Early into HBO Max’s 1970s-set Minx, Doug Renetti (Jake Johnson), a seedy magazine publisher with a heart of gold and even better chest hair, sits across from writer Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond) in a diner and gives her some sage advice about their craft: “You’ve gotta hide the medicine,” he advises. “It’s like when you give a pill to a dog, you dip it in peanut butter first.” The characters are talking about erotic magazines specifically. The medicine: feminist ideas in favor of fair pay and against marital rape; the peanut butter: nude men. But the sentiment could also stand for the show itself, a lesson on feminism, how far we’ve come from those second wave days, and how far we still need to go — all wrapped in the hilarious, bell-bottomed, and cigarette-smoke (and penis) heavy cloak of a comedy about a fictional erotic women’s magazine, the first of its kind.
Joyce is unhappily selling subscriptions to a Pepto Bismol pink women’s magazine when we meet her, but thinks she has it all figured out when it comes to feminism, secretly dissuading mothers from buying issues that’ll tell their daughters how to stay thin and please their man. But, in many ways, Joyce's definition of feminism is both limiting and pretty contradictory. While it can be frustrating, her imperfect-but-well-meaning, foot-in-her-mouth version of feminism provides viewers with an opportunity for self-reflection, regardless of whether they can see themselves in Joyce and her pussy bows and matching pantsuits.
Throughout the course of the season, we see Joyce re-evaluate her views of the world and her feminism, which changes from one-dimensional (the idea that women need to only be taken seriously as intellectuals) to more nuanced (that women can can be both serious and sexual at the same time, and in fact, liberated by their decisions to do so). This change is a prompt for viewers to both examine and critique their own feminism as well as the way they engage with feminist discourse. Because yes, in 2022 we’re past the basics of these specific ideas around feminism (like the fact that women can exist outside the home and in the workforce and should have access to contraception) and recognize the importance of feminism's intersectionality, but we can still learn from Joyce’s experiences — and mistakes — about how to productively engage in feminism today.
“I suppose I learned what not to do [from Joyce],” Lovibond tells Refinery29 over Zoom in a recent interview. “You’re going to catch more flies with honey than vinegar. You're not going to have somebody listen and have a dialogue with me if you're telling them that they're bad. It's more about educating and having a genuine discussion about something, inviting other people into that conversation, rather than just telling them what you think.”
Through Joyce, we're confronted with the limitations of second-wave feminism and how it failed to address the specific needs and concerns of women of color. Joyce's version of feminism is extremely black and white, but particularly heavy on the white. This is clear from her first interaction with Tina (Idara Victor), the only Black character on the show, when Joyce immediately asks Tina, who's pouring water for a meeting, for a cup of tea (the assumption being that she's the secretary). Tina confronts her, stating: "Oh I'm not the secretary, I'm just Black," only to quickly laugh because she actually is Doug’s secretary.
I ask Victor about the limited number of characters of color in the series (there is also Minx’s photographer Richie, played by actor Oscar Montoya), and whether there’s a fear that the show specifically leans into white feminism as the only type of feminism. “I think that's why [Tina] is almost opposed to Joyce, because she doesn’t necessarily feel included fully in that argument and in that conversation,” Victor says. It’s a feeling, she continues, that a lot of Black women have felt in relation to the feminist movement. Tina’s subtle pushbacks, and her existence as a woman of color in a high position of authority for the time, serves in opposition to Joyce’s on-the-nose brand of feminism. “Joyce, being a white woman, she has the freedom to speak out freely about those things and to be that annoying sharing what she knows about [feminism],” Victor says.
Don’t mistake Tina as relegated to being a character in service of the white man in charge though. She handles the magazine company’s books, is Doug’s trusted confidante and adviser, and is definitely always the smartest person in the room. Tina’s subtlety shouldn’t be taken as complacency, but rather a reminder of the time period and the ways many women of color had to assert their power and agency. “She's smart about these topics, too,” Victor says. “Maybe she just doesn't feel like she necessarily has the space to advocate for her side of things as a Black woman. So she's waiting for the right opportunity to act. Just because I'm not shouting it from the rooftops doesn't mean I don't know.”
And while Joyce’s mishaps may show us how far we’ve come, the show also shows how far we still need to go when it comes to embracing our sexuality and sexual desires. This is most aptly depicted shortly into the first episode, when the Minx team tries to cast their inaugural male centerfold. Sitting in their Pasadena office, Joyce — and the viewer — are confronted with a plethora of men of all sizes, coming in and dropping their pants as they and their bits attempt to snag the coveted spot. And because this is HBO, there are no artfully placed ferns or suggestive shoulders. Instead, we are presented with what can only be described as a montage of flaccid penises of any and all sizes. (Which can be kind of alarming, considering audiences are so used to seeing nude women as opposed to naked men on their screens).
What the scene, or the “penises in all their glory,” as Lovibond jokes, shows is that there’s still power in showing the female gaze and pleasure, because it’s something we’re still largely missing on our screens. “It's important [to show the female gaze] precisely because it's still not on a par with the male gaze,” Lovibond says. “There’s so much serving that perspective that there's such an imbalance with the female gaze, female pleasure, and women being active in their desire rather than passively receiving it.”
For Victor, the show’s exploration of desire in all its forms has been reflective of her own experience. While women in the time of Bottom Dollar Publications (Doug's company) may have been pushing for sexual expression all together, watching the characters on Minx today has Victor question the limits and extent of her own personal desire, sexual expression, and what she even wants from them. “What I saw and what I loved watching was in that discussion [of what and how much your desire is being acknowledged by magazines, publications, and the world in general], I had to question for myself, what are my personal desires?” she says.
In a time when it can feel guilt-inducing to not engage with certain aspects of sexual liberation (how many of us have felt like a “prude” for not enjoying a male stripper or being more sexually adventurous?), the show expands the conversation around what feminism is and how we’re allowing people to exist, “even if what they're doing might align with what might have been considered oppressive in the past, like a woman wanting to be domestic,” Victor says. “That's okay. It's about expanding the freedom for women to be whatever they want.” And, to enjoy whatever they want sexually, too. “As much as it’s wonderful to have the freedom for that to exist, I don't personally like going to male strip clubs, I'm good on it,” she says. “But at the same time, I want women who would love to see that — like my aunt loves that stuff [laughs] — I want her to have the freedom to enjoy that."
Minx is available on HBO Max starting March 17.