An Oyster’s Burden
Why are we still using food to represent female and queer desire on screen?
Even though popular media is near-ubiquitous in its representations of sex, we still see food standing in on-screen for body parts or sexual acts. This is largely a mechanism used to censor certain kinds of bodies, and certain kinds of sex, to the detriment of social progress.
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By Megan Jones
Who remembers Mr. Pussy?
Sex and the City, season two, episode three. One of the fleeting allegorical characters of which the writers were so fond, Mr. Pussy is famed across the New York dating scene for his affinity for going down on women. Sitting at the bar in a busy Manhattan restaurant, he conveys his desire to give Charlotte the goods by lapping seductively at an oyster, shucked and glistening. Because apparently, it is less ridiculous for a man to twirl his tongue inside an hors d’oeuvre in front of the city’s elite than it would be for him to say “Look, Charlotte, I really just want to give you head.”
The oyster is doing all the work here, saddled as it is with the responsibility of forever standing in for vulvic glory. Using food as a metaphor for body parts made sense in the past when implying sex rather than showing it kept producers on the sunny side of TV codes of conduct. But for a while now, the real deal has tended to fly, at least for mostly white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males. It might make headlines, but no one blows a gasket watching Harry Goldenblatt’s laughably large prosthetic penis in And Just Like That or Connell’s flaccid member lying slack against his thigh in Normal People. In 2022, shows like Naked Attraction — where contestants pick their prospective mates after their intimate body parts are revealed to them by a slowly-rising screen — are capturing the attention of vast audiences, and series such as Bridgerton are titillating viewers with their steamy sex scenes. Even in the late nineties, the scenes of women clearly and explicitly fellating men in Sex and the City were too numerous to count.
So why do we still see food standing in on-screen for certain body parts or sexual acts in so many mainstream films and TV shows in Western media? And whose sex is being censored? In the present day, this practice seems to persist mainly when the spotlight is turned on the desire of women and queer people, while cis men can have their cake and their uncensored sex on screen too.
At the time of its release, Sex and the City was widely considered to be a revolutionary show for its portrayal of the sex lives of single women in New York. And yet, perhaps a symptom of its famously all-male writer’s room, most of the sex scenes take their cues from male-directed porn — Samantha reaching climax the second a penis is released from its cotton prison, for example — and suffer inexorably from being incapable of taking female sexuality seriously. Even after all those close-ups of the oyster rolling around in Mr. Pussy’s mouth, you would think we might actually get to see Mr. Pussy portrayed in the scandalous act of going down on a real woman.
Instead, all we get in this regard are several panning camera shots of Charlotte enjoying his efforts while his head remains chastely under a bedsheet. Mr. Pussy and the enjoyment he receives from giving pleasure rather than just receiving it (a trait that should be celebrated, not scorned) is relegated to the realm of the ridiculous. It doesn’t help that the episode with Mr. Pussy is named “The Freak Show”, and that his character appears as a convenient cipher for Carrie’s theory that all men are “freaks”. The overriding message of the episode? Men who prioritize female pleasure should be ostracized from society and should keep their deranged proclivities to themselves. Women’s desire is amusing, a thing of bawdy anecdotes, a thing of winks and nudges, reducing female pleasure to little more than a punchline. And this is part of the problem with using food as a stand-in for accurate, tender portrayals of female desire.
Food is further utilized in Sex and the City as a means of simplifying the complexities of female desire. “I have a crush,” Carrie says, as she shoves an entire Magnolia Bakery cupcake into her mouth. Miranda, while in a sexual dry spell, becomes addicted to buying and consuming boxed chocolate cake in its entirety. The first Sex and the City movie sees Samantha declare, in amongst shots of her inhaling guacamole: “I eat, so I don’t cheat.” The analogizing of food and sex in the female psyche reduces the intricacies of sexual pleasure to something that can be satisfied by, say, going to the grocery store, buying a box of cake mix, and throwing it in the oven. Betty Crocker’s Devil’s Food Cake mix takes approximately thirty minutes to bake, which, coincidentally, is about three times longer than most men will bother to try and bring a woman to orgasm.
Sex and the City certainly isn’t the only culprit. Other film and TV productions lauded for their open-mindedness toward sex are guilty too. Gossip Girl, so sexually free in its conception that it was dubbed “every parent’s nightmare”, finds itself incapable of expressing desire through a female lens. While an endless parade of Hervé Leger-clad women tiptoes out of Chuck’s apartment in the early hours to little fanfare, Serena is reduced to sucking on a chocolate-covered strawberry on the Hamptons’ Jitney while making eye contact with her ex-boyfriend Dan in order to convey her desire for sex. Even in the Gossip Girl universe, which portrays, in some respects a realistic teenage experience (wealth, and any season beyond the second one being the notable exceptions), won’t allow Serena to just tell Dan that she wants to screw him in the bus toilets.
And it’s not just cis women whose desire is being censored. Sex Education, a much more recent show that has been widely celebrated for showcasing the gamut of sexual experience and not, for once, limiting itself to expressing solely that of the straight person, also falls victim to the trope of using food as a metaphor. Eric, when teaching Anwar how to give head to his boyfriend, demonstrates on a banana, leading to a scene in which several characters “comically” vomit all over each other.
In Call Me by Your Name, a movie praised for its centring of a queer relationship, the audience is treated to multiple viewings of the bare ass of 17-year-old Elio thrusting into his lady friend, Marzia. But as soon as Elio’s desire shifts towards Oliver, a 24-year-old American graduate student, the camera pans slyly away. Now, his expressions of desire are made less explicit, culminating in him sloping off to the attic on his own to masturbate into a peach.
It's not that these food metaphors serve no purpose at all. In a landscape where female and queer desire has historically been sidelined (so much so that I nearly passed out when I saw the three-second-long cunnilingus scene in The Worst Person in the World), the use of food serves as an entry point for a conservative viewership to get comfortable with the idea that women and queer people experience the same carnal desires as their cis male counterparts. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if these same filters were applied to the sex lives of straight men, but the gap yawns.
An optimistic reading of these omissions might posit that they’re simply a symptom of Hollywood’s diversity problem. For example, women made up only 5% of directors of the top 1,500 films made between 2017 and 2021, and only 19% of writers of the top 100 grossing films in 2019. Could it be simply that writers write and directors direct what they know? Or is there something more sinister about the censoring of female and queer sex on screen? Although diversity is no doubt part of the problem, this failure on the part of the film and TV industry speaks to a culture that teaches us that desire and pleasure are things that white cis-men should have, take, and be proud of, but that everyone else should suppress or conceal. It’s the culture of slut shaming and victim-blaming, linked to the same systems of power that seek to control deviant bodies — those that can become pregnant or enjoy clitoral stimulation or touch others in parts that the Bible didn’t tell us to touch — through the repeal of abortion rights and access to contraception or gender-affirming healthcare. Whatever the reason for its absence, failing to show anything other than “mainstream” male-centric sex serves to reinforce mainstream misogyny. Are we not ready to see a different type of sex portrayed on screen?
If media companies dared to thrust female and queer desire out of the darkness and into the limelight in all its serious, explicit glory, it might help to subvert collective norms around whose pleasure matters. Until now, scriptwriters, perhaps too busy patting themselves on the back for having portrayed queer and female sexuality at all, aren’t quite brave enough to show these acts for what they are: tender, meaningful, and explicit. As sex is, and should be.
Megan Jones is a writer, editor, and translator living in London, United Kingdom. She writes a monthly newsletter at: onegoodonebad.substack.com.