By Belinda Acosta
AUGUST 16, 1999: I've been thinking about sex. Not "the act," mind you, but sex appeal, sex symbols, sexual tension, sex talk, sexploitation, sex kittens. Don't blame me, blame television (doesn't everybody?). To be more specific, blame Edith Bunker. Yes, sweet Edith of All in the Family, played endearingly by Jean Stapleton.
Cruising through TV land, I happened upon several vintage episodes of All in the Family on Nickelodeon. While the socially conscious show is often applauded for its handling of racial issues, another thing it handled fairly well was the subject of sex -- premarital, postmarital, extramarital, interracial, same sex, and otherwise. In the episode I caught, Edith's cousin Amelia (Elizabeth Wilson) was contemplating divorce because her husband had lost interest in her in favor of younger women.
Sex, sex, sex is everywhere, Amelia lamented. It's in magazines, billboards, books, movies, television, you name it. It seems like there's always someone, somewhere, telling you how, when, and why to have sex.
Edith, painfully shy to talk about the issue, was asked how she and husband Archie kept the fireworks going in the bedroom, to which Edith replied that with her and Archie, it's not like the Fourth of July, it's more like Thanksgiving.
Ah, dear Edith.
While it's not impossible to find television characters talking frankly about sex and sexuality, it's less likely to find an older woman talking about sex or, heaven forbid, being portrayed as a woman who has and enjoys it. The ongoing orientation toward younger and younger audiences has brought with it a new plot device: the character (usually a woman) who vows abstinence. Unfortunately, it is used in the least sophisticated manner, with episodes or entire seasons pushed forward by the "will-she-or-won't-she?" tide, which washes up to tickle viewers' toes only to rush off again into the great, murky waters called "tune in next week." In the end, it's not even a suitable question when we all know that the real question is: When will she?
There are welcome exceptions. One of the most notable is Whipper Cone of Ally McBeal. For all my complaints about the show, one thing I do appreciate (as pointed out to me by an Ally fan and reader of this column) was that Whipper, played by Dyan Cannon, brings maturity and an enduring, instead of diminished, sexuality to Whipper. Why she took up with that knucklehead Richard Fish (Greg Germann) is beyond me. Thankfully, Whipper dumped him, but in doing so, her recurring role became even less visible, making room for the younger, more exotic Ling Woo. Although Emmy Award nominee Lucy Liu is a scream as Fish's perpetually bitchy and litigious love interest, I still miss what Cannon brings to Whipper, and what Whipper brings to prime time audiences: a sexually alive woman who owns her sexuality without shame or embarrassment, and most important of all, without resignation.
Another notable exception is HBO's Sex and the City (Sun., Tue., Wed., & Sat., 8pm). While I've heard the show called everything from "bawdy" to "naughty" and "raunchy," I'm still trying to figure out what the fuss is about. Don't get me wrong, I like the show very, very much. I'm still stuck on the word "bawdy." Is it that nice girls don't talk about things like uncircumcised penises ("It looked like a Sharpei!") or penis size ("It was the size of a gherkin")? Apparently not, because on regular prime time network television, the nice girls don't have sex, and if they do, it's after long and thoughtful consideration. Given the age of the women now being featured on prime time, this isn't such a bad thing. The age of the women on Sex and the City is rarely an issue, but the characters appear to range in age from mid-20s to early 40s.
Sex and the City is a long way from Petticoat Junction. It's a long way from That Girl and Mary Tyler Moore, and it's not even in the same galaxy as the host of TV moms from Mrs. Cleaver to Carol Brady, whose sexuality was nonexistent. Given the choice between the "raunchy" Sex and the City and the fluffy vacuousness of TV past, I'll take Sex and the City. Who says nice girls don't have sex?
HBO subscribers may want to tune in to HBO Pictures' newest biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (8/21, 8pm). Halle Berry glows as Dandridge, and bears a striking resemblance to the actress, who died at 42 in 1965. Dandridge made history by becoming the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her lead role in Carmen Jones.
"I thought Dorothy never got the due she deserved in her lifetime. Someone needed to finally give her that recognition," Berry said, in an HBO press release, of her personal six-year mission to make the film a reality.
While the film focuses on Dandridge's charisma and a beauty "that opened doors and a skin color that closed them," one of the other striking features of her life was her powerful sexual appeal that, from all indications, was something she could never fully control. Like Marilyn Monroe, she was an object of desire who was victimized because of her sexuality. Unlike Monroe, Dandridge did not reach the heights of stardom that she may have been destined to in another time.
Co-stars include Brent Spiner as Dandridge's long-suffering agent, Earl Mills, Obba Babatunde, Loretta Devine, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Otto Preminger, who directed Dandridge in Carmen Jones, and who later had a deep, but doomed, love affair with the actress.
Additional HBO play dates for the show are Tue., 8/24, 8pm; Sun., 8/29, 10:30pm; Wed., 9/1, 10pm; Tue., 9/7, 12:25am; and Mon., 9/13, 9:30pm.
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