SATC) re-runs and Gossip Girl (GG) broadcast, the country grew up parallelly to me. I found myself face to face with my sexual needs and subsequently unanswered questions while consuming sexually explicit content on television. Meghna Talwar, a filmmaker, resonates with thoughts on initial curiosity brought about by these shows, “I must’ve been 14–16 when SATC would play on the TV, and I’d be curious, but I would change the channel quickly because the TV was shared between my family and me. I could only get to it later when I was in college.”
By the late noughts, most of the 90s kids in the Indian metro cities had some access to the television and/or the internet, and thus, we found ourselves exposed to sex on television. For the first time ever, we had access to a visual stream of unabashed sexually explicit content in the limited light of the characters we fondly watched. Samantha Jones being outgoing about her sexual life with one and all; Blair and Chuck being toxic to each other in the name of sexual chemistry; Serena getting slut-shamed — It was all there for us to consume.
While the access may have meant opening up the discourse about our sexual needs and curiosities, the side effect it bore lasts to this day. Suppose sex was introduced to us through a diet of TV shows such as Sex and the City, Californication and Gossip Girl. In that case, the question begets, how did it impact our sexual lives and well-being and what kind of sexual activities were these television shows portraying to begin with?
“I had very negative and fuzzy connotations about sex because of SATC. The fact that I was a virgin when I watched didn’t help either. I really thought of sex as a great revelation or something for which you need to have special powers or only a certain type of persona can have the best or the most amazing sex. All of which is untrue. Sex is the most natural thing, and there are no parameters to achieve sexual greatness. Also, sex is not the same for everyone. And men are really not that great at having sex.” confesses Aradhna Abbot*, an artist from India, recalling the influence SATC had on her personal life.
Most of the popular dramas in the 90s and 00s highlighted sex and the surrounding discourse with painfully obvious limitations — people of colour were fetishized (black men are well endowed?); women achieved orgasms with penetrative sex alone (faster than cooking instant noodles); there was token representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the individuals who identified as disabled were absent. Even visibly clean family sitcoms like Modern Family hesitated to show any visuals of the lead gay characters in intimate moments on screen.
The sex on television was in fact, regressive, especially throughout the 90s and the early 00s. With shows like The OC impacting the discourse on sex among teenagers, most of these dramas included highly choreographed visuals of characters in missionary with moaning sounds and orgasms achieved together without things being messy or out of place. Being sexually inactive or highlighting your fears was considered prudish (think Summer not being able to tell Seth she’s a virgin for the fear of being considered uncool and Samantha shaming Charlotte for being resistant towards anal sex with her partner).
Aiswarya, a doctoral candidate from India in Scotland, revisits her experience of growing up with Gossip Girl and the optics of the show, “I think I always knew I was watching a highly aestheticized and exaggerated soap about rich, white, straight people. What’s funny about Gossip Girl’s approach to sex, in particular, was how easy, neat, and efficient things were. I mean, there were pregnancy scares, but for the most everyone found it unusually easy to hook up. No issues with performance, protection, timing, place, mutual comprehension, etc. Quite far from reality!”
However, television grew up. We found ourselves amid sex-positive dramas and web series that were openly curious about sexual exploration and the self without any tinge of shame or hesitation. A good example of that is Broad City, a comedy series with two unabashed women who are political, vocal about their needs and nowhere near perfect. Whether it meant wanking while taking a video call or pegging their partner — Broad City defied stereotypes set in place by the language of how people on television have sex and set a new tone for the future of sex on television to come.
“We finally got to see a non-glamourized, authentic portrayal of girls who smoke weed,” writer and editor Tanya Sharma lists Abbi and Ilana along with the girls from The Bold Type as characters that resonated with her. Tanya mentions how the nearly-accurate representation of female friendships and the focus on female pleasure in these shows distinguished these dramas from the ones before and marked the big difference in changing the sexual discourse on television.
In constant comparison with SATC, one of the first things I heard about The Bold Type was how the sex was “so good!”. Across the board, everyone I spoke to in the context of this essay responded with a common statement, “Women don’t orgasm in seconds.” In addition to opening the discourse on female pleasure and the conversation on orgasms, the agency being granted to women in dramas such as Girls, Jane the Virgin, Broad City, I May Destroy You, Euphoria, Fleabag, Insecure or even The Bold Type marks a distinct separation from their predecessors including Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. Multimedia Producer Ajeta adds, “The men in the shows respecting the agency of the female characters was also great to watch. Be it Michael respecting the no-sex rule in Jane the Virgin. Or Lincoln from Broad City respecting Ilana in her choices…these shows have tried to stray away from the stereotypes about sex on TV which was an added bonus.”
Despite all the positives and the progress that the characters on the television shows have made over the years, there is a lot more to overcome. My conversations with members from the LGBTQIA+ community made me understand what may work for cis-het women and may not favour everyone else. Dr Lucas Moraes, who grew up watching SATC, adds that he would preferably “include more representation from LGBTQIA+ community and people of colour — for one they are diverse and should be more than just token characters introduced in the show to be made fun of. There are a thousand different personalities in those spectrums to show.”
Kim Cattrall herself, who brought Samantha Jones to life, shared the most interesting perspective by acknowledging the unrealistic standards and conversations on SATC and consequently refusing to be a part of any subsequent edition of the series, “I think the climate changed. To have four women talking about shopping trips and spending $400 on shoes when people are having trouble putting food on the table? It doesn’t mean we don’t need that but I think the pendulum swung in a different direction.”
With the new trailer for Gossip Girl reboot dropping and the announcement of Sex and the City to return, it looks as though this glass ceiling of existing sexual discourse will be shattered, questioned and investigated over time. The showrunners, networks and writers in the respective shows are all cognizant of how transphobic, bi-phobic, homophobic, ageist, fatphobic, ableist, and racially limited the works in the past have been. In the name of diversity, token side characters will perhaps not be accepted today.
Maybe, this time around, it won’t just be Samantha Jones bringing sex to the city, but instead, someone new brings kindness and sex together with a heavy dose of a reality check. Perhaps, it’s time to change the channel after all.
* Name changed to protect the identity of the individual.
Essay originally published here.