You know you’re getting old when you’re bored by other people’s sex stories. I get told the most outrageous stories — sex parties in Berlin, masked rimmers in Toronto, multiple blowjobs everywhere — and always I just nod. Yeah, yeah, heard it all before.
At first I thought it was just me, a case of massive, corrosive jadedness. But I wonder if it’s not a changing fashion. Consider the fall TV season. It’s not just unsexy, it’s got a certain froideur.
On two of the most charming shows of the new fall season boyfriend and girlfriend don’t touch. There are good reasons for this state of affairs but it gives both shows a very 1950s case of the cutes.
On Chuck the nerdy hero (“Saving the world on $10 an hour”) is in love with his fellow spy but they’re not doing anything because officially their relationship is just a professional cover. His best friend, the even more nerdy Morgan, has a crush on the hero’s sister but that’s going nowhere because, well, TV’s nerd relationships never do. You could call it Arrested Development if the title weren’t already taken. These people are all in their 20s but they act like 1950s teenagers. The female spy even works in the local fast-food outlet. It’s all very Jane Austen in a chick-lit kind of way.
The hero of Pushing Daisies has even weirder intimacy issues. One touch and he brings dead people back to life; two touches and they’re dead again, which is a real bummer when you’ve just brought the great love of your life back from the dead. On one episode the two lovers do a version of the old Amish custom of bundling and touch through a wall.
But at least they’re trying. Charlie, the hero of Life, the best new show of the year and one that’s far too good to last, seems absolutely indifferent to regular human contact. Betrayed by his colleagues and burned by his ex-wife, he spouts Zen-like questions and lives with his male money manager, a friend from the days when he was wrongly imprisoned. There’s nothing going on between them and they talk about almost nothing but investments. Which makes them pretty much the perfect couple for these materialist times.
None of these shows is sex-negative. They all acknowledge the pull of desire in a courtly kind of way. But they do seem a little frightened of sex and intimacy.
Even certified heartthrobs aren’t getting any action. George Clooney stars in the thriller Michael Clayton which might seem a pretty good guarantee of a romantic subplot or two but no. A kind of corporate James Bond the Clooney character has all the classic heroic traits — charm, grace under fire and a very cool demeanour. Everything except the girl or even the trace of an interest in one. Divorced, he talks to his ex-wife and takes care of his kid but doesn’t seem to have much interest in either. It’s the loneliest movie I’ve ever seen but then the movie is very much a reflection of contemporary middle-class life. Clooney, like all the other characters in the flick, is very much caught up in his career.
Shows that still evoke sex end up looking curiously old-fashioned. Cane, the sprawling family saga starring Jimmy Smits as a Cuban-American rum magnate, has all kinds of sexy shenanigans but I don’t think it’s going anywhere, partly because it’s just so 1970s. It reminds me of nothing so much as Dynasty.
In real life, I’m guessing, sex still has great popular appeal but as a vehicle for contemporary concerns it’s got no traction. Most primetime shows seem more interested in hunting killers or unravelling complex conspiracies than in canoodling and cuddling. Sex is still big in the ad world but it seems to have been upstaged in the world of popular myth.
Maybe we’ve all overdosed on underwear ads or maybe we’ve all seen way too much spam. Surely nothing has done more to make sex appear grotty and unattractive than those incessant penile enlargement ads.
But I think it has more to do with a changing social mindset. The population is getting older and the older you get the less safe life looks. The body starts to break down, pains appear, disaster looms. Add in a few mass-market fears like terrorism and climate change and you’ve got a recipe for widespread anxiety.
Small wonder then that most people seem more interested in survival than sex. That’s what many of the reality shows are about — survival — and that, in a different way, is what many of the cop and medical shows are also about. It speaks to people’s fears and concerns in a way that more pleasant topics can’t.
Sex was the dominant narrative trope of the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t anymore.