When I first saw Deadpool on Valentine’s Day with my civilian partner, I remember leaving the theater on cloud nine, sure that my relationship could withstand anything. The movie made me feel like my job was not an obstacle to be overcome by romantic interests but a core part of me that could be embraced. I remember thinking that Morena Baccarin never had to go back to Joss Whedon to play a laterally whorephobic space courtesan because this film had allowed her to play an amazing sex worker.
I rewatched the film for this review and I have to say that this time it hurt. Watching Vanessa and Wade’s relationship unfurl on screen hit me hard.
Not because it was poorly written, though. Quite the opposite.
My partner and I broke up less than two weeks ago and watching this movie only reminded me of better times. Because Baccarin as Vanessa is awesome and her relationship with the titular hero is everything I have ever wanted from a story about a guy dating a sex worker. And it also represented everything that I wanted from being dated as one, with the addition of bad guys, bullets, and the breaking of the fourth wall.
Whether we’re dancers or dommes, escorts, cyberworkers, or some combination or variation thereon, we don’t see ourselves on television very often, and when we do, it’s often a balancing act between how disappointingly horrible the portrayal of people who do what we do is, and our excitement that we’re there on screen at all (I’m looking at you, entirety of Satisfaction season three). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a show that’s all about sex workers, but puts the lives of sex workers ahead of the work of sex workers? Wouldn’t it be cool to see sex workers managing romantic lives, children, and the ups and downs of a weird job that not a lot of people understand, without the underlying hysteria of “everyone you see is in the process of ruining all that’s good in their lives”? A show that covers jealousy between sex working partners, and violations of trust, and even clients who act out, sometimes violently, without the implicit sentiment behind it all being “well, what did you expect?”
I have good news and bad news for you. You need look no further—The Americans is just what you’ve been waiting for: a wonderful, heavy-hitter cast; gorgeous, tight scripts; a miraculously not-grating commitment to early 80s period production design; overall, a show that has as much effort and love poured into it as a Deadwood or a Twin Peaks. All of this, lavished on an ensemble cast of sex workers from a variety of different backgrounds. And while dead bodies certainly abound, not a single one fits patly into any of the dead hooker tropes that make up the bulk of our representation on television, given that nearly all of the bodies are rendered corpses by our intrepid band of sexually laboring heroes. This is a show about men and women performing professional sexual labor that’s garnering millions of viewers, critical acclaim and has a third season around the corner.
What’s the catch? If the lead couple, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (néeNadezhda and Mischa) filed their taxes honestly, they’d list themselves as “spies,” not sex workers—the show opens in 1981, just after Reagan’s election, as the two of them struggle to raise two children who have no idea that their parents are deep-cover Soviet spies. But a huge portion of their work is emotional and intimate labor, as they manufacture both long and short term sexual and romantic connections in service to their calling. In this sense, Phillip and Elizabeth represent the epitome of the “empowered, happy hooker,” working not just for personal fulfillment, but to further a world-changing, patriotic cause. Lest you tune out in understandable boredom at this point, never fear—the viewer doesn’t get even as far as the end of the pilot before this rosy view of sleeping with the enemy is challenged and complicated, as Phillip tries to convince Elizabeth to defect after a mission goes awry and unexpectedly kills a colleague. While the existence of further episodes spoilers the fact that they ultimately stay on task and loyal to their homeland, the debate accurately oracles the murkiness of transactional sex for a cause that characters continue to struggle with as the seasons progress. Like anyone with a difficult job, both Elizabeth and Phillip sometimes fall prey to doubts about the rightness and value of what they’re doing, but even as they grapple privately with their life choices, they publicly keep chugging through their work without faltering, not unlike the way we all manage to finish that call despite dealing with burnout, frustration, or not liking our job in the first place.
One of my partners cautioned me that I might take issue with the treatment of sex workers in season one of True Detective. Yet somehow, I completely forgot their warning, and found myself marathoning it over a few days several months ago. The first season is a continual whorephobic, misogynistic trainwreck, so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why I liked it so much—aside from the frequent views of Matthew McConaughey’s stunning physique, of course.
To say that True Detective is masterfully produced is an understatement. A Southern noir set in Louisiana, it’s the story of a murder investigation spanning 17 years between 1995 and 2012. With lush cinematography, careful direction, and well-rounded, complex characters, it is a tight and compelling show. The acting is superb, especially Matthew McConaughey’s performance as dysfunctional, misanthropic detective Rust Cohle.
Where True Detective falls flat is in its writing and storyline, which both rely heavily on classic serial killer, police procedural, and anti-hero tropes. The fact that sex workers are going to be used as props for the story, rather than the well-rounded, complex characters they deserve to be, is apparent from the opening credits. We see a bare female ass and a pair of spiky high heel shoes, a stripper shimmying in slow-motion in a patriotic one-piece, a heavily made-up eye fading into a line of trucks at a truck stop. The mournful country ballad playing over these images is mesmerizing, but adds an unmistakable foreboding tone of violence over these sexualized representations of femininity.
The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, stated that he did not want True Detective to be “just another serial killer show.” Here’s what I want to know: if your intent is for your serial killer show to not be just another serial killer show, why make it about the serial killing of sex workers, an overused trope if there ever was one? The victim of the ritualistic, apparently occult murder that Cohle and his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are investigating in 1995 is named Dora Lange (Amanda Rose Batz). We don’t learn her name until about mid-way through the first episode, but we learn that Cohle suspects she is a sex worker—or a “prost,” as he calls them—when he tells Hart that the victim has herpes sores around her mouth and bad teeth. Unfortunately, I suspect that this is probably an accurate portrayal of how detectives attempt to identify a murdered sex worker, both in 1995 and 20 years later in 2015.
It was a huge disappointment, though not a shock, to discover that Cohle’s suspicions about Lange are spot on. He rubs salt in the wound when he states he’s going to investigate a local “prost farm” to see if he can discover her identity. The “prost farm” ends up being a truck stop where he interviews two sex workers who are not nearly as leery of him as they should be. He behaves in a threatening manner toward them from the very start, but instead of running for the hills, they both give him the information he’s looking for, as one obviously does any time a police officer comes sniffing around without a warrant. In a scene that is meant to develop Cohle as a character with drug dependency issues, sex workers are further stereotyped when he asks one of them if she can get him some quaaludes. Remember, this is 1995—quaaludes weren’t even a thing at that point, having been off the market since 1984. Any self-respecting drug dealing sex worker would have laughed in his face. But she states instead that they “could be hard to get,” then ultimately produces them. The scene reaffirms the idea of sex workers as all purpose drug dispensing machines for middle class white men on benders.
American Horror Story: Freak Show draws on the traditional connection between perfomativity and sex work. Acting has always been connected with prostitution, since before the Jacobean era to very recently. And by connecting performance in a freak show with sex work, the show is pathologizing both.
The show’s creators might argue that they’re humanizing these “freak” characters, but why else would they see the freak show as a perfect setting for a horror story if they weren’t pathologizing it? In a lot of these characters’ stories, sex work is naturally connected to freak show performance—it’s just one rung down a ladder of degradation. Yet, despite that innate problem with American Horror Story’s sex worker representation, many of its central characters this season have been revealed as sex workers, so Maggie Mcmuffin and I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the first five episodes.
Maggie McMuffin: A lot of the time, historically, freak shows were a way for people with disabilities to make their living on their terms. For the most part, they were very non-exploitative.
Caty Simon: I think that AHS does capture some of that feeling of family, the connection of a marginalized group taking shelter with each other against the world. But they also play on these supposed deformities for chills and laughs. And AHS’ Freak Show does constantly threaten its participants with exploitation. Both the Strong Man and Elsa are shown to be dictatorial and oppressive bosses.
Four depictions of sex work in the first five episodes—at least that’s a good amount of representation if nothing else.
So, how about Jimmy Darling, the first time we see him, in those head-to-toe leathers that scream “midcentury hustler”?
Maggie: Oh god, they do, he’s clearly going for that Marlon Brando swagger and it works.
Caty: I really liked the fact that he serves female customers via a Tupperware party. That’s so cutely 50s.
Maggie: I love that it’s the women at that party who we see talking the most and expressing their sexual needs.
Caty: It’s true to life in that the clients fetishize his disability—his flipper becomes all about its fingerbanging fun potential.
Maggie: The men from Elsa’s flashback don’t talk much. We don’t hear much from the boys Desiree is seeing. But those housewives are all about getting off.
Caty: I did think it was a bit of a cop-out in that it’s a portrayal of a male sex worker serving women clients when we know, realistically, how tiny that market is. But I did love his saucy grin as he worked.
Maggie: True. I’m torn between that and enjoying seeing the female gaze get played to.
Caty: And we do see Andy the bar hustler serving a male clientele later, so that balances it out somewhat.
I think this first instance of sex work contrasts quite a bit with how it’s shown later. There’s no degradation, no dark shadow world and dim lighting to match, he’s just happily making bank while he can. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a romanticized portrayal, either.
Maggie: Nope. It’s very straight forward. It’s funny—the tupperware party—but let’s be real: most house party situations are hilarious. Bachelor parties are hilarious to me, every one of them I’ve worked.
Editor’s note: Extreme spoiler alert. Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch Deadwood before reading this, if for some inexplicable reason you haven’t yet.
I started watching Deadwood when the cabbie I was sleeping with at the time told me it was a Wild West show about a town run by whores. “You’ll love it!” he assured me. Turns out he was almost entirely wrong about the plot, but he was right about me loving it. The sex workers are a small part of the overall action, yet the majority of female characters are sex workers. And for me, the sex workers are the heart of the show, its moral and empathic compass. But empathy and ethics can have a price, especially for the marginalized.
That life in the still-lawless camp of Deadwood allows a certain amount of freedom as well as deprivation is obvious, and that lives lived on the margins of a camp like Deadwood offer liberty and danger, even to women, even to sex workers, is made apparent immediately in the first episode. Thirteen minutes in a gun goes off in Al Swearingen’s saloon-brothel.
“Aw, hell,” says right-hand man Dan Dority despairingly. “That fuckin whore.”
And so we meet Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who enters with a literal bang, as she’s just shot and killed a client in self-defense.
“He was beating on me! I told him not to beat on me!” she explains hopelessly, knowing already her bruises won’t be an adequate excuse to her boss. Swearingen beats her himself, adding a reminder to everyone that she’s not allowed to own a gun. Unfazed, Trixie immediately sneaks her servant friend, Jewel, money to bring her another gun.
The freedom allowed her here may not be immediately apparent to a civilian, but the fact that she was allowed to defend herself against a beating, to shoot someone without being fired or killed, and allowed to continue working with everyone’s unspoken knowledge that she’s just going to acquire another gun, is massive. This freedom will be lost by the untimely end of the show, when civilization comes in the barbaric entrepreneur figure of George Hearst.
In the meantime, the sex workers of the first season have a singular amount of screen time, especially with the arrival of Joanie (Kim Dickinson) and the other girls of Bella Union, the new brothel, waving brightly from owner Cy Tolliver’s festively festooned wagon. This entrance highlights something that hasn’t been visible till now: Swearingen’s joint, the Gem, is a rough-and-tumble working class saloon and brothel. While the Gem girls wear loose shifts and little or nothing else, the Bella Union workers are adorned with the Wild West fashion you’ve been dreaming of: beribboned corsets, garters, thigh highs, hair in tumbled curls and cascading updos. I’d watch the show just for their clothes. Unfortunately, it’s the men running this here town and you know there’s going to be a clash with a fancy new brothel steppin’ on Swearingen’s turf.
In the background of Swearingen and Tolliver’s turf war, being used as pawns, are the vibrant women who work for them. I’m focused on Joanie and Trixie here, and the handful of other sex workers who are allowed plotlines. While they’re considered tools in the political struggles between Tolliver and Swearingen, and then between Swearingen and Hearst, the camera shows this to be a misjudgment and a mistake on the part of the men (one that only Swearingen learns from, belatedly). While not exactly happy, Joanie and Trixie are lively presences, not the passive background decor sex workers function as on shows like The Sopranos. Even when they’re silent, we can feel their judgment, and so can Tolliver and Swearingen.