Free Agents, the TV show, begins with two characters in bed, and one opens a full condom drawer. The guy sees and says something like, “What are you—a slut?” The woman replies, and they have an excruciating discussion whose underlying content is a typical rehash of an ancient calumny about female sexuality. The scene is neither funny nor genuine, and the two problems are related.
If your characters are old enough to have a B.A., they’re old enough not to care about the idea of the “slut.” Younger characters, especially ones in high school, might still be interested in whether someone is a “slut,” but that’s mostly because a) teenagers are projecting uncertainty and fear regarding their own sexuality on others, b) many have parents who engage in various forms of daughter-guarding and other forms of shame internalization, and c) girls, especially, will use social approbation and shaming as a form of mate guarding behavior. If older characters like those in Free Agents are still concerned about the same problems as high school students, they’ve not matured enough to even be interesting. Even a show like Californication, whatever its other flaws, has moved beyond the “slut” question.
Like Free Agents, it’s also about someone with a stunted emotional life, but at least Californication is intellectually honest enough not to go for the “slut” question. Rather, it assumes that people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t, don’t, which seems like the way the world is heading. Besides, by college graduation or thereabouts, most people will never really know about their partners’ past, and, again, by the time one graduates from college or reaches the age at which college graduation occurs, everyone is someone’s sloppy seconds. The median age for first sex in the United Sates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 (see Google for more); by the time a person hits their 30s, asking number questions becomes pointless if potentially amusing.
I’m not annoyed only because the concept behind word “slut” does, as Mark Liberman put it, “project bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” Even if you do do endorse that framework, endorsing it with someone you’re about to have sex with probably isn’t the optimal place to engage the issue. It only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool, but, from what I can tell, that wasn’t what Free Agents was going for. It played the issue straight. To go back to Liberman—who is himself also writing about a TV show, albeit Sex and the City—”The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one’s opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to.” TV shows aren’t necessarily a medium that promotes social and intellectual
I can see why TV show writers might go for the “slut”: they think it can create dramatic tension. But it’s a false dramatic tension, which is why I said the issue isn’t “genuine,” and false dramatic tension leads to jokes that aren’t funny either, because such jokes don’t engage any substantive ideas; really funny jokes often or usually do. Pretty much every single person with the proverbial half a brain has condoms around. Their presence doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m prepared for the best,” which is a refreshing change compared to people who are prepared for the worst. It would be stranger if the woman in the show was single and didn’t have condoms.
So the “slut” problem reduces to one of two issues: the writers are lazy, so they introduce being a “slut” or not to create artificial tension; or the writers are dumb because they deal with a dead issue. Neither bodes well for the show. But it does hold an important lesson for narrative writers, whether visual or written: don’t focus on dead or dying issues. Focus on live ones. Feminists have been arguing against the “slut” framework of ideas since at least the 1960s if not earlier; Leora Tanenbaum wrote whole book on the subject, subtitled “Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” People’s behavior, if not their rhetoric, shows the issue to be dead. So instead of using it, why not skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been?
The question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway: knowing the puck’s present location is easy. Knowing where it’s going is much, much harder, and a lot of the big media businesses, including TV, are too big and too expensive to take major risks on the unknown. Better to leave those big risks to dingy writers living in their parents’ basements or hiding from the real world in graduate school. That solution probably worked pretty well in a pre-Internet era. By now, however, people who want to take intellectual, social, and artistic risks can coalesce on the Internet. While Hollywood dithers and debates about sluts, the innovators are moving or have moved online. Don’t be surprised if the audience follows. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to be in the vanguard, don’t watch so much TV. Check out the bookstores and libraries instead. You’ll find it there. TV used to be the medium of the future, but in some ways it feels like the medium of the past.
EDIT: It appears Free Agents is heading towards cancellation. I’m tempted to say something like puerile like “good riddance,” but the problems described above transcend this show and will no doubt be repeated by successors, in more or less subtle guises.