In December 2020, Netflix viewers met the first season of Bridgerton with open arms and a tremendous amount of pent-up yearning. A few COVID-19 variant waves later, the newly released season 2 joins a chorus of other shows and movies focused on the blissful freedom of doin’ it — and the dangers of suppressing the urge. While the characters in Bridgerton, Ti West’s recent horror movie X, and HBO Max’s gay pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death vary in age, they all show there’s a danger in thinking there’s an expiration date on sexual desire.
[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for Bridgerton, X, and Our Flag Means Death.]
Take Bridgerton season 2: When aging, formerly well-to-do baroness Portia Featherington winds up penniless after her husband’s death, she waits to see what young man will assume the title of “Lord Featherington” and control her family’s fate. It turns out to be Lord Jack Featherington, a distant relative she’s never met, who (after a bit of scheming on both their parts) eventually turns out to be a canny hustler. The two Featheringtons scam the whole ton to earn money, but as their gambit gets close to being found out, Portia is caught in a con of seduction. Lord Jack preys on her widow status, promising to marry her when they run away to the States.
Though she ultimately squirms out of his grasp, Portia considers his proposal; after all, in a season all about the deep ache that sexual urges can instill, Lady Featherington is no exception. The woman wants to get laid, and almost absconds to America with a known crook (and her daughter’s betrothed) to do it. The possible deception of it all doesn’t really matter, at least for a second. Like the young adults populating Bridgerton’s many balls, Lady Featherington is eager to love and be loved, and since losing her husband, she hasn’t found a way to get that acknowledged. Lord Jack may be the wrong path, but at least he’s still a path.
Lady Featherington shares that longing with X’s antagonist Pearl, though the two channel the frustration in different ways. Pearl is far older than Portia (maybe late 70s, to Portia’s mid-50s), and lives on a 1970s farm that just got rented by a group hoping to shoot a “cinematic” porno. But as Pearl watches her pretty young guests wander around and fuck, something ignites in her. She does her best to engage her own husband the way she used to when they were young, but gets shot down. (He has a heart condition, and he’s worried sex would exacerbate it.) So she takes out her frustration by killing the porn production troupe one by one.
X certainly plays into the idea that oldness, more than anything else, is horrifying and twisted. But Pearl’s sexual fixation allows the film to temper the trope into something more nuanced. It isn’t that she wants youth so much as she wants to feel desired and fulfilled, the same way the porn actors describe themselves.
And while that porn team may include “old or young” in their stated list of who free love is for, X seems intent on pulling back its audience’s unease around the idea that someone at Pearl’s age might still need sexual fulfillment. As West perpetually draws parallels between the lurid, bodily charms of porn and horror — as in his seduction scene, intercut with Pearl entranced by the Final Girl — the sex scene between Pearl and her husband seems to interlace the two sides. In a film filled with gore and violent death, the sex sequence between the two 70-something characters elicited the loudest nervous groan from the audience in my theater. Yet X demands we confront our own discomfort about septuagenarian sex: Most wouldn’t go as far as to root for Pearl (though power to you, if you do), but the movie is adamant that her pent-up energy has to go somewhere. And if X’s bloody climax proves anything, it’s that the impact of sexual frustration certainly shouldn’t be discounted.
When that yearning is acted upon, it can be freeing. In Our Flag Means Death, the unlikely meeting of novice gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet and Edward “Captain Blackbeard” Teach sparks something between them that neither fully understands. At first (in a canny instance of queer representation) they both simply think they want what the other has. Stede wants to command respect and rule the seas as a pirate, like Blackbeard. Teach, who asks Stede to call him Ed, wants a softer, more comfortable life.
Ultimately, the two come to realize they’re in love. But as they struggle to make sense of their feelings and how to best express them, they’re left feeling vulnerable, even trapped by convention. Both struggle all season to make sense (to themselves and others) of the drastic changes they long for — why would a romantic relationship be any different? In the final moments of the season, Stede has sorted through his feelings, taking to the high seas to capitalize on his affections. But Ed, feeling spurned and vulnerable after expressing his longing, returns to his old, violent ways.
Though Stede, Ed, Portia, and Pearl’s stories deal in different degrees of sensuality and are set in various time periods (1717, 1814, and 1979, respectively), they get at the frustration of characters at a stage in their lives where their sex lives feel out of step with what’s expected of them. That sensation is innately damaging, leaving them all to feel vulnerable and lash out in their own ways: violently, in Ed and Pearl’s case; or by deciding they can accept a half-life, in Stede and Portia’s. And while older onscreen sexuality certainly isn’t new (any topic recently covered by the 2018 classic Book Club speaks to something already swirling around the zeitgeist), as people clamor to see more sexual stories onscreen, it’s important to remember that lust isn’t just for the young.
After all, while you may disagree with how they handle it — trust me, Pearl’s actions are extreme and ill-advised, but there’s a lot of fan art that’s apocalyptically sad about Ed’s choices here — these characters remind us that we deny aging sensuality at our own risk. After all, we’ll all make it there eventually.