While Netflix series such as Wanderlust have made middle-aged women – and their hitherto latent desires – suddenly visible, the question is, are these shows entirely worth seeing?By Helen Razer.
All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This may well have been true for Russian novelists of the 19th century, and for many Western filmmakers of the 20th. It is not quite so true for Netflix, the principal stylist of all family unhappiness in our present moment. Happily, happy families remain too alike to be chosen as the subject of its drama. Unhappily, the unhappy ones have begun to face forms of unhappiness that seem a little too alike.
If it’s not murder, prison and/or entanglement with a drug cartel that’s troubling the 21st-century Karenins and Vronskys, it’s likely to be an older Anna’s sexual and emotional repression – a topic “not often talked about”, according to Toni Collette, the star of Netflix’s newest drama Wanderlust.
Co-produced with the BBC, this six-part drama looks like a rich Tolstoyan labour. Or, at least, it does briefly – just after we learn that it’s not really, as advertised, packed with saucy scenes, and just before we learn it’s not much chop.
By the start of the show’s second episode, the racy extramarital sex of the premiere has slowed, and the disappointed viewer must concede that this will not be the empty porn hinted at in publicity. It will be, perhaps, the exploration of “a middle-aged woman’s sense of self-esteem, of sexuality”, as Collette described it to Britain’s Radio Times. It will be this, but with less of the groundbreaking spice she promised in the same interview.
Collette’s claim in the piece to be “the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC” was quickly refuted by several climax-spotters, particularly those unable to forget 2002’s late-Victorian lesbian romp Tipping the Velvet – as I recall, a show that featured fewer costume changes than it did petites mort.
Her statement that the inner life and desire of the midlife woman “is not often talked about” may also be refuted by certain viewers. Perhaps this neglect feels true to an actor seeking those roles, but it does not feel true to all Netflix subscribers. Well, not to me. My appetite for perimenopausal storytelling has been met and continues to be fed these days well past the point of satiety.
Some women of my age range and above complain of their waning visibility. They say they live unseen and urge for better representation on screen. Well, they’re beginning to get it on Netflix, and I am beginning to regret not making a stronger case for female invisibility before its midlife possibility began to disappear.
I was truly looking forward to diminished visibility; to life as an object that no longer signified meaning for the many. To be understood and traded in the visual economy as sexual was not something I ever enjoyed. It is, apparently, something that other women miss.
Thanks to shows such as Wanderlust, Grace and Frankie, Gypsy and the entire “strong woman lead” Netflix category, some women will have the gift of visibility restored, and others may be spared their anticipated freedom.
I do understand the real psychological value and relief experienced by seeing one’s identity category finally represented, or at least better represented, on TV. This golden TV age has given us Atlanta, Master of None and Please Like Me, and other moments in which “diversity” is not only the marketing prescription of production companies but also the basis from which genuinely new stories emerge. But it has also given women the dubious gift of an extended sexual shelf life. This is something I, personally, might have done without.
Undocumented desire is fine by me. A mass-produced statement of it, per the Fifty Shades franchise, is less desirable to me. Some niche pornographic pro-woman screen innovation by a Maria Beatty type is one thing. Naomi Watts or Toni Collette speaking to press about the urgent need for the yawning feminine libido to be lit, celebrated and explored is another.
This is not to be “uptight” or to shun the idea of even discussing what women want. It is to suggest that this discussion – this question of the “dark continent” of female sexuality – is not fundamentally changed by the mere fact of television addressing the postmenopausal body. It creates a situation where women are looked at, and look at themselves, as a bundle of mystery not better, only longer.
Wanderlust does have the appearance of asking new questions and addressing old mysteries. It is shot, as Six Feet Under was, like a Gregory Crewdson photograph, but also a little like the Instagram offerings of a pro-wellness mum. It has an expensive soundtrack, peopled by Strong Woman Artists, and Bridget Jones-inspired dialogue delivered at a Woody Allen of Interiors-era pace. With the impossibly good Collette as its star, and the pep of young playwright Nick Payne as its writer, it feels deep. Or, deep once it’s stopped with all the hand jobs of the first episode.
I don’t believe that Wanderlust is deep. I am not convinced that the “self-discovery” claimed for midlife and older women has much depth, either. It is only a broadening of shallow understanding.
Collette plays Joy Richards, a therapist, as did Naomi Watts in her unfortunate turn as Jean, the wandering vagina of Gypsy. The dramatic ruse seems obvious to me at once: Dora and every other hysterical patient of Freud have turned the tables – or the couches – on the masters! They are now the analysts, no longer mere analysand! But, even so, woman does not know herself. She remains, even to herself, the “dark continent” described by Freud.
In the early moments of episode one, Joy hands her crutches to her husband and removes some sort of medical hand-strap – she’s had a cycling accident, the most middle-aged of injuries – before Mr Richards (played by Steven Mackintosh, The Other Boleyn Girl, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) attempts to mount the missus. It’s not working well for either of them and we soon learn that the very shrink who specialises in marriage counselling is herself unable to declare her desire. That is, until she cops a wrist job from a bloke she met while addressing her injury – she’s injured, so deeply darkly injured. Afterwards, Joy insists the extramarital sex be on for young and old.
Mr Richards starts up with sexy Claire from work (played by Zawe Ashton, Nocturnal Animals) and Joy pursues the chap she met at hydrotherapy class. When she explains to him that hers is a newly open marriage and that his sole function will be to provide the BBC with its first female orgasm, she is rejected, which, given her awful Colin Firth as Mr Darcy dialogue, is only fair.
Collette may be proud to represent the hitherto hidden sexuality of women my age, but I wonder if she is so proud to utter the words of a playwright who is male and was just 26 when he first gave voice to this complex, injured older woman. I can’t imagine how any woman, most especially a professional student of the human condition, gets to her mid 40s without learning the skill of a little deception.
This older woman has survived the trauma of life, the trauma of childbirth and the trauma of losing her mother. Somehow, she has survived all of this without learning any guile. Somehow, she can suggest to her husband that sex outside the marriage is the surest route to reinvigorating that marriage without bothering to revisit one of the textbooks we must suppose she read while acquiring her qualification as a relationship counsellor.
Naturally, one of the pair falls a little too deeply in love with their bit-on-the-side, and, of course, it’s not the woman, who must survive the series only as a Survivor, and never, as far as I can tell, a person who has explored her own “dark continent” sufficient to give it a moment of feminine pleasure.
Wanderlust is not as overtly bad as the widely panned Gypsy, but it’s just as much of an appeal to the vision of woman as injured, unknowable and perpetually misunderstood – while still being bonkable.
Collette is, of course, always good. She is good enough to bring dimension to a flat horny midlife therapist. But no one is good enough to save a series as unlikely to offend as it is unlikely to leave a new or a true impression on viewers. There is not a lot here beyond the tired idea that women can still be sexy and crazy at any age.
And sadly, this is what the Netflix identity-by-committee drama may continue to bring us – the appearance of difference, but the underlying story of sameness. With a budget currently big enough to conceal dim old ideas in bright new production values, Netflix can get away with making titillation seem profound, as in the dreadful midlife polyamory show You Me Her, or they can get away with bringing us neither titillation nor profundity, as with Wanderlust.
Where this streaming service may have once sought to challenge all previous feminine formulae, it now seeks only to extend the attributes of the most privileged or palatable women to all. These women are often unhappy, of course, but no longer unhappy in their own way.
LITERATURE Feminist Writers Festival
University of Technology Sydney, November 1-3
MULTIMEDIA Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until March 24
VISUAL ART Black Swan Prize for Portraiture
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until November 26
MULTIMEDIA Purple Reign
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until April 28
Nexus Arts, Adelaide, October 31-November 2
THEATRE Julius Caesar
Sydney Opera House, until November 25
CLASSICAL Lixsania and the Labyrinth
City Recital Hall, Sydney, October 31–November 9
Melbourne Recital Centre, November 10-11
The Odeon, Adelaide, October 30-31
FESTIVAL The Lost Lands
Werribee Park and Mansion, Victoria, November 3-4
THEATRE The Rug
La Mama Courthouse, Melbourne, October 31-November 11
The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, until October 28
VISUAL ART TARNANTHI Art Fair
Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, until October 28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Wander women". Subscribe here.