The Magicians is a sexy show. It has been since its pilot episode, which featured levitating sex between Kady (Jade Tailor) and Penny (Arjun Gupta), two students at the magical school of Brakebills. It’s gone on to feature sex magic, sex with magical creatures, threesomes, and more. In a particularly sexy scene in this season of The Magicians, a different version of Penny (it’s a long story) must anoint his friend and former goddess, Julia (Stella Maeve), with oil to perform a ritual that will help her discover why she currently can’t do magic. Penny slowly rubs Julia’s naked body with oil, starting with her face, moving over her shoulders, and down her back. It’s extremely intimate, and Penny takes delicate care while he touches Julia, asking permission before he touches her breasts and warming up the oil so it’s not too cold for her skin.
But before they start the ritual, as Julia stands naked in front of Penny waiting for him to touch her, Penny asks Julia, a rape survivor, if there’s a less painful way to go about this ritual. She tells him that people heal and she’s not broken. Penny says that he’s still not comfortable with how things are going down. “Well, this isn’t really about you,” Julia replies.
And on The Magicians, she’s right.
Co-showrunner Sera Gamble has made it a priority to include sex scenes that feature women’s pleasure and women’s perspectives.
“Culturally, probably historically, we’ve always been a little uncomfortable with power and sexuality as it is expressed by women,” Gamble says. Sex scenes on TV often have a formula that includes golden lighting, closeups of moving bodies, and women and men easily and quickly having an orgasm, generally fulfilling the fantasy of male characters and male viewers. Sex scenes like that create formulaic, repetitive scenes that don’t tell the full story of what sex can be like for the people participating.
The Magicians, along with series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and others, is part of a changing TV landscape, in which series are turning away from stereotypical, male-centric, sex and expanding what sex on TV can be.
On The Magicians, Gamble makes sure to have conversations in the writers’ room about women’s pleasure, which influences the directors, actors, and writers. The result is sex scenes that address what women need to feel comfortable, or what sex feels like to women characters. There is no golden lighting (or at least not much), but there is clear communication around what feels good and what doesn’t work. This opens these scenes up to a broader audience than the clichéd sex scenes of the past, and it makes them look different than what viewers are used to seeing.
“Why get into a position where you get to create your own stuff just to do the same thing you’ve always done?” Gamble asks. “Especially now that you are an adult, and you know it’s not the truth.”
The Magicians has included women’s perspectives from the very beginning. A scene in the first season clearly establishes what sex scenes will be like for the series’ entire run.
In “Homecoming,” the season’s 10th episode, Brakebills students Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) need to have sex as part of a spell that will save Penny from being stuck in the Neitherlands, a world between worlds. To perform the spell correctly, Alice and Quentin need to orgasm at the same time. The pair has been dating, and Quentin at first believes this will be no problem—until Alice lets him know otherwise.
What follows involves Quentin and Alice talking about what they thought the other wanted during sex and what actually works to get Alice off. At one point, when Quentin is frustrated that Alice has been faking orgasms, Alice says, “But isn’t that what you want, Quentin? To feel like you’re perfect at it every time?”
Alice’s sentiment echoes the trite sex scenes that The Magicians specifically doesn’t do. Instead of feeling like the characters are perfect at sex every time, The Magicians explores what it means to really be human while having sex, with all the insecurity, pleasure, and messiness that comes with that. It’s difficult for Alice to tell Quentin what she wants because she finds it embarrassing. Part of their conversation about what feels good includes Alice learning that she needs to communicate to have better sex. When they finally do have sex, Alice tells Quentin to kiss her, bite her, and shows him how to touch her.
“I’ve never done that before,” Dudley says. “Normally, when you shoot a sex scene, you just cut into it. You either start with the making out and then get right into it, or you just cut into them already doing it, or it’s already over.”
To make sex scenes that are vulnerable and true takes effort. It means actors, directors, and writers need to break free from what they are used to seeing and doing, pushing past their first ideas and impressions to something more creative.
“The conversation that they have before sex is something that I just rarely see in film and television,” says “Homecoming” director Joshua Butler. “All the sex scenes I’ve directed in the past involved some kind of a romantic moment that turns into some kind of a montage that is as explicit as the show would like it to be, depending on the network and Standards and Practices.”
On The Magicians, conversations on set echo Quentin and Alice’s conversations about what feels comfortable and what the actors want to do.
“The environment we have on our show is safe, and we can just explore and be comfortable with it, which is really nice because I think in the past I haven’t always been comfortable on sets during sex scenes and intimate scenes,” Dudley says.
A safe environment allows those making the show to speak up if something isn’t right, and it gives women and others space to speak about their experiences.
“I do think that women who run TV shows, women who produce TV shows, are inclined to think about sex from really having to be women. So, to me, as usual, all roads point back to the importance of inclusiveness and diversity in storytelling,” Gamble says.
This inclusiveness in storytelling is clear in another scene, from the current season. In the 10th episode, “All That Hard Glossy Armor,” Margo (Summer Bishil) seduces a man to get access to his weapons, which will help defeat the monster that has been tormenting the group all season. During the episode, Margo has visions after licking a lizard that has psychedelic properties in its skin: Before she gets into to bed with the man, a vision of Margo’s current love interest, Josh (Trevor Einhorn), appears before her. The vision of Josh asks if Margo is OK with exposing this man to the sexually transmitted infection Margo and Josh have that turns people into werewolves. Margo responds that she’ll just tell him she’s on her period and they’ll have to get creative. When the man comes back in and the sex scene starts, Margo repeatedly pushes his hands away, and gets on top of him, instead of letting him push her onto the bed. Margo openly talks about STIs and periods, and then takes control of what she wants this sex to be like—just like women do in real life.
Focusing on other perspectives during sex scenes, Gamble says, “doesn’t always instinctively support a story that’s just about the white dude in the center of the tale who’s the hero, and then the girl who he sort of wins along the way.”
Then again, The Magicians has always been about deconstructing the story of the white male Chosen One.
“It doesn’t seem like it should be at all revelatory for a writer, male or female, to sit down and write their female character as the center of that character’s own story,” Gamble says. “I just think we as a culture have gotten away with not doing that for a long time.”
The Season Four finale of The Magicians airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Syfy.
Rae Nudson is a Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.