I heard Sex/Life is coming back for a second season. I got to say some things.
I used to think Sex and the City 2 (2010) was the worst female-driven Hollywood production with the word “Sex” in the title. Then I saw Sex/Life on Netflix last week. As someone who is no longer a teenager with limited access to soft porn, I’m not the target market for this show. Still, the nerdy academic in me wanted to know why Sex/Life spent much of this summer as the number one show on Netflix here in Jordan–as well as in the rest of the Middle East and India, and likely many other places.
It couldn’t just be for the sex scenes, could it? With all the easily accessible porn online? But after watching it, I conclude it is for the sex scenes. Because it’s certainly not for the whiny, dull storyline—a 30-something rich, suburban mom is bored and starts fantasizing about her tortured, rich ex-boyfriend much to the obsessive disappointment of her otherwise perfect husband.
Yet it is this whiney, dull storyline that troubles me, not the montage sex in a five-star swimming pool. We don’t want our children to watch porn because in fetishizes sex. But this series fetishes relationships. Young people far from white America–still held upheld as the ideal in most series and films– are absorbing dangerously oppressive falsehoods about love and relationships in the process of being able to comfortably know they are watching soft porn on a government and family-approved platform. And learning that love is abusive—and racially-defined.
Some people might argue that the show includes people of color who are actually the smart people in the show. But that brings me back to Sex and the City 2. Sex/Life is one of the most poorly written, edited (that insert penis shot!) and acted shows I have ever seen. For that reason, it belongs on the shelf (if we still had DVDs) with Sex and the City 2, which didn’t have much sex but plenty of bad acting, editing and a horrendous script that basked in ridiculous orientalism. Set in Abu Dhabi, the four whiny, wealthy white women lament their lives while wearing Arabian Nights clothing as they trek in the desert on camels. Who can save them from their sorry selves? The Indian and Arab hotel workers at their seven-star hotel, of course, who double as relationship sage gurus and life coaches by virtue of their exotic looks. In Sex/Life the Indian and Arab servant gurus from Sex and the City 2 are replaced by “sage” but sexy Black woman and Asian woman—oh, and a Black therapist. All of whom somehow still have sympathy for the white people who are so privileged that the object of the star’s sexual desire, a man well into his 30s, is supposed to earn our forgiveness for the way he treats women because he has daddy issues. Like most people haven’t had that one. Most people just don’t have the luxury of using that as an excuse for why they treat the women they bring home to their multimillion-dollar Manhattan pad so badly.
In both Sex and the City 2 and Sex/Life, the white people still need exotic people to tell them about sex and passion, just as they did in the early Hollywood films. See The Sheik (1921) The Sultan’s Wife/Caught in a Harem (1917) and so many more. Back then, it is was to maintain the purity of white women, so Hollywood gave the dirty job of being sexy to women of color from far off lands.
In Sex/Life, nothing has changed except the exotic women get to dress like everyone else, instead of in weird headdresses and belly-dancing outfits. And the white women get to have sex on screen, although without ever being sexy, even at a sex party
The show is so ridiculous, that my fellow nerdy professors and I almost forgot to notice the Black sages in the story are professors at Colombia, where it seems that writing about your sex life is all that is required to rise up to the top of the profession. As someone surrounded by people struggling with the endless publishing roadblocks in publishing their research, I can only say if only writing an article about your sex life for a pop magazine like Psychology Today qualified as “ground breaking research” to be celebrated by the highest echelons of academia. Or journalism, for that matter.
Do I blame Netflix for airing this show? No. Netflix’s job is to make money, and clearly this show doesn’t disappoint the bottom line. Nor do I blame the millions of teens who have likely been the demographics behind making this the number one show not just in Jordan, but most of the Middle East, India and anywhere else sex scenes are not allowed, not even kissing. Teenagers have hormones. And women have frustrations, if I contemplate the other likely target audience, compounded by shows that make them even more frustrated if they find them believable.
But I do actually ask the countries that through viewership numbers are making this show a hit to take a better look at themselves. The East still looks to America as the fantasy, where privilege rules and sex is easy. While Hollywood sexualizes the women of the East, the East does the same today. Women’s sexuality seemingly has to be othered. In the East, White privilege has become objectified as the fantasy. To be watched—and also reviled by.
In 2018, Netflix released JInn, its first TV series filmed in the Middle East. Like Sex/Life, it’s not brilliant production value, but that’s not why it caused an uproar. The day after it aired, I happened to be in a taxi in Amman. The taxi driver was so passionate in his disgust at a scene where a Jordanian teenager (the talented Salma Malhas) chastely kisses a teenage boy, that he almost veered off the road. I told him I had not seen it yet. He told me neither had he and thanked God his daughter wasn’t growing up in America. A lot of people in Jordan can’t afford subscription to Netflix. But they know what it is ok for white women to do and what is not ok for Arab women to do.
So there is sex and there is life. But there is not Sex/Life, a title that implies sex and life are the same thing, if we want to follow the grammatical meaning of the backslash. But life is not grammatically correct, and while sex and life overlap, they are not the same thing, just as sex and relationships aren’t. And it’s that backslash interpretation of this series that makes me wish there was more of a backlash against it. Not for the sex, but for what it tells us about women, privilege and relationships.