From "Sex/Life" to "Kevin," summer TV offers creative answers to whether wives can "have it all"

From adultery to murder, today's buzziest shows portray women seeking independence from society's marital norms

By Kylie Cheung
Published July 3, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
Sarah Shahi and Mike Vogel in "Sex/Life" (Netflix)
Sarah Shahi and Mike Vogel in "Sex/Life" (Netflix)

The following contains spoilers from the "Sex/Life" and "The Bold Type" finales, and mentions events in recently released "Kevin Can F**k Himself" and "Physical" episodes.

"Can women have it all?"

It's the age-old patriarchal question, never asked of men for one very simple reason. That is, men are expected to have it all, because their female partners or other women in their lives will presumably be responsible for the exhaustive behind-the-scenes labor that makes "having it all" possible. In our society, "having it all" is understood as the dream job, the loving marriage, the single-family home and beautiful kids, the car or two and perhaps the dreamy family cabin in Aspen for the holidays or the beachy timeshare in Key West for summer vacations.

From Netflix's "Sex/Life," to Apple TV+'s "Phyiscal," and AMC's "Kevin Can F**k Himself," several of the most buzzed-about shows of this summer's lineup grapple with unique answers to the fundamental and very much loaded question of whether a woman can have it all. These answers have ranged from adulterous to violent, and might have been unheard of even a few years ago.

But all of these shows speak to a common theme: television wives, whether on sitcoms or dramas, are refusing to continue on as wallflowers. Independence, fulfillment, joy – qualities of life that have long been understood as male birthright, yet remain ever-elusive for women — are worth risking it all for, to the protagonists of these aforementioned, women-centric summer shows.

Netflix's raunchy "Sex/Life" revolves almost entirely around whether a woman — and in this case, a young mother of two — can have it all, and its answer is strikingly unapologetic, yet ultimately underdeveloped. Billie (Sarah Shahi) loves her kids and family more than anything, but she also misses the sexual adventures of her past, and the unshakable sexual and romantic chemistry she shared with her toxic ex Brad (Adam Demos). She misses New York City and her psychology PhD program, and her Connecticut mansion and the security of her marriage to her "nice guy," banker husband seem stifling. 

In the season finale of "Sex/Life," Billie goes so far as to quote Betty Friedan in a voiceover, sagely noting that women can, indeed, have it all — but scattered across different points of their life, and not at the same time. In other words, women can have passionate sex lives and adventure — just not at the same time that they have kids and a family. Billie ultimately rejects this notion in the last seconds of the finale, when she spontaneously wakes up from the montage-y dream of hard-won, familial bliss she and her husband finally seem to clinch for themselves after a season of chaos. Billie declares that she needs it all right now, and seeks a night with Brad — but not before specifying that she still chooses her family, and won't leave them for him.

Yet, Billie's conflict seems misrepresented as a binary choice between family life and passion — but is her family an inherently separate choice from Brad, and with him, passion and romance? Is happily divorced motherhood just not a thing in the cocooned world of "Sex/Life"? Are we to believe "having it all" can be a subdued, semi-fulfilling marriage and motherhood, with the occasional extramarital joyride? We may have to wait for a second season for these answers.

Other shows address the question of whether women of today can "have it all" with a bit more subtlety than pondering Friedan texts outright. They also challenge the idea of what "having it all" even looks like for different women. For example, in "Kevin Can F**k Himself," for Allison (Annie Murphy), "all" is as simple as being free of Kevin (Eric Petersen), her narcissistic and emotionally abusive husband, who's isolated and controlled her for so long that her ability to imagine and dream of a world beyond him is highly limited. By the end of the show's first episode, when Allison learns her husband has spent all of their shared money and trapped her in their dead-end life, she becomes hellbent on freeing herself, through any means necessary.

We get a glimpse of Allison's one fantasy in a dream sequence of her vacationing in Paris after successfully killing Kevin. Beyond this, her conception of happily ever after is simple — killing her husband, getting free, going anywhere and doing anything after that. Having it all, especially for women, is often defined and understood as enjoying romantic love, work love, and familial love — all of which are the deepest possible commitments under capitalism and patriarchy. Maybe, the writers of "Kevin Can F**k Himself" posit, the secret to "having it all" is actually total and complete detachment. Maybe it's total indulgence of female rage, or the righting of generations of patriarchal wrongs, all wrapped up in a neat little drug deal. 

Meanwhile "Physical," created by noted "Desperate Housewives" alum Annie Weisman, is the story of Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) struggling to stay afloat in 1980s San Diego, when her eccentric, academic husband decides to run for state Assembly. Fueled by her own struggles with body image, Sheila eventually launches a wildly successful exercise video empire, capitalizing on the body image struggles she shares with other '80s housewives. 

The message here, of course, is pretty bleak, and throughout the show, there is a deep sense of self-awareness. In "Physical," release from a strained marriage and unhappy home life requires preying on other women's insecurities, and profiting off of patriarchy. Yes, you can have it all, or some version of it, under patriarchy — if you take it away from other women.

The pursuit of happiness for women and female characters has often been treated as if it must come at the expense of someone else's, like a male partner's, their children's, or even other women's. We rarely encounter stories of women experiencing joy without compromise, making the recent series finale of Freeform's "The Bold Type" particularly cathartic when Sutton Brady (Meghan Fahy) reunites with Richard, the love of her life. They had separated when Sutton made it clear she didn't want kids, but by the finale, Richard decides to choose being with her over having children. Showrunner Wendy Straker Hauser told Salon that the fullness of Sutton's happy ending was important, to show that a woman didn't have to lose "the love of her life by deciding she didn't want to have kids."

Between Billie's quest for sexual fulfillment and freedom outside her family, and Allison's ambitious and liberatory murder plot, the truth, which feminists have been reminding us for years, is that there's no one way to be a happy, complete woman. There are actually about a million ways, maybe even a million-and-one — and none is inherently at odds with anyone else's happiness.


Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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