In thermodynamics, a phase transition describes a substance changing state without altering its chemical composition. Melting, freezing, evaporating—the process is generally accomplished via the adding or subtracting of heat. “Minx,” a new seventies-era comedy from HBO Max, begins in one state and, about midway through, slips its bonds to enter a different one—all because it applies some welcome heat to its premise.
That’s no smear on the show’s first phase. It kicks off as a likable fantasy: bouncy and vibrant. In the pilot, Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond), an uptight ingénue who aspires to start a feminist magazine, pitches moguls at an industry fair. She stresses that the magazine—her working title is The Matriarchy Awakens—will look nothing like what sells on newsstands, the rags that trumpet how to snag a husband or find a thinner you. No one bites. But Joyce catches the attention of Doug (Jake Johnson), the louche and charming head of Bottom Dollar, a porn publisher. Where she sees an oppressed sisterhood, he sees an untapped market. They team up to create Minx, which is one part serious articles (marital rape, birth control) and one part male parts (depicted onscreen, as in the rag, in bounteous nakedness and variety). It’s an odd-couple pick-me-up about unshackling the female gaze.
Minx, the publication, is politics dressed up as fun. “Minx,” the show, is fun that barely bothers to dress up as politics—at least at first. It’s interested enough in Nixon’s America, and in the mechanics of assembling, marketing, and distributing a magazine. But what it really cares about are its characters, who feel like artful twists on winning formulas. Joyce is convincingly prim and mission-oriented, and the script wastes no time in skewering her blind spots. Doug lounges around in unbuttoned shirts of many colors, merrily guiding his protégé while seeming to harbor no prejudices whatsoever. (He boasts of hiring only “the best people for the job,” and names Tina, a Black woman, his managing editor.) Bambi (Jessica Lowe), a centerfold whom Joyce radicalizes, has a heart of gold; Richie (Oscar Montoya), a photographer, understands what Minx could mean for the queer gaze. Tina (Idara Victor), the adult in the room, is also the most human, her face a battleground for hope, glee, frustration, and weariness.
In this implausibly delightful workplace, the arterial story line is the education of Joyce. Viewers cringe when she does, except that we’re cringing at her snobbery, and she’s cringing at the sequinned models strolling past her office. It’s not fair to suggest that the show is harder on humorless feminism than on sexism—its entitled boyfriends, businessmen, and shock jocks come off terribly—but one is reminded how easy it is to cheer when a spoilsport woman, a woman with pretensions, is chastened. Joyce not only needs to learn to respect women such as Bambi and Tina, and men such as Doug; she also needs to learn how to respect female desire, especially the desire to look at penises. In “Minx,” dick pics are a worthy vessel for Joyce’s ambition because they reflect what women, liberated from their hangups and affectations, really want.
What do women want? It’s the question animating the long, pink history of ladymags. There’s no answer, of course. Women want different things, at different times; dreams are stubbornly personal. But “Minx” needs to know what women want so that it can portray its characters figuring out how, against the odds, to provide it. And what the writers decide, not unreasonably, is that women crave the empowerment of looking, rather than the banality of being looked at. In one scene, a workplace harasser is cowed by the sight of his victims giggling over an objectified male body; in another, as the gang stages Minx’s first centerfold, women in suits catcall a naked construction worker. But this simple answer, which is about power, crowds out a more complex answer, which is about desire. (Such confusion aligns the show with the second-wave feminism that it depicts.) We’re asked to accept that, deep down, most straight women are turned on by dicks, that they want to gaze at dicks, and that the feminine urge to do so in a magazine has as much to do with getting off as getting even.
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It can, of course, but the show seems incurious about the limits of this assumption. As a result, its handling of actual sex can falter. At one point, Joyce, after lighting a candle and putting on some sultry music, masturbates with a vibrator for the first time. She’s looking at her own magazine’s centerfold, and, between the man’s outrageous muscles and the tastefully naughty mood, the moment feels like a parody of eroticism. Perhaps we’re meant to smile at what Joyce finds hot, but I also couldn’t imagine her successfully setting aside her ambivalence about how her magazine has evolved—a main source of the show’s emotional drama. What’s more, Tina explains that Minx’s strategy is to appeal to “white bitches,” since they have money to spend. It’s hard to square that decision with the show’s framing of Minx as genuinely in touch with some elemental female fantasy.
But maybe the series’ weak spots illuminate a broader problem. Feminist magazines have historically covered so-called women’s issues, such as genital mutilation and child-care policy, while attempting to gratify a narrowly defined set of desires. The acknowledgment of these desires—for beauty, a mate, confidence, success—is meant to affirm experiences that only women have. But, setting aside the slipperiness of that project (which women, and why only them?), another distinctly female yearning is to be affirmed in experiences that are more universal than one’s gender. What many women want is to be seen simultaneously as women and as whatever that category excludes.
In “Minx,” Bambi dramatizes this paradox. With her Minnie Mouse squeak and platinum-streaked mane, she scans as a classic babe, but the show revels in subverting our expectations, displaying her many capabilities to comic, sometimes mystical effect. Bambi can break a man’s ribs and calm an angry mob with a glance; she is a resourceful colleague, a mesmerizing performer, and a generous friend. Yet in using Bambi to disable one stereotype, the series cements another. Bambi becomes the bimbo who shouldn’t be underestimated, and her talents only reify her role, expanding the category of “pinup” without breaking it. By the end of “Minx,” we have a good idea of the standing and treatment that someone such as Bambi deserves, but little sense of what she herself longs for.
Enter, however, the phase shift. For the first part of “Minx,” as characters write articles, design photo spreads, woo advertisers, and sweet-talk venders, the show has obvious reasons to suggest that pornifying The Matriarchy Awakens is a good idea. In order to champion Minx, the show’s creators lean into disciplining Joyce, condemning her prudery, and positing a harmony, even when she can’t see it, between the feminism she supports and the venture that she’s leading. The effect is to reconcile the erotic with the political. But it’s precisely this pressure to realize Joyce’s ideals in the space of female fantasy that leads the show to mistake equality for the sum of what women want.
When Minx enters the public sphere, by contrast, politics takes over. The latter half of the season drops Bottom Dollar into a tug-of-war among reactionary city-council members, offended patriarchs, disappointed radicals, and curious housewives. The meaning of Minx grows fluid, and a viewer no longer needs to endorse its mission to want to keep watching. This allows the show’s creator, Ellen Rapoport, to question the pairing of porn and feminism, and also the idea that a menschy magnate such as Doug could exist in adult media. Indeed, if early episodes of “Minx” are about alliances, the later ones brim with uncouplings—Doug from Joyce, men from women, politics from pleasure, text from image. Severed from the workplace intrigue of costumes and shoots, the show’s eroticism blooms. (A late-breaking romance between two female characters is much sexier than anything in the pages of Minx.) And, through a talk-show interview in which Joyce squares off against one of her heroes, the upstart magazine is subjected to its most rigorous critique yet.
This challenge arrives via a feminist icon named Victoria Hartnett (Hope Davis), who intones that Minx drowns a “serious agenda for women . . . in a sea of salaciousness.” “You have been used,” she tells Joyce. “Your content is cover for a very clever businessman to expand into an enormous untapped market for pornography, to sell cigarettes and alcohol and automobiles to women, and, to add insult to injury, you’ve been hired as editor but only been given the illusion of control.” Hartnett is the type of long-haired scold that earlier episodes of “Minx” might have mocked. The trouble is: she’s right. For all of Doug’s magnetism, success has nurtured an ugliness in him. He’s begun to downplay Joyce’s achievements and to oversell his own. Grumbling about Joyce’s knack for enticing advertisers, he protests, “She’s like the hood ornament, but me, I’m the whole car.” After humiliating her during an on-air confrontation, Doug seizes creative control of Minx, alienating the staff.
“Minx” is too smart to redraw Doug as a villain, but it does allow the scales to fall from its viewers’ eyes. Doug’s obsession with chasing notoriety and profit, his tendency not to listen—these aren’t victimless quirks. A series that explores the power of the female gaze seems, in retrospect, to have spent its first half flattering a male perspective—in which a nice guy takes a pretty youngster under his wing, helps her loosen up, and clowns his way to getting them all rich. In the show’s second half, that story comes apart, replaced by something wiser, sadder, and more truthful. Doug and Joyce’s partnership may or may not be broken when the season ends, but the world of female fantasy feels as far away as ever. Facing reality is hard enough.