Watching portrayals of sex workers in film and television can be a pretty rough proposition. With the notable exception of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (which eventually veered off into some wacky territory of its own) there haven’t been many media depictions of sex workers where we aren’t treated as punchlines or murdered. (Or both, as jokes about hurting and killing prostitutes seem to be prime cannon fodder for network powerhouses like Chuck Lorre and Tina Fey.) It can be a downright depressing experience for a lonely ho looking for a little on-screen validation, so while Blue certainly has its flaws, it is perhaps the closest any scripted series has ever come to treating our lives and our stories with due respect.
Blue tells the story of Blue (neé Francine) a 29 year-old mother moonlighting as an escort to support her teenage son, Josh. (I found it somewhat odd that Blue uses her hooker name in her personal life as well, but to each their own, I suppose.) Blue works a day job at an accounting firm so as not to raise anyone’s suspicions, and has a close relationship with her free-lovin’ Mother (Kathleen Quinlan). The show frames Blue as a woman caught between the burgeoning sexual awakening of her teenage son and the sexual re-awakening of her mother, a single woman in her 50s. Both her son and her mother are content to “give it away,” reveling in sex for its own sake, while Blue is often shown to be the “voice of reason” of sorts, using her sexuality to provide for her family, not simply for her own pleasure.
Stiles is doing some excellent character work here, and she’s able to convey a complex array of emotions with just a raise of her eyebrows or sidelong glance. She deftly captures the balancing act many of us perform on a daily basis, in our attempts to hide our job from family and coworkers. As her female coworkers marvel at how Blue is able to “keep it all together” financially while they struggle to make ends meet on their office job paychecks alone, the look on Stiles’ face as she tries to stifle her truth is classic hooker comedy. When her sad-sack coworker Lavinia (Sarah Paulson) reveals over lunch that she has been supporting her freeloading moocher boyfriend through an illness, the way in which Blue responds is possibly the nicest and most patient way I’ve ever heard anyone declare, “Bitch, please!”
It’s incredibly refreshing to see a woman that is not a complete walking tragedy choosing sex work as a viable option to support her family. During her sessions with clients she gives the same sort of amused, detached performance many of us can relate to: Reassuring her elderly clients she thinks about them when they’re not around, or pretending to enjoy the weird fetishes of the father of her son’s classmate. One of the only truly unbelievable moments for me was during the pilot when Blue discovers that she knows her client from childhood and angrily questions him: “Why are you paying for sex?” This is a question that rings entirely false, as any escort will tell you, it’s never our job to ask that question nor do we really care about the answer. We know that men pay for sex for a variety of reasons, and our place is never to judge, only to nod approvingly and take their cash with a smile.
Of course Blue has a nasty secret past involving her father serving a life sentence in prison and childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor, because it is impossible for writers to imagine a world in which a woman chooses sex work without some kind of traumatic history. But Blue’s back-story provides an interesting dimension to her personality as we watch her steely confidence instantly dissipate when confronted by her childhood abuser/lover, Olsen. (James Morrison) Blue seems to regress into adolescence almost before our eyes as Olsen forces his way into her apartment and they re-enact the twisted fucked-up power game of her youth.
But perhaps the most gut-wrenching moment of the entire series is an incident with a client gone horribly wrong. The fear and degradation that slowly creep into Stiles’ face as she realizes what’s happening, the shaky POV camera-work and overblown lighting make this scene just as suspenseful as a certain meth-addled AMC drama that just completed its run. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t watched yet, but while most series would use an incident like this as a clear-cut moral imperative for Blue to finally quit her job, I found it deeply satisfying that the writers could depict the very real dangers we face without being patronizing or paternalistic about them. The very next scene Blue is back at her accounting firm, listening to Rose, another flighty coworker, describe questions she received during a job interview: “A couple of them rocked me inside a little, but I rallied! […] I mean, it wasn’t easy going in there and selling myself, you know, I mean, who the hell do I think I am?” The irony is positively dripping from Blue’s lips as she shrugs, “Well, we all have to sell ourselves…”
Overall Blue isn’t perfect, but its imperfections are minor compared to the magnitude of seeing a complex, intelligent, sex worker portrayed in such a sympathetic light. Blue isn’t a poorly drawn stereotype or ham-fisted lesson about the morality of selling sex, she is a fully realized character struggling with the same demons as many of us. While I could nitpick about some of the less-believable or essential aspects of the story, the fact that we’ve been given an entire series that treats the women in our profession with respect is a massive leap in the right direction. I found the series to be quite entertaining and was pleased to hear that
Blue has been renewed for a third season. According to the Internet rumor-mill, season three will feature a guest arc from legendary ginger-babe, Eric Stoltz, so get thyself over to YouTube and get caught up, stat. (Besides, what else are you going to do with your life now that Walt and Jesse are gone forever?)
(Watch it for free on YouTube, Hulu, or WatchWigs.com)
Check it our previous review of “Blue” here.