What Modern Romance Depicted in Shows Gets Wrong About Consent by Luna Malbroux
And where it can improve.
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The pulse of our collective imagination often runs through TV, movies, shows and other forms of media- especially when it comes to the area of romance and sex. For those un-initiated into a world of critical thinking around sex, and consent - sexual and relationship self-help books, what we culturally consume can be our only reference for consent.
In the post “Me-Too” era, whatever that means, many shows and movies have tried to do better. Many productions have even hired intimacy coordinators to be on set, to support actors and directors by choreographing more consensual sex scenes, but the bar seems to be set on the basis of an older adage from an earlier laymens wisdom about consent- “No means no.”
That idea, for many people, is where an understanding of consent begins and ends. But a true exploration of consent is far more nuanced.
Consent is actually an ongoing communication between partners about what they want to experience together. It’s not as simple as “She said no” or “They said yes”. Being consensual is about exploring and communicating your own enthusiastic yes!, while listening and responding to the boundaries of others.
One tough part of consent is that many of us- most of us in fact, haven’t been taught how to communicate about our boundaries, especially sexually, so often sexual activity that we engage in can end up feeling and being coerced.
The film industry has tried throw consent culture a bone by adding in lines like “Do you want me to kiss you?” before one character kisses another, but generally misses the mark on consent being an ongoing conversation.
Take the hit show Bridgerton, for example, where millions around the world swooned over a plastic-feeling, College-Brochure level diversity casting that somehow takes place in 1800’s Britain. (spoilers ahead.)
When Rege Jean Page as The Duke of Hastings steamily quipped “I burn for you”, I’m not gonna lie, I felt that shit. But as the viewer continues to go down this rabbit-hole of the romantic plot of a young miss Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor) trying to find a suitable fiance and the Duke Simon Bassett, (played by Rege Jean Page) trying to live out his vow to scorn his father’s memory, it’s clear that what this show is truly about is one man’s pull out game. Seriously.
The Duke refuses to cum inside Lady Daphne, even when they are married, until one fateful night when she, after gaining more sexual confidence and information, begins to straddle up and ride him forcefully until he cums. We, the viewer, are pushed to feel sympathetic for Daphne and her yearning to have children and completely look non-critically at the fact that she understood that Duke set a boundary around cuming inside of her, and she purposefully crossed it.
Let’s pull out (couldn’t help the pun) and look at one larger, very important point about consent that Hollywood often misses- true consent means breaking away from preconceived notions about gender roles. Our eye for consent has been socially tuned to be scanning for ways that cis-men might be taking advantage of women, but truly practicing consent means understanding that regardless of one’s social positioning and identities- we need enthusiastic yesses on in part of the ongoing conversation of sexual activity from all parties involved.
Unfortunately, there needs to be an ongoing shift to continue to depict consent more accurately in our shows, but the arc shows that there is some movement.
We can see this shift even looking at popular comedy shows now versus 15 years ago. Take 30 Rock, written by Tina Fey and produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels, whose casual jokes often poked fun at rape. Like in the episode where the character Pete ‘has sex with his wife while she is sleeping’ - which is rape. It’s so casually commented on it’s even shown as a cut-away joke, with no sort of concern or commentary.
And yet now, The Other Two a new comedy show produced by the same Lorne Michaels and created by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, lets the viewer know upfront that they are trying to meet the mark on consent. In one episode, Brooke (played by Helen Yorke) casually brags that she loves New York City’s SummerFest and has fond memories of kissing a dude while he was sleeping.
“That’s sexual assault” - another female character immediately responds with.
“But I’m a girl!” Brooke says, to be immediately met with, “That’s sexual assault.”
Whether they were ready to engage with the nuance of consent or not, the viewer of that show has to reckon with seeing the rare example of a cis-women grappling with her own non-consensual behavior, the type of representation and modeling we need more of in order to truly paint a full picture of what consent is.
What I want more of is shows and movies that explore the depths of consent, which means also diving into the complexities of how our identities and positions of power can interplay with consent. If we go down the rabbit hole, we might find that non-consensual, coercive sex is so normalized that we take for granted how many opportunities there are to have an ongoing dialogue of communication with our sexual partners.
And this is a warning worth noting. The broadening of a cultural understanding around consent may be hard for those of us, who have been untrained in naming and standing in our enthusiastic yesses. It may be scary to look back on past sexual experiences we might have believed were consensual in the past with the knowledge now that no- they definitely weren’t.
As we move forward in our collective understanding around consent- the goal for the media we consume and ourselves, is to navigate the exploration of consent without the push to paint people simplistically as a villain, but show that work and reflection around consent is necessary in all parties involved sexually.