Even though we live in a highly sexualized culture, realistic portrayals of female sexuality are rare. Recent television programming has changed that, though. Woman-produced shows like Girls, Orange Is the New Black and Masters of Sex have blazed new trails. The struggle to make women’s desire less taboo on TV has been a slow process, though. Time Magazine recenly gave a short history of female sexual empowerment onscreen. Here are the highlights.
1. Masters of Sex (2013 – )
Despite taking place in the 1950s, Masters of Sex may be the most progressive show on TV when it comes to women and sex. Based on the real sex research of Virginia Johnson and William Masters, the show extensively explores the science of sexuality—and female sexuality especially. In an early episode, Virginia explains to William why a woman might fake an orgasm. The researchers go on to study topics ranging from female masturbation to the merits of the clitoris versus the G-Spot. “The sex is so integral to our story that [the producers] have had to come up with really clever ways to braid it in there,” Lizzy Caplan, who plays Johnson, tells TIME. “I think they’ve managed to do that where it doesn’t feel like it’s being made for 14-year-old boys.”
2. Orange Is the New Black (2013 – )
Netflix’s prestige series about a women’s prison is the first show to delve into all types of female sexuality. Too often shows like The O.C. or Weeds create a plot line in which a straight woman “experiments” with being gay. Orange Is the New Black cleverly turns that trope on its head by pursuing a story in which the main character—Piper, a spoiled New Yorker—falls back in love with her ex-girlfriend while in prison (despite having a male fiancé waiting for her on the outside). The other characters on the show range from bisexual to lesbian to straight. It’s also the first mainstream show to feature a transgender female character played by a transgender woman.
The show—which has the most diverse cast on television in terms of race, sexuality and body type—approaches women’s sex realistically and unforgivingly, the way other shows might approach male sexuality. Memorable scenes include a character using a dog to masturbate, a woman who has just had a baby lactating during sex and a competition between two inmates to see who can bed the most women.
3. Game of Thrones (2011 – )
Game of Thrones has a complicated relationship with women. Many fans were outraged this year when the show’s writers added a rape scene that didn’t exist in the book. And in just about every episode, the HBO show finds a way to flash women’s breasts onscreen. But these degrading sex scenes are balanced by some particularly powerful moments for the female characters: at the end of this season, Daenerys Targaryan, a queen, ordered one of her followers to strip so that she could have her way with him (consensually) in the same manner that many men have ordered women to sleep with them on the show before; and a rape victim, Cersei, similarly seduced her brother, Jaime in a moment of particular power and passion. Women on the show are beginning to learn to take what they want—just like their male counterparts. Game of Thrones is a cruel world, but it is one where women often have equal opportunity to manipulate and murder their way to the top.
4. True Blood (2008 – 2014)
Though Sookie Stackhouse constantly needed to be protected by men, True Blood had its progressive moments (usually involving orgies). Women were predators almost as often as men, and they had just as much of a sexual drive. For three season, Sookie was torn between two potential love interests: Bill and Eric. But finally Sookie asked herself, “Why can’t I have both?” The result was a steamy vampire threesome. Sure, it was a dream, but how often do you see a threesome with two men on TV?