For some time now, I’ve been keeping a mental list of shows that feature women masturbating. I’m keeping track, not simply because I enjoy watching other women enjoying themselves, by themselves, but because I believe that the changing portrayals of sex and sexual acts on TV is a helpful measure of the modern feminist movement. When I’m no longer surprised to see it on my screen, I’ll be unable to resist believing, once again, in that dangerous (oft mythical) notion of progress. Some of you have your Hillary Clintons, but me—I’ve got my trusty mental list of women masturbating on TV. We all have to believe that change is coming, right?
Today, it’s a relatively short list, but it’s even shorter when it’s broken down to a list of TV shows that feature black women masturbating. Thought they have presented them very differently, Being Mary Jane and Power are the two shows that have dared show such a thing in recent years. Mara Brock Akil’s Being Mary Jane is responsible for some of the best women characters on TV (Loretta DeVine’s CeCe, for the win), and this season’s Power has been trying to remedy some of last season’s problems with the many women characters who round out the cast (the latest episode brought back Angela’s sister Paz, to my delight). And although I haven’t seen Naturi Naughton’s Tasha, or any of the other women, masturbate since Season One, it’s exciting to see Power breaking the rules again, about what can and should be shown in TV sex scenes.
After Sunday’s episode, “Don’t Worry, Baby” a Vulture writer had the audacity to declare that we didn’t need to see Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s character Kanan jerking off. And I’m sure his sentiments were echoed by many of Power’s cis hetero viewers. But those viewers certainly don’t speak for me. I, for one, absolutely did need to see 50 Cent as Kanan in this awkward position, and not just because I may or may not have been wanting to see something like this since the image of 50’s abs was burned into my consciousness once the Many Men video premiered 13 years ago.
What’s shocking about the scene isn’t just that Kanan is masturbating, it’s that we see it—his penis. Sure, it’s just the tip. But we are still given a glimpse of a male character’s penis on a premium cable show. And in spite of all that we’ve seen on premium cable shows like Game of Thrones, it’s still shocking, because showing the penis still breaks TV sex etiquette, much in the same way that showing a woman masturbating does. Perhaps even more than a female masturbation scene, the image of Kanan’s penis (sidenote: you’ve no idea how badly I just want to write “dick,” but if you see that word too many times, I fear this article won’t be taken seriously—and I am deadly serious about the importance of showing dick on TV) is meant to do absolutely nothing for the cis hetero male viewer. It exists solely for the pleasure of the female and queer viewers, and although such a shot certainly can’t please every member of the female and queer audience, it’s no small thing that an attempt was made.
And it’s also no small thing that the actor behind this moment is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. If any other actor had performed this scene, it still would have been a welcome TV sex moment. But 50 Cent has become, among other things, an image of hyper masculinity. He’s certainly not alone in this, but society has determined that male actors who bare all are offering up a certain vulnerability. We reacted in a similar way to Ben Affleck’s 25 millisecond nude scene in Gone Girl (as well as the cunnilingus scene in the same movie), and Michael Fassbender’s various nude shots in Shame. But Jackson isn’t an Affleck or a Fassbender. Not just because he isn’t an Academy favorite, but because he’s… 50 Cent. He’s one of the last people I’d expect to agree to a scene where he’s depicted pleasuring himself with one (not fully functional) hand, and a female character with the other.
It’s a sexy scene (made sexier by Tinashe’s “Cold Sweat”), but sexy for whom? This is a pretty gangsta show, and there’s nothing especially gangsta about this moment between Candie (Natalie Paul) and Kanan. Unlike Power’s other sex scenes, where we see Tommy practically tearing Holly apart, or those earlier DMX-in-Belly-like moments between James and Angela, Kanan and Candie are like a couple of pre-pubescent teens investigating all the pleasures of third base—but (this time) Candie doesn’t put her hands anywhere near Kanan. He must tend to himself and to her; she’s on the receiving end and far less exposed than he is. This dynamic, too, is a rarity on TV.
And the reason it’s rare is because, as much as we like to think we’re becoming a more sexually open society, there’s still so much that remains taboo. I watched all of the many sex scenes in “Don’t Worry, Baby” and thought about this fantastic essay on the ridiculous script all actors must defer to when they talk about filming sex scenes. The way we think and talk about sex on TV and in film is still laced in puritanical thought—which is why we still have a long way to go in depictions of female-centered (queer and hetero) sexual pleasure.
If you told me that, as a film critic and TV editor, I’d one day be writing about the feminist significance of a moment involving 50 Cent’s penis (or, the tip of it; and to be clear, that was his actual penis), I’d probably pause for a minute, think about the Many Men video, and accept it as a possibility. But if the greater message of this piece has still been lost on you, allow me to make it clear: the feminist movement is being televised, with scenes like this, directed by women like Larysa Kondracki, and on shows created by women like Courtney A. Kemp. From Being Mary Jane, to Transparent, to Power, women TV creators like Akil, Jill Soloway and Kemp are boldly going where cis hetero Hollywood—for all its great inventions—has never gone before. And these shows, which all have their own flaws, and their own limitations in terms of representation, must be just the beginning—(or rather, just the tip) of an iceberg that turns white, male-dominated TV into a giant, sinking, fading memory.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.