Any discussion entitled “Changing Rules for Women and Sex on TV” was bound to include mentions of a certain HBO comedy series. The always provocative “Girls” was certainly a central topic at Saturday’s SXSW panel, which was moderated by ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg and populated by fellow journalists Noreen Malone (of The New Republic) and David Haglund (of Slate), as well as Sarah Shapiro, the writer/director of “Sequin Raze,” a short making its world premiere at the festival, and Anna Camp (“The Mindy Project,” “True Blood”), the film’s lead.
The group dug into Lena Dunham’s young career and the portrayals of sex, relationships and nudity in her show, along with the power dynamics of the intimacies of “House of Cards” and what constitutes a good sex scene. While the panel covered a lot of interesting ground, some familiar to anyone who follows the work of the writers on it, the most interesting viewpoint may have been that of Camp, who as an actor has participated in her fair share of sex scenes and who has to navigate them as part of potential roles.
Camp spoke about scenes in “Mad Men” (“I feel like competing to prove myself worthy of him sexually,” she said of the blow job her character Bethany Van Nuys gave Don Draper in a cab) and in “House of Lies” (she auditioned for the role that ultimately went to Kristen Bell, leading her to ask if instead “Can I be the woman who screams ‘I’m squirting!’?”).
Actors have to give their trust to the directors, writers and producers in charge of the project, which she noted can be frustrating or frightening. “I want to be picky for when I do that,” she said of sex scenes, noting that many of them were just the “same male fantasy” and that it was often taken for granted in films and TV that attractive characters would have great sex, but that she was interested in getting beyond the usual depictions.
The scenes that dominated the conversation included Dunham’s several with Patrick Wilson in that much-debated recent episode of “Girls” (he was an “idealized male figure instead of an idealized female figure,” noted Haglund, who was actually not a fan of the installment) and the Melissa Leo segment from the past season of “Louie.” Camp cited as noteworthy the scene in “Mad Men” involving Jessica Paré’s Megan Draper and the white carpet. Shapiro brought up the scene in the pilot of “Girls” in which Hannah (Dunham) refuses Adam (Adam Driver) when he goes off to get lube (“to be grounded in your own body enough to say ‘I don’t want that'” was striking to her).
Cable is, for obvious reason, the home for most of the shows that were discussed, but the freedom to be explicit wasn’t always, for the panelists, a good thing. Haglund spoke of how quickly “Homeland” managed to show a nude Morena Baccarin, saying that the cable-style rush to that made him distrust the series at times, Malone noted that it’s often the lead-up to sex that’s more interesting (“I want a good buildup”) and Shapiro said that for her, “the sexiest thing in the world is the closed door.”
Network TV has generated discussions of its own in how it’s dealt with one of the consequences of sex — pregnancy, including how some characters have dealt with fertility crises. Rosenberg pointed out Robin Scherbatsky’s (Cobie Smulders) learning that she can’t have children in the past season of “How I Met Your Mother” and Cece’s (Hannah Simone) finding that she only has a limited window in which to conceive on “New Girl.” Watching the latter development, Malone said that at first “I was angry that one of my favorite TV shows was inciting this personal panic in me,” but then realized that it was a natural part of the conversation. As these characters approach or begin their 30s, it’s something they would think about, because “sex is not divorced from childbirth.” It may not be as audacious as Hannah Horvath’s hookups, but shows “would be leaving rich territory unexplored if they didn’t” go there.