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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”