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When Inclusion is Toxic: Sex in the SFF Mainstream

7 min read

by Sarah Buhrman

Content Warning: Frank discussion of a variety of sexual situations.

Inclusivity in media is definitely a goal worth reaching. We say things like “representation matters” and “tell our stories” when talking about movies and books that bring out the perspectives of the non-white, the non-male, the non-hetero, the non-neurodiverse. But does this inclusion come at a price?

In SFF (Sci-Fi/Fantasy), this is still important. We discuss the pros and cons of everything from the story arc of Captain Marvel, to the contemporary racial issues of Black Panther, to the unique and wonderful horror/thriller movies being put out by POCs, to the inclusion of autism and mental health issues, such as PTSD.

What we don’t discuss is the sexualization.

Sexy Sells

We’ve all heard this before. But what does it mean? And is it unequal?

Well, let’s look at it.

Men vs Women

When men are the focus, the sexy is done with tuxes (white, Euro-centric), chest shots and… women?!? That’s right. Men can have grizzled features, scars, and more. But they all-to-often have a half-naked woman on their arms. That’s because male characters are attractive via their actions, their personality, and (gods save us) their pain.

Women are sexy when they are impossibly thin and toned, preferably in some kind of revealing outfit, or (looking at you, HBO) frequently naked, and almost always sexually available. This availability, which is not at all consistently synonymous with consent, includes underage but sexy, closely related but sexy (incest), and a strangely huge (dare I say gratuitous?) number of sex workers.

Side note: I would LOVE to see something that shows the truth about sex workers and what they go through. Instead, we get Littlefinger’s brothel and Westworld.
Side-side note: My criticisms of these aspects do not mean I don’t appreciate the story being told outside of those aspects.

The problem here is that the women are seldom portrayed as anything more than an excuse to flash boob or more. They are there to be sexy, not because their characters add to the story.

Women as leads

When women are the lead roles, they usually fall into one of two categories: sexed or sexless.

Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, played by Yetide Badaki on American Gods on Starz.
Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, played by Yetide Badaki on American Gods on Starz.

Sexed women can be those like Sookie in True Blood (a show I adore, when I’m not rolling my eyes at the in-your-face nudity/sex that could just be touched on instead of rolled in). Sookie was more of a serial monogamist, which is all fine. What drives me batty is the fact that every other episode was naked Anna Paquin. Not even casually naked. Like, posed for sex-goddess viewing naked.

Sexed women can also be like Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, portrayed by the gorgeous Yetide Badaki, in American Gods. This was a bit of a surprise to me, since I hadn’t read the book. Bilquis’s predatory consumption of her sex partners (literally) is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the show, but this isn’t the case for many other women portrayed in similar ways. Too often, female leads in SFF can be presented as sexed for no real character-driven reason.

Romance = Empathy

Why are women often sexed without a character-driven reason? I spoke to a guy at a writer’s conference about this. He was there to offer people help in turning their books/series into screenplays for TV or movies. When I told him about my Runespells series, he quickly latched on to the fact that it had a female lead. He asked about romance, and I told him, honestly, that there had been no reason to give the character any romantic subplot, and that I didn’t foresee that happening.

For this guy, that was the end of it. He told me, point blank, that a female lead does not connect to the audience without an emotional connection, and friends and family aren’t enough. It has to be through romance. He explained that women didn’t watch movies about women without love. I, being a woman, laughed in his face and told him that was not correct, regardless of what “Hollywood” says.

This anecdote tells us all we need to know. The (white men) in charge of our media options have this idea that we want romantic stories and nothing but. Unfortunately, this actually reduces women to people having sex or looking for sex. It fetishizes women, females, as sex-associated, whether we realize it or not.

Sexless

Sexless female leads are an interesting exception to that “rule.” After all, there are some female leads who don’t have romantic subplots. The one that comes to mind most quickly is Arya from Game of Thrones, but Thelma & Louise are also part of this.

One could argue that Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, is sexless, but it is just as easy to argue that she, like Valkyrie and others are in that subtle gray area of being likely LGBTQ+ without any overt showing of this. This hiding of lesbian love is just as problematic as fetishizing lesbian/bisexual sexuality.

Now, the problem with sexless women is that they tend to fall into two categories. Arya is sexless because she is unavailable. Her age throughout the show is much younger than is acceptable, and in the books, she (and most of the other characters) is even younger still. Maisie Williams was only 13 or 14 when she began the role, and her petite stature made it easy to keep her looking much younger than is acceptable to sexualize. The timeline of the show allowed that illusion to hold.

Unattractive or Broken?
Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Other unavailable women are those who are conventionally unattractive. This includes such characters as Furiosa, the ostensibly feminist icon of the Mad Max franchise. Her shaved head, missing arm, and aggressive nature all buck the rules of femininity. The wives she protects, on the other hand, are more conventionally feminine and attractive – all but one have long hair, they are slender, and all of them are varying degrees of timid, weak or petite in stature.

The other type of sexless woman is the broken woman. Thelma & Louise -and, to some extent, Furiosa falls into this – are broken by their previous relationships and/or sexual experiences. They no longer seek romance, and their story stood out for that very reason. Maleficent, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, could be considered in this category, having been burned by love and therefore unwilling to open up to it again.

The Real Problem

I have not addressed trans persons, non-binary persons, or women of color yet. And that is because this falls into the real problem with all of the above.

Sex is not being normalized in these situations. Instead, women, trans people, non-binary people, and women of color are more likely to be fetishized when they are made to be sexual in mainstream media.

I have restrained myself from referring to many of the examples I’ve used as “pornographic” for two reasons. First, sexualization is not, in and of itself, pornographic. Sex and porn are not the same. Porn is the use of sex and sexualization as a titillation. In mainstream media, this is usually primarily done for the male gaze.

The second is that pornography is often shamed, and it shouldn’t be. Much of the toxicity that goes on in the system of pornographic media should be shamed, dismantled, and kicked to the curb, but pornography itself should be accessible to those consenting adults who want to participate in or consume it.

However, in terms of pornography’s most misogynistic, toxic, and objectifying sense, many of the TV shows and movies I’ve referenced veer a bit too much into it. That’s what makes it a fetishizing trend.

It’s the Objectifying That’s the Problem
Erik (Alexander Skarsgård), Sookie (Anna Paquin), and Bill (Stephen Moyer) in True Blood on HBO.
Erik (Alexander Skarsgård), Sookie (Anna Paquin), and Bill (Stephen Moyer) in True Blood on HBO.

Sookie’s sex scenes aren’t character-driven. They are designed to be leered over. Bilquis is on the “bad guy” side. Coincidence? With her all-consuming vagina and her dark skinned, curvaceous beauty? I’m not going to lay money on that.

When we have real sex scenes pertinent to the plot and/or characters, preferably with normalized bodies (not just svelte) and a variety of sexual pairings, then we can talk. (The Wedding Date has the best example of this, imo – directed by Clare Kilner.)

Until we have sex that has meaning and connection and true diversity, that tells about the people involved, not just skinny girls in impossibly sexy positions – seriously, have these people even HAD sex before? Where’s all the sweat and stuff? – then we don’t have healthy sexualization.

We need to work with real sexuality, telling real stories of love and lust, not just objectifying and fetishizing groups for a small part of the audience.

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