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 (née Nadezhda 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.
While the big questions about the work that the Jennings do keep me on the edge of my seat, it’s the littler moments that ring most true in terms of my own sex worker experiences (I may or may not suffer from the inflated sense of self-importance that so frequently plagues fetish providers, but even I don’t think that the future of the free world rests on my whip hand). Because this is a show about people who, among other things, have sex for a living, but aren’t explicitly escorts, it’s able to sneak under the radar (like the planes whose plans they spend a large portion of season two trying to nick) and present these tiny, intimate realities of sex worker day to day to life to a public that is otherwise unable to conceive of us as anything other than tragic punchlines or tawdry set-dressing.
It’s far from a perfectly rosy portrait—halfway through the first season, Elizabeth runs into a sexually sadistic asset. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic and we’re meant to understand that her reaction comes from her super-spy training, but what I see depicted is a calm professional who expertly de-escalates a dangerous client–she first tries to end the encounter by praising his performance, thus implying that he’s done, and when that doesn’t work, plays up a panicked reaction that halts him in his tracks. And, when she eventually comes home to her partner, we see the two of them negotiate the balance between his fear for her, her desire to manage her own risks, and the need they both have to just get the hell to bed already. Most depictions of sex work seem to either be improbably delightful spiritual-sexual journeys, or horrible descents into nightmares, and, while I’d recommend watching this scene with a drink or a teddy bear handy, it’s honestly surprising to see a bad day at sex work that’s just, well, a bad day at work.
The funnier moments too, get the same quotidian treatment. In the second episode, where we’re still getting a fairly basic introduction to the world Phillip and Elizabeth inhabit, we meet Anneliese, a blonde bombshell of an asset that Phillip has flirtatiously convinced to take sneaky photos. While it’s made clear that Anneliese has been on the scene for quite some time, Elizabeth has never actually seen her, until she and Phillip are developing the photos Anneliese took together, one of which is a lingerie selfie (a spyfie?)
Elizabeth sees it and gently teases, “You never told me she looked like that.”
“Sure I did,” defends Phillip, all too quickly and casually.
There’s just enough time for us to wonder if we’re about to see what happens when a partner realizes that not all of your clients are the hideous, pathetic, generally unpleasant monsters they’d previously assumed they all were. But Elizabeth just grins at him, and says “Not like that.” (His response, for the record, “Well..she’s not always dressed like that,” is definitely one I’ll be stealing.) And the moment passes.
There’s no jealousy, no big fight about trust, no demands that Anneliese be managed any differently than she always has been. It’s just two sex workers, sharing a joke about another day at the office. One of the big misconceptions that civilians often have about the reality of being a sex worker in a relationship, is that every surprise, every bump in the road, is always doomed to be A Very Big Deal. But whether it’s Anneliese’s looks, or how to handle the growing nosiness of their daughter (who, like any kid of a parent with a secret, second job, gets increasingly suspicious of her parents’ odd hours; sudden, urgent appointments; and intense insistence on privacy), Philip and Elizabeth surmount obstacles like spouses and business partners. And after a while, anything, no matter how outlandish it might look to civilians, becomes a little bit routine.
Without spoiling anything too badly (because, spoiler: I think we ALL should go watch it ASAP), we’re privy to the mundanities of getting into work drag (and if nothing else, you should probably watch this show for the wigs alone), of managing clients and managers who are needy or violent, but also those whose kindness and/or hotness complicates the work. We get not just the high drama of being outed, but also the day to day grind of living in the closet, of juggling not just work and family, but work, family and a straight job. As with any marginalized group, the portrayals we get in mainstream media tend to focus on the most sensationalized moments in our lives—the tragedies that brought us there, the day we snap and can’t take it anymore, the session that goes horrendously awry. But The Americans gets a civilian audience to not just watch us put on our pants one leg at a time, but to root for our domestic bliss while we do it. Most of all, we see two people constantly maneuvering to make their marriage function while being both a partner to a sex worker and a sex worker themselves. I can’t think of a single large scale film or television piece that swims in those waters, much less one that does so with such deftness and compassion.