Image via screengrab/Broad City
In the second season of Transparent, Ali Pfefferman, played by Gaby Hoffmann, lackadaisically dons a strap-on, gently rubbing it against the face of Carrie Brownstein's Syd Feldman. The harnessed dildo isn't presented as a sight gag or even used in a sexual way; it's just shown matter-of-factly, something that isn't worth a whole lot of fuss.The strap-on penis—veiny, assertive, PVC-free—has been making more and more cameos on TV shows. There was, of course, the much-discussed pegging episode of Broad City, but the rubbery member also popped up on Orange Is the New Black and Sense8. This is exciting for many reasons—the strap-on can be used to invert gender roles, portray a broader spectrum of sexuality, and honestly depict lesbian sex, just to name a few. But its rise is also a hard-won victory, considering the shameful ways Hollywood has previously portrayed objects that provide sexual pleasure.
Sex toys—including strap-ons, anal beads, and vibrators—have typically been used to provide comic relief, embarrass characters, and condemn the kinky. Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and author of Masturbation in Pop Culture, has analyzed more than 500 mentions of masturbation in TV and film and can speak with encyclopedic knowledge about the varied ways Hollywood has used rubber and silicone phalluses in service of sex negativity.There was the episode of Archer where the main character accidentally touches his mother's dildo and says, "There's not enough liquor and therapy in the world to undo that." (Understandable, in some ways, but still.) Even in supposedly progressive TV shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation, the character Clare (played by Aislinn Paul) is teased mercilessly by friends and her own mother after being caught with a vibrator at school.Sex and the City's urtext on vibrators—"The Turtle and the Hare"—is tinged with anxiety over the device's potential to destroy relationships. "You cannot take a vibrator home to meet your mother and father!" Charlotte exclaims in the beginning of the episode. Once she tries it, she fears that she'll never go back to sex with a man again, and the gang ends up "rescuing" her from the now nefarious device.
"Women being able to achieve sexual pleasure on their own, without a man, is still construed as threatening," Rosewarne says. (On the flip side, men have long been allowed to masturbate on TV—or at least allude to it with old-timey phrases like "cleaning the pipes" and "making the bald man cry.") The vibrator made one of its first on-camera appearances in the 1989 film Parenthood starring Steve Martin. Gil, Martin's character, accidentally touches one during a blackout, which he finds hilarious and its owner finds mortifying. The message is clear: Vibrators are private, shameful, and slightly horrifying.
But all that's changing now, at least on basic cable. "It seems like this year there's been a lot of dildos on premium TV land," Claire Cavanah, a co-founder of the sex toy shop Babeland, told me.She's glad to see it, but she wishes that shows should also bring the vibrators out of the nightstands and into main characters' orifices."There's something more sincerely sex positive about showing a vibrator because it's a sex toy that people really use," she says. "The magic wand in particular should just make a cameo in every bedroom scene on every show, because that's reality."Cavanah says she sees a rise in sales when adult toys are mentioned on TV; right now Babeland is getting deluged with requests for the Liberator Wedge, a sex pillow Aziz Ansari buys from Babeland in an episode of Master of None."Cis dudes love it because it's got [Aziz] Ansari's stamp of approval," she said.Ducky Doolittle, a sex toy expert and wholesaler, would also like to see rubber penises removed from the jokey confines of late-night talk shows and integrated into plotlines with a genuine sense of curiosity and playfulness."There's that episode of Peep Show where one of the reserved roommates shows off his ten-inch dildo named Kenneth that's the size of a leg of lamb," she says. "I thought that was such good TV; I just love the shamelessness."And while pegging is nice, there are tons of other kinky acts that barely get any pop culture loving—just think of the comedic possibilities of the remote-controlled vibrating butt plug. Or, Rosewarne's favorite: the dildo that lays "alien" eggs molded from gelatin in any body cavity you choose. "I'd be totally interested to see characters incorporating a egg-laying dildo into their sex play," she told me.