About Last Night’s Girls: Can You Really Show That on TV?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 11 2013 7:19 PM

A Seminal TV Moment

Adam (Adam Driver) and Natalia (Shiri Appleby) in Girls
Adam (Adam Driver) and Natalia (Shiri Appleby) in Girls

Photo by Jessica Miglio/HBO

Warning: Explicit sexual language and Girls spoilers ahead.

In last night’s dark episode of Girls, Adam (Adam Driver) is shown having sex with his latest girlfriend, Natalia (Shiri Appleby). This alone is hardly extraordinary— the comedy has never shied away from creating graphic and often memorably awkward sex scenes—but this week the comedy crossed a line that most TV shows never dare approach: It included a sort of “money shot,” in which Adam’s semen is shown on Natalia’s chest. Is this the first time this has been depicted on a television show?

Not quite, but it’s very rare. In 1999, the BBC broadcast its first on-screen ejaculation when it aired a documentary about pornography. The “landmark” moment didn’t show a penis, but it did depict semen flying through the air in slow motion onto the face of '70s porn star Marilyn Chambers. When it comes to American television, at least a couple of shows have featured shots of bodily fluids in sexual situations, including Sex and the City (in Season 2, when the four leading ladies attend a tantric sex demonstration, and some of the ejaculate lands on Miranda) and Californication (in a brief shot in Season 1 following a threesome).

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As jarring as seeing such things on television can be, it should be noted that none of these American TV scenes—including last night’s episode of Girls—showed male or female genitalia. (Showing an erect penis, in both TV and film, is still a strongly held taboo.) As subscription channels, cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and TBS are not beholden to the FCC when it comes to indecency complaints, which refer to “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” And when it comes to the very high standards of obscenity laws—which regulate what could essentially be considered hardcore pornography—the FCC refers those allegations to the Department of Justice. (Violations of such laws are very rare for television.)

On network television, it would be hard to get away with anything even approaching a money shot. To steer clear of trouble, the Fox broadcast of There’s Something About Mary edited the infamous hair gel scene in such a way to imply that the product was actually hair gel. In 2010, Fox was fined by the FCC for an episode of American Dad that insinuated a horse ejaculating in the leading character’s face—even though the spray turns out to be from a garden hose.

Due to the still-shocking nature of such scenes, we probably won’t be seeing an uptick in bodily fluids on cable, either. As an HBO spokesperson explained to me regarding last night’s episode: “Girls has a raw honesty that viewers appreciate. This is nothing more than a use of props.”

Thanks to David Bushman of the Paley Center for Media.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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