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The Good, The Bad And The Slutty: The State Of Sexually Aggressive Women On Television

By Joanna Robinson | Seriously Random Lists | December 12, 2012 | Comments ()


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To be clear, slut is not a term I use in regards to other woman. It just isn't. Nor is "slutty." The only reason that term is at all interesting or applicable here is the way in which sexually aggressive behavior is being portrayed and categorized on television. In the past, in both sitcoms and dramas, we've seen the TV trope of "The Slut." Not empowered or at all admired, these women were known for tight clothing, promiscuous behavior and generally played for laughs or, ultimately, existed to be punished. But in this day and age, that kind of portrayal of women is (and should be) taboo and the word "slut" used only by backwards Tea Partiers and ignorant Twitterati. That being said, the trope of the sexually aggressive woman hasn't gone away, it's just changed. For the most part. And, to reiterate, I make no judgment or criticism of the way in which any actual woman lives her life. It's hers to live, not mine. It should also be said that the following discussion and images are, in my opinion, safe for work, but your (or your boss's) opinion may vary. You've been warned.

Jane Kerkovich-Williams -- "Happy Endings": The most sexually rapacious and aggressive character on this show is Eliza Coupe's Jane. There's zero slut-shaming going on here. Jane and her husband are consistently portrayed as partners. Jane is educated, successful and likable. As the Penny character pointed out this season, Brad and Jane are different from the sexually neutered married couples you see on TV.
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Tammy II -- "Parks and Recreation": Here Tammy's sexual aggression is destructive. When she manages to sexually ensnare her ex-husband she does so with the intent to ruin him. Mullally is a fantastic comedic performer and there's an added level of joy in seeing her spark off her real-life husband Nick Offerman. But her mature sexuality is contrasted with Leslie's more childish lust for Ben (e.g. cute, but young-seeming comments about his bum) and Tammy's sexuality is never painted in a good light. This being a sitcom, I'm pretty confident creator Michael Schur is not out to make grand, sweeping statements about female sexuality. But what I appreciate most about Tammy is that her sexuality is not the only weapon in her arsenal. She's smart and cunning. She may be evil, but her manipulations come in many colors and flavors.
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Angie -- "New Girl": Olivia Munn's stripper character has only appeared in two episodes so far this season, but in last night's episode her sexual aggression was portrayed as equivalent to "fearlessness." (They said as much several times in case you missed it.) However, I don't know that having sex in the middle of someone's holiday party is devoid of rudeness. My feelings about Angie are muddied a bit by my feelings for Munn herself who, until this year, was someone I wrote off as opportunistically sexy. (Which, as a woman, I really hate saying about another woman...see my comment above.) But I'm on record as saying that Munn's performances in both "The Newsroom" and Magic Mike changed my mind about her. She's got great comedic timing (see, for example, the bit when the "New Girl" crew was all trying to sidle out of a party unnoticed). Would I rather she not be a stripper? Would I rather her reunion with Nick didn't involve her gyrating for him? I guess I would. I don't know what that says. She's pretty cute here.
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But I prefer her here.
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Shelley -- "American Horror Story": Shelley's nymphomania was played for both laughs and histrionics. The suffering of the "slut" is a well-worn horror cliche. And Ryan Murphy is a sucker for a well-worn horror cliche. Just the same, Shelley's fate is disproportionately horrific compared to all the other characters on the show. What's that about? I think, often, Murphy gets credit for "American Horror Story" being a send-up of the horror genre (a la Cabin In The Woods). But is it? Or is he just trotting out what we've seen for decades, albeit with better performances and higher production values.
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Jessa -- "Girls": Jessa started out as one of my favorite characters. While she wasn't any less of a mess than the other women on the show, her sexual rapaciousness seemed a good thing. It was part of her confidence. By season's end, confusingly, she was married to Chris O'Dowd's unappealing yuppie. Yeah, the same guy she lobbed the quote below at. What's going on with Jessa? What are we meant to think about her marriage? Her sexuality? Her future?
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I'm not any sort of authority on sexual aggression, obviously. I blurred out the anatomical word above for fear of offending. And as a liberal, adult woman, the idea of condemning any sexual behavior feels uncomfortable to me. Do what you want when you want where you want. In the words of Jessa (or, more accurately, Lena)...
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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Robert

    Regarding Shelley on AHS, I still think Ryan Murphy is playing with cliches. The horror slut (as an unfortunate archetype) always dies a brutal death. Her life is usually, literally, cut short as she's decapitated, impaled, or sliced open like a fish.

    However, on AHS, this character type was subverted when Shelley had her first one on one session with the doctor. She wasn't some terrible person because she liked sex; she was being punished because she was a woman who enjoyed sex. There's a huge difference there. Murphy and his team created a great sense of empathy for the character that made her mandatory destruction in this style of horror tragic. The punishment was disproportionate to shed light on the destructive nature of the cliched character type itself.

  • Aaron Schulz

    I think Tammy 2 is less of a slut or whatever and more she uses her sexuality as a weapon only for Rons ensnarement, and not something she would do otherwise.

  • yocean

    Ok, why is my google keep telling me visiting this site might harm my computer, but when I look into reasons they got nothing at all? Are you guys having some beef with Google?

  • NynjaSquirrel

    Having the same problems - and my antivirus has now detected some rather off looking scripting: - Detected: HEUR:Trojan.Script.Generic 13/12/2012 09:28:15 http://imperialbase.net/hmpu.h...

  • ,

    I approve. At my age, TV is the only place left I can go where women under 50 might look at me with lust.

  • abell

    Offtopic, google chrome thinks that pajiba has malware...

  • Ozioma

    This is the first time since yesterday that I've been on the site without the warning flashing up (Firefox user here)

  • ,

    Where IS Pookie?

  • caragwapa

    safari too!

  • AudioSuede

    Firefox too!

  • I don't know if I'm imposing my own views onto what American Horror Story is doing with the nymphomaniac story. But I took it as pointing out how ridiculous the era was that they would lock her up. The performance is over the top, which I guess might weaken the point. But then again, gimp sex and aliens. It's all over the top.

  • draeton

    There's a fine line between send-up and homage.

  • Bee

    I moved to sweden some months ago, to work as a babysitter. The child called me ''slut'' all the time. It turns out it means ''stop'' in swedish, but I found out after I tried to explain the child it was a bad word.

  • Abell

    Once, just once, I'd like to read a piece about something even slightly complicated that doesn't involve a political potshot.

    Disclaimers:
    No, I'm not saying we shouldn't talk about politics, Talking about politics is one of my favorite things to do. However, the use of backwards Tea Partier is nothing more than an inaccurate pejorative. Which is odd, because Ms. Robinson went out of her way to decry the use of the term slut as the same in the rest of the post. Speaking for this Tea Partier, I'm fully in favor of women having the freedom to fuck up the same way that men do and hopefully have everyone learn from their mistakes, which is what these shows are about, right?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    soooo...you're a "Tea Partier" not a "backwards Tea Partier."

    Modifiers. So beautiful.

  • Jezzer

    I NEVER say "backwards Tea Partier."

    Because it's redundant, you see.

  • able

    Thank you for adding to my point. I would hope that we'd be above ad hominems here (a basic standard of speech), but, apparently, even that much is too much to ask.

  • Jezzer

    If the Tea Party didn't spend 100% of its face time on the news trying to reverse societal progress, the "backwards" label probably wouldn't seem so apt.

  • abell

    Or one who considers slut an appropriate, or useful term. Strictly speaking, I'm not a tea partier, but, I agree with them alot more than I disagree, and I strongly disagree with labeling a group as backwards because you believe they'd say slut for no reason other than to exemplify that you're not the person who would say slut. It's in group/out group bullshit, and I have no truck with that. There would be no reason to add tea partier to backwards, unless you believed tea partiers were all backwards. So, yea, modifiers.

  • ghisent

    Speaking for this Tea Partier, I'm fully in favor of women having the freedom to fuck up the same way that men do and hopefully have everyone learn from their mistakes, which is what these shows are about, right?

    Actually, no. It's more about women having the freedom to FUCK, and having it NOT be a mistake. If you'd phrased it that way, then you're more on target. The whole point is that they shouldn't be viewed as having made mistakes in that context, hence the pejorative nature of the word slut.

  • abell

    I appreciate the capslock for emphasis. I agree that women having consensual sex is not intrinsically a mistake, which seems to be the worldview that spawned the slut pejorative. However, I also abhor the notion that because a woman chose to have sex, it can't possibly be a mistake. And given the relationships we see in tv and sitcoms, where the main characters bounce through partners in the space of weeks, I'm inclined to assume that there's quite a few mistakes being made.

  • draeton

    Every action can be a mistake and have narrative significance. That being said, as viewers, we are not in a position to presume that casual sex is a mistake unless the director telegraphs it or the narrative demonstrates the consequences. In either case, there is the unavoidable possibility that someone involved has indulged in the misogynistic trope of the "slut" getting her just deserts.

    Most of the modern comedies I find entertaining involve awkward or inconsiderate characters navigating uncomfortable scenarios; e.g. Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development. While karma is a bitch (::putting a dollar in the misogyny jar a la Schmidt), you almost never see a (unattached) male character receive a punishment or narrative setback due to a fling.

  • abell

    Yea, that's definitely true that the one gender is disproportionately punished in media. And that's bad...mkay?

  • draeton

    Although I abhor pedantry (not really), I feel compelled to repeat that there is no intrinsic moral value (i.e. good or bad) in sleeping around, regardless of the character's gender. In addition, we cannot and should not infer poor judgment or a lack of perspective from a character's quantity of sexual partners.

    Where we do infer such traits, we are complicit with the creators (e.g. director/screenwriter) in reinforcing the stereotype. Where we fall short (and we all do), play dumb.

  • abell

    If we're going to get into pedantry, that's a matter of opinion, I happen to be Catholic, and have a different set of moral beliefs. Of course, in my experience, sexual promiscuity mostly is self-inflicted harm, hence why I shy away from the shaming nonsense. I doubt any good will come of a protracted argument where we both go through the various talking points. I will preemptively respect your position, and agree to disagree.

  • Tom

    The "stripper girlfriend" guest star is sort of the "manic pixie dream girl" of sitcoms. She exists to reveal something about the main character boyfriend's attitudes about sex, commitment or women in general. You could do this with some other female character who isn't a stripper, but it would take far more time, so if you want to do it with a guest star, you make the character a stripper. This brings all these issues to the surface much quicker. "How I Met Your Mother" did it recently with Barney and Quinn. "New Girl" itself did the slow-burn version with Schmidt and CeCe last season.

    As far as the story is concerned, this character is there to make the main character a little uncomfortable and get him to make some assumptions about her sexuality and promiscuity. Then she gets offended that he would think these things about her. He has a moment of self realization and learns something about himself. Whether their relationship survives is irrelevant. Obviously, I'm grossly oversimplifying this trope, but that's what I was thinking when i watched New Girl last night. That and Black Santa

  • abell

    I really don't think you oversimplified it. It's a very simplistic trope. Hell, the conversations are the same. "I'm a stripper." "That's hot." "You're uncomfortable." No I'm not." "When you quit..." "Who said I was going to quit?" etc. Of course, Sorkin did it back with Sports Night, but, he was willing to go with a pornstar instead. So, to state the obvious: Sorkin>sitcoms

  • Jezzer

    Does ">" mean "much preachier and up his own ass than"?

  • Tom

    I forgot about that one. That's a great example. Nick's storyline last night was "you're a stripper so you're probably into weird sex stuff. I'm not but I'm going to pretend." and then offending her and finally being true to himself and admitting that he's not like that and apologizing for being a presumptive jerk.

  • abell

    Also, Black Santa...and Elf Cop Buddy?

  • BAM

    Eliza Coupe is definitely entrenched on my freebie list.

  • Skyler Durden

    I guess this is one of my pop-culture blind spots, but I do not, and never have, understood the Munn hate. All I know is that she was at some point criticized for being too pretty to be a geek (also see: Morgan Webb). And THEN she was criticized for being "real life" pretty but not "starlet" pretty, whatever the fuck that means. And she showed her tits on a cell phone picture (also see: Pajiba darling Christina Hendricks).

    There is nothing that I know of that hasn't been done before by plenty of other people. Why is SHE the one being burned on the pop-culture pyre? Why does she need our "forgiveness"? Seriously, what am I missing?

  • Koala Is Not a Bear

    For me, it had everything to do with how she pissed away her glorious opportunity on "The Daily Show" by being unforgiveably unmemorable

  • Bodhi

    THIS. She had a ready made stage upon which to smart, witty, & beautiful & it was AWFUL. I'm sure the writers had a lot to do with it, but there in lies a big lesson: Don't Piss Off the Writers.

  • JoannaRobinson

    She doesn't need my forgiveness at all! Of course not. But I am free to say that she put me off before and then I came around to her. Not that I forgave her, just that she finally exhibited some other talent that I personally responded to.

    And to address something else. This is also the year (or was it last year?) that all of Olivia's personal sexually explicit photos were leaked by some scumbag? That? I care NOTHING about. That's her at home stuff and it's bullshit that someone leaked it.

    Also. She is pretty. So pretty. Super pretty. I think she's prettier in glasses and a sharp suit than in a bikini, but that's my taste. Other folks are free to like her the other way.

  • Artemis

    I think the hate got way out of proportion at some point, but its origins go back to her role on Attack of the Show! where she admitted she didn't know much about video games and was best known for jumping into a giant pie while wearing a french maid costume and (separately) sexy-eating a hot dog. And then after there was a round of internet criticism about her doing the brainless bimbo act on that show, she responded to internet critics by telling them something like "take the sandwich out of your mouth and walk it off." Which didn't go over super well.

  • Robert

    That's the problem right there. She did admit that she wasn't a video game geek. She was one of the few honest women to cycle through that show and actually admit that wasn't her expertise. I can't think of another host or correspondent on that show that didn't pretend to know everything even when they would pick up a controller upside down or not know how to use both joysticks at the same time for a FPS demo.

    Yet that moment of honestly somehow meant that her intellect, her wit, and her knowledge of technology and geek culture trends was irrelevant. Munn was branded fake because she was willing to admit that she didn't actually play video games.

    Other people on that show were far more abusive towards fans, yet Munn get the bad rap for actually trying to match fan banter. It was ok that Kevin Pereira was a dick because he was clearly a nerd. Chris Hardwick and Chris Gore could be sarcastic little assholes all they wanted to because clearly they were geeks. Yet Munn followed along with how her male costars behaved and was labeled a bitch, a bimbo, a slut, and a fake geek.

  • AudioSuede

    But she and Kevin Pereira basically made that show the flagship program of G4 through their geeky banter and general goofiness. I never saw her as the "brainless bimbo" type and never thought the show used her that way. If anything, they tried to use her attractiveness for laughs, basically letting her parlay the perception of her appearance into surprising jokes that showcased her off-the-wall sense of humor.

    Then suddenly she left the show and tried to branch out and everyone started hating her. I guess she just needed to be herself more? I don't know, people are just dicks.

  • superasente

    To be fair, it's super hard to walk around with a sandwich in your mouth.

  • Skyler Durden

    Eeeeeenteresting. So it sounds like I was mistaken on the Morgan Webb comparison. That explains a bit. Geeks are pretty merciless, so if she was on a tech show and knew nothing about tech, I can see that being annoying to the "2/10-would-not-bang" crowd.

    The more you know...

  • Dumily

    That gif from "Newsroom" gives me a girl boner.

  • AxlProse

    Don't call it girl, sir!

  • Maguita NYC

    "Would I rather she not be a stripper? Would I rather her reunion with Nick didn’t involve her gyrating for him? "

    Regarding Olivia Munn, I would rather she not have sold out her image as a desperate famewhore to begin with. Olivia was very appealing in The Newsroom and Magic Mike, but all this took time to seep in because of past desperate Kardashian-level media shenanigans she had so obviously tried to pull. Her true appeal and talent simply took time to over-ride past dirty tricks. Wish her nothing but the best, and hope she keeps on getting roles that highlight her true acting talent and obvious charisma.

    That first Munn gif though, I swear she looks like a brunette Jenna Elfman.

  • lowercase_ryan

    To be fair I haven't been paying attention that long, so maybe I missed something. But "Kardashian-level media shenanigans" doesn't strike me as accurate. Shenanigans? Sure, I guess. Kardashian level shenanigans?? meeeeeeeh I don't see it.

  • Maguita NYC

    Well from what I can remember, in no particular order:

    - Not refuting that she slept with Justin Timberlake while engaged to J. Biel. Her continuous tweeting about how amazing JT was at the time, as well as the silent smirking at paparazzi cameras were rather a confirmation instead.
    - As Joanna remembers (further below): There are those rather explicit pictures sent out to "Chris", that had the feel of self-release at the time, rather than being stolen. The pictures were not that bad, it was more the explicit comments that she had included in those pictures that were... cruddy.
    - Photo ops with uncomfortable face sucking during hockey games with that Glee schmuck.
    - and so many other "opportunities" in the same brand that Olivia Munn had tried too desperately to get our attention with during a short period of time.

    Thank goodness she stopped. I think it was around the time filming of Magic Mike had started.

    Looking back, it is surprising to realize that this is the same person that we are now starting to notice for her coolness, and geeky sexiness. And favorably, now that she is staying out of the spotlight, she has been getting steadier roles and positive attention.

    Obviously, the famewhore playbook was not meant for Olivia Munn. She is better off playing it straightforward... Or she seems to be. We can never know with Hollywood folks!

  • Uncle Mikey

    Fell for the old faux famewhore conversion, I see

  • Luke Anthony Matthews

    Oh Tammy, best guest spot on Parks and Rec ever.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    The episode that that gif is taken from was a delight from beginning to end. The dumpster scene made me laugh loudly.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I remember saying to Mr. Julien at the time how nice it was to see two women acting completely insane. I'm willing to overlook the other part for that.

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