Turned on

Ladies who lust are the go on prime-time TV, writes Rosemary Neill

IN the now notorious opening scene of the Ten Network's racy new import, Californication, a nun offered the antihero, novelist Hank Moody, oral sex in a Catholic church. It's little wonder this upset Catholics, who have called for the show to be banned. Two advertisers, Holden and Holeproof, have pulled their ads from the show, a move that has probably given the insistently profane comedy a ratings boost.

A mitigating factor, according to the show's supporters, is that the offending fellatio scene was a fantasy, a dream sequence illustrating the predilection of protagonist Hank Moody for unavailable women.

That Californication's producers thought they could extort laughs and shock value out of such a warmed-over cliche -- the nun who is gagging for it -- illustrates how television never tires of overselling female sexuality.

Whether you are a glamorous singleton living the high life in New York (Sex and the City), a stressed-out trainee doctor (Grey's Anatomy) or a polygamous Mormon housewife swamped by children (Big Love), you are meant to be up for it all the time.

Clearly, the nymphomaniac -- the woman who ecstatically drops to her knees at the sight of a male lead's flies -- has colonised prime time.

From hottie housewives to ex-call girls who write books on how prostitution is empowering, Western culture relentlessly pushes the myth of the nympho, confusing the sexually available or desperate woman with the sexually liberated one.

Californication revolves around Hank, played by a dishily dishevelled David Duchovny, and his groupies. Hank, a novelist with (yawn) writer's block, goes on a sex spree after his long-term girlfriend leaves him for someone else.

Now, it's true that men such as Hank, who look good and behave badly, can be chick magnets. But all Duchovny's alter ego need do is glance in the direction of a beautiful woman (or girl) and she flings off her clothes and jiggles her breasts at the camera.

At one level, Californication is a sharp, foul-mouthed comedy that looks at how LA is "hellbent on destroying its female population", who obsess over breast rejuvenation and vagina enhancement (or is that vagina rejuvenation and breast enhancement)?

At another, it appeals shamelessly to lowest common denominator male fantasies. In one episode, Hank is simultaneously felt up at a dinner party by two women, one a teenage girl and one a stranger. This occurs while his 12-year-old daughter is at the table.

Meanwhile, Hank's bald, middle-aged literary agent sacks his young assistant for incompetence, only to rehire her after she proffers him her bare bottom for S&M sessions in his office.

The show's hypocrisy is encapsulated in this quote from Hank: "I'm disgusted with my life and myself. But I'm not unhappy about that."

One critic has speculated that Californication is payback for the way in which men were turned into sex objects in the phenomenally popular Sex and the City, a film version of which is in production. Sex and the City, which followed the trials and tribulations of four glamorous Manhattanites, was seen as a groundbreaking drama about how women talk about sex. It often struck me as a groundbreaking drama about how men think women talk about sex: namely, that they talk about nothing else. Or as one of Marge's sisters put it in The Simpsons: "It's a show about four straight women who act like gay men."

One of the show's leads, PR agent Samantha (Kim Cattrall), spent several series changing lovers the way other people change their undies without it affecting her emotionally. She called herself a "trysexual": she'd try anything once (including lipstick lesbianism). Like Californication's Hank, she liked to move on from her sexual partners about an hour after climaxing.

In Desperate Housewives, the neighbourhood slut, Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan), is similarly emotionally barren. Samantha and Edie are the least interesting and least authentic characters in their respective shows; after a while, the serial man-eater with a heart of flint simply doesn't ring true. Sex and the City's producers eventually woke up to this and gave Samantha feelings: she survived a bout of breast cancer and shacked up with a likable toy boy with model looks. Alas, the first time anyone realised Edie felt anything genuine for anyone was when she apparently topped herself.

In Big Love, an intriguing portrait of a polygamous Mormon marriage that recently screened on SBS, the middle-aged husband, Bill, takes Viagra so he can satisfy the sexual expectations of his three wives. Like the nun in Californication, these women are youthful, extremely attractive and -- for spouses brainwashed into living according to the illegal Mormon principle of polygamy -- very worldly between the sheets.

Big Love shows how Bill is often overwhelmed by his wives' material and emotional demands. But his sex life is so frantic and his wives so pretty that, even as he pops those little blue pills, many male viewers are bound to envy him.

Californication also wants it both ways, so to speak. It's clear Hank is using the women he sleeps with, but the show also sets out to titillate: the first couple of episodes have a bare boob count that would rival that of any soft-porn flick.

Of course, such double standards are not new; it's all part of the business of keeping the nympho tradition alive and (apparently) the male punters tuned in. The New York Times critic Alessendra Stanley noted in 2004 how a cable TV series about lesbians, called The L Word, was "a manifesto of lesbian liberation and visual candy for men ... While ostensibly celebrating the lesbian life, the two-hour pilot is in such a rush to pander to male viewers that at times it seems less like an American television show than a hastily dubbed Swedish 'art' film.

"All the women are beautiful, which on the one hand works to dismiss the stereotype of lesbians as squat, plaid-shirted and mannish. On the other, they are all so exquisite, even by the high standards of affluent Los Angeles, that it plays into another stereotype -- and male fantasy -- of the lipstick lesbian."

The popular medical drama Grey's Anatomy isn't called "spunks in scrubs" for nothing.

This series opened with its protagonist, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), recovering from a one-night stand the same day she started work at the hospital. It moved on to Meredith and another female doctor having secret affairs with their bosses and an outbreak of syphilis among the staff. The last time I tuned in -- admittedly, a while ago -- the two romantic leads were having a quickie in a room resembling an operating theatre.

Feminist Ariel Levy would no doubt see all this as the product of raunch culture, in which men think of women, and women think of women, as "pieces of meat" and call it sexual liberation. Levy argues in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs that the over-sexualisation of women in Western culture -- by women and men -- has been falsely sold to women as empowerment. Referring to the mainstreaming of porn and of sex industry conventions (from G-strings to pole dancing), the Pamela Anderson beauty ideal and the rise of shows such as Big Brother Uncut, she asks: "Why is this seen as 'the new feminism' and not what it looks like: the old objectification?"

Levy has a ready and credible answer: In our sexually obsessed society, no one wants to be seen as the frump at the back of the room, pointing out that the new sexual exploitation is little different from the old sexual exploitation.

In Californication, a 16-year-old girl jumps Hank after a 60-second conversation in a bookshop. Here we see another dimension of the nympho myth: the Lolita syndrome, the schoolgirl who is sexually precocious and in control, especially with boyfriends who share roughly the same birth dates as her dad.

A couple of years back, two Australian feature films, Somersault and Peaches, tapped into the syndrome, featuring post-pubescent girls who seduced, respectively, their mothers' boyfriend and ex-boyfriend. In Peaches, the protagonist Steph seems as attached to her plaits and pushbike as she is to her 42-year-old boss, with whom she is sleeping. In Somersault, the most successful local film of 2004, Heidi, who looks about 16, tries to seduce her mother's boyfriend within the first few frames.

Yes, young women date older men more often than older women date young men. But Western culture exaggerates this imbalance to an almost comical degree. Just ask all those nubile actors who, until recently, were cast as the love interests of that well-known spunk Woody Allen.

Californication peddles another myth that Hollywood has long since turned into a romantic stereotype: that even the most ardent Casanova will be faithful provided he has the love of a good woman who is invariably stunning, smart and nice. Hank hankers after his ex-girlfriend (who is stunning, smart and nice), realising he had his chance but blew it by refusing to marry her. Apparently his ex-girlfriend's decision to hook up with a decent bloke turns Hank into a sex machine, wreaking his revenge on the opposite sex. The implication is that if only his ex would have him back, Hank would morph into the marrying kind.

Pull the other one.

Similarly, in the final episode of Sex and the City, Mr Big was finally snared by the central character, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), after years of failing to commit.

Shows such as Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Big Love and, yes, even Californication suggest a new awareness on the part of TV producers of the enormous appeal of contemporary female characters to whom viewers can relate, from homemakers to hardcore careerists.

Lipstick Jungle, a new drama based on a novel by Candace Bushnell, whose earlier work inspired Sex and the City, will be shown here soon. It stars Brooke Shields and looks at how three driven careerists struggle to balance the demands of work and family.

Another forthcoming drama, Cashmere Mafia, is produced by Sex and the City creator Darren Star and will star Australia's Miranda Otto and Frances O'Connor. It's about four female friends in New York (sound familiar?) who outshine their partners professionally and bond over the highs, lows and happy hours of their privileged yet fraught lives.

It'll be interesting to see whether this new wave of female characters conforms to old world sex stereotypes.

However, the signs are not all good. One American blogger who saw the pilot for Cashmere Mafia reports that in the opening episode, one powerful woman dances around in the office in a skimpy outfit (as powerful women do); one gorgeous lesbian makes love to another gorgeous lesbian; and a third character tells her cheating husband she is planning an affair with a man they know.

Star, the creative force behind the soaps Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, has said of his new baby: "This is a show that examines women ... in business and the particular challenges they face as career women." If you say so, Darren.



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