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'The Idol' Embodied Our Sexual Culture
The controversial HBO show captured something honest about sexuality, obscenity and trauma that many of us are too afraid to confront.
The Idol never stood a chance. Under the direction of Sam Levinson and with all the flashiness of its promotion as a scandalous HBO production, it was destined to be loathed by those who would likely never even watch the show at all. And immediately, that became the case: before the first episode even aired, the Internet delighted in the low reviews given out by critics who themselves had a bone to pick with some political aspect of the show rather than the show itself. Meanwhile, the critiques of the show actually relevant to what was shown on screen centered primarily on its pessimism: its sinister, voyeuristic and obscene depiction of sex lent to aversion and discomfort. But rather than lambasting The Idol for this, we ought to be celebrating it as an accurate representation of our sexual culture.
With the public’s interpretation of The Idol, media literacy seemed at its lowest. Demonstrating “bad” things was seen as an endorsement of them. For example, a scene in which an intimacy coordinator gets locked in a bathroom was interpreted as an attack on intimacy coordinators writ large, despite the fact that an actual intimacy coordinator was surely on set for the scene itself, as is mandatory for all HBO shows. Some even took a scene in which the character Tedros, played by the Weeknd, mispronounced “carte blanche” as evidence of the actor's inability to properly say the phrase rather than an intentionally placed faux pas. It is the Weeknd who has perhaps been most unfairly treated throughout the course of the show’s five episodes — never could he escape his character being viewed as a direct parallel to his own identity. It was not Tedros who choked the protagonist Jocelyn and delivered corny lines of dirty-talk, but the Weeknd himself. Here, there was no separating art from the artist. To play a role, to portray certain acts, to read from a script was to make those things real and enact the consequences of them upon the world.
But perhaps what made people so uncomfortable about what The Idol depicted was its familiarity. These acts and their consequences were not new. We already live in a cringeworthy, painful, scopophilic culture. The Idol did not make that so, but rather reflected it.
In watching The Idol, I was reminded of Hal Foster’s 1996 essay Obscene, Abject, Traumatic. Here, he wrote that art dealing with the abject — using Julia Kristeva’s definition of that which I must get rid of in order to be an I at all — often either approached it as a means of probing trauma or reflecting the abject itself. The latter carries its own risks: namely, the public outrage the abject elicits serve almost to pacify the abjection itself, to make it functionally whole again. “The danger, of course, is that this mimesis may confirm a given abjection,” he wrote. “... An abject artist (like Andres Serrano) may call out for an evangelical senator (like Jesse Helms), who then completes the work, as it were, negatively. Moreover, as left and right may agree on the social representatives of the abject, they may shore each other up in a public exchange of disgust, and this spectacle may inadvertently support the normativity of image-screen and symbolic order alike.”
This may be what happened here with The Idol: to be angry or upset about the show, to center the discourse around it accordingly, is to defang its obscene power. But I think it's within the context of the traumatic that the show and the response to it is best understood. As Foster details in the essay, by 1996 art had begun trending toward prioritizing trauma. Rather than dealing with the abject as something each of us inflicts from within, the focus becomes what has been inflicted upon us.
He wrote, “today there is a general tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma: a lingua trauma is spoken in popular culture, academic discourse, and the art and literary worlds… in therapy culture, talk shows and memoir-mongering, trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject, and in this psychologistic register the subject, however disturbed, rushes back as survivor, witness, testifier. Here a traumatic subject does indeed exist, and it has absolute authority, for one cannot challenge the trauma of another: one can only believe it, even identify with it, or not.”
What made The Idol unique in this regard is that it dealt with the concept of trauma heavily, but neglected to mine it for authority much in the way Foster describes. In fact, (spoiler alert) the trauma the show depicts ultimately does not exist at all. The Idol intertwined the obscene, the abject and the traumatic without asking the viewer to believe or identify with anything. Most controversially, it did so within the context of sex. Most of the sex scenes of the show were intentionally grim. They felt porn-y, “inauthentic.” Most saw this as a flaw rather than a challenging representation of what much of our current relationship with sex is often actually like. Moreover, rather than redeeming our protagonist Jocelyn and her perversions by identifying her as a survivor of trauma, we are left with the flat reality that her desires cannot be so easily located. The abject was questioned, but never fully reconciled. It was uncomfortable because it was true to life.
I’ve mentioned before that I’d like to see more sex on television that doesn’t feel quite so wicked. The Idol, like Euphoria, does reflect much of why people today may not “enjoy” sex scenes — they are rarely designed to be enjoyable. Maybe if we had a better reference for what a pleasurable sex scene looked like, we’d be better equipped to deal with those scenes that aren’t. I also think the show would have been far more successful, at least artistically, had it been afforded the opportunity to do so. By cutting it down to five episodes, the plot in the end felt jilted and haphazard. It was by no means a perfect show, but to call it one of the worst as some critics have is inaccurate and vindictive. The Idol hit a nerve and made a point, as high a mark of success as any piece of art could hope for. It is a show that, whether they liked it or not, people will be thinking about and reckoning with for some time. It could have been so much more. But that it was restrained is appropriate in its own way, too. No one is quite ready to deal with the consequences of this current sexual culture defined by the divide between hyper-sexuality and shame. The Idol came close to showing us just how stifling this position is, and so we shoved it out of sight.