Netflix’s new Fifty Shades lookalike is full of shiny, sexy characters set against shiny, sexy backdrops. Substance-wise there’s not much else.
It’s also been completely panned by critics so far, who understandably take issue with the cheesy dialogue and the repetitively graphic sex scenes which by the end of episode 1 are more or less indistinguishable. More than that though, as our protagonist Billie attempts to be a relatable heroine worthy of our attention (but is annoying more than anything else), the eight-episode series gives us an important opportunity for conversation. And the consensus, even after episode 1, should be that Sex/Life is a genuine accomplishment, in that it manages to encapsulate everything wrong with today’s cultural attitude around dating, marriage, and sex.
The show follows our liberated, wannabe-academic Billie, as she goes from party girl living it up in the city (alongside a really terrible “best friend”) to the quiet drudge of domesticated, unfulfilling #momlife. Sex/Life really wants to be Sex and the City, but if a Carrie-Samantha hybrid moved to a country house and decided being mistreated by various men was more fulfilling than raising two beautiful children.
It isn’t the unfortunate fever dream we wish it was, though. It’s based on a self-published memoir by school counselor BB Easton, titled “44 Chapters About 4 Men.” Easton kept a sex diary as an escape from wifehood, which her husband later found, thereby reigniting the passion in their marriage (I guess simply having a discussion was out of the question). Names have been changed, characters added, and artistic liberties definitely embellished within the transition from pornographic autobiography to Netflix, but the central thesis of Billie’s life is that having it all is really about “hoeing around'' (her words, not mine).
Billie Is Her Own Worst Enemy
Billie is meant to be a protagonist we can all relate to – she’s given up a prestigious academic career for the idyllic cottagecore mom life, and in all fairness, the show does present a depiction of motherhood that many women probably experience. Feeling powerless, having no control over a changing female identity, and the discomfort of being isolated as she cares for kids day after day are emotions Billie feels intensely all before breakfast or getting out of bed.
Billie yearns for her “carefree” single days as she lazes in a spacious backyard, wearing nightgowns all day, and takes to exploring emotional infidelity and sexual fantasies disguised as past memories. The reason? Her husband would rather watch TV after a hard day of work as a Ken-doll-Monopoly-man than bring her to orgasm.
It’s hard to feel sorry for the woman who literally has it all, and the plot forges on ahead into the toxic abyss long after we’ve stopped caring for Billie (which for me was about 20 minutes into the first episode).
But Billie’s real problem, and the central problem to her entire dissatisfaction as a wife and mom is that she misguidedly views herself as two different people: the ageless, glitter-ridden city girl she was before marrying one of the Winkelvoss twins, and the sexually and emotionally vacant doormat she becomes after moving to Rich Town, USA.
She refuses to see herself as someone who evolved from emotional immaturity to assuming the responsibilities of adulthood.
Billie’s issue is not her damaged-but-hunky ex Brad, or even her Ivy League fraternity boy husband Cooper. It’s that she refuses to see herself as the same person who has inevitably evolved from emotional immaturity to assuming the responsibilities of basic adulthood. We all grow up, whether we choose to or are forced to, and Billie has an extremely unhealthy problem with romanticizing the past, even though the whole reason she settled down in the first place is that (you guessed it) all the skinny-jean-clad boy toys really weren’t that great to her after all.
Romanticizing the past is a trap we married women might fall into, and one that’s especially appealing if some of the fire or excitement has gone out of our relationship. There's something intoxicating, almost akin to a buzz, about being in those early, exciting stages of a new relationship. But we’re where we are in our lives for an important reason. Either we were smart enough to know that “settling down” was the correct next step or we made a grave mistake, and unfortunately, Billie can’t see the crucial distinction between the two.
It’s Not Actually “Cheating” If It’s a Fantasy
Most of us probably have very concrete definitions of what cheating looks like, whether we’ve been on either end of one of those situations. Sex/Life seems proud to promote Billie’s favorite pastime because, well, Brad is her ex, and she’s just looking back on such fun times so it’s not like she’s actually being unfaithful to Cooper.
But Billie is more or less having an emotional affair, and it’s especially dangerous because it’s between a version of herself that no longer exists and an illusion, and her illusion of Brad has 0 flaws. Brad isn’t the guy for her – his terrible treatment of her which motivates their breakup makes that abundantly clear – but the sex was so much better with him than it is with boring ol’ Cooper! What’s a girl to do?
Her emotional affair is especially dangerous because it’s between a version of herself that no longer exists and an illusion.
I didn’t make it far enough in the show to actually ever find out if Billie crosses that physical line with her ex (who, incidentally, is sleeping with her best friend, showing us that Billie has a history of making great decisions), but by the end of the first episode, we know that’s almost irrelevant. She’s more invested in her past than even attempting to make it work in the present – had Cooper not discovered her juicy sex diary, he’d never have been made aware that their sex life was a problem in the first place. Billie spends the majority of her time actively shoring up a toxic relationship in her psyche, so much so that she’d rather sleep with a fantasy than try communicating with her own husband.
Sex Isn’t Everything
Billie and Cooper’s sex life is lacking, thereby motivating her constant trips down memory lane in the first place. But instead of approaching her husband and having a discussion – like an adult – Billie retreats to her MacBook to fantasize about her past like a middle schooler.
Sex is a necessity for healthy couples, and sexual incompatibility can have detrimental effects on a relationship. But Billie and Cooper probably aren’t truly sexually incompatible, as evidenced by their initial attraction and the two children in their house.
Sexual excitement doesn’t manifest out of nowhere; you have to curate and dedicate effort to it.
What they're lacking is communication. Billie seems almost afraid to approach the topic with him when he comes home from work (thereby giving her an excuse to “dear diary” about tortured Brad). It’s probably safe to say that had she given Cooper the same attention and gratification she was giving her hippocampus, she wouldn’t have needed a sex journal in the first place.
It’s hard not to think about the one thing that would seemingly make your marriage or relationship absolutely perfect, but marriage in and of itself necessitates hard work. It’s not always as exciting as neon-backlit encounters in pools, showers, alleyways, etc. Excitement doesn’t manifest out of nowhere; you have to curate and dedicate effort to it. Billie has been misleading herself for so long about what will actually fulfill her that for one, she thinks great sex will automatically cure her marriage, and two, that her roaring twenties had greener grass than they really did.
Everyone has their guilty pleasures, and many would safely characterize Sex/Life as such. But is a guilty pleasure supposed to make you want to shower after watching it? Probably not.
It’s tempting to romanticize our exes, especially if we’re having problems at home. But in doing so we fail to remember that they’re our exes for a reason, usually a good one. Billie isn’t satisfied by the party girl, hookup whenever with whoever lifestyle, nor is she fulfilled by a marriage to Prince Charming and two cute kids. She wants something that doesn’t even exist, or at least the best of both of those worlds – which none of us can ever have without causing serious, irreparable harm and destruction.
Some of us might view marriage as a trade-off. We’re giving up independence, unpredictability disguised as “excitement” for a day-to-day routine that can quickly become boring.
Hopefully, Billie and anyone else who’s tempted to follow in her footsteps realizes that earth-shattering sex is not the sole foundation of a complex, multidimensional and fulfilling relationship. Marriage requires really hard work and dedication, meaning it’s not meant for everyone. A life like Billie’s may be exciting for the length of a sexual encounter, but it lacks the depth and profound rewards that only marriage and commitment can foster.
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