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Let the Girls be Gross: Embracing Sleaze and Sensuality in Media

As the Clean Girl falls, a new supreme rises… Are we witnessing the rise (or resurgence) of the arguably more authentic Gross Girl?

When was the last time you were gross? And what does being gross mean to you? Is it a physical state of being? Or mental or emotional? Is it the sweat running down your back as you sprint for the train in billion-degree heat and pray that your deodorant does what it promises? For some, it’s two weeks without laundry. For others, it’s the sliminess of jealousy or self-pity. It’s a combination of the two for the not-so-unfortunate majority of us. 

So, let’s use “gross” as the panoptic adjective for all we’re about to discuss: filthiness, sleaziness, repulsiveness, oh my! My reasoning for this distinction? Maybe not all of us have felt the shame of stumbling home after a night where good and evil seem to reflect both sides of the same coin. Maybe we aren’t all cursed with hair that gets oilier than a fast-food joint’s kitchen after three days without a wash. But we have all – yes, I’m retracting the “majority” bit of my first statement – felt gross. 

The Rise of Clean Culture

Still, for some reason, there’s been a recent reluctance to acknowledge these feelings of grossness. The Clean Girl aesthetic reigned Pinterest and TikTok, influencers across all social media platforms trading in beachy waves for Hailey-Bieber-approved slicked-back buns, switching out smokey eyes for no-makeup makeup looks which saw beauty gurus prioritizing skincare over all else. Hydration was salvation. Neutrals were the word of God. 

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

Even our media faced backlash for the sake of sanitization. Sex scenes were suddenly deemed too gratuitous, too vulgar for audiences who supposedly desired an uptick in wholesome content. To some, everything became too sexual, too much like all the world was sex and it caught us in its orbit. Many wanted off this ride. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the irony of this complaint: according to a study done by The Economist, Hollywood sex scenes have seen a 40% decline since the beginning of the millennium. 

Barry Keoghan in a robe looking over a balcony strewn with streamers in Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn."
Saltburn. Amazon Studios

Of course, there’s validity to this: there are sex scenes that seem to exist solely to exploit their typically female subjects (Sam Levinson’s HBO miniseries The Idol (2023) faced deserved scrutiny for this), but what happens when we blur these lines – ones that delineate exploitation and sex for the sake of furthering a plot? Do we throw the whole thing out altogether? Puritanism seems too simple a solution for too complex an “issue,” and 2023 and 2024’s run of films proved this true.

Reclaiming Sensuality and the Role of Desire

Emerald Fennell’s sun-soaked Saltburn (2023) and Luca Guadagnino’s electrifying Challengers (2024) come to mind, as does Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated Poor Things (2023).  If these films have anything in common, it’s the need to quench one’s desire. Sure, sex plays a part (in fact, a significant part) in all of these films, but the driving force behind all of it, and arguably the driving force behind why anyone does anything, is desire. The emotion itself can feel rather icky and, at worst, demoralizing, and somewhere in between those two, gross. But when this desire, this grossness, is tapped into, it creates something worth discussing.  

Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in Luca Guadagnino's "Challengers,' all sitting on a bed.
Challengers. Amazon MGM Studios, Warner Bros. Production

While both Poor Things and Saltburn were especially lauded and criticized for some particularly raunchy scenes (the former for its numerous graphic sex scenes, though arguably less erotic and indeed less kinky than the latter, which showed Barry Keoghan’s Oliver drinking Jacob Elordi’s Felix’s bathwater), it elicited a great reaction from the masses. While some called the films perverted, others rejoiced that bawdiness and vulgarity seemed to be returning to mainstream cinema. Guadagnino’s Challengers received seemingly unanimous praise for its depiction of sensuality and eroticism.

The Enduring Relevance of Grossness in Pop Culture

That said, it may not have ever really left. Lena Dunham’s magnum opus Girls (2011-2017), often described as the younger, inarguably less glamorous counterpart to the iconic Sex and the City (1998-2004), has been enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity. Maybe Dunham’s Hannah Horvath was onto something when she declared herself at least “a voice of a generation.” 

The series follows four twenty-somethings as they meander their way through the physical and emotional grossness that comes with the early throes of adulthood. The yucky and shameful pangs of insecurity are masked by the equally icky narcissism employed by many of the show’s protagonists, and the unsavory feeling of still desiring someone against all your friends’ (and your own) better judgment. 

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath sitting on a step in HBO's "Girls."
Girls. HBO

While the show itself is not inviolable to feeling a bit out of touch over ten years after its debut, it’s remarkable how these experiences, the grossness of it, have remained pretty timeless at its core. Though the series has faced extreme backlash for nearly any and everything, and while lots of this backlash is incredibly valid, there’s a reason its place in the zeitgeist has remained so moored. Hell, even rewatch podcasts borne out of the comeback have amassed over tens of thousands of devoted followers.

Celebrating Grossness in Art and Music

There was a gloriously disgusting time when being sleazy was the hippest thing anyone could do. Sure, perhaps a slight moral panic surrounded the brazen nature of the It Girls (Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” comes to mind, and then later on there was Kesha’s entire Animal record), but the fact remains that we were entranced by them. Sofia Coppola’s self-described “ugliest” film The Bling Ring () perhaps depicts it better than anything else. The film strays from Coppola’s famed perpetually pastel palette and ventures into the seamy world of neons and overexposure, both literally and figuratively.  And yet, it’s one of Coppola’s most compelling, so of its time. Could it be because it’s so unapologetically gross?

Emma Watson as Alexis Neiers in Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring."
The Bling Ring. A24

We Should All Be #TeamGross

Other artists are just now tapping into this grossness, and its acclaim is universal. Charli XCX’s neon-green, appropriately titled Brat, leans into the dirty on tracks like the The Dare assisted “Guess” where she teases the listener about what she’s “got going on down there,” while deftly exuding vulnerability on tracks like “Girl, So Confusing” and “Sympathy is a Knife.” Not only is being grossly sleazy in, being grossly honest and vulnerable is, too. 

Landscape portrait of Charli XCX in a red carpet
Credits: Fred Duval / Shutterstock

And why should we run away from that? We live in a world where polarization is increasingly difficult to avoid. Common-ground seems more far-off than a fairytale. However, we do have this: universality, whether we wanna admit it or not, of being pretty damn gross in one way or another. So, I’m #TeamGross, and if you haven’t gotten the memo yet, I urge you to hop on, too. 

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