HBO's The Idol: When Men View The Female Body As A Commodity For Pleasure

HBO's The Idol: When Men View The Female Body As A Commodity For Pleasure
I will readily acknowledge that I have consumed my fair share of media that has made me wince and set me on the urge of ripping my hair out strand by strand – possibly even made me want to scream into my pillow until my throat is raw and bleeding. But Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye’s (real name of the award winning music artist The Weeknd) newest venture, “The Idol,” trumps everything. The series is a harrowing mixture of poorly written dialogue, horrible direction, an amalgamation of actors that struggle to sound out their scripts without it looking like a bizarre sitcom and of course, needless romanticization of sexual violence and abuse.

HBO describes “The Idol” as the “sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood” that follows the journey of the popstar Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) as she navigates the squalid underbelly of Hollywood, defined by people who look down on her and her talent and constantly trivialise her trauma regarding the passing away from her mother, as well as her struggle with mental health. In the scene set by her spiral into depression, she meets and forms a codependent, abusive attachment to the club owner Tedros (Tesfaye aka The Weeknd), who secretly seems to be running a cult reminiscent of NXIVM, famous for forcing and blackmailing women into sexual slavery.

Now, one would think this seems to be a story that details the struggles that women go through in the patriarchal, violent entertainment industry that treats them like objects and forces them into positions they detest to profit off their misery; and it seems so at the start. Jocelyn is a child-star-turned-pop-star, reminiscent of Brittney Spears; yet the narrative focuses on men and their power and control rather than her. Reports of trouble started last April, when Amy Seimetz, the original director, who has experience directing The Girlfriend Experience and She Dies Tomorrow, suddenly exited with roughly 80% of the six-episode series finished. The Idol was truly her style; she is known for her dark, gritty work and satire, as well as for inducing a gnawing sense of psychological horror and morbidity on-screen. What was supposed to be a dark, satirical and edgy take on the model of fame and the horrifying nature of the entertainment industry turned into the very thing it hoped to critique– and the shift panned from Jocelyn’s struggle to a morbid, and often nauseating, torture erotica.

Levinson has been known for including an unnecessary amount of nudity in his work, and hear me out, I am no prude, but what message can a man want to give out when he uses the female body as an object separated from said person’s sense of self and personhood? When he juxtaposes sex in these increasingly risky, and often horrifying ways? Whose enjoyment is it for, if not men? Euphoria, Levinson’s famed show, is one that I barely got through because of the same grievances. Actors such as Sydney Sweeney have often hinted at their discomfort at the excess nudity – Sweeney talked about how she would often request him to cut out the nudity since it didn’t seem to be adding anything to the plot and he would agree. Seimetz has declined to comment on her venture, but in a Rolling Stones article from Cheyenne Roundtree, a lot of the production team came forward to talk about how shoddy the writing was, how the crew was pushed to the brink trying to meet Tesfaye and Levinson’s expectations (the former of whom, by the way, was barely on set) and one described it as being a “rape fantasy that any toxic man would have in the show — and then the woman comes back for more because it makes her music better.

It is somehow erotic for a man to treat a woman like an object, to have complete control over her mind and body, and put it to use for his own pleasure– woman is object, man is conqueror and she must submit to his whims.

I have often been asked – how do we stop viewing media as being educational or hoping to start a conversation and rather as something that is to be consumed uncritically? Not everything can have a positive message or a learning arc to it. There is a time and place for virtue signalling and trashy TV is not it, I've been told. Frankly, I find that daft. I agree that media literacy has dwindled, but let’s talk about the show and set the record straight for why the masses, and especially feminists are angered.

Hypersexualization is the bane of current-day media and television – the men of this day and age took the sex positivity movement aimed to educate women on their sexuality and stand up for reproductive and sexual rights, and used it to their advantage to push women into promiscuous positions in the name of ‘liberation,’ yet it is merely women being forced into redundant fantasies that men can profit off of. Women are forced into increasingly uncomfortable positions in the name of ‘emancipation,’ and this is true for interpersonal relationships as well.

The Idol takes female sensuality, vulnerability and emotions to make it about the man. It takes the feminist lens Seimetz put onto the show and smashes them to the ground – Tesfaye himself is rumoured to have said the show focused too much on the ‘female perspective.’ You can tell that the horrific amount of nudity and sleaze is not there for an ulterior message. It exists simply to satisfy the male gaze. At one point, Jocelyn’s personal manager comments, “He [Tedros] is so rapey,” and she replies back with, “I like that about him.”

A lot of the scenes of sexual violence were removed, and even then, it is horrifyingly violent. Jocelyn barely has any romantic interactions with Tedros other than one encounter at the club as she parties with her entourage after being snubbed by her studio; she invites him to her house and they have intercourse. This scene was extremely upsetting to me – he asphyxiates her with her silk robe before using a knife to cut it open so she can breathe, all of this without warning, and she loves it since it adds to her artistic ventures. She comments that he has “... pushed me farther than anyone has pushed me.”

It is somehow erotic for a man to treat a woman like an object, to have complete control over her mind and body, and put it to use for his own pleasure– woman is object, man is conqueror and she must submit to his whims. Autonomy is not a woman’s and she must give it up to satisfy the man.

In a recent interview, Tesfaye talked to The Complex and made a statement: “I wanted to make sure we felt so disgusted by this character…Why take you down a journey and romanticize him? Let's just jump right into it. He's a fucking scumbag.”

Hey, Tesfaye, except for the fact that you took something that hoped to honour the legacy of abuse and ugliness that women face in the entertainment industry and replaced discernment with an innate sense of hopelessness, crude, one-dimensional characterization and story-telling for irony, and an obscene amount of sex for complexity. Perhaps you hoped to distract the viewer from the steaming pile of trash you created and somehow managed to set it on fire, so the stench can radiate off the screen itself to dig into your nostrils. If I did a tally of the number of times I physically cringed, my facial muscles would be perpetually stuck in one place.

“In one experimental study, college students who were exposed to about 5 hours of sexually explicit films over 6 weeks were more likely than a control group to express increased callousness toward women and trivialize rape as a criminal offence (Zillmann & Bryant, 1982).”

How can you claim you hoped to evoke a reaction when intimate partner violence and sexual violence are consumed widely in our society? In research conducted by Martin Barron and Michael Kimmel for The Journal of Sex Research, they study pornographic media and find that in the videos, 79.6% of the scenes depict female victims. “Violence against women is thus a currency among men as they jockey for position in the eyes of other men,” they write. If we then turn the effect of this media consumption to how it affects women, we find that intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV) is on the rise, where women are forced into degrading and humiliating positions or coerced into unsafe practices so their partner has a level of control over them.

If we look at Jane D. Brown’s research on “Mass Media Influences on Sexuality” in The Journal of Sex Research, we see that “most of the mass media rarely depict three C's of responsible sexual behaviour: Commitment, Contraceptives, and consideration of Consequences.” If this isn’t upsetting in itself, the research found that mass media does influence the behaviours of young teens and adults to incorporate unsafe sexual practices into their life – earlier, with more partners, and without protection.  “In one experimental study, college students who were exposed to about 5 hours of sexually explicit films over 6 weeks were more likely than a control group to express increased callousness toward women and trivialize rape as a criminal offence (Zillmann & Bryant, 1982).”

What current media teaches us socially is that sex is consequence-free, rarely planned, a matter of emotional tumult rather than any solid rationale, and aggressive sexual patterns are something to include in your practice.

As a young woman, I have always found the current trend of violence in sexual encounters in the media very, very concerning, especially in patriarchal societies. How is it arousing to be reduced only to an object for man’s pleasure? How can anyone who truly cares for you gain their pleasure out of your pain? This is what I pose to the production and writing team of The Idol – the media you bring to the screen is not consequence-free, no matter how much you try to evade it later by brushing it off as ‘satire’ in order to placate criticism.

The ‘New Woman’ is liberated– she has the freedom to do what she wants, but truly she is just a puppet for the male gaze and a consumer for the capitalist market, still devoid of her personhood.

I recently read Andrea Dworkin “Men Possessing Women”, and her words really struck me– she talked about sexual violence in media being an ‘orchestrated destruction.’ “Woman is pure body subjected to grotesque transformations. She becomes what man lusts for. She is flesh to be entered and flesh to be used. She is object, not subject. She does not exist as a whole human being.” Women must enjoy humiliation, pain, and degradation, become a commodity for the pleasure of the male gaze, and become victims of systemic warfare on their personhood.

What I hoped to be a review of The Idol also became a larger discussion of why we need more women to write about the experience of being one– one where we are not reduced to the sensual gamine, the madonna-and-the-whore, the object to be conquered. One where we are our own possessions. When I see such media, especially a show that I hoped would be a feminist legacy of the terror of the entertainment industry turn into a nauseating torture porn, I think of Andrea Dworkin’s quote:

Woman is not born: she is made. In the making, her humanity is destroyed. She becomes symbol of this, symbol of that: mother of the earth, slut of the universe; but she never becomes herself because it is forbidden for her to do so.

Sara Javed Rathore is an author and poet from Lahore. Her first collection of poetry, 'Meraki', won the Daud Kamal Presidential Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2020. She has also published another collection of poetry titled ‘Obituaries for the Dead and the Undead.’