Run, Sky Comedy’s new show, created by Vicky Jones and exec-produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was one of the best things I watched this week. For a start, the concept is intriguing. Having not seen each other for 17 years, an erstwhile couple, Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, text each other “RUN” and do just that, running away with each other across the country. (Travel: remember that?!)
But the bit that stuck in my mind came about halfway through, without fanfare. Wever’s character, aroused by the situation, goes to the train bathroom for a quick, no-nonsense menage a moi.
In 2020, it still feels unusual and notable to watch a scene of female masturbation on screen that isn’t included to provide erotic interest for a character and audience. It feels radical, still, to see female autoerotic pleasure without the requisite lingerie, candles and soft-core aspect. Autoerotic pleasure, then, as experienced by the majority of women.
Clearly, there is an appetite for a more relatable picture of female sexuality and bodies in television and film. Perhaps the most famous recent example is in Fleabag, also created by Waller-Bridge and Jones, where the main character starts casually getting down to it while watching an Obama speech on her laptop in bed, munching snacks, before her boyfriend interrupts her and leaves.
In Insecure, Broad City, Orange is The New Black, Sex Education and Girls, solo female pleasure exists away from the male gaze. These shows see women more likely to be in their pyjamas or tracksuits than writhing around naked or on top of a washing machine (Betty Draper in Mad Men, who carts her daughter off to a psychotherapist when she is “caught”). Today’s portrayals are mundane and ordinary, instead of performative or designed to titillate (Samantha in Sex & the City and in the film world, Body of Evidence, 9 ½ Weeks).
This is a good thing. Our society is weird, still, about female bodies. Not just masturbation, but vaginas, periods, childbirth, the menopause, female body hair. It still feels like these areas of life are embarrassing and shameful. These ideas have, of course, filtered into our cultural representations. When show-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro wanted to add a female masturbation scene into UnREAL, she was asked why the character had suddenly become a sex addict. In The Goop Lab, Gwyneth Paltrow – of vagina steam fame – revealed that she didn’t know the difference between the vulva and the vagina. She got it wrong. If I’m honest, I didn’t know either until a few years ago.
Why are we still ashamed of, and threatened by, the wide scope of female sexuality, while simultaneously pretending that female bodies’ non-erotic functions don’t exist? If one of the points of culture is to tell us who we are, to help us make sense of the world, to show us the experiences of people unlike us, then we are impoverished if the full spectrum of human experience is not covered. John Berger described the central tenet of art as: “men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at.” Today, that’s just not interesting enough.
From the moment little girls read books or watch TV, they will be hearing about characters who are mostly in the generic masculine. The female characters are usually the supporting roles, if they are there at all. This bias continues through adolescence, when there is a lack of female characters on the screen who experience the things they do. So, they get the memo: hide all that womanly body stuff; conceal the tampon in your sleeve; pretend you don’t grow hair on your body. It is better to pretend it doesn’t exist. It is, in some way, shameful.
When I gave birth to my first child, I wanted to burn all the depictions of childbirth I’d seen on screen to the ground. Every representation was laughably unrealistic. Waters break and the baby comes out? Nope. It’s bloody, messy, long, loud, animal, strange, frightening, gruelling, ugly, ecstatic. Personally, I think it would’ve been an easier experience if we were more honest and open about the experience of birth.
Female masturbation, periods, childbirth, the menopause, miscarriages – these are all taboos which need to keep being dismantled. Women like Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge slot them into their stories as if they are normal parts of life – which they are, for over half of the population. “There is still this code of language and behaviour that controls women and holds them back in this patriarchal society we exist in,” said Jones. “I always want to write women in the way I’ve experienced being one, which is very complicated and confusing.” Amen to that.