‘Vida’s Honest Sex Scenes Honor the Multitudes of Latina Sexuality

Courtesy of Starz

The depiction of women’s sexuality and sex acts on-screen has long been the dominion of men. While a patriarchal society has often regarded women’s real-life autonomous expressions of sexuality repulsive, shameful, and wrong, men have never faltered in their fascination with displaying it in film and television.

Men’s obsession with producing images of female sex has been stubbornly accompanied by a refusal to learn and honor its multitudes. Sex is often a chaotic, lawless exchange, but in the hands of men, female sex becomes an orchestrated performance primarily concerned with aesthetic, order, and gratification for its spectator. And if women’s sexuality has been contained and embellished for the satisfaction of men, the weight of the assault has been disproportionately carried by Latina women.

Vida demonstrates how different portrayals of sex can be in the hands of queer Latinx women.

Long before the likes of Sofia Vergara and Zoe Saldaña entered the American imagination, the portrayal of Latina sexuality on-screen had already been limited, simplified, and reduced to stereotypes. The Latina woman as morally depraved and promiscuous is a racist cinema trope that dates back at least to the 1930s, and it has dominated Hollywood portrayals of Latinas ever since. This kind of flattening of Latina women characters in TV and film can only possibly produce trite sex scenes that center male gratification and amusement.

Danny Boyle’s 2013 film Trance contains a scene where Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) is about to have sex with the male protagonist. First, she excuses herself to the bathroom where we can hear her using an electric razor. When she steps out, the camera voyeuristically pans from a fuzzy reflection of her naked body on the ground up her legs and to her bare vagina. The shots alternate between her body and Simon’s facial expressions as he literally sets his gaze on her. The act is an allusion to an earlier scene where Simon expresses disgust for women with pubic hair. “It was Goya’s fault. The Naked Mija. After that, it’s always there, the hair. Yeah, that’s the lady. That’s modern art. No perfection anymore.” The issue isn’t that the male character has this particular view. It is, after all, a sentiment that a lot of men share. The bigger issue is that the idea is presented without ever being challenged. So it lingers in the minds of viewers, and when these ideas are fed to the public over and over again without critical engagement, they easily pass as truth.

What could’ve been one of the most iconic and groundbreaking queer female sex scenes, both because it was directed by a woman (Julie Taymor) and because it depicted the encounter of two of the most famous queer women of color in the world, Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) and Josephine Baker (Karine Plantadit), instead became Salma Hayek’s punishment for refusing to give in to Harvey Weinstein’s sexual advances. The seconds-long montage shows the women laying in positions better suited for portraiture than pleasure. It’s a decorative, if gratuitous scene meant to display and idealize the queer woman, not humanize her.

The second season of Vida demonstrates how different that portrayal can be in the hands of queer Latinx women. Tanya Saracho, the show’s creator and a bisexual woman, is intentionally repudiating the male gaze and highlighting what female sex actually looks like.

The third episode of the season opens with Emma and Cruz, both queer women, fucking each other. Cruz reaches over to the night stand, where four distinct vibrators are laid out for her to choose from: some meant for clitoral stimulation, some thick, and some long. The women are giggly, clearly comfortable around each other. Emma lays back, closes her eyes, concentrating on her orgasm as Cruz tries to make her cum. “Wait, that’s too much. Less, less,” she tells Cruz. “Sorry, I lost it.” Cruz tosses the vibrator aside and gives Emma head instead. Finally, she’s able to climax.

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Women communicating and verbalizing their needs is not something we often see portrayed in sex scenes. It isn’t the sexy part of sex. But the question of what makes a woman cum is a necessary exploration in an industry where the false narrative that most women orgasm from penetration and without foreplay is alive and well.

Beyond complicating Latina sexuality and queer sex, Vida is also challenging heteronormative portrayals of sex when it comes to straight couples. The sixth episode begins with a visual tour of Lynn’s boyfriend’s traditionally “masculine” apartment. We can hear him moaning as the camera glides over his collection of signed footballs, soccer balls, and batting helmets. The camera makes its way over to Lynn’s upper body. “Like that?” she says as her body sways back and forth, presumably as she rides him. But as the camera angle widens, we realize Lynn is actually pegging her man. She smacks his ass, gets a little too excited, and accidentally hurts him by going too deep. “Like I said, nice and easy” he reminds her as he growls in pain. The act, which is often stigmatized by men’s homophobic views of prostate stimulation, isn’t portrayed as a fetish nor as shameful.

Courtesy of Starz.
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Vida (alongside Pose) centers a sexuality and body politic that consciously rejects the predominant patriarchal understanding of sex and sexuality that dominates television and film, both within the Latinx community and beyond it. Sex is an inherently political arena. And to oversimplify the ways that Latina characters navigate and have sex in TV and film is to reinforce real power dynamics that strip Latina women of their bodily agency, and the freedom to navigate sex acts without shame or restraint. Because of that, Vida is one of the most vital works of art for Latina women in the modern struggle for sexual liberation.