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12 June 2023

What HBO’s The Idol teaches us about porn

Its transgressive sex scenes are designed to get viewers off, go viral – and would never have been created by a woman.

By Pravina Rudra

Even before the first episode of HBO’s The Idol was released last Monday (5 June) it was making headlines, with social media agog at its transgressive sex scenes, and a production source telling Rolling Stone it was “torture porn”.

The series stars Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn, a pop star who has undergone the Britney/Miley Cyrus/Amanda Bynes treatment. She has breakdowns and embarrassments in the public eye, and fears she’s producing hollow, commercial music at the behest of her slightly oppressive handlers. The real story, however, is the “boundary-pushing” sexual relationship she develops with a part-time nightclub owner, part-time leader of a sex cult called Tedros – and oh, sorry, how Jocelyn “develops her voice” through it. Tedros is played by the singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye, who records as the Weeknd, who co-created the show alongside Sam Levinson, the director of HBO’s Bafta-nominated drama Euphoria.

The opening is sort of funny, poking at celebrity and PR in a 24/7 online culture. When a photo of Jocelyn with sexual fluids on her face goes viral, her team discuss how they might rebrand her as a victim, then a feminist hero by the next morning. You get a sense of what the show was perhaps supposed to be about.

Even here, though, there’s a constant stream of provocative material that’s not so much gratuitous as an unashamed attempt to get us off – and quickly. In the first setting a group of dancers repeatedly grind over Jocelyn (one takes particular pleasure in hovering his hand over Jocelyn’s crotch). An intimacy co-ordinator is locked in a room (Jocelyn thinks he’s a drag!). A character declares that “mental illness is sexy!”. How edgy!

The Idol is desperate to let us know just how self-aware it is – it even references Britney to clarify it’s making fun of itself, OK? Titillating sequences are in fact social commentary – Levinson says he intended the stripping of a bikini top Jocelyn wears in one scene to show how people underestimate her. All in all, the first half of the opening episode opts for the same tone as those guys who say something outrageously misogynistic and when you’re offended, tell you they were being ironic

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From here though, it gets darker. The last 20 minutes of the first episode involve the Weeknd pulling out a knife on Depp while suffocating her with the dress he’s pulled up over her head and – just to spell it out – Jocelyn’s friend calling Tedros “rapey”, to which Jocelyn responds: “Yeah I kinda like that about him.” It makes a case study ripe for the frequent discussions between different generations of women on Twitter about whether choking is a “normal” part of sex.

[See also: Netflix doesn’t understand why people watch porn]

Now, I don’t want to kink shame, as liberals are always saying – and sure, women have dark fantasies, often involving submission – but watching The Idol, I kept wondering, would a woman make a TV show like this? No, as it turns out. Amy Seimetz, the female director originally signed on to make The Idol, left after the Weeknd overhauled the show for having, sources told Deadline, too much of a “female perspective”. Levinson, who is reported to have originally scripted scenes in which Joceyln’s face was beaten while she asked for more, then took over.

Recall the age-old rebuttal to misogynistic porn: “We can flood the web with feminist porn, porn created by women!” That’s hardly the stuff that leads on Pornhub, is it? Whether it’s step-siblings or schoolgirls, more transgressive wins the homepage because it’s titillating; when you’ve clicked on everything else, you need something more outré to get off on. And so it is with The Idol: it often feels as though HBO has crammed it with subversive and sensationalist moments for the purpose of social media engagement. It has leaned into negative coverage with a wink – the network even boasts that it is the “sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood”.

My problem with The Idol is the same as that with so much of porn: its creators say it’s irony, a fantasy, only pretend. Which is OK, until it comes to haunt women in the real world. Almost every young single woman has an anecdote about men who don’t know how to have sex that isn’t “rough”. A friend of mine has two male friends who are nice and ostensibly progressive, but also can’t climax with a woman unless they’re choking her. Do you think that would have happened before porn went online? People so often say porn should be banned or let be, but make it clear either way that they’ve never seen it. Perhaps because no one wants to engage with the actual content, or admit they’ve seen it, we are incapable of grappling with the reality. The question of the misogyny of porn is complicated and can’t be solved by taking a pro- or anti-pornography stance. Instead, it requires thinking about how porn could be given a radical shake-up. 

My ultimate feeling is that The Idol has nothing deeper to offer beneath these eye-catching moments and the stylistic shots. There’s no one to root for, no discernible chemistry. Minutes after commenting on Tedros’s “rat-tail” hair, Jocelyn says. “I like you”, to which he replies. “I like you too” – and you believe neither of them. You feel a bit like Jocelyn, drawing coolly on her cigarette for a good proportion of the first episode, as if to say “I don’t know, I don’t care”. There’s no connection to be had here, much like the emotionless sex the show’s creators believe in – and perhaps, porn.

In a way, the show isn’t as provocative as its producers believe. It’s softer than the stuff people open in their incognito tabs all the time, and packaged in palatable HBO/Sky Atlantic wrapping. Ideally, the fact we’re all talking about The Idol would mean we can finally have a national conversation around porn. But it seems unlikely.

[See also: Where are all the good books on sex?]

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