Good Girls Revolt and Female-Focused Sex on TV
Spoiler Alert: this article contains spoilers for the full season of Good Girls Revolt.
In the opening scenes of Good Girls Revolt, researcher Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson) and reporter Doug Rhodes (Hunter Parrish) disappear into the office infirmary for a morning quickie. It’s not a surprising scene for a workplace drama set in the late 1960s, but it’s different in one very important respect—it is Patti who both initiates and terminates their tryst.
Their encounter is interrupted by one of Patti’s fellow researchers knocking on the door, telling Patti she’s needed by the magazine’s editor. In a line laced with double meaning, Patti moans, “Oh, did you hear that? Finn wants me,” before pushing her lover aside and scrambling to get dressed. Patti clearly enjoys sex with Doug, but her job (and her boss Finn) takes precedence. Welcome to Good Girls Revolt, a show where sex is on the woman’s terms.
The full first season arrived on Amazon Prime on October 28, 2016, and was cancelled just five weeks later. Showrunner Dana Calvo had a strong response, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “What we hadn’t factored in is that [Amazon Studios head] Roy Price just doesn’t care for the show… He’s representative of the Amazon culture in that he’s just impenetrable.” Amazon doesn’t release official numbers for streaming TV, but as Deadline Hollywood’s Nellie Andreeva noted, “The cancellation of Good Girls Revolt is somewhat surprising as it launched to solid reviews and ranked as one of Amazon’s biggest series ever among female viewers.”
I watched GGR on Amazon Prime in late November, and binged the entire season in two days. It has extremely high user ratings, and I was crushed and confused by the unceremonious cancellation less than a week after I watched the final episode. Losing a show after a single season doesn’t carry the same sting as investing for five seasons to have it canceled on a cliffhanger (hi, there, Covert Affairs!), but it still hurts. After all, the show was great! People were watching it. The Internet was talking about it. Why not give it another season?
Early reviews of GGR made reductive comparisons to Mad Men due to the similar time periods and workplace settings, but GGR is decidedly its own show and is tonally very different. For one, it’s much more direct regarding its purpose. Good Girls Revolt as a title is based on Lynn Povich’s book of the same name about the class-action gender discrimination lawsuit brought against Newsweek by its female employees in 1970. The focus there, and in the show, is decidedly on the women.
In his video review of the show, Deadline’s Dominic Patten complains that the two main male characters are, “mere caricatures and plot candy,” a statement I can’t help but find ironic as a woman who has watched countless female characters assume the same “plot candy” roles since the dawn of moving pictures. Even Rogue One, despite its highly touted heroine, lacks named female characters, and the ones that are there exist only to argue about the mission or get shot at. For me, the treatment of the male characters as such could be considered the show’s own meta-commentary on the continued prevalence of gender discrimination not only in our workplaces, but also in our entertainment.
That being said, I would argue that as the season progresses, so do the arcs of the male characters. What Patten may be responding to is not that the male characters lack agency (a common and often discussed issue for female characters), it’s that they simply have less screen time than their female counterparts. Again, as a woman who often laments the lack of screen time given to women’s stories, having to even clarify this distinction makes my feminist irony meter spike.
What so amazed me about GGR beyond its forthright and unapologetic feminism, though, is its refreshing depiction of sex through a decidedly female lens. Set during the “sexual revolution” of the late 60s and early 70s, sex on GGR is not only female-oriented in its presentation, but each of the main three characters brings her own unique set of perspectives and desires to the screen. Like real women, their sexual encounters and their reactions to them vary. This is not one-size-fits-all erotica.
As evidenced by the scene described earlier, Patti fancies herself a willing participant in the “free love” counterculture, yet she’s emotionally jostled throughout the series by her on-again/off-again relationship with Doug, a staff reporter at News of the Week magazine. Patti’s desire to work as more than just Doug’s researcher and his desire for a more traditional relationship are consistently at odds, reinforcing the show’s exploration of gender stereotypes.
At one point, Doug breaks up with her, claiming, “You’re too complicated, Patti,” to which she responds, “Right. And you’re not up for the challenge because everything has come easy for you.” This exchange serves not only to encapsulate their relationship, but also to highlight the feminist message behind the show itself. Women are complicated, and the characters that portray us on screen deserve the freedom to be complicated as well. Presenting women as complex and flawed challenges viewers who are used to seeing women as wives, girlfriends, and damsels in distress. Patti refuses to compromise herself for her boyfriend’s comfort, just as the show refuses to temper its overt feminism to avoid potentially discomforting viewers.
Cindy Reston, played by Erin Darke, has arguably the most complex sexual storyline in the series. The outwardly mild-mannered Cindy struggles with her dissatisfying marriage, and the suspicion that her husband has tampered with her diaphragm. She rebels by having an affair with her co-worker, Ned. What starts off as seemingly innocent workplace flirtation quickly escalates. After Cindy attends a women’s group meeting where the ladies are encouraged to use mirrors to look at their own vulvas, Cindy tells Ned that she found her body “disappointing.” In a scene that is equal parts unsettling and erotic, Ned lifts her skirt, pulls down her underwear, kisses her once, then resets her clothing, and assures her she is “beautiful.” Cindy’s consent is definitely in question here, yet she’s clearly turned on. Consent comes into play again between Cindy and Ned during a role-playing encounter when he asks, “Can I search you?” and she nods in the affirmative.
Ned and Cindy’s relationship is played for both eroticism and discomfort. Cindy is a willing participant, and yet there is hesitation. Ned often comes off as predatory and certainly embodies the rampant sexism of the time. In a conversation with Doug he asserts, “Boring is what you marry. Crazy is what you date.” Later, when Cindy presses him for a more serious relationship, he balks, saying they were just “having fun.” It’s clear he views her a just a fling, and despite Cindy’s obvious disappointment, the audience is left to wonder if she really wanted Ned or just what he represented as an alternative to her unhappy marriage.
While “free love” may have sexually liberated women, destigmatized the use of birth control, and given more women the confidence to delay marriage, it had little to say about consent. It also served, as becomes the case with Cindy and Ned, to give men an excuse to participate in non-monogamous sex without taking responsibility for the emotional or physical consequences.
Anna Camp plays Jane Hollander, and gives the show its standout performance. Jane is an uptight, virginal WASP with a steady, blue-blooded, parent-approved boyfriend. When Patti and Cindy question Jane’s virginity, she declares, “I am proud to know that my white wedding will not be a fraud.” But, as her relationship with the other girls develops, Jane begins to question why she’s maintained her virginity for so long. She decides to give it to her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve, and even buys herself the perfect lingerie, but is crushed when this attempt at seduction is not only rebuffed, but she is dumped in the middle of an upscale soiree. Jane returns to her apartment building where she calls on her attractive male neighbor to satisfy her desires. The multitude of expressions that Anna Camp’s face makes during this scene, one of the tamest in the series, is astounding. Jane is equally disappointed, self-satisfied, pleasured, and sad. For Jane, losing her virginity is not about the man she’s having sex with; it’s about having the experience for herself.
Jane’s surrender of her tightly held virginity serves as a major turning point for her character. Jane transforms from a woman controlled by the men in her life, particularly her father, to the voice of the women’s lawsuit against News of the Week. Her goals shift from marrying the perfect husband to pursuing a law degree and a career in journalism. In taking control of her body and sexuality, she finds the confidence to take control of her life.
However, it is a scene between two secondary characters that really stands out. Both seeking comfort for different reasons, reporter Sam and researcher Angie find solace in each other in what is perhaps the most graphically female-focused sex scene in the entire series. Not only does Angie consent to sex, but she directs it as well. We watch as she guides Sam’s hand between her legs, and we actually see his arm vibrating. We also watch as she climbs up to his face and grabs the headboard. This is not subtle, under the covers, oral sex. This is naturalistic, raw, aggressively female-focused sex.
Even shows like Outlander and Jessica Jones, which have their fair share of female-friendly sex, don’t present it as naturally as GGR does. These days, it shouldn’t be groundbreaking to show realistic female desire, and yet it is. Also, unlike the aforementioned shows and so many others (Game of Thrones, Scandal, Orange is the New Black, just to name a few), no one in GGR is raped or threatened with rape, past or present. While questions of consent are certainly posed, GGR never falls back on rape as a character-defining plot device.
What’s even more incredible is that these are just a few examples of how GGR discusses and shows female sexuality. Sexual politics run through the very veins of this show. They are its blood, and they know how to get the female viewer’s heart pumping. This isn’t “mommy porn;” it’s highbrow “peak TV.” Sex on GGR is never gratuitous, and it’s not in every episode. Here, sex serves the characters and the story. Most importantly, GGR’s women are flawed. They make mistakes. They change their minds. The viewer is reminded that this is not only okay—it’s normal. Women are complex and diverse, and they deserve a show like GGR that treats them as such.
Unfortunately, GGR wasn’t picked up by another network, but at least we had one great season. I can only hope that GGR has paved the way for similarly female-driven shows in the future.
Author’s note: While I watch more TV than is probably healthy, I have not seen every show out there. If there is another show that you think portrays female friendly sex that I haven’t discussed, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to check it out!
Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.