Growing up in the rural South in the ‘50s and ‘60s I didn’t get much education about sex, but I understood that my ‘sex’ was to be safely guarded until the right man came along. There was June Cleaver, Lucy of I Love Lucy, and Timmy’s mother on Lassie, none of whom shared a bed with their husbands. Sex wasn’t something visible in the world around me and it was never discussed in my house. What I learned of sexy women came from sneaking a look at my father’s Playboy magazines. I was in my 40s before I began to see myself as a sexual being, not just a woman who had sex with her husband.
In my teens and my early years of marriage, television women were moms, happily doing their domestic chores and raising children. The move to sexier women on screen was too far from reality to hold any value for me. My early marriage, with graduate school and work, bore little resemblance to the sexy-kittens of Charlie’s Angels or the bitchy, conniving women I watched on Dallas. There was never a female character on TV I felt represented the life I was leading or wanted to lead.
Until very recently, there were few movies or television shows with strong female leads, who embraced their sexuality and enjoyed that part of their lives on their own terms. Oh, and who also happens to be over the age of 40? It’s pretty rare to find that combination, especially since Hollywood is still a town that prefers to cast women in their 20s and 30s – women who have few wrinkles, toned physiques and unnaturally round breasts. Now, at 60, I’m discovering some characters whose lives reflect the reality of the sexual lives of women who, shall we say are more mature and seasoned – women like me.
There are plenty of opportunities for more enlightened viewing if you’re willing to dig around. I was pleasantly surprised to run across two series with strong, sexy, confident women who appear to be in midlife. Both of these female characters are fully in charge of their sexuality. It’s rare to see older women portrayed as sexual, and rarer still to see a single women addressing their sexual needs in such an open way. Television sitcoms tend to feature midlife women struggling with menopause and aging issues, grumbling about their husbands and complaining, in general, about their lives. Hormonal, bitchy, overweight and discontent. Older movie actors, like Helen Mirren, are caught in the middle, considered too old for the sexy roles, but clearly not ready for senility. If we look to the media for aging role-models we see 50-something women fighting desperately to retain some sense of youth, Madonna springs to mind, or we see older women riddled with aches and pains who have given up—become invisible.
The two television series I’ve discovered represent different time periods and genre but have one commonality—women with sexual agency. Women who exercise their right to have sex on their own terms—how, when, and with whom they choose.
The first, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, is an Australian television series based on a series of novels set in 1920s Australia. The actress playing Miss Phryne Fisher is the 41-year-old Essie Davis. Miss Fisher is clever and strong-willed, a woman of considerable means who knows what she wants. Throughout the three seasons we see Miss Fisher engage with men she finds attractive. This is a lighthearted series and the sex is mostly inferred, though there are a few scenes delicately played out in the bedroom. No nudity. Phyrne is one of the most sex-positive characters I’ve ever seen on the screen. She encourages the women around her to be open-minded and respectful of their bodies. She makes no excuses for finding men attractive and choosing to invite them to her bed. The people in her life accept these activities without comment; though an occasional eye rolling let’s us know they’re paying attention.
Miss Fisher’s sexuality is just one aspect of who she is. She is a skilled detective, kind and compassionate, intelligent and capable of handling any challenge. Her best friend is a female doctor who wears men’s clothing. In one episode Miss Fisher tells her young, religious house mate and helper that women have a right to make their own choices, to wear sexy lingerie if they choose, and to use their body in ways that are pleasing to them.
These conversations reflect the feminist underpinnings of this character and lend her greater dimension. This is also the case for Stella Gibson in The Fall—when we see her struggle with the demands of the job and her personal needs it makes her more real to us. We understand it’s possible to be successful in one’s job, compete in a male-oriented profession and still retain one’s sexiness.
In The Fall, a British show produced for Netflix and set in contemporary Northern Ireland, the 46 –year-old Gillian Anderson plays Superintendent Stella Gibson, the lead investigator of a string of brutal murders. Stella is a complex woman, of an undefined age, with a sexuality that feels darker and more masculine-like than we typically see in portrayals of sexual women. She goes after what she wants—she seeks out sex, makes her own decisions about who comes to her bed and is very comfortable with her sexuality. Stella takes the initiative, rare in females on the screen, and maybe in real life as well. She’s had a previous relationship with her supervising officer, a married man, and chooses two younger police officers for sex during the series.
There is an undercurrent of tension within Stella that feels dark to me —and there are hints of something darker to come in Season Two. It may just be that this is just a drama series, set in the nitty gritty world of murder and police investigations, or it could be that I’m still adjusting to the idea that women can take a more assertive role in their sex lives. Ms. Gibson is a no nonsense kind of woman—professional, in charge of her emotions, decisive and very capable in her work. She’s not a one-dimensional character; she is embodies all the traits of a capable professional in addition to being sexy and sensual. Anderson spoke about her character in an interview with The Telegraph, “It always surprises me when interviewers want to talk about Gibson and sex and her picking up this guy. Why is this so shocking in our society, when it’s 2014, that a woman clearly chooses to be single, and has a desire to have a one-night or two-night stand? Why is it shocking that a professional woman of a certain age should do something like that?”
But it is still shocking in some ways, which is why shows like these are noteworthy and important to women like me. The appeal in both of these series comes from seeing women of a certain age I can relate to, women portrayed as independent, successful and sexually appealing. We don’t see enough open, healthy expressions of sexuality in our culture. Too often sex is portrayed as a commodity. Women are shown using their sexuality as a tool to buy, persuade or deceive – in a way that it has been portrayed since Eve created a ruckus in the Garden of Eden. The other female type we encounter is women who don’t seem to have much sense of themselves as sexual beings. They are waiting for a man to shape them, to give them permission to enjoy sex. Isn’t that part of the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey? Young naïve woman meets sexually skilled older man and finds happiness under his guidance? It’s the age-old story—all a woman needs is a good man. I think this theme is more prevalent because it’s less threatening to the status quo. In the media, and in real life, women who seek sex on their own terms are often seen as manipulative or out of control. They need to be corralled, labeled, shamed or worse.
Now at age 60 and single, I fully understand what runs through Miss Fisher’s mind when she meets a man she desires. She’s not like the wives and single women in Mad Men who view sex as a way to get what they want, or who engage in sex in an obligatory ‘what we’re expected to do’ fashion. Miss Fisher isn’t luring men to her bed; she’s simply expressing her right to have sex when she wants, with the person of her choosing. Sex is portrayed as just one facet of these characters’ lives; no drama, no angst.
Stella Gibson and Phyrne Fisher exemplify what it’s like to own one’s sexuality. They appear to suffer no penalties for living life as single women or choosing to flaunt convention. Both women work in a “man’s world” and take on life’s challenges in a way that we might do well to emulate. These characters help us to understand that female sexual desire is normal and healthy, through believable roles and situations that aren’t overly dramatic or salacious—but rather a natural expression of who we are as women.
I wish I had run across this kind of female character 10 years ago. Phyrne Fisher might have given me permission to pursue the kind of sex and relationships I wanted. Instead of trying to conform to the traditional view of how women ought to behave in relationships, sexual and otherwise, I might have made choices based on my own wants and needs. These characters have sex because they enjoy it, not out of obligation or coercion.
Isn’t this what we all want for our daughters and granddaughters, for all women? Embracing our own sexual agency can be as natural as any other choice we make in our day-to-day life. Seeing women like these in the media, and reflected in our culture, helps to normalize sex as a mutual expression of desire between two people.
Walker Thornton is a writer, sex educator and public speaker, with a Masters in Educational Psychology and over 10 years experience in the field of sexual violence against women. She is a strong advocate for midlife women’s sexuality, encouraging women to ‘step into their desire’. Kinkly.com ranked her blog, WalkerThornton.com, #5 in their top 100 Sex Blogging Superheroes of 2014. Walker is the Sexual Health columnist for Midlife Boulevard and writes about sex and the older adult for Kinkly.com and Boomeon. You can connect with her on her website www.walkerthornton.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.