Much is being made of the feminist backbone to HBO’s new “porn-drama”, The Deuce, created by David Simon of The Wire.
The series is set in New York, in the red light area at the intersection halfway down 42nd St, a stone’s throw from Times Square. It’s neon, glittery and gritty. The show charts the realities of the sex and drugs industry back in 1971, when lapels were wide, hotpants were short and sex workers needed pimps for protection, or as one fresh-off-the-Greyhound young woman puts it ‘I need motivation else I get lazy’.
The set design and staging is superb, and if criticism can be levelled at the heavy reliance on the hotpant-clad hooker stereotype, it is at least equally present in the costuming of the matchstick chewing, tartan clad pimps. The neon marquees, the smoky diners and the pimp’s Cadillacs all create the aura of a gaudy inferno, and the challenge to the cast and crew is to present vignettes of humanity within the hellhole.
After episode one, my jury is out on how well the team behind The Deuce accomplished this, despite their reportedly in-depth research.
For all the talk of feminism, several of the street workers are clearly as scared of their pimps as their clients (which makes one wonder why anyone would want such ‘protection’), and when a more established worker asks not to work the street in a downpour, her dapper and charming pimp slits her with a cutthroat razor right down her underarm (not anywhere visible, to impede her ability to attract clients) to teach her a lesson for her cheek. This is the prostitute-as-victim model that we’ve seen too many times to mention.
Challenging this business model is the older and more streetwise Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is notable by her self employment. ‘I keep everything I earn’ she pragmatically tells the other streetwalkers, even if this means she sometimes has to deal with more shit from johns, and be more careful. It’s in this first episode that we see Candy represented as a multi-faceted individual, carefully doing her bookkeeping and setting aside envelopes of her takings to care for her mother and son who live out in the suburbs.
Candy’s authenticity is reinforced by the lecture in economics she gives to the whining college boy who complains that, because he came too fast, she ‘didn’t have to do any work’. It’s all-too-reminiscent of modern day clients who think that by paying for one hour of your time for sexual services, you should happily go to dinner with them for free; an enduring model of male entitlement that values their own labour, but not that of women. Gyllenhaal herself said in an interview with the New York Times that the role caused her to ‘think about misogyny from the point of view of a prostitute…and not just misogyny, but femininity, in terms of sexuality, in terms of art, in terms of money, in terms of intelligence.’
There are many dark moments. One particular standout is the baby-faced worker whose regular client punches her in the face before ‘business’; pays her an extra $20 after in case she loses any work due to her swollen face, then calmly arranges to see her the same time next week. Anyone who’s worked in the sex industry knows of men like this, who view their payment as a license to treat a worker as sub-human. Certainly that scene left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
The trajectory of the series promises to chart the move from 1970s ‘pimps and hos’ to sex workers self-producing porn, which I guess is part of the reason for the feminist plaudits. Much is being made of the presence of female writer and directors, yet when I checked, IMDb listed 50/50 male and female directors and one female writer in a cast of six. I’m no mathematical genius but this setup can’t be described by any means as female heavy. I’m led to understand that women were dominant in the writing room, if left uncredited on the IMDb page.
The other point worthy of note is that The Deuce is billed with James Franco taking on the parts of twin brothers, one a gambler and racketeer, and the other a barman. During the first episode’s hefty 87 minutes, I was left with zero interest in either character’s fate. The big money may have gone on the male lead, but it was the women’s stories which were the ones that compelled me.
So should The Deuce be awarded a feminist cookie for recognising that prostitutes are people? I don’t believe so, but I equally acknowledge that in an age where disinformation and misrepresentation of sex workers is still rife, it at least represents progress. I will watch how the series develops with interest.
The Deuce is shown in the US on HBO on Sundays at 9pm and starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 26 September at 9pm.
Eliza Harper is a former sex worker who writes on culture and gender. Follow her on Twitter @ElizaHarperUK