When BBC's anticipated drama Wanderlust hit our screens last year it generated a lot of headlines. The Daily Mail called it "the steamiest show on TV" and it was noteworthy for showing "the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC", wrote Metro. Unbelievably, a middle-aged woman having an orgasm on national television is apparently still big news.
Acted by the ever-brilliant Toni Colette (Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine), the orgasm in question happens in the first episode – a long, loud and slightly frantic climax, courtesy of a guy she meets at a water aerobics class. Sexy.
It’s uncomfortable to watch, laugh-out-loud funny and a little bit erotic all at the same time, and has been celebrated as a fresh and honest portrayal of female pleasure and extramarital temptation in your 50s.
It’s worth noting that the scene wasn’t actually the first orgasm on the BBC: the Guardian rightly name-checked shows like Tipping the Velvet and Apple Tree Yard which did it first. But the very fact it’s been so talked-about just proves how elusive the female orgasm is in mainstream media, especially for women who don’t fit certain conventions of 'sexiness'.
So in the spirit of promoting more visibility of the big O for women, here’s a timeline of some of the most famous (and often most controversial) onscreen female orgasms in the last 50 years. Here’s hoping we see far more realistic representations in the next 50 – not to mention far more diversity in the women having them.
1) Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968)
If you could do with a laugh today, watch this. In '60s sci-fi send-up Barbarella, the baddie tries to pleasure Jane Fonda’s character "to death" with a piano-like contraption called 'The Excessive Machine'. Said baddie resembles an intergalactic Oompa Loompa with ill-advised shoulder pads; nevertheless she gets all wide-eyed and sweaty having the most unrealistic orgasm you’ve ever seen in your life.
2) Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989)
How could any orgasm round-up exist without this iconic scene? It all begins when Harry mansplains to Sally that he can tell when a woman fakes it *collective eye roll*. Her response is to have a theatrically loud orgasm in a crowded café to prove him wrong. Point. Made.
3) Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights (1997)
The famous 'Coaching Scene' shows high-school drop-out Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) being filmed for his first adult movie with expert porn performer Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). She gently coaches him through to both their orgasms in a scene that’s tender, sexy and actually pretty endearing; this isn’t your regular Pornhub misogyny, thankfully.
4) Halle Berry in Monster's Ball (2001)
The plot underpinning this sex scene between Leticia (Halle Berry) and Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is actually pretty depressing – it deals with grief, poverty and addiction. But there’s no denying that the sex, and Halle’s orgasm, is primal, raw and captivating. Sex can be emotionally complicated, and this scene is testament to that.
5) Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City (2002)
Has Samantha Jones had the most orgasms on TV ever? Probably. The most memorable has to be in season 6, when, after losing her libido during cancer treatment, she finally reaches orgasm again with boyfriend Smith. It’s as over-the-top and unbelievably operatic as all Samantha’s orgasms, but heartwarming nevertheless.
6) Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman in The L Word (2004)
Showtime's hit TV show The L Word was the first to explore the lives and loves of queer women on mainstream TV, doing a lot to progress representation at the time. The show’s on-off couple Tina and Bette have their fair share of epic sex scenes during the series, but dedicated 'Tibette' fans are most obsessed with this one, when they finally get back together in the last season. Straight after having a particularly intense-sounding orgasm, head hanging off the bed, Tina sees and comments on something that needs fixing in the garden. Classic long-term relationship.
7) Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (2010)
This orgasm happens when Dean (Ryan Gosling) goes down on Cindy (Michelle Williams) in the heady, happy days of their early relationship. It’s beautifully lit, she’s (almost) fully clothed and it feels refreshingly realistic, yet it caused controversy by giving the film an 'NC-17 rating' for extreme pornographic content. The cast campaigned against this and the rating was dropped: "There's plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it's a man receiving it from a woman — and they're R-rated," Ryan Gosling told AceShowbiz.com. "Ours is reversed and somehow it's perceived as pornographic." File under more reasons to love RG.
8) Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden (2016)
Like many same-sex orgasms in film, this scene probably fits more within the realm of male fantasy than lesbian empowerment, which is sad. But it does deserves a mention for being one of the most eye-wateringly graphic orgasm scenes in popular cinema. The film's handmaiden character Sook-Hee gives Japanese heiress Lady Hideko a 'lesson' in oral sex: cue naked flesh at every angle, a lot of bodily fluids and the loudest orgasms on this list. Not one to watch with your grandma.