"No Strings Attached": Sexual Convention in Transgression's Clothes

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Is Hollywood exploring the frontiers of modern sexuality… or simply reinforcing the same old standards?

No strings attached
Well, it could have been worse.

I suppose.

You may have seen the saucy, sexy previews and ads for the super-hyped new movie, “No Strings Attached.” Paramount is clearly pushing this film, not as just another romantic comedy about women hunting for marriage and men succumbing to its sweet inevitability, but as a daring, edgy, ultra-modern exploration of the “new” relationship models: casual, non-romantic, commitment-free sexual friendships, in which both women and men go in with no expectation of a capital-R Relationship, and no desire for it.

It’s always interesting to see how mainstream media treats gender and sexuality. And as a sex writer with a focus on unconventional sexuality, I’m especially curious when it purports to be shattering myths and breaking new ground. My hopes weren’t high for this one — I’ve seen way too many Hollywood movies titillate themselves and their audiences with transgressive sexual possibilities and then firmly drag everyone back into safe conventionality. But I’ve been wrong before. I’ve gone into more than a few movies prepared to be bored and irritated, and come out surprised and delighted and raving to everyone I know.

Not this time.

No Strings Attached 3
Before I get into everything that’s stupid and annoying and just plain wrong with the sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” — and believe me, there’s a lot that’s wrong with these sexual politics — let’s get this out of the way: This is not a good movie. A romantic comedy (and I use both words with grave reservations) about long-term acquaintances who try to turn their friendship into one with benefits, “No Strings Attached” is fake, implausible, and entirely disconnected from human reality. It’s not even interested in being authentic, plausible, or connected to human reality. It’s interested in aggregating some cute moments and raunchy moments and heart-tugging moments and a bunch of juvenile sex jokes that would make a twelve-year-old cringe… and half-assedly stringing them onto a tediously predictable storyline that plays like it was written by a computer programmed by a committee who all read the same stupid screenwriters’ bible. The moment when Emma casually invites Adam to “this thing she’s doing,” and it turns out to be a family funeral… that was the moment I knew that this movie was aiming solely for cheap laughs, and was not remotely interested in any of the things human beings actually do. It’s a moment that takes place approximately ten minutes in.

And that, in fact, is a huge amount of what’s wrong with the movie’s sexual politics.

They’re fake.

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I suppose I should summarize the plot here. But there really isn’t much to summarize. Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are long-time friends — acquaintances, really — who’ve always been a little interested in each other. They have an impulsive sexual tryst one day, and decide, for not- very- well- explained reasons, that instead of being lovers, they should be friends with benefits, with no romance and no commitment and no strings attached. Wacky hijinks ensue. Or, more accurately: Hijinks ensue that are intended to be wacky, but are, in fact, predictable to the point of tedium. Hijinks ensue, not because it would be natural for the characters to hijink in that manner, but because said hijinking is what the screenwriters think will be funny.

Which brings me back to the fakery. The sexual politics of “No Strings Attached” have nothing to do with the sexual things people actually do. They have nothing to do with how sexual relationships are changing: the ways that people are questioning assumptions about what sexual relationships have to look like, breaking down the standard categories and inventing new ones… and how these re-inventions from the fringe are filtering into the mainstream.

Quite the contrary.

“No Strings Attached” wants desperately to be all modern and cutting-edge and sexually transgressive, with gags about menstruation and tag lines like “Welcome to the new world of relationships.” But it consistently runs back to the safe ground of predictable formula and conventional sexual morality. It daringly asks the question, “Can two friends hook up without love getting in the way?” But then — spoiler alert, but if you didn’t figure this out you haven’t seen many Hollywood movies — it answers that question with a resounding, “No!” It flirts with the titillating edges of sexual exploration, but ultimately chides the explorers for being afraid of commitment, and settles everyone into cozy, coupled, “happily ever after” conventionality. If your first reaction to seeing this movie’s ad campaign was a roll of your eyes and a jaded sigh of, “I know exactly how this movie unfolds and where it ends up”… you’re right. That’s how it unfolds, and that’s where it ends up.

Where to begin, where to begin? Well, the first problem is with Emma’s motivation for resisting romantic love.

There isn’t any.

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Emma’s reasons for not wanting to get into a capital-R Relationship are pathetic. They’re like a first draft that never get hammered out in the rewrites. The reason she gives Adam is that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time. The real explanation, though, the one she tells her friend, is that she’s afraid of getting her heart broken. Note, please, that she’s not gun-shy for any particular reason, a bad breakup or anything. She’s just scared. Because the screenplay demands it. Because if she isn’t, then she and Ashton Kutcher will happily fall in love in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the movie will consist of stock footage and light music.

But this lack of plausible motivation doesn’t just make the movie baffling and pointless. It trivializes the entire premise. It frames the very idea of sexual friendship — of pursuing sexual relationships that aren’t romantic and aren’t going to be — as ridiculous on the face of it. Doomed to fail at best; emotionally cowardly at worst.

As a longtime sex writer and educator, I find this irritating because it trivializes a fringe sexuality. It makes people who are engaging in it feel alienated and shamed; it makes people who are considering it give up before they even begin. As an off-and-on participant in these sexual friendships over the years, and as part of a community that often enjoys these kinds of friendships, I find it irritating because… well, for the same reason, basically. Because me and my friends are the ones being trivialized and shamed and marginalized. And as a moviegoer, I find it irritating because it makes me feel like a dupe. If even the writers couldn’t be bothered to take the premise seriously, why on earth should I waste my time and money it?

It’s not like a plausible motivation wasn’t possible. In fact, when my friend Rebecca and I saw this movie and then enthusiastically dissected everything that was wrong with it, we came up with an alternate plot that might have actually worked — and in particular, a motivation for Emma’s romantic reluctance that might actually make sense. In our version, Emma and Adam meet, hook up, feel sparks… but while he’s interested in pursuing something more, she has genuine good reasons for not wanting it to get serious. The fake reason she gives to Adam, that she’s working 80 hours a week on her medical residency and doesn’t have time for a romance? That would do nicely. That’s a genuine conflict, not a stupid fake movie one — wanting love, but also wanting a medical career, and not knowing how to juggle the competing demands on time and energy and commitment. In fact, in Rebecca’s version, Emma’s actually had several friendships with benefits before this one, which mostly worked out neatly and well — and so the romantic sparks she starts to feel with Adam take her by surprise, and she has to not only figure out what’s going on with her emotions, but make real choices about where to go with them.

That’s a movie we would have happily seen. It would have treated sexual friendship as a valid option, a workable alternative that reasonable people might get real value from. And it wouldn’t have had to be some heavy relationship drama. It could easily have fit into a light, goofy, romantic comedy format.

But that movie would have taken, you know, work. Attention to coherence and plausibility. Maybe even some research into what people with fuckbuddies actually do with them. (Other than the obvious, of course.) And it would have taken a willingness to question the dominant relationship paradigm… instead of pretending to question it, but having the stock answer in it pocket all along.

So there’s that.

But there’s more.

There is, in fact, the foundational premise of the movie: the assumption that sex inevitably leads to love.

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This premise gets treated like a law of Newtonian mechanics. You have ongoing sex with someone you like — it turns into romantic love, with the inevitability of planetary orbits collapsing. There’s no point in fending it off. It’s ridiculous to even try. Entertaining to watch (well, in theory, anyway) — but ridiculous.

Okay. Here’s the bit where I get all TMI on you, and inappropriately disclose details about my sexual history. I promise, it really is relevant.

I’ve had sex with a fair number of people in my day. I can’t be exact about that fair number, since I stopped keeping track a long, long time ago. But it’s somewhere in the high two figures. Possibly the low three, depending on how you define “having sex.”

And of those roughly 80-120 people that I’ve had sex with, I’ve fallen in love with exactly three. David. Richard. And — most importantly, by several orders of magnitude — the great love of my life, my partner of thirteen years and my wife of seven, Ingrid.

Now, to be fair, many of those roughly 80-120 encounterees were very short-term indeed, with no time for love to blossom. Brief flings, one-night stands, people I met at sex parties whose names I never knew. But some of them were ongoing relationships — that’s small “r” relationships — of some duration. Some were friendships that became sexual; some have been sexual trysts that became friendships. Some of those friendships were fairly easy-going; some have been among the most central friendships of my life. Some have had sex as a central defining component; some were sexual only tangentially, or intermittently. Some of these people I’m still friends with; some aren’t — not because sexual friendships can never work, but for the same reasons that any friendship can sometimes drift apart.

And of all of these people, I fell in love with three.

Three, out of 80-120.

That’s some really crappy Newtonian mechanics you got there.

And I’m not the only one. I move in a community where sexual friendships are fairly common, and I know a whole lot of people who have them, or who’ve had them in the past. Some of these friendships have worked out; some haven’t. Sometimes they’ve lasted in more or less the same form for a while; sometimes they’ve changed over time. Occasionally they’ve led to romantic love; usually they haven’t. A lot like, you know, non-sexual friendships, or work partnerships, or school chums, or every other kind of human relationship on the face of the planet.

That’s the reality.

But it’s a reality that the writers of “No Strings Attached” seem entirely uninterested in.

Yes, I know. It’s silly escapist entertainment. And that’s fine. Not every movie about love and sex has to be a blazing insight into the deepest realities of the human heart. But even silly escapist entertainment is better — funnier, more engaging, more actually entertaining — when it has a whiff of plausibility. Escapist entertainment works better when you’re not scratching your head trying to figure out why on earth the characters are doing what they’re doing… or playing a silent game of “Predict the Movie Cliche” to pass the time until the sweet, sweet credits finally roll.

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There are a handful of likeable things about “No Strings Attached.” I actually sort of loved the bit about the menstrual-themed mix CD. The running gag about silly covers of raunchy pop songs — the mariachi band playing “Don’t Cha,” the country-Western version of “99 Problems” — is pretty freaking funny. (The latter, in fact, was weirdly awesome, and I may even wind up downloading it.) Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is dry and smart and hilariously understated, and I definitely want to see him do more acting. And the idyllic sexual montage of Emma and Adam’s early hookups is both genuinely hot and genuinely sweet. It was one of the few stretches of the film where I felt that the characters were, you know, real people, with real chemistry, taking genuine pleasure in one another’s bodies and one another’s company, experiencing emotions that were honest and joyful and subject to change without notice. It was one of the few stretches of the film when I felt like there was a real movie in there, itching to come out. (Maybe the one Rebecca and I came up with.)

So yes, it definitely could have been worse. There could have been fart jokes. There could have been vomit jokes. There could have been overturned fruit carts, wacky cases of mistaken identity, people falling into wedding cakes. The sexual libertines could have died tragically at the end, of disease or violence, the last words on their bloody and tormented lips, “I know that our life of sin has led us to this sorry fate.” It could have starred Adam Sandler.

It could have been worse.

But not by much.

No Strings Attached. Starring Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Cary Elwes, and Kevin Kline. Produced and directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether. Paramount. Rated R. Opens Jan. 21.

ADDENDUM: There is so much more that I could have said about this movie if I’d had space. I could have talked about the flagrant fakiness of the “TV production assistant/ aspiring writer gets his script into production in six weeks” storyline. I could have talked about the approximately 43,547 supporting characters in the form of the main characters’ supposedly colorful friends and family, all of whom were essentially interchangeable and who I kept getting mixed up. I could have ranted about how, in giving Emma no sane motivation for resisting a capital-R Relationship, the movie not only trivializes sexual friendships, but slut-shames women who want sexual adventure. (Fortunately, David Edelstein covered that angle.) I could have written an entire other piece lambasting the idea that friendship — sexual or otherwise — isn’t an important connection that requires work and commitment, and doesn’t count as a “string.” And, on the plus side, I could have mentioned the lovely moment in the blissful erotic montage, when it’s strongly implied that Emma fucks Adam up the ass. Ah, well, You can’t say everything.

"No Strings Attached": Sexual Convention in Transgression's Clothes

9 thoughts on “"No Strings Attached": Sexual Convention in Transgression's Clothes

  1. 2

    @Azkyroth – I just bookmarked the blog so that I’d comment here instead of reading it on Alternet. Alternet commenters drive me crazy. So perhaps we can start having a conversation.

  2. 3

    I don’t have much to add. It sounds disappointing and stupid, and fortunately the awesome friend-with-benefits I seem to have acquired has a marked preference for action movies and won’t be dragging me to see it :3

  3. 4

    Well, one thing:

    I could have talked about the flagrant fakiness of the “TV production assistant/ aspiring writer gets his script into production in six weeks” storyline.

    Perhaps this was an apology/preemptive strike regarding the movie’s flaws? :3

  4. 7

    I saw this movie because I got a free ticket and while in the beginning I was ready to break down it’s plastic and ridiculous effect on young, women and men that see it. But by the end, I too had been uplifted and hopeful that I too could have a confusing interlude work out.
    Which was so not the case of my last casual hook up. Can I have sex with falling for the person? I keep trying but it never works.
    Maybe if I more role models in Hollywood maybe I could, lol.
    The first sex scene killed me! Did she orgasm in those three minutes? We didn’t see it and apparently it’s not important becuase the effort was pointed towards him to finish because she had to go to work.

  5. 8

    I’d like to point out that it’s also a little sexist to assume that the woman is simply afraid of commitment, and that this is what she “really” wants, want will “actually” make her “truly” happy, the usual romance myth. It goes back to that tired double standard that pro-sex feminism has progressed so so far beyond compared to the herd.
    I have had tons of friends with benefits. I agree that it’s like any other friendship or acquaintance. Sometimes I move, sometimes they move, sometimes we just stop talking, some of us keep in touch from time to time, them are still on my rotation.

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