Picture the scene. You’re sitting in a strange room with your friend, waiting for the near-stranger to come and give you instructions, and, you hope, some money. You look around at the expensive furnishings, and your friend, who is wearing just a bed sheet. “So…are you wearing any underwear?” you ask. “No,” they shoot back at you, and you both crack up. And then your client comes back in the room, and you eye them with a mix of ingratiation and just enough jut of the chin to let them know who’s in charge.
The mix of camaraderie, defiance, curiosity and sitting around naked in unfamiliar places is familiar to any sex worker. But the two characters onscreen are Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, who have been summoned to Buckingham Palace to work on a confidential case involving some compromising photos of a young royal. The photos in question are held by one Irene Adler, a dominatrix, who we also see in tantalisingly brief shots intercut with Holmes and Watson. While they look at tastefully posed photos from her website, she thumbs through real-time snapshots of them on a swanky phone. A game of wits is thus begun between Holmes and Adler, in which they bluff, drug, evade and outfox each other by turns for ninety convoluted minutes.
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.
Game of Thrones, HBO’s biggest show, is bringing the fantasy genre to the masses in a major way. Featuring a sprawling cast and storyline that’s been pared down from George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s full of fantastic performances, high production values, international sets and scenery, and some of the most exciting and tense moments on television.
It is also filled with violence against women, particularly, the sex workers who inhabit the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
Westeros combines traditional medieval fantasy lore (think knights and dragons) with the history of feudal Europe. Brothels are everywhere. There are half-naked women running about ready to please whichever male character needs pleasing. But, since it’s a vaguely historical setting, these women must be sad and put upon because as every fan of Moulin Rouge has told me, there were no happy sex workers in the past.
Critics and fans agree that Game of Thrones subverts many classic fantasy tropes. Ned Stark, the noble hero, dies at the end of the first season instead of prevailing. His daughter Sansa Stark is set up to be a damsel in distress, but learns to manipulate her abusers to her advantage. Yet the show still falls prey to many predictable sexist tropes. And of course, many of those tropes extend to mistreating sex workers.
Wendy starts her run on AMC’s Breaking Bad playing the lead in a live scared-straight PSA. Hank Schrader, the loudmouth DEA agent, pulls up to her motel’s parking lot while she’s grabbing a root beer from the vending machine. He’s got his nephew in tow, and it’s pretty clear what show he wants to see: the junkie hooker whose life is so godawful that Walt Junior will be terrified right off the gateway drugs.
Hank’s an asshole. He calls Wendy “princess.” “Don’t make me get out of this car,” he hollers out the window, in a tone that would make me and my touchy indoor pride and nervous indoor instincts bolt the other way. But Wendy’s not what you’d expect, and she’s barely what Hank’s expecting, either. She wanders over, apathetic but dutiful. She pegs him straight away as a cop, then as a cop who wants to buy pot, then as a cop who wants to buy pot and have her blow the teenager in the car with him. She’s pretty okay with all of those things, except the teenager part, and checks to see if she can instead score some weed off of him. She barely answers any of his leading questions and eventually Hank gives up and dismisses her. She saunters away, unfazed.
The problem for Hank, whose dickhead ways give voice to an anti-sex-work public, is that Wendy isn’t scary. Nothing about the whole scene is scary, except maybe her gruesome teeth. The scene illustrates the gulf between public perception of the horrors of sex work (and drug use) and the banal realities of both choices. After the conversation, when Hank turns to Walt Junior and says, “So, what do you think?” Walt Junior, bless his heart, gives voice to a kindlier, dudelier, segment of the public, and just grins: “Cool.”
I’m a sucker for procedurals (while also being deeply ambivalent about them), so of course I was going to watch Elementary, CBS’s not-so-new-now take on Sherlock Holmes; I was immediately sold because female Watson. Played by Lucy Liu. And Jonny Lee Miller as a weird, twitchy, tattooed, recovering-addict Sherlock Holmes. I’m beyond over the BBC’s Sherlock, Howling Cabbagepatch’s shark-face, and the disappointing but predictable treatment of domanitrix Irene Adler—not really surprising considering the writers, but I digress.The formulaic nature of procedural mysteries is inexplicably soothing to me, and, however lackluster (and aren’t they the definition of “formulaic”?) they have the serious merit of being one of the only genres to consistently feature sex workers. Sure, they’re usually dead sex workers, but I don’t give up hope. The times they are a-changin’, and live lovable sex workers have carried their weight on some critically acclaimed cable dramas: Deadwood, Copper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I have faith that network procedurals will catch up soon.
In a way, Elementary has. For a procedural that features a sex worker body count of zero, the instances of live sex workers on the show are fairly high. I was alert from first watch: while the pilot didn’t have any dead sex worker bodies, I waited for the inevitable. As episodes went on I started to relax and feel hope, and then suddenly, in E08, “The Long Fuse”: Lisa Edelstein, aka Elementary’s first Sex Worker!!! made it through an episode unharmed. She was treated with sympathy as a working-class girl whose escorting career, after paying for grad school and a successful business, was now being used as blackmail against her by a creep who had violated her privacy and filmed their call.