Looking for NSA: Justin, Mila, Ashton, Natalie

Get ready for monogamy.  Because in 2011 it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen at the movies.  No seriously.  Or funnily.  Or something.  As the folks over at New York Magazine’s Vulture blog note here, there are not one, but TWO movies coming out next year about “friends with benefits.” 

One is actually called . . . Friends with Benefits ­– that’s the one with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis explaining that sex is “a physical act, like playing tennis.”  And in the trailer, we see that Justin’s a standup guy because he performs oral sex and even makes sure Mila’s screams are of pleasure and not of the unwanted sexual advances kind. 

No Strings Attached is about Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher answering the trailer’s question “Can you have sex without love getting in the way?” Natalie’s a doctor so she offers the soundbite “I think monogamy goes against our basic biology.” See, she’s a doctor, so she knows.

But really, is anyone watching these trailers not thinking that what we’re about to learn is that casual sex – sex between friends – NSA – f— buddies – whatever you want to call isn’t possible when two attractive people are in a two hour romantic comedy?  Hollywood is hip but also hip to what Debra Moddelmog recently observed in her article “Can Romantic Comedy Be Gay” – that Hollywood romantic comedies remain wedded to the celebration of heterosexual monogamy.  So FWB and NSA offer us fantasies of men sold as sexual objects and intelligent brunettes sold as the thinking man’s sexual object discovering that as awesome as sex is, it’s more awesome if you’re in a relationship.  Both Ashton and Justin are perfect because they have made careers out of being personalities instead of actors – Justin’s blue-eyed soul was best expressed in his best-selling album FutureSex/Love Sounds where he basically offered all the sex you could want; Ashton has always been an attractive puppy dog who has pursued camera commercials in lieu of the acting career that never works these days.  In Spread, Ashton offered a nuanced performance as a hustler that slept his way into the homes of rich women and inevitability discovered how hollow that enterprise can be.  Lest you confused Spread for reality, or a probing look at sex for money, I would suggest you leave those misconceptions at the door.  Or rather, rewatch Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1971 moody noir Klute.  Here Jane stars as a hooker attempting to leave the business and in between the dimly lit action sequences we are shown her Second Wave feminist conversations with a therapist about the ways in which sex for money and sex as performance work for someone in the sex industry.  Too often Second Wave is short-hand for misguided these days in feminist theory, but I find this treatment compelling and human.

But I digress.  Back to Ashton, Justin, Mila and Natalie.

And I might even add into the mix Just Go With It the forthcoming Adam Sandler movie in which he bags babes by pretending to be married, meets a swimsuit model (or something, the trailer is really into her breasts from what I gather) wants to show her he’s not married and turns to Jennifer Aniston, his “dowdy” fellow doctor or nurse or some permutation thereof and gets all My Fair Lady and voila Jennifer’s a babe and Adam’s using her kids to pretend with the swimsuit model.  I suspect we’ll learn a valuable lesson about the value of Jennifer Aniston, children, monogamy and how they counterbalance the weight of “younger” women as eye candy.  See, here the movie gives us women as spectacle but then we’ll feel good about choosing the “older” woman who is smart, sensible and Rachel from Friends with her hair pulled back.

By now you’re perhaps asking yourself, “so what?”  Moddelmog’s critique of romantic comedies focuses on the differences between gay and straight couples and I am focusing on boring old heteros.  What I find intriguing about these films is that the idea of casual sex is offered as a bid to be cool and knowing, but then revealed to be hollow.  Casual sex between close friends we are sure to discover is impossible without love and dates but ultimately that’s we all should want, right?  In the wake of the AIDS crisis, queer theory has gone back and forth on the issue of cruising and casual erotic encounters.  These moments of jouissance are heralded as offering self-shattering insights but more conservative or neo-liberal strands of gay scholarship question the pursuit of such acts.  And not just because of threat of life, but because a homonormative couple is easier to sell to the right and the middle.  Coupledom in general is that sacred lie we are sold.  I am not saying that monogamy cannot be hot, steamy, romantic, fantastic and such, but I am saying that popular culture is tripping over itself to promote it, and even to protect it against such “immature” impulses as casual sex – in FWB Mila and Justin refer to their encounters as feel like something you would do in college.  I am not arguing for sex with abandon and without concern for safety and consent, rather, I am wondering where the queer pursuit of sex and intimacy beyond the traditional dyad can be found.  The 2001 film Bandits offered a glimpse of polyamorous potential in its resolution of the Cate Blanchett-Billy Bob Thornton-Bruce Willis triangle.  Spoiler alert – there’s no boy on boy action, it’s not that queer, but still, there’s an alternative to a guy and a girl and a monogamous good time.

The alternatives that I suspect (and I am fully prepared to be proved wrong) will go unexplored in FWB and NSA are perhaps best suggested in Elizabeth Povinelli’s fascinating, albeit othering, text Empire of Love.  She considers the possiblities of what she calls “intimate promiscuity,” writing, “”Experimenting with new relationships between anonymous sex and intimate friendship would indeed upset the fabric of humanist discourse because it cut diagonally across carnality and intimacy, it refused their constitutive differences, or made use of them to increase the frisson of a sexual encounter and an intimate bed” (235).  Instead of increasing the frisson, these popular texts seem poised to banish the potential for intimate promiscuity, and reveal sex as just not as good without love in its neoliberal bastardized form.  Watching the hilariously NSFW video for Enrique Iglesias’s “Tonight I’m F—ing You” I was struck by the last image, of him sitting on a bed gazing out at the camera while behind him a density of attractive women writhe in provocative pseudo-lesbianic ways for the male gaze.  Instead of looking happy, he looks sad.  Why so sad Enrique?  Maybe you need to go looking for Jennifer Aniston.

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