[This post contains substantive Girls spoilers, but if you’re into Girls, you’ve probably already seen this past weekend’s devastating episode, and if you’re not, you don’t care.]
Sex scenes are always a challenge to write, for screenwriters and fictionists alike. I’ve found that within the romantic comedy genre – a genre that you'd think might more willingly explore the vagaries of sexual experience than most – sex scenes tend to fall into two equally superficial categories: romantic and hot.
Romantic rom-com scenes seem to exist primarily to say “they really love each other,” and hot rom-com scenes express “they’re really horny for each other.” The former tend to be replete with corniness, and feature clichéd images (e.g. the old “waves crashing on the shore” riff) and the latter often features characters throwing each other up against walls. At their clumsiest, you get a hot’n’romantic combo platter that leads to memorably cheesy scenes like this:
Sex scenes that actually move the plot forward, reveal character, and/or speak to theme tend to be fewer and farther between – as are sex scenes that actually have something to say about the nature and meaning of specific sexual encounters.
For this reason, one of my favorite rom-com sex scenes from the past decade appeared in Knocked Up (aka, at this date, The Last Good Apatow Movie): the scene where Seth Rogen’s character Ben had to stop having “doggy-style” sex with Katherine Heigl’s Alison (“It’s just the style, we don’t have to go outside or anything!”) because he was afraid of traumatizing the baby in her belly (“My dick must be like an inch away from its face!”).
Both Ben and Alison are wonderfully themselves in this moment: she’s fraught with self-loathing about her pregnant body, and he’s becoming a dad (i.e. beginning to have feelings of responsibility for his child-to-be), and their increasing estrangement in the midst of intimacy makes for a great conflict that also yields some LOL gags. That’s a great sex scene.
“Great sex scenes” as in great scenes about sex have become Lena Dunham’s mini-metier in the two seasons of Girls. Season 2’s penultimate episode (9: On All Fours) had one good (i.e. meaningful) and one truly great (i.e. meaningful and meta-meaningful) sex scene which was genuinely awful – that is, in a wonderfully disturbing way.
The episode as a whole was so dark as to prompt one viewer to wonder if director Dunham had been channeling Lars Von Trier, and the sex scenes were suffused with said darkness. Charlie’s brief sex scene with Marnie was essentially “I’m fucking you because I finally have all the power in this relationship, and much as it pisses me off that I’m still attracted to you, I'm giving you what you seem to need and I still want, damn it!”
Adam’s horrible sex scene with Natalia, like a car accident one could not draw one’s eyes away from, was about Adam (Adam Sackler) – clearly conflicted about being in a potentially healthy romance and doubly tweaked by having fallen off his AA wagon and having run into his bête noir, ex-lover Hannah (Dunham) – debasing and degrading Natalia (Shiri Appleby) in order to push her away from him, thus self-destructively affirming that he was incapable and undeserving of a “normal” relationship.
After compulsively coming across Natalia’s breasts and then wiping her off, and hearing Natalia’s “I really didn’t like that” response, Adam asks, with pained hope, “This is it, are you done with me?” (Self-hate much, Girls?) And that “cum shot” – which set the internet a-twittering – had the additional resonance of skewering a standard trope of pornography, revealing the true ugliness that’s often at its core.
My simple point is not that your happy, healthy romantic comedy ought to turn into a nihilistic treatise on the sadness of sex. But given the boundaries that are being broken by shows like Girls on a weekly basis, if the characters in your rom-com are going to have sex, how about having it mean something?
Yes, sex is sometimes just sex (and that can be great sex, indeed), but in a screenplay, if you’re going to go there… you ought to do something with it. What makes this sexual act specific to your story? Is it getting to know you sex, getting closer sex, breakup sex, makeup sex? Is it sex about gender roles, morality, philosophy? What do your rom-com's acts of intimacy reveal about who your characters are, where they’re going (in story terms), and what your point of view is?
In screenwriting terms, sex should mean never having to settle for superficial. Today’s romantic comedy audience wants – and is clearly ready for – more.