Tom Kapinos’s “Californication” as a “Sex Utopia”

by Malte H. (Author)

Term Paper 2015 18 Pages

American Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of Contents

1. Introd.: Californication, Pornography and the Sexualization of Mainstream Entertainment

2. Theory: Building Imaginary Worlds

3. Masculinity in “Californication”

4. The Role of Women

5. Conclusion: Traditional Family Values and the Dismissal of the Hollywood Lifestyle


1. Introduction: Californication, Pornography and the Sexualization of Mainstream Entertainment

The American comedy-drama television series “Californication” revolves around protagonist Hank Moody, a troubled novelist suffering from writer´s block. Moody recently moved from his hometown New York to California where his drinking, womanizing and drug abuse complicate his relationship with his ex-wife Karen. The main recurring themes of the series are sex, drugs, rock and roll and the portrayal of the prosperous Hollywood society as pleasure-loving and sexually perverted. The show was created by the American television executive producer Tom Kapinos who served both as producer and chief screenwriter. “Californication” was originally aired from August 13, 2007 to June 29, 2014 on the American premium cable and satellite television network “Showtime”, featuring 7 seasons of 12 episodes each. The show and the lead actor, David Duchovny, were both nominated for Golden Globes in 2007 where Duchovny won the lead actor award. The series was rated NC-17 because of the display of nudity, sex, offensive language and drug abuse. “Californication” has hence been opposed by several conservative groups because of the explicit content of the program. The show was, for instance, heavily criticized by the “Australian Christian Lobby” and the Christian fundamentalist group “Salt Shakers” who requested the withdrawal of commercials by Christian companies from the series (Bachelard).

“Californication” certainly contains much more sex, explicit language, promiscuity and drug abuse than other television series featured in the broad spectrum of the entertainment industry. Remarks such as “I wish you would have said that before all the blood started rushing to my cock” or “let´s get some top shelf pussy” made by the male protagonists of the series emphasize this fact. The explicit content of “Californication” could even be called pornographic since the series displays sexual intercourse in front of the camera, topless or completely nude actors as well as dirty talking about sex and outlandish sexual practises. Additionally, the show breaks sexual taboos. In the series’ pilot episode a dream scene shows a nun performing oral sex on the protagonist Hank Moody in a church. Later in the episode Moody has sex with the girl Mia, who is said to be 16 years old at that point. “Californication” also shows homosexual couples and sex for sale. It is obvious that features like these led to the rating of the show as NC-17 and to the backlash from conservative parties.

The nominations for the Golden Globe awards and the running time of over 7 years, however, show that “Californication” got popular and successful, even though it was only aired via premium television. This raises the question to what extent pornography and pornographic contents have become part of popular entertainment culture already or to what extent “Californication” itself has shifted themes and style derived from pornography into mass media entertainment, thereby “mainstreaming” them. Karen Boyle from the University of Stirling states that the sexualization of mass media is a continuous process that started with the first television programs. The sexualization of mainstream popular culture is, according to Boyle, linked to its commerce:

In a 1998 episode of “Sex and the City” Charlotte, usually the most sexually conservative of the friends, becomes hooked on a “Rabbit” vibrator. After the episode aired, “Rabbit” sales rocketed. Fourteen years later, the “Sex and the City” New York tour still includes a stop at the shop where Charlotte purchased her vibrator. […] These examples suggest changing cultural norms around sexuality and its representations, inextricably linked to commerce (Boyle 259).

If the idea of the sexualization of mainstream entertainment as a continuous, ongoing process is taken for granted, “Californication” can be seen as another format that pushes the boundaries further, eventually integrating softcore pornography into the show as a quasi-logical next step. This form of breaking taboos on screen is what naturally arouses the viewers’ interest. Since the majority of the actors in “Californication” starring in nude scenes are female and surpassingly attractive, it can be assumed that this form of pioneering led to the great popularity and thereby the commerce of the show, especially with the male audience. However, “Californication” is also successful with female viewers.

As Karen Boyle states, the portrayal of loose morals and promiscuity suggests the changing of cultural norms around sexuality and its representation, not only on screen but also in the public sphere of the viewers. The characters in “Californication” consequently play with their identities in terms of gender, sexual orientation and position in society and family, thereby questioning traditional cultural norms by developing new, alternative forms of lifestyle and domestic life. Hence, “Californication” can also be understood as a television adaptation of the change of public, traditional moral values concerning gender roles and life expectations during the last five decades.

This change of cultural norms is described in the introduction to the “Routledge Companion to Media and Gender 2014” as follows:

It is true that, in many parts of the world over the last few decades, public perceptions of gender roles, opportunities, and life expectations have substantially changed. Nevertheless, many important problems remain unresolved. Meanwhile, of course, new concerns, debates and tensions cry out for scholarly investigation (Carter et al. 1).

The subject matter that has to be discussed, the problem “crying out for scholarly investigation”, in “Californication” is, therefore, how the different identities of the characters are designed. It is crucial to investigate how in the world of “Californication” moral values are acted out, what the gender roles and expectations of the characters are and how this influences the audience of the show.

Thus, the aim of this research paper is to describe and critically discuss the different identities of the characters portrayed Tom Kapinos´s “Californication” in terms of their gender roles and moral values concerning sexuality, family life and domestic life. As anti-porn feminists oppose pornography for its representation of the female body as an object of male sexual desire (cf. Sarikakis 211) and since “Californication” incorporates elements of pornography, it will also be necessary to investigate the use of the female body as a sex object in the show. In opposition to the gender roles of the women portrayed in the show, the roles of masculinity, male power, sexual violence and machismo will be discussed. The main thesis of the paper is that Tom Kapinos´s “Californication” displays a picture of prosperous Californians as sexually perverted, unrestrained and hedonistic while, on the other hand, promoting traditional values in terms of family- and domestic life. The concluding part will discuss how these contrasts affect the quality of the show as well as the views of the audience and the marketing of the show.

In the course of the series the protagonist of the show, Hank Moody, engages in a countless numbers of sexual affairs. Every woman he meets seems to fall for his charm, immediately starting to make him vicious offerings. Additionally, nearly every character in “Californication” seems to display sexual preferences that are outside the norm and dirty talk about outlandish sexual practices, for example at a dinner party, is part of common behaviour. “Californication” is so heavily overloaded with sex, the whole atmosphere sexually overcharged to such an extent that the viewer

inevitably feels like watching a surreal world, a universe that is so much “over-sexed” that it feels completely alien. That is why in this essay “Californication” is viewed as an imaginative world. By defining the setting of the show as imaginative and surreal, the world of “Californication” can be described objectively, it can be explored like a “foreign universe”, a utopia of sex, a “Sex-Utopia”.

2. Theory: Building Imaginary Worlds

As already stated in the introductory paragraph, this essay comprehends Showtime´s “Californication” to be set in a foreign world which appears surreal to the viewer, mainly because of the fact that the atmosphere in the series is to heavily overloaded with sex that it feels as unfamiliar to the audience as, for instance, the fanciful, imaginary world of J. R. R. Tolkien´s “Lord of the Rings” does. The following part will outline theories of world building in imaginary texts as given in Mark J. P. Wolf´s introduction to the volume “Building Imaginary Worlds - The Theory and History of Subcreation” and apply his theoretical framework to the television series.

First of all, it has to be noted that the theory of world building as it is presented in Mark J. P. Wolf´s essay was developed for investigating “clearly” imaginary worlds only. In his work the author refers to the terms “primary“ and “secondary world”, thereby drawing a dividing line between the world that is the familiar environment of the reader (primary world) and the world the narration is set in (secondary world) (cf. 25). The secondary world is usually imaginative and outlandish to the reader. Exemplarily Wolf studies the worlds of “Lord of the Rings”, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”. The author points out that “a secondary [imaginary] world is usually connected with the primary world in some way, but, at the same time, set apart from it enough to be a world unto itself” (25). Additionally, “in order to be “secondary”, it must have a distinct border partitioning it from the primary world […]” (ibd.). Consequently he claims that “for example Leo Tolstoy´s “War and Peace” (1869) cannot really be said to contain a secondary world, since its main action is set in the primary world, in Russia, during a real historical period” (27).

It is plain to see that the world of “Californication” does not fulfill the requirements of a secondary world in Wolf´s sense, mostly since there is no clear, “distinct border” distinguishing the world of the protagonists of “Californication” from the primary world of the viewers. It even seems as if the show was set in the primary world because the surroundings of the actors strongly resemble the surroundings of the “ordinary”, non-imaginative, world.

However, Wolf points out that “the secondariness” of a world is also a matter of degree (cf. 27). He claims that “A world´s “secondariness” depends on the extent to which a place is detached from the primary world and different from it” (26). The major mechanism that is employed in the building of imaginary, secondary worlds is, according to Wolf, “subcreation”. Subcreation describes the processes of altering and combining existing concepts from the primary world to then become inventions of the secondary world. The secondary world does, therefore, not feature the primary world´s defaults (cf. 24). Wolf states that “the more one changes the [reader´s primary world’s] defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the primary world” (24).

Wolf additionally lists three main properties needed to produce a secondary world, namely “invention”, “completeness” and “consistency” (cf. 33). These properties hold the secondary world together, differentiating it from the primary world (ibd.). The term “invention” is defined as “the degree to which default assumptions based on the primary world have changed, regarding such things as geography, history, language, physics, biology, zoology, culture, custom and so on” (34). “Completeness” refers to the necessity of giving additional information when referring to a secondary world, especially in terms of a sufficient backstory, well-rounded and multi-dimensional characters as well as, in more obvious ways, an explanation of how the characters have some source of food, clothing or shelter to survive (cf. 39). The term “consistency” describes “to which degree a world´s details are plausible, feasible and without contradiction” (43). This mainly refers to the inventions and alterations of the primary world the author applied to his realm of fantasy.



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  • Malte H. (Author)



Title: Tom Kapinos’s “Californication” as a “Sex Utopia”