Television

Trixie isn't taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

Trixie isn’t taking any of your shit. (Still from Deadwood)

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.

Creator David Milch explains that the creation of Deadwood was based on his desire to explore the formation of civilization out of chaos. Chaos is what the territory of Deadwood is when the series opens. It’s the go-to headline for any sporting event or Republican or Democratic convention that sex workers flock to where the money is. In terms of boom towns like Deadwood it’s largely true, not just because of the presence of fast and loose cash, but because of the freedom of movement, both social and physical, offered by the very lack of civilization Milch is exploring.

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.

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the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

“Women who sell their bodies” used to be the go-to word combination that triggered my gag reflex right into action. But “hooker-rescuing cop-turned-pastor” was introduced to my life this week and has transformed my once-tranquil apartment into Lane Champagne’s Extreme Vomitorium. The man with this heinous career trajectory is Kevin Brown and he’s starring in a new reality show tentatively titled 8 Minutes after its premise: He has eight minutes to convince sex workers to leave behind their whoring ways. Those who leave sex work are given free training in the second career of their choice and those who decline are sent on their merry way with Brown’s best wishes for a good earning season. HAHA, just kidding, none of that last sentence is true because whorephobia is pernicious and Earth has actually been Hell along!

Of all the professions to produce potential sex work interventionists, law enforcement and clergy are at the very top of the Unsuitable list. Behind those two are literally every single other profession, because sex work interventions are vile exercises in the hatred and shaming of sex working individuals and shouldn’t exist. And it certainly shouldn’t exist as a spectacle on cable television. There is a Change.org petition to get A&E to shut that shit down, you should sign it. Let’s also take out a Backpage ad in every possible city warning local sex workers to be prepared for lurking reality show cameras.

Producer Tom Forman (the man behind the legally and ethically challenged Kid Nation) told Entertainment Weekly that the show was inspired by an LA Times article about Brown’s rescue missions. That story opens with another cop-turned-resucuer showing up to a woman’s outcall and doing this:

Reese reaches into the pocket of his tan cargo shorts and pulls out a latex condom. There’s a phone number scribbled on one side in black marker. He hands it to her.

He asks if she sees the phone number.

She examines the packet but ignores the question. She presses him for the money.

“I’m not really here for a date,” Reese says. “I’m here to offer you help.”

They rescue this one woman (on the night the reporter is along!), despite having been on 60 previous missions without anyone taking up their offer. She didn’t get career training; she got a one-way ticket home on a Greyhound. And lo, from this massive service to women a reality show was born, one with a 50/50 success rate according to Forman, who also told EW “Sometimes they turn and leave, but that’s the case when trying to save prostitutes.”

Leaving aside the fact that Brown is sentient diarrhea more than he’s an actual person, I’ve broken down the reasons the very concept of the show is a bad idea for two primary types of sex worker that Brown targets: people who don’t want to leave sex work and people who do. [READ MORE]

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The author as Trinette in a burlesque tribute to Archer (Photo by Meneldor Photography of "Danger Zone," produced by Smooches and Science and Sailor St. Claire Presents.)

The author as Trinette in a burlesque tribute to Archer. (Photo by Meneldor Photography of “Danger Zone,” produced by Smooches and Science and Sailor St. Claire Presents)

In 2010, FX premiered Archer, an animated show that balances adventures in espionage with workplace comedy. The titular character is Sterling Archer, “world’s greatest secret agent” and colossal douchebag. While the rest of the cast eventually joins Archer in the land of functionally good but typically awful people, Sterling is usually the worst of the bunch. As the whole show plays with spy genre tropes, Archer is presented as being a more realistic version of characters like James Bond. He’s great at his job but he’s also self-centered, vain, reckless, and constantly trying to get drunk and/or laid. Getting laid is a challenge, though, because he’s a jerk. Enter sex workers.

While Archer is shown to have sex with women who aren’t sex workers, he isn’t typically shown having sex with them more than once. He regularly calls an agency for last minute date needs and one of his continuing relationships is with one specific worker named Trinette Magoon.

Trinette is, to put it plainly, fucking amazing. I recently portrayed her in a burlesque tribute to Archer and ended up rewatching every episode she appears in. Seeing all of Trinette’s supporting appearances at once rather than spread out over four seasons made it clear the creators really took care with her character.

Trinette first appears in the second episode of the first season. Archer is training a new agent and hires her to help out while he orchestrates a party simulation. The new agent, Cyril, is nervous as he has “never been this close to a–.”  Cyril is unable to figure out how to refer to Trinette,  so Archer remarks that he can call her a call girl as “Trinette takes pride in her work” and Trinette agrees. It’s going well until Cyril uses her as a human shield during the exercise and she tries to leave, accidentally pricking herself on a poison-tipped pen Cyril was given earlier. She passes out, the men roll her up in a rug, and throw her in a trunk.

If Trinette’s storyline had ended here I would not have been surprised. That is how our stories usually end on television. But there is a twist; Trinette bangs on the trunk and demands to be let out, and once she’s free she berates Archer for his treatment of her, demands his watch, threatens to have his kneecaps broken by her employer, and drives off with the car.

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Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings (Screenshot from The Americans)

Phillip and Elizabeth showing off sex worker skillz with their wig stylings. (Screenshot from The Americans)

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 furtherThe 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 (née Nadezhda and Mischa) filed their taxes honestly, they’d list themselves as “spies,” not sex workersthe 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 fearthe 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.

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Well, >i>Game of Throne viewers aren't ever allowed to forget (gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Well, Game of Thrones viewers aren’t ever allowed to forget (.gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Warning: Major spoilers below.

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.

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