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.
In the next episode, Archer calls the agency so that he won’t be the only person at a dinner party without a date. The first person he asks for is Trinette and it’s made clear that she will not be seeing Archer again.
I have worked with women like Trinette. Women who, when a customer oversteps boundaries, charge extra. Women who use what safety they have to push back against men like Archer. Granted, Trinette is shown as having an employer who cares about his employees. This definitely gives Trinette a greater ability to stand up to someone like Archer than a sex worker who doesn’t have that security in place would have. Still, she only threatens to call her boss and largely deals with problems herself.
While it is good to see realistic depictions of the violence that sex workers face due to whorephobia and stigma so that people understand that they pose a real life danger to us, it’s also nice to see representations of sex workers who handle these problems on their own terms. It is especially nice to see it in a comedy, where sex workers are usually nothing more than walking jokes and where it seems that jerks are less likely to see consequences for how they treat them. Young men who patronize sex workers are more likely to watch a show like Archer than they are to watch a documentary or a dramatic film. That is why it is crucial that shows like this have better representation of us. If people saw more sex workers like Trinette, who hold bad customers accountable, perhaps more people would start to realize that sex workers are people who deserve to be treated with respect.
Over the next three seasons, Trinette’s role in Archer’s life changes. She had a baby, Seamus, and in season two she shows up demanding child support. All signs point to Archer being the father—he uses a Snickers wrapper as a condom with Trinette in a flashback.
I know I just discussed how well this show represents Trinette, but this moment always bothers me. This episode is otherwise great, but it runs this joke twice: Once with Archer and again with Cyril, who ends up also becoming one of Trinette’s clients. In the same episode that informs us that Trinette has to be booked “months in advance,” there are two instances where she doesn’t notice that there was a candy bar wrapper in her vagina. And while using a candy bar wrapper as a condom is in keeping with both Cyril and Archer’s characters, it makes no sense that a woman, particularly a sex worker who takes her job very seriously, wouldn’t notice that until she saw the thing after the sex act.
As noted, aside from that joke the episode is great. When Archer asks if Trinette is just going to live off of child support, she mentions having a simplified employee pension that she put together for her retirement. When Mallory, Archer’s mother, talks about how much shame a bastard child will bring the family, Archer reminds her that he was born out of wedlock and that Mallory doesn’t even know who his father is. During a baby shower that the ISIS crew throws for “the wee baby Seamus,” Trinette goes from being utterly grateful to all of these kind strangers to being wary of them and not wanting these weirdos to hold her baby.
In fact, in all of Trinette’s subsequent appearances she is a caring mother to Seamus. While Trinette fights for child support, she never does so solely for money. The show never goes into Trinette’s pregnancy or how she made the decision to keep the baby rather than have an abortion or give him up for adoption so there is absolutely no indication that she only kept Seamus so she could get more money from Archer. There is a moment of ambiguity regarding this, when Archer finds out he is not Seamus’ father. He switched the paternity test blood with Cyril’s and it came up positive but no one else knows that. So when Trinette tells Archer “He’s not even your baby” a few episodes later it’s unclear whether she means this literally or because Archer has been so resistant to the idea. Still, she lets Archer spend time with Seamus because at the time he has cancer and is experiencing one of his rare moments of humanity. Then Archer gets himself and the baby matching tattoos and Trinette makes him leave.
Again, it would be far more typical to see a show depict Trinette as a bad mother strictly because of her job. Instead, she is one of the most capable caregivers on the show. No one at the baby shower presents appropriate gifts—instead they give Trinette things like a ham cozy and a book about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Mallory tries to soothe Seamus with alcohol. Seeing a sex worker on television getting to not just be a mother but also a good mother, especially in comparison to the bumbling civilians around her, is pretty amazing.
Aside from those points of representation, Trinette is also human. She has a grating voice and is very brash. She swears a lot, has bad manners outside of work and does not pretend to be nice when people aren’t being nice to her. Every time someone criticizes her for her job she at least shows offense even when she doesn’t launch into a direct response. She has very high rates but she is not one of the show’s sultry femme fatales. Rather, she is rough around the edges and capable of being warm towards clients (as she was with Cyril in her first appearance) as well as critical (as she is with Archer pretty much all the time). Typically, television shows will have women like Trinette be somewhere lower on the whorearchy and only portray polished, perfect women at the top. Trinette is, honestly, much more true to life for me. Having her not meet heteronormative beauty standards perfectly illustrates that in order to be good at sex work you have to be more than pretty. You have to stand up for yourself, save your money, set boundaries with bad clients and set nervous clients at ease. You have to treat the job like an actual job. You have to believe that you are the best. Trinette proves she has faith in her own abilities by shrugging and saying “Well, you know” when Archer raves about her skills post-sex. I love this line because it reads as a more subtle sort of sexual empowerment than I’ve often seen in media, not just for sex workers but women in general. Trinette has confidence but it’s not a cockiness that leads to her yelling from the rooftops about her blowjob skills. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing that, I just get a little tired of seeing women’s confidence presented in an overblown way, as though a sexually empowered woman must be a punchline.
One of the running jokes on the show is that every member of the ISIS team is incompetent. They all make tons of money but do not save it. They botch missions. They let their personal lives get in the way. The agency is tanking and has a horrible reputation. Trinette, by comparison, is shown as planning for the future and being able to retire young. Child support helps but she does not need to rely on Archer, or anyone else, to survive. In a show populated by people who constantly fail at their jobs, it’s interesting to see one of the only examples of a competent worker be the sex worker.
The show isn’t perfect on all fronts. During Archer’s “I need a date” phone call, he turns down a trans woman because “she doesn’t pass with that Adam’s apple.” While this can be interpreted as Archer just not preferring trans sex workers, the message is still clear that it’s less shameful to hire cis women like Trinette. I wish I could say that this is the only joke that the show ever makes at the expense of trans women, but it isn’t. As much as I love having a sex worker character I can identify with, I wish it didn’t happen on a show that tears down other sex workers.
Despite its offensive elements, I do count Archer as one of my favorite shows. And unlike other shows I love (like Game of Thrones) this is one that does not make me feel belittled for my job. Rather, it gives me a sex worker character I can enjoy without worrying for her well-being at the hands of the narrative.