In the third episode of Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper’s recent Sky Atlantic series, I Hate Suzie, the titular protagonist, played by Piper – a late thirty-something actress and mother of one whose career and marriage are teetering on collapse – finds herself alone in her country pile, reeling from a disastrous newspaper interview, and in need of a mental pick-me-up. She lies back on her bed, kicks off the duvet, idly slips her hand under the elastic waistband of her PJ bottoms until – yep! It’s off to the races we go.
In fact, it turns out, the whole episode of the comedy-drama is structured around Suzie’s increasingly frantic attempts to get herself off – including raiding her son’s robot toy for a precious battery for her vibrator – as she tries to use masturbation to work through her marital transgressions, reignite her feelings for her jilted husband and save their relationship. (That’s women for you, ever the pragmatists.)
It still feels pretty radical to base the narrative arc of an entire 30-minute episode on female self-pleasure. It certainly wasn’t something you could have imagined happening on a female-centric show 20 years ago: Samantha in Sex & The City may have been a pioneering outlier (“I’m masturbating,” as she tells Charlotte during an unwelcome phone call, “I told you I’d be doing that all day”), but you didn’t see Rachel or Monica disappearing into the bedroom with their Rampant Rabbits while the guys were across the hall practising for auditions/studying dinosaurs/over-emphasising the bare infinitive following on from the modal verb in rhetorical questions (OK fine I haven’t seen it in a while). It just wasn’t done.
And yet if you look at contemporary TV comedies – particularly those coming from female creators, who, let’s face it, are the ones setting the bar right now – onanism is everywhere (I’d also like to point out that in researching this piece I’ve probably put myself on some kind of HR watchlist so, you know, you’re welcome).
The opening episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag famously included a scene of her self-frottaging to footage of Barack Obama, while Michaela Cole’s Chewing Gum – the Channel 4 comedy series, now on All 4, that paved the way for her recent genre-redefining I May Destroy You – was based almost entirely around the sexual miseducation of the virginal central character, Tracey (sample line, during a dirty dream: “Oh Jay-Z, don’t you dare…”).
Occasionally, female characters have been shown getting so overwhelmed with atmospheric sexiness that they have to shut themselves away pronto – often in a public convenience – to release the pressure. Marnie in Lena Dunham’s Girls locks herself in a gallery toilet and gets to it after she’s dirty-talked at by an artist at a swanky private view; more recently in Vicky Jones’ HBO series Run, exec-produced by Jones’ friend and frequent collaborator Waller-Bridge (available on NowTV), protagonist Ruby is so overwhelmed by pheromones when reunited with an old flame that she whisks herself off to masturbate in a train toilet (I mean, have you been in one of those? It’s pretty hard to contain your lust at the best of times).
There’s more comedy mileage however, as Piper and Prebble demonstrate, in the specifics of mundane, domestic masturbation. There’s Ilana in Broad City (Amazon Prime) with her elaborate pre-session rituals involving candles, earrings, carefully positioned mirror and weird turquoise lipstick; Issa Rae in Insecure (Amazon Prime) also doing her own version of the frantic vibrator battery search; Awkwafina in Awkwafina is Nora From Queens (BBC iPlayer) pulling out her box of terrifyingly oversized sex toys and loading up Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, only to be interrupted by her grandma who wants her to go with her on OAP coach ride to Atlantic City. We’ve all been there.
Of course I won’t be the first to note that there’s something refreshing about the television-watching masses seeing female characters free-soloing (and yes, I’m trying not to write “wank” cos it’s just the worst – “mistressbation” anyone?) in a way that is for their own gratification, and not ours. Unless grotty sweatpants is what you happen to be into, of course.
But what’s even more delightful is to see the act crossing over into the realms of silliness. We’ve been laughing at male masturbation for decades – warm apple pie, anyone? – as the recent squirmy Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston table-read of a key scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High also reminded us. But to be at a stage where presenting female self-pleasuring on screen isn’t just a point in itself, but a means to a comedy end, is surely a progress of some kind. Perhaps we haven’t come a long way, but we’ve certainly come.
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