Popular culture has remained chained with the image of women in romantic love as a role model for female sexuality, while departures from that role usually depict dysfunctional or destroyed women. A list of films celebrating women’s love as absolute (sexual) dedication to the loved one is endless, while women who fail to fit the romantic love model are portrayed as social outcasts, driven to suicide, insanity or self-destruction (Splendor in the Grass, Anna Karenina, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Indecent Proposal, Bitter Moon, Dangerous Liaisons, Misery). Most often it is not rejection, but the inability to fulfill demands of romantic love that destroys them. Cases where women are presented with more sexual choice usually depict dysfunctional women, like Samantha in Sex and the City.
But another trend is gradually emerging, and two examples point nicely to it. First is the UK series The Fall – Tod in Belfast where Stella Gibson (police investigator) picks up a young policeman solely for sex, rejecting emotional commitment (she doesn’t respond to his SMS messages and other invitations to engage into emotions; it’s strictly physical).
Second is the German TV show Wilsberg, which portrays Hauptkomessarin Anna Springer as having a similar attitude – she abruptly ends a dinner in which Wilsberg proposes a romance (for the record, she does ask if he means also going to bed together, and when he tacitly downplays the sex, she says she unfortunately has to go). Where she actually goes, we find out a little bit later – she had a “date” with a call-boy, as she obviously prefers good sex with a young, good-looking nobody to a romantic relationship with a friend.
Sex vs. romantic love?
This reveals a new and before now, at least in popular culture, unknown pattern of women’s sexuality: that women are, just as man have always been, able to distinguish between sex and love, and that sex for women can entail a portion of physical enjoyment regardless of emotions she may or may not have for the partner. A physical relationship that involves sex doesn’t mean she has to submit or be devoted, and, more importantly, her world remains intact regardless of his emotions for her. The connection between women’s emotions and sexual pleasure, similarly to emotions and children, glorified as “women’s nature,” serves as a means of subjection. Once internalized, it turns into self-regulation for two relations essential for maintaining patriarchy: to husband and to children. Ideological work becomes clear from the impossibility to think, let alone act (and survive) any other scenario. Women, claims the romantic-love model, cannot be happy, fulfilled and whole unless absolutely devoted to children and partner.
This ongoing process of de-disciplining of women’s sexuality is everything but insignificant. It establishes women as full and complete (subjects) without men’s approval, emotional support or need to belong. Her life doesn’t revolve around the ideal partner; it is constructed around different focuses (career, friends, art, fun) and physical attraction. Physical needs are, rather, a simple addition, one she is absolutely capable of managing, deciding and acting upon, without being seduced or destroyed by developing unbearable feelings.
Interestingly, the actual relationship between sex and romantic love is not clear, although it is presumed to be perfect. Whether it really is, we will never know, since she is so preoccupied or traumatized with the possibility that he does (not) love her, that films end before she might engage in evaluating sexual life – the very moment of his acceptance is at the same time the culmination and the end of the film. If it lasts longer, we see our heroine with children, completely occupied with her maternal role, another asexual projection of behavior acceptable to patriarchy.
Feminism for a long time pleaded for the equality of men and women, but it wasn’t always clear what this equality would entail in terms of sexual relationships. The fact that half a century has passed before popular culture picked up on this theme doesn’t of course mean that this kind of relationship was unknown or not lived before – it just marks the moment when it can be socially acknowledged, admitted and accepted, with its proper name, characteristics, and role models.
The bottom line
But one should not be too optimistic – both (single) women from the TV shows mentioned above end up explaining and justifying themselves, for doing something obviously problematic. Stella Gibson’s behavior is strongly criticized by her (happily) married boss, who by the way suffered tremendously after having an affair with Gibson a few years earlier; and Detective Springer also has to explain why she would do “something like that.” Here is her explanation: “Keine Zeit für Beziehung! Keine Lust auf schlechtes Sex, und Morgen Frühstuck machen.” Simple as that!
By Katarina Ristic
*Katarina Ristic is a researcher at University Magdeburg, working on media, memory, transitional justice and human rights. Coming from Belgrade, Serbia she is mainly interested in former Yugoslavia and post-conflict justice. After six years in Leipzig, she decided to get involved with German media, detective TV shows being the first entry point. Now she is passionate follower of Mord mit Aussicht, Ein starkes Team, Tatort, Wilsberg, Held, etc., following the “fake it till you make it” model of integration.