It is one of the small pleasures of life to see a New York Times op-ed columnist come down from her tower, take notice of a phenomenon in the culture sphere, and proclaim it an actual trend. It is even better when that trend has been percolating for over a decade, as is the case with the subject of Maureen Dowd’s most recent column, “Dirty Words From Pretty Mouths.”
In it, Dowd observes that there is a new, post-Bridesmaids wave of female writers and performers who can be just as raunchy as the boys of comedy — and particularly the endless Judd Apatow-related films and related products. Using the examples of boundary-defying films from Sundance, the (butt-focused) sex on The Mindy Project, Girls, and Broad City, and other films like Obvious Child and Amy Schumer in the upcoming film Trainwreck, Dowd illustrates a world where female writers and performers are funny and frank about their sexuality.
For anyone who’s paid attention to the worlds of film and TV in the past few years, it’s hard not to see this somewhat random collection of comedies that are naughtier than a PG-13 would allow and shrug. So what, right? Women have been notably “raunchy,” as Dowd puts it, in comedies since Cameron Diaz’s late-’90s/early-’00s run in films like There’s Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing. The sociological observations regarding women’s relationship with sex and raunch in the patriarchy, meanwhile, has been filtering into the mainstream since the publication of Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, in 2005.
Dowd can’t even bring herself to analyze this idea or define the trend in any more specific way, leaving it to comedian and Two Broke Girls creator Whitney Cummings to explain why it’s op-ed worthy: “It becomes raunchy all of a sudden when women like it. It’s in the zeitgeist because there’s a bunch of female writers and creators now, and, by a bunch, I mean, like, four.” Cummings is being flip, but she is correct, in so far as when there are more women behind the scenes in film and television, sexuality is naturally part of the way they depict the female experience.
Although writer Dana Calvo chalks up this trend to the idea that, “People are starting to realize that they can make money letting women be honest and forthright about their sexuality,” the bulk of the movies and TV shows Dowd cites came up through Sundance, YouTube, or other relatively independent means. Because much of this work is independent, it tends to foreground the creator’s voice — it’s blunt and unafraid to show the sometimes hilariously weird and gross reality of being a woman. That’s great, but I’m not sure if it means that corporations will be investing in honest female writers in the future, as long as they’re still seen as needing an advocate like the ubiquitous Judd Apatow.
And anyway, the thing about Girls — and many of these other works Dowd cites, from Broad City to Obvious Child — is that it represents a new generation. What older viewers may see as a boundary-pushing depiction of sex looks a whole lot like simple honesty to younger viewers. Female writers and actors who are in their 20s and 30s are creating works that reflect sex as millennials and younger Gen-Xers know it: generous, inclusive, open, and often casual — a search for pleasure in a world that has way too many options. There’s something lived-in about the way that Broad City‘s central duo of Abbi and Ilana are equal-opportunity sexual provocateurs, curious about everything, with Abbi the overthinker to Ilana’s freewheeler.
What Dowd identifies as “raunch” may just be a new form of frankness, driven by funny women in the culture. It’s observational humor about how weird sex can be, and it’s not written to be titillating to men; rather, it’s written to reveal the absurdity of sex these days — and in a world of endless options, sex is absolute absurdity.