I just watched the first three episodes of the show “Togetherness” on HBO. First, I’d like to point out that the Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay), who created this show–along with Steve Zissis–are everywhere. I was already aware that Mark Duplass seemed to be appearing on my TV screen on a regular basis, but then when I googled “Togetherness” after a friend mentioned it to me, I saw an interview with Mark and Jay, the latter of whom I realized is both the brother on “Transparent” (which I will write about soon) and the other midwife (along with Mark) on “The Mindy Project.” Why are the Duplass brothers suddenly all over the place?
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I wanted to write about “Togetherness” because I’m really impressed with it so far (there have only been three episodes). My friend suggested I watch it because there’s a scene in the second episode in which the husband (Brett, played by Mark Duplass) walks in on his wife (Michelle, played by Melanie Lynskey) while she’s masturbating. (My friends, knowing me well, have a tendency to alert me to any TV show or movie that relates in any way to sex.) I love this scene for a couple of reasons. First, it is immediately apparent (as my friend pointed out to me) that there is no commonly accepted slang term for female masturbation. How could that possibly be when there are so very many slang terms for male masturbation. Do we lack such imagination that we couldn’t come up with just a few? Certainly not. It’s just that we don’t think or talk much about women masturbating, which is, of course, ridiculous because women do masturbate. In fact, many women own little (or not so little) machines that they use just for that purpose. But the thought of women masturbating brings up the idea of female sexual arousal and desire, which our culture gives little thought to except as it relates to men and male sexual desire. We accept that men masturbate all the time, but somehow the idea that women in a heterosexual relationship might actually want to masturbate seems odd. Why would they want/need to do so if they have a partner who, our culture tells us, would be willing to have sex at any moment of any day? (Because this TV show addresses heterosexual relationships, I’m choosing not to discuss same-sex relationships in this post.)
That brings us to the second aspect of this scene that I love. Brett’s reaction to walking in on Michelle is twofold –the first is, essentially, incredulity that his wife is masturbating in the middle of the day while he thinks she’s taking a nap, which he deems valuable and important. That is, she’s doing something entirely for herself (selfish?) while he’s presumably taking care of family needs. Role reversal much? And his second reaction is sadness, disappointment, disbelief (you name it) that she has been rebuffing his overtures to have sex, but still clearly has sexual desire. That is, why would she want to masturbate but not have sex with him? Later in the show he actually asks her why she doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore, and she answers, in a melancholy tone, “I don’t know.”
In the next episode, Michelle–at the urging of her sister–decides to plan an evening with Brett where she will be the one in control. She just wants to feel sexy and desirous. Brett tries to give into this as it is happening, but he feels (not surprisingly) confused. And while part of him is pleased, he’s also clearly not all that comfortable with abdicating control–and she’s not all that comfortable with taking it. For the most part, the scene feels very true to the interactions of two people who have fallen into a rut in terms of how they relate to one another sexually–and in how much they would like to break out of the rut, but they’re just not sure how. It all feels very honest.
What I probably find most impressive about these scenes is that the Duplass brothers and Zissis didn’t just nail the male character and how he feels, they also seem to get how the female character would feel and react–which so many male writers fail to do. I’m so tired of the old comic (or not so comic) device about the poor husband who wants to have sex and his wife who turns him down, claiming a headache or exhaustion. It just feeds into the idea that men want sex and women don’t. Maybe all those women turning down sex with their husbands (if that is even a thing) just want something different, but a) don’t know how to tell their husbands or b) are afraid to tell them because their husbands’ egos will be bruised. (Of course, I’m not convinced at all that this is a one-way street. I’m sure plenty of men in monogamous long-term relationships turn down sex with their partners.)
I’m guessing that the Duplass brothers have read recent reports of research exploring the idea that women may crave variety more than men do. Indeed, Michelle, in talking to her sister, points out that while she desires sex, she is just bored by the idea that she knows exactly what sequence of events will occur every time they have sex. All of this is reminiscent of a scene from Nicole Holofcener’s 1996 movie “Walking and Talking,” in which Anne Heche and Catherine Keener play best friends. At one point, Heche’s character points out to her fiancé that she is bored by the fact that their sex always unfolds in the same order. I remember showing this movie to my class a few times, and each time the vast majority of students found Heche’s character to be shrill and controlling in this scene. They really didn’t like her. And I always thought, “Really, but why shouldn’t she be allowed to express how she feels and what she wants? Why is saying that you want something different during sex scene as controlling?”
Our culture is so steeped in seeing sex from a male vantage point that when women try to say what they want–to say that they might want some variety or something that might, god forbid, be viewed as a bit kinky–they risk being viewed as aggressive, shrill, or even “slutty.” Yes, we have come a long way. Many of our grandmothers probably didn’t know what their clitoris was and never experienced an orgasm. Certainly, today’s men are more likely than those of earlier generations to genuinely want their female partners to fully enjoy and engage in sex–and to have an orgasm. But they still likely view penile-vaginal sex as the “main event,” and I still hear my students refer to “foreplay,” as if there are things you need to do before you get to that main event so the woman is “ready.” I’m not blaming men–except insofar as they buy into the cultural narratives (and porn) about sex. They can only learn from their female partners, and I would guess many women don’t even have the language or agency to figure out or ask for what they want beyond that.
So thanks to all those involved with “Togetherness” for broaching the topic of heterosexual marriage and sex in a new, honest, and funny way. Now let’s start talking.