Emmy Rossum, Maura Tierney, Caitlin FitzGerald and More on Female Sexuality and TV

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In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a panel like this. There’d be no exploitation to discuss, no misogynistic interpretations of female characters’ actions, no women relegated to window dressing.

But unfortunately we still have a TV landscape where positive depictions of female sexuality are few and far between. Showtime—whose lineup includes plenty of complex women navigating these issues—hosted a panel on this issue at the TCA winter press tour on Monday featuring Shameless actresses Emmy Rossum and Shanola Hampton and executive producer Nancy Pimental, Masters of Sex star Caitlin FitzGerald and executive producer/showrunner Michelle Ashford and The Affair actress Maura Tierney and creator/executive producer/showrunner Sarah Treem. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Putting these shows aside, so much of what we see of women’s sexuality on TV is sort of defined by dysfunction. Either they’re hyper-sexual for some reason that has nothing to do with enjoying sex, or they’re not having sex and they’re unhappy about it. Why do you think that is? Is it reflecting something bigger in the culture?
Emmy Rossum: What I think is so interesting about showing sexuality as part of art is no different than showing any other part of life to inform the art. Sexuality is a part of life, I hope, and it’s interesting that the women on the stage get to write, and we get to show characters. We get to explore the intimate parts of them, be that anger or loss or happiness or sexuality. We get to show so much about these characters. You’re right. Sometimes you do have sex for a reason that has nothing do with sex. Maybe it’s about power. Maybe it’s about insecurity. Maybe it’s about just wanting to connect. Maybe it’s about just wanting to feel good. But I think, regardless, what so great about the shows on Showtime and these women up here is that they don’t show in a gratuitous way. You’re right. It is illuminating something else, and that is dysfunction, and sometimes it’s just that we get the chance to do something great to show the audience something deeper about a character. So it’s really just in a sexual context. It really has nothing to do with sex and everything about emotion.

For the showrunners, can you talk about writing and depicting sex, character development through sexuality as opposed to through violent action or dialogue?
Michelle Ashford: We had an interesting sort of…I think I’ll say dilemma or a challenge or a lucky thing on our show, which was that our show was about sex. So we came out of the gate knowing that we were going have to tackle sex all the time, and one of the things that was very appealing to me is because they came at it through their work initially, which was, of course, science. And so I thought, well, that’s a very interesting way to look at sex. It’s fresh and different. So we had that as built into our show, and that allowed us to look at sex almost in the polar opposite way as how it has been approached, I think, for many years, which is how do you make sex look sexy? Our job was how do you make it look as unsexy as is humanly possible? Because what it was was a piece of science for us. So that was an interesting way to come at sex. Then when it came to the characters, we thought, well, let’s just expand this idea and make sure that we’re never showing sex to be sexy. What we’re showing it for is just a sympton of some emotional stage or some bargain that’s been made or whatever it is, because I think that’s more, first of all, reflective of reality that sex becomes, yes, there are people who just have nice, happy sex and—
Rossum: There are?
Ashford: Well, I don’t know. I’ve heard about it. [laughs] But we are all entrusted with telling dramatic stories. So, of course, we will be looking at ways to depict this in a way that’s reflective of some kind of character schism or dilemma or a development. And so I’m sure everybody has their own process with this, but that’s how we started.
Sarah Treem: We like to think about sex as communication in our show. So it was a way to show the characters. It’s just a different way to show the characters communicating, and we hope that our sex scenes would move our stories forward emotionally in some way as, you know, specifically and productively as if we had used dialogue. So I personally think a lot gets communicated in sex as actually unarticulable and that sometimes people can talk to each other more clearly in sex than they can actually in conversation. So we were trying to whenever we do the sex scenes, we were trying to first understand what the characters were saying to each other in the sex scene and then basically, “How are we going to do it through sex?”

As critics, a lot of times we’re trying to look at sex scenes in particular in shows and trying to figure out if they’re exploitive or if they’re really creative and necessary and necessary to move the story forward. And I’m wondering do you have a sense whether or not female showrunners and female writers are more likely to present sex scenes that are not exploitive of the female characters? And if so, how does that manifest itself?
Maura Tierney: I think—I don’t know if you guys agree—I think to decide, I think you have to be in the room or in the scene to decide if it’s exploitive or not as opposed to being a critic. Do you know what I mean? The actress or the actor, I think, decides what is exploitive.
Treem: I mean, I don’t think anyone ever tries to be exploitive. I think would that be strange.
Tierney: Yeah.
Treem: In porn maybe. I think they are trying in porn.

I think there was a sense early in the days of Showtime and HBO original shows where you would see women nude because they could show women with their tops off, and then, you know, the medium progressed to a point where the sex scenes served the story more. But we’re still trying to sort through sometimes scenes. We’ve talked about Game of Thrones. We’ve talked about Girls. We’ve talked about shows where we’re wondering are these sex scenes exploitive? Is it about the nudity? Is it about titillation? Or is it really creative? And I just wonder if you guys have those debates or discussions, and how do you judge?
Rossum: I think we do.
Shanola Hampton: Absolutely, we do.
Rossum: I think sometimes we see drafts or ideas and we think, well, this doesn’t feel necessary. How is this furthering the story? But things can feel exploitive in a lot of different ways. They can feel emotionally exploitive. A character can cry too much for no reason because that seems like the obvious thing to do. I think we’re just trying to find the honest truth of what a character would do in that moment, and if the honest truth involves sexuality, it involves intimacy between two characters, whatever, or violence between two characters, as long as it feels real. There’s a scene that we have this year in Episode 6 or 7 where Fiona has a different kind of sexual experience than she’s had before. It’s quite surprising and emotional and a little bit aggressive in a way that initially she thinks she wants and then she thinks she doesn’t. And for me, it was so much about the feeling, and I felt very, very vulnerable during that scene, and I was lucky that I was surrounded with actors and a cast and a crew that made me feel comfortable, didn’t make me feel exploited, and that kind of writing. I don’t know if you guys feel this way as actors, but there’s something about being able to go to a certain place, doing something challenging that you’re scared of that, once you do it, is incredibly liberating and not scary anymore. And I think that it had nothing to do with the fact that the scene was about sex and everything to do with the fact that the scene was about power.
Tierney: Yeah, I mean, my character had, I think what you said, “nice, happy sex” in the beginning of our series. And the end, that was not the way they were communicating with each other, and there was a lack of communication, and it was very vulnerable, this stuff, in the end for me. But it was about that character being very vulnerable and willing to sort of submit to anything to hang onto.
Nancy Pimental: Yeah, and I feel like we—I think we really keep the high watch on everybody from starting off in the writers’ room.
Ashford: Yes, I was going to say that’s where this begins.
Pimental: Yeah, it really starts—I mean, nothing has ever been like, “Oh, we’re on Showtime. We’ve got to show some titties here.” It all had like a nucleus and origin and a base, and then it just grows from there, from when the department heads come on and then when the actors come on and when the directors come on each episode. Everybody gets to say something. And I had one experience of monitoring myself. It was for the premiere episode that I’m sure you all saw last night of Shameless. We introduced at the end of last year this character Svetlana has alluded to that she might have sexual experiences with this woman. And I had her written in this premiere episode where she was ironing and she was topless, and as women were coming in and auditioning, and I was like, “What have I done? What have I done? These women, I feel like I’m exploiting them and it’s horrible and it’s just for a joke.” So I turned to my director, and I’m like, “I’m giving them lines to say.” So I ended up telling these women a couple of lines because there some of Mickey Milkovich’s brothers were like just staring as she’s ironing. And I’m like, “I’m giving her lines so that she has the power in the scene and she gets them back.” And it changed the energy, and it changed so much. So my whole point is that we’re very conscious of it, but we’re always—if there’s moments where things slip through the cracks, I think that we catch ourselves.

That phrase “strong female character” has been deployed so many times that it kind of doesn’t mean anything anymore when people talk about it, it seems like. I’m curious how you guys would rephrase that maybe? Is it complete female characters or…?
Rossum: How about just “strong character”?
Caitlin FitzGerald: This word “strong” I find a little tricky. We have heard “strong female character.” So I think the word “strong” puts us—puts me—in mind of like a very specific sort of masculine energy, and I think I appreciate what the sentiment is supposed to be with that phrase. But I think women, I think all of us are strong in our vulnerability and our nakedness, emotionally or otherwise. And so I just think we need other kinds of words [like] comprehensive, whole, complete, real.
Ashford: I would probably venture that most of us don’t even think of this in those terms. We’re simply writers, and we write characters. We give the same attention to our male characters as we do to our female characters. I think what you can’t escape, though, is that as a woman this is just the prism through which you’re filtering all your life experiences and the material you then put on the page. So I don’t know. I assume some people come at this, “Well, I’m going to write a strong female character.” I’d be shocked if any of us approach it that way.
Treem: Yeah, I think we basically approach our characters as writers approaching our characters from a female perspective. Either we live in our bodies as women, and we are active, and we make choices, and we go after things that we want. And so when we think of female characters, we think of active characters. So when I hear the word “strong female character,” what it says to me is a character that’s taking action and isn’t just basically passive and reacting to a male character. So I think, you know, it’s, as everyone’s been saying, it’s not necessarily a choice. It’s just, you know, you’re writing like you’re breathing. You’re writing your experience in the world and your experiences as a human being who chooses things.

For the actors mainly in terms of directing as well as writing, would what you see be any different if there were more women directing today as opposed to men? And the kind of scripts that you’re seeing, do women bring a special perspective to it? Or is there such a thing that a good writer is a good writer and with good character regardless of gender?
Pimental: I think this whole conversation is a little too gender-focused for me personally. I mean, the last question about what is a strong female character, yeah, you’re right. We do hear that all the time, but I’ve never heard of anybody say “strong male character” or any kind of male character. Nobody talks about that at all. I mean, I guess men have always been the number one on the call sheet for a long time, but now women are, and that’s great. So let’s not, you know, make it a gender thing. But I can say, at least for me, our women are way raunchier than our men.
Hampton: Yes, they are.
Rossum: Our female writers write raunchier stuff than our male writers, and I don’t think that our female directors are any less apt to push the envelope.
Hampton: They’re more apt. My experience on Shameless, most of the women directors, they’re not afraid.
Rossum: They’re comfortable with us.
Hampton: They’re totally comfortable, and, you know, we’ve had experiences where, because you become very protective of your characters and you don’t want to do anything that you feel like it’s gratuitous, I’ve had conversations more so with women directors than with the male directors on my show about, “Is that necessary? And here is how I feel about Veronica in this moment.” So I don’t find that they come and they’re like, “Okay. Woman to woman, you don’t have to show nip here.” That’s not the case.

I was looking sort of at the title of this panel, “Sexuality in Television: A Female Perspective” and thinking, okay. Sexuality on television from a male perspective, well, that’s 70 years of television and 120 years of movies, so that’s there. I guess what I am sort of wondering is the fact that we’re in a moment now that is better, does that mean that we shouldn’t be harping on it anymore or should we keep harping on it until it’s consistently better for five, 10, 20 years at a stretch?
FitzGerald: Well, statistically, only, like, I think it’s 16 percent of the people behind the camera are women. So here we are having the conversations, and that’s amazing, and we’re all getting to do this incredible work. But it seems to me that if it’s that weighted, the people who are creating the images and the words, and then we still have some distance to cover.
Treem: I think women get ourselves in trouble when we don’t talk about it. “Harping” on it isn’t a word I would use. I would say exploring it.
Tierney: Vigilance is maybe a good word too. To keep paying attention is right.
Treem: [Our] whole show is about the back and forth between male and female perspectives, so we love it.

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