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Sex

Sex and Intelligence: ‘Vida’ Is Simply The Best

Season three of Vida premieres Sunday, April 26 on Starz. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Usually, shows about sex aren’t sexy. Remember HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me, ostensibly dissecting the sex lives of three couples but managing to suck all the sexiness out of it? Or 2004’s Kinsey about the science of sex and how little we really know about it? Or middle school health for that matter? It turns out that analyzing sex can be like analyzing a joke — if you start explaining why it’s funny, it’s just not anymore.

But Tanya Saracho’s Vida manages to have insightful, smart things to say about sex, sexuality, and sexual politics while also being just plain hot. The result is quite possibly the best show on television — and certainly the one I’ll miss the most if no one steps in to make more episodes after Starz finishes running the third season. Make no mistake, the third season is just as good as the first two, finishing with enough of a conclusion to give the characters justice while keeping us wanting more.

What can we say? Latinas make the best content

But back to sex. The whole show can be read as a treatise on the subject with each character having her own Awakening-esque arc. Let’s start with activist Marisol, in some ways, the woman with the most traditional story. You know the one — girl tries to be “good,” takes care of her family, works hard, doesn’t have sex. But it doesn’t matter. For Mari, you could say the trouble starts when a video of her giving head makes the rounds (one she did not consent to film). As you’ll see in the third season, despite being her father’s nurse and caretaker, she’s left out of the will with the property going solely to her brother Johnny. It’s not right, but it’s a reminder that even women who play by the patriarchal rules lose.

The typical telling of this story would end there, Marisol powerless and betrayed, another victim. But not in Vida. Mari doesn’t just accept her father’s wishes, instead pushing Johnny to be added to the deed. She also pushes herself and her activism, even breaking with Los Vigilantes, her collective action group. Marisol isn’t defined by her “V-card” — it’s perhaps the least interesting thing about her.

Mari and Johnny are skeptical of the patriarchy

On the other end of the spectrum is Lyn — if Mari’s the virgin, Lyn’s the “whore,” the one wearing see-through dresses, the body of a yoga instructor, and a healthy sexual appetite. The image of Johnny eating her out in the premiere is forever etched into my memory. And so is the orgy. And a few other steamy Lyn moments. For, before dedicating herself to the bar, her sexuality was her greatest asset, getting rich men to provide for her. And it worked — she bought fabulous clothes and had amazing experiences. Until it didn’t. Lyn’s journey is away from the sexist ideal of womanhood to something more individual, more self-realized.

In season three, she rejects ex-boyfriend Juniper’s offer at reconciliation and eventually gives up on being Councilman Rudy’s polished partner. She focuses on making the bar the destination for Latinx culture and she’s good at it, booking the right acts and cultivating a certain aesthetic. The transition is subtle and on-going — there’s still plenty to learn but Lyn finds a way to be sex-positive without defining herself by a man or the ability to acquire the male gaze. Just don’t expect her to turn away from sex, romance, or love any time soon. In sex-positive Vida, Lyn’s sexual escapades are just part of finding herself and finding her way. No slut-shaming here.

And outside of patriarchy’s narrative of women’s sexuality is Emma. Her queerness is not defined by boxes or labels but that doesn’t make it idyllic. She struggles to connect, even when a great partner (Nico!) is right in front of her. Her sexual escapades are just (if not more?!?) hot than Lyn’s, whether it’s bath time with Nico, masturbating at her mom’s house, or fucking the contractor. Emma’s sexuality proves you can go your own way, but it won’t be easy.

Name a hotter couple, we dare you

So often, women’s sexuality is portrayed from the man’s point of view — who’s hot, who’s not, who gets their search for pleasure narrated and who’s goes unnamed. Vida doesn’t just reject the male gaze. It creates a new narrative around desire, one that sees Eddy as desirable as Lyn, Emma’s quest for romantic love as important as Marisol’s fight for her community. That Vida does so with a tantalizing sex scene practically every episode is simply proof that lust doesn’t have to center on the male desire, it too can be feminist.

A show that has this much to say about latinidad, gentrification, class, and colorism would usually be described as “serious” or “important.” It would be for auteurs and Latinx, preferably the limited subsection that is the intersection of those two groups. And Vida is these things but it’s more than that. It’s sexy and smart and for everyone. And I will miss it.

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Not Reading Elizabeth Acevedo? Here’s Why You Should

While the literary establishment generally ignores Latinas, last year we saw the door open (just a creak!), thanks to Elizabeth Acevedo. Her The Poet X won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and her second novel, With the Fire on High, is showing that lightning can indeed strike twice.

I picked up The Poet X knowing nothing except that the author is Afro Latina and it won a bunch of awards. So you can imagine my surprise when the whole book turned out to be in verse. Poetry is not my favorite, so I figured I was in for a long, difficult read. But The Poet X delighted me. The language was powerful, the plot driving, and the characters fascinating.

Going in, I thought, a book about a Latina who expresses herself through writing? I’m going to see myself here (like I do with Jane the Virgin). But The Poet X’s Xiomara is a curvy bombshell, navigating her age-appropriate sexual awakening in the context of a working-class, abusive, Catholic family. And that couldn’t be further from my experience. I was a privileged, fair-skinned, beanpole teenager, confronting what it was like being outside the “spicy/curvy” Latina stereotype. My parents were loving and accepting and there was no strict religious doctrine in our household. I’m not even baptized! That’s not to say we didn’t have awkward conversations about sex or our own problems but our relationship is nothing like Xiomara’s with her parents. Where Jane Villanueva’s nerdiness and loving family resonated with me, Xiomara’s street cred and homelife felt foreign. But different doesn’t mean bad or even unappealing. It’s just a reminder that being Latina is just one part of our identities — it doesn’t define our entire experiences and we certainly aren’t all the same.

The Poet X is one of the rare books by a Latina to get attention from the literary establishment

By the time I finished The Poet X, the cover art for Acevedo’s sophomore work was out and I pre-ordered it. A few pages into With the Fire on High, I was a bit worried. The premise was eerily similar, only this time our young heroine expresses herself through food rather than words. Was this just going to be a carbon copy of The Poet X? Luckily no.

For one, it turns out the difference between Xiomara-the-poet and Emoni-the-chef is substantial. Where The Poet X is all in poetry, With the Fire on High is in prose with each section starting with a recipe (like the canonical Like Water for Chocolate!). It’s a powerful device supported by descriptions of Emoni experimenting with spices, finding surprising combinations, and cooking up flavor metaphors galore.

Emoni is also on a totally different journey than Xiomara when it comes to sex and relationships. When With the Fire on High starts, Emoni may be a senior in high school but she already has a two-year-old daughter. There’s no question about her virginity, no fight for her “purity” a la Xiomara. Instead, Emoni’s backed away from dating altogether — the boys in her school generally mistake her motherhood as a sign that she’s “easy,” when, if anything, she’s learned to by hyper-cautious when it comes to sex and her heart. Plus she’s super busy — raising a toddler, trying to graduate high school, and working to help support her family — it’s a lot.

One of the joys of With the Fire on High is its portrayal of motherhood. At the time of reading it, my daughter is the same age as Emoni’s and I can attest that some of that experience is the same, no matter the circumstance. Yes, I became a mom when you’re “supposed” to — as a married grown up in a secure financial position — and yes, that makes it a lot easier. But we’re all still reading Runaway Bunny and dealing with tantrums and feeling our hearts ache when we go too long without smelling that perfect, baby smell.

Acevedo’s second book is delicious

So much of the conversation around motherhood — teen and Latina motherhood in particular — is about a distinct contraction. Becoming a mother is often equated with going from having the world open to you to suddenly needing to prioritize a tiny, demanding human above all else. And that is true. But there’s a beauty and joy to it that’s left out of the dialogue when the mom is young or brown. It was powerful seeing a character who many would write off as a cautionary tale — don’t become the pregnant freshman! — given the same humanity and joy and problems as the rest of us.

As a mom and a creative, Emoni is her own person. With the Fire on High succeeds because she is so real, so distinct, and yet, so relatable. Her love story (not with the baby daddy) was particularly compelling, as she tries to find happiness and enjoy some of that normal, teenage head-over-heels joy that she was denied in her first experience. As Emoni navigates dating-post-baby, you can’t help but root for her.

The same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo, the author behind both books. I’m excited to meet her next heroine and would like to put in a request — can we meet a Latina who falls in love (and even has sex!) without consequence? Boys get to do it all the time. Even white women are starting to do it (see An EducationGirls, even Sister Carrie.). I’d love for Latinas to have a turn!

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