Friday, November 19, 2010

Sex Scandal TV: Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy

Guest Blogger Paul Apostolidis on The Good Wife, “VIP Treatment” (aired 10/26/10)

CBS’s prime-time drama “The Good Wife” plays with our fantasies about sex and gender in America today—at once evoking and disturbing the familiar rules of the game of sex, lies, and publicity we’ve all become so familiar with in the age of sex scandals.

Take the idea of a sex scandal that unfolds without a revealed male culprit, and that never becomes a public event. In this episode, “VIP Treatment,” a sex scandal is about to go live online but at the last minute shuts down, and viewers never even get a glimpse of the man at the center of the brewing storm. In a real sex scandal, of course, his face would be impossible to miss every time you turned on your TV. But here, the viewer is presented with the perplexing possibility of a sex scandal with no leading man and without any public exposure.

Such a plot might seem strange, even unsettling – but I think CBS has a real intuition here about how to give frustrated followers of sex scandals (some of) what they want. For one thing, many Americans probably wish sex scandals in the media weren’t so often all about the guy. To be sure, the women who have liaisons with famous men in real-life sex scandals get investigated and cross-examined ad nauseum in the public eye. But inevitably, the men end up getting more attention than the women – and they get to play more interesting roles, too, in these tightly scripted bits of media theater. That’s because sex scandals don’t stop when dirty deeds are revealed: most often sex scandals unfurl in well-publicized stages, as a leading man meanders through an initial period of humiliation followed by redemption and, invariably, rehabilitation.

In this way, male characters in sex scandals are figured as dynamic moral beings: they look aghast at their sins (at least when presented with irrefutable evidence), and then they vow to change their ways, most often with the help of their families and a spiritual counselor. By contrast, the women are always one of two static types– the bad girl and the good wife. In this episode of the "The Good Wife," viewers are given the titillating opportunity to get close to the bad girl without that other guy in the way. “They’ll go looking for stuff, and they’ll find stuff. Because there is stuff,” Lara deadpans in her “F*ck you, I’ve done stuff and I’m not ashamed” tone, eyes gazing right at the camera in classic network-TV soft-porn mode. Of course, like all mass-culture sex fantasies, this one gets called off before it goes too far—enter the disembodied voice of the assailant’s Good Wife as she phones in to reassert that other more highly esteemed, virtuous and self-sacrificing model of womanhood. Exit Lara via the elevator.

This ending thwarts the fantasy, but it also seals it by keeping it contained within secure bounds. And so like all good mass cultural confections, it leaves the audience aroused and wanting more—tune in next week! (Or Google the latest news about whatever real-life sex scandal is going on). Because in this respect, CBS’s faux-scandal and the real thing are not so different at all.

Hiding the culprit from the public eye might seem like another weird way to make viewers happy—especially given how much to be enjoyment there is to be had, via voyeurism and Schadenfreude when a scandal goes public. But again, I think CBS may be on to something important about sex scandals with this episode, insofar as the show not only provokes pleasure but reminds us how society says “yes” and “no” to our desires at the same time. Think of some real-life sex scandal figures (and I guarantee you won’t have to think long) – like Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Ted Haggard, or Bill Clinton. On the one hand, the standard scripts of these sagas reinforce a host of sexual taboos: against extra-marital sex, oral sex, kinky sex, gay sex, sex with coworkers, sex for money, and interracial sex. The man around whom scandal swirls swears he loathes what he has done. He reaffirms that individuals need to take responsibility for their unsavory actions, and also that there is no shortage of therapies and spiritual disciplines available to help him (or any of us) turn life around. On the other hand, sex scandals prod us to let other desires run wild—if not for what is supposed to be “deviant” sex, then most definitely for information about sex scandals themselves. The punditocracy urges us to get up-to-the-second updates about whatever scandal is in progress. And now, twelve years after “The Starr Report” made the Internet the new e-frontier for sex scandals, we have smart phones and iPads so we need never miss an alert about the latest rent-boy revelation or call girl confession.

Of course, neither the puritanical “no” nor the hedonistic “yes” is possible without the public dimension of the scandal. And that’s the genius of the scandal-that-isn’t on "The Good Wife." It lets us imagine what a relief it would be if, just for once, we could be spared the whiplash-effect of sex scandals as they call us to arms against depravity while, in the same breath, ordering that we think about nothing else.