‘The Deuce’ is critical of the sex industry, whether liberal America likes it or not

Despite David Simon’s critiques of pornography, American media stuck to their neoliberal guns.


Despite being a fan of David Simon, my anticipation for The Deuce, his HBO series about the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York, was restrained by nervousness. The trend today is to glamorize the sex trade — from Harlots to The Girlfriend Experience, modern media and pop culture prefer to treat women in prostitution as tough, empowered, sexually liberated women, who either love sex or love taking money from naive johns (or both). It’s hard to trust anyone to depict 1970s New York, a scene we all seem nostalgic for (whether or not we were ever there), alongside something as potentially titillating as the sex industry in a critical way these days, particularly not a man. But maybe Simon is the man for the job…

To be clear, Simon is not alone in this endeavour. Executive producer Michelle MacLaren directed the first episode, and told Meredith Blake at the Los Angeles Times she only “agreed to come on board once she was assured ‘that this was a critique of misogyny and exploitation.'” The Deuce includes female writers Lisa Lutz and Megan Abbott, and women directed half of the eight episodes in the first season.

The sad truth is, of course, women don’t always resolve the problem. The media roundly adopted the nouveau-PC term “sex worker” in reviews of The Deuce, despite the fact the prostituted women depicted are mostly called “whores” in the first episode, which aired on Sunday night. The actual language and reality of the industry betrays liberal efforts to sanitize violence for their own self-congratulatory purposes.

At first, the female characters did leave me wondering whether Simon and his team were setting us up to consume yet another story so allergic to the passé notion of victimhood, reality becomes a distorted American fantasy. This isn’t exactly Simon’s shtick, but we know too well that even intelligent men fall easily (and eagerly) toward the sexualized gaze and a focus on issues far more serious than women’s lives. In a climate wherein discussions of prostitution and pornography as male violence are met with accusations of “whorephobia” and “slut-shaming,” few are willing to maintain a solid feminist critique.

Early on, The Deuce appeared to offer the liberal media exactly what they want — empowered, independent women, happy with or without pimps. Even the young, beautiful, NYU student, Abby (played by Margarita Levieva), clearly intended to be the smart-beyond-her-age girl, is portrayed as taking advantage of her idiot professor, who can’t control his lust for her, and who she sees as some kind of joke (but is sleeping with to influence her grades). The initial message is that she knows how to use her sexual “power” to her advantage. She understands how objectification works (briefly schooling James Franco’s character, Vincent, on the term) and believes she can control who does it to her. She’s also middle class, and falls into the same false agency most young privileged women do — believing that men who lust after them signify opportunity, not danger. Lori, the newbie from Minnesota, who pimp C.C. goes after the moment she steps off the bus, turns out not to be the naive girl he expects, and is eager to get to work on the street. She only needs a pimp to keep her from getting “lazy,” she tells the other women selling sex on 42nd Street. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Eileen “Candy” Merrell, is stubbornly the only prostituted woman without a pimp. She wants to be independent and to keep her earnings. “Nobody makes money off my pussy but me,” she tells Rodney (Method Man), a pimp who continuously tries to bring her into his fold. Despite Darlene (played by Dominique Fishback) having a violent john, she understands their agreement (“rape play,” Vikram Murthi calls it, at The Vulture), and repeats his excuses back to her pimp, explaining the welt on her face was due to his being overcome by lust.

Indeed, most articles I read about The Deuce insisted the women depicted were empowered — not victims, but agents. Referencing a scene where Gyllenhaal’s character takes a nervous teenager up to a seedy hotel room for what is assumed to be his first time (a birthday gift from his friends), Erik Adams at The A.V. Club writes, “When Candy is giving Stu the ‘feels good’ and ‘that’s nice,’ it’s evident that the businesswoman is in control.” At Flavorwire, Jason Bailey helpfully reminds us, “Of course, that not everyone involved in pornography, even in this period, was at their absolute rock bottom; some people liked to have sex, liked to get paid for it, and liked the drugs and the pseudo-celebrity and the life.” At Refinery 29, Rebecca Farley calls C.C.’s “bottom bitch,” Ashley, his “girlfriend and employee,” jokingly adding, “an H.R. nightmare if you ever did see one.” That quip is even more “funny” considering a later scene where C.C. slices up Ashley’s armpit with a switchblade after she comes in from the cold rain, soaked, complaining that she doesn’t want to work anymore that night. Farley later refers to Darlene’s violent regular as having “out-of-the-ordinary requests,” claiming he only “pretends to slam Darlene into the wall and rape her… accidentally bruis[ing] Darlene’s cheek.” Of course, the violence isn’t “pretend” at all. It certainly isn’t an “accident.” Darlene may well be paid to endure that violence, but the violence remains real.

The excuses writer after writer make for the exploitation and violence inherent to the sex trade seem to be their own invention. Simon himself makes no excuses. In an interview with David Smith at The Guardian Simon explains that he saw the story as a “ready-made critique of market capitalism” and the neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought on. Indeed, his critique isn’t limited to the misogyny in prostitution and pornography, but of its existence as an industry (an analysis we can thank feminists like Gail Dines for developing). Simon explains, as though he’s been listening closely:

“It’s now a multibillion dollar industry and it affects the way we sell everything from beer to cars to blue jeans. The vernacular of pornography is now embedded in our culture. Even if you’re not consuming pornography, you’re consuming its logic. Madison Avenue has seen to that.”

What he’s talking about is porn culture. Simon tells Smith that he believes pornography has “affected the way men and women look at each other, the way we address each other culturally, sexually.”

“I don’t think you can look at the misogyny that’s been evident in this election cycle, and what any female commentator or essayist or public speaker endured on the internet or any social media setting, and not realize that pornography has changed the demeanour of men. Just the way that women are addressed for their intellectual output, the aggression that’s delivered to women I think is informed by 50 years of the culturalization of the pornographic.”

What’s truly amazing is not that an intelligent man like Simon could pick up on a feminist analysis of the sex industry, but that the bulk of American liberal media chose to ignore that analysis, in favour of one that would placate a sex work lobby that targets those who deviate from the script viciously.

Meanwhile, Simon, with his (deserved) Show Me a Hero and The Wire cred, is able to directly criticize porn culture, without so much as a “shame!” or “prude!” aimed his way. (Yet, anyway.) He explains, matter-of-factly:

“It’s astonishing how universal it is whether you’re 14 or 70, if you’re a woman and you have an opinion, what is directed at you right now. I can’t help but think that a half century of legalized objectification hasn’t had an effect.”

Simon’s collaborator on the series, novelist George Pelecanos, offers a similarly radical analysis, saying “pornography has had a crude effect on society.” He has written about trafficked women in the past (who Smith insists on calling “sex workers,” regardless) and understands the connection to pornography. Pelcanos tells Smith:

“I think the culture’s changed because of the way women are depicted in popular culture. Pornography’s a big part of that. You can say nobody’s getting hurt, it’s just a masturbation fantasy and all that stuff, but these women are trafficked, man.”

It remains to be seen whether Simon’s efforts to avoid allowing “the moral question to dominate the narrative” of The Deuce (he explains the show will focus more on money and power than the question of whether prostitution and pornography are “good or bad”) will result in something that makes fans of The Wire reconsider their jack off material. While I was happily surprised by the feminist and socialist analysis Simon and Pelecanos offered, more interesting will be whether or not liberal America chooses to hear it.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    Nah you can show pure TORTURE to misogynist liberals and the message just won’t pass…



    Oh yes, they wank to torture… Nope, message won’t pass!

  • Wren

    I’m also cautiously optimistic about this program. I read up on it a bit this weekend, and I found a lot of conflicting info which described the creators’ intentions mixed with revisionist, sex-positive terminology. I’m frustrated cause I can’t find it now, but I read a quote at the end of one of such reviews where Pelcanos said something about how things are worse for women now, the language towards them is more violent, on a whole, it’s just worse. He gets into it a bit in this guardian article, which is one of the better ones:

    I don’t know if I’m easily impressed or just too desperate for hope, but whenever I hear or read any man say something so simple and true — just the acknowledgement that violence and misogyny are rampant and have never disappeared — I feel an embarrassing amount of gratitude. Like, is there real hope for any man? Pelecanos and Simon get it (I think), can’t more men? I don’t feel like I ask for much, but I feel that’s a start.

    • foamreality

      Whatever the story, there are actresses in this that are nude and
      pornified for our consumption. I feel very uncomfortable with that.
      Arent these women being exploited by Netflix even if they arent having
      actual sex? We know, they know , my dog knows that their nudity is
      whats selling the show. It is porn. About porn. There is an
      excellent bbc radio documentary where actresses recount their
      experiences doing rape scenes called Body Count Rising –
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wtggz – the harms this causes to
      both them and the viewer, as well as art itself is illuminating and
      disturbing. Thers seems to be little feminist analysis at this level
      generally: : even if the film itself is recounting womens stories in a
      feminist way, is it necessary or moral to show actresses , nude and
      raped on camera in stories like these. One producer even argues how not
      showing it can be more powerful. Tell but dont show can be more
      effective than unrealized images of beautiful actresses who must expose
      (for payment) a part of their real personal/private flesh to tell the story a man wants us to hear.

      Im interested in what the director has to say about this industry, but to a point, Im not sure how I can pay netflix to pay beautiful women to get naked for us so we can see a story about how women are exploited by being paid to get naked..

      • Wren

        “One producer even argues how not showing it can be more powerful.”
        I agree, and it requires more skill on the part of the actors and directors to omit nudity. It’s really just lazy to depend on it for dramatic effect, thrills, and titillation.

        I still haven’t watched it yet, and I probably won’t because I agree with you.

        • foamreality

          I confess I just finished watching the series. There is a lot of good points and angles on the prostitution side. . But they are far outweighed by the excessive , unnecessary nudity and by downplaying of harms for the women who move into the porn industry. The porn industry is portrayed as the Savior of women trying to escape street prostitution. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character turns to the porn industry to escape the streets. From then on in her rising the ranks in porn to directing other women on film attempts to portray the industry as fun, sincere, socially aware, non exploitative, ‘ feminist’ – all the women learn to love their work. It was surprised to see such a vivid insight into the brutality of prostitution, only to spend time later whitewashing all harms the porn industry was doing to women at that time. In many scenes its portrayed as mostly comical -easy money. Now it may be something they address in a second series, but it really need to hit home in the first. Many watching this will be left with the sense that perhaps porn is the best way to save prostitutes (without acknowledging that porn IS prostitution)

          • Wren

            Thanks for this write-up. It clarifies a lot about the writers, approach, but it sounds very disappointing. After all, porn is simply filmed prostitution.

    • foamreality

      from that article the director says “When you look at the pornography scenes, they’re kind of starkly lit, as
      it is on a film set, and it’s not beautiful: it looks like work or
      boredom, even.”

      so not like rape, or abuse. But ‘work’. Or ‘boredom’. Thats the worse he can imagine? This is exactly what the libfem argument is: ‘Its just like being a waitress.’ FFS!

  • M. Zoidberg

    1) Any person who uses that disgusted euphemism “sex worker” or suggests it’s a job like any other, needs to go do it — a few shifts in a brothel using their holes, hands, whatever — to realise that it doesn’t lead to the happy-go-lucky lifestyle of endless shopping sprees, trips to Europe, and a sweet condo. That’s Hollywood (and the one-in-a-million white, high-class prostitute who “makes” it with a book deal or something.)

    2) Pimps? Really HBO? Too many men in the industry with no imagination…

  • radwonka

    Are there any objectifying scenes in this show? I want to watch it, but I have the habit to skip any show that includes objectification or patriarchal sex…

    Considering that HBO also produced Game of objectification, I guess that they will also control Simon’s work. I mean, HBO’s main fanbase are fuckboys so…

    Anyways, it’s always nice to see men criticizing gendered institutions.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hmm… There are a couple scenes that might bother you, in that case, but it seems they have made a clear effort not to glamourize/pornify. I was shocked to see dicks!

      This interview might interest you: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/q/segment/14010201

  • Meghan Murphy

    I, too, was disappointed he didn’t reference any feminists’ work, considering he was sharing feminist analysis of the industry. I’d love the chance to talk to him about that!

    I don’t think he has rejected the fact porn is misogynistic. His discussion of it in the Guardian article (and on the CBC this morning) very clearly shows Simon and Pelecanos see porn as harmful on a social level, as well as harmful in terms of the way men treat and view women.

    Re: his comment about the human condition, I assumed he meant that these things were a given within our current culture. I’m doubtful he would argue such an industry would exist outside of capitalism, for example. But I can’t know for certain, of course, exactly what he meant by that.

    All that said, I will have to continue watching to see where all this goes, and can’t speculate too much, at this point, about how perfect or imperfect the analysis is. I won’t be at all surprised if the show fails to effectively critique the sex trade through a feminist lens and will certainly follow up with more reviews as more episodes air!

  • Jeanne Deaux

    Oh man, Harlots. Can I just rant for a sec about how as I was watching The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu kept inserting ads for Harlots??? WTF, Hulu???

    • Meghan Murphy

      I tried watching Harlots for critical purposes but couldn’t get past the first 15 minutes.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I’d love to talk to him for a podcast. I imagine he is hard to reach, but I certainly will try…

    • rottenbone

      Good luck!

  • northernTNT

    In a similar vein, some women here might be interested in Laura Dern’s new short film:
    Good Time Girls (don’t be fooled by the title)
    The intro song is by New Brunswick’s very own amazing Lisa Leblanc.

    • Liz

      Wow, Lisa LeBlanc has a great voice! I’ll look for more of her music.

      I was hoping that the women were killing them for using prostituted women (i.e. let that alone be crime enough for the punishment). But I like the story that men are held responsible for their actions. I have a vengeful soul, lol

      • Lynn

        She is amazing. See her live if you can!

    • Lynn

      I love Lisa Leblanc!! She is so freakin talented!

  • Meghan Murphy

    It immediately paints feminists as evil prudes and prostituted women as sex fiends.

  • Daniel Mate

    I just watched Episode 1, sorrowfully. What I see so far, much like The Wire, is a sober, humanizing, unflinching portrait of intersecting institutions/structures and the people who live and try to subsist at/on those intersections/corners. Unlike The Wire, gender (along with race and class) is explicitly one of the institutions here, and gendered sexual (wage) slavery one of the structures, maybe the main one. I’m fascinated to see how it proceeds with the story. Will it find a way to convey the enormity of the crime, especially to an audience that largely (as your piece shows) is inured to even seeing that there is one? For me, the pilot broke my heart, and I think it’s meant to. For those who still think it’s all sassy fun and “choice”: The Wire managed to wake people up to aspects of society that polemics never could. Arguably patriarchy is even more entrenched (and thus invisible to most) than racism or drug policy or municipal corruption, so it’ll take something to pull the same thing off here. Here’s hoping.

    • Wren

      “Arguably patriarchy is even more entrenched (and thus invisible to most) than racism or drug policy or municipal corruption,…”

      Yes. Absolutely. Although one would think that the election of 2016 might have opened more eyes than any TV program ever could.

  • etoffe

    Well said. I’m very suspicious of something that purports to be a critique of pornography yet feeds the great cultural maw by offering endless titillation.

    • foamreality

      Theres more nudity, tits, dicks and fucking in this than any other series i know of (except maybe game of thrones – ive not watched that and dont want to) . Worse, most of this isnt even relevant to the scene or conversation . It would be easy to cut a lot of that out. But hey gotta attract the men and their dollars.

      Having watched the whole series I would say it’s liberal feminist pro porn propaganda. A major disappointment ( i loved the wire). The only thing it is critical of is black male street pimps and bent cops. The porn industry comes out as the antidote to both, and the liberator of prostitutes. Radical feminists should be outraged by it.

      • Semolina

        I have yet to be titillated by this show. It’s not sexy at all.

  • will

    The trailer has predominantly male voices talking business and male (except for the moment with a female in an office showing lots of cleavage) cops regulating the males doing business all embedded in that “sexy” motown music and 70s retro outfits everyone is in love with these days. Maggie Gyllenhaal (I don’t really trust her after “Secretary”) pops up regularly to indicate that the drive to exploit is really coming from the female. Perhaps the promoters cut a trailer that does not accurately represent the show and rather draws on old sexist tropes. I can’t help but feel skeptical, but will remain hopeful.

    • Liz

      Yes! The trailer gave me the impression that it was going to use Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character to present some kind of story that women are behind the contemporary situation with pornography. So I felt like “yeah I already know that old line” although I was glad to read this article and hopefully the whole series won’t be like that.

    • thaddeusbuttmunchmd

      I have not seen “Secretary.” Like “9 1/2 weeks” and “Shades of Gray”-it sounds like a Guilty pleasure. But, Maggie is a Beautiful, intelligent actress and I am following “The Deuce” mainly because of her. I don’t really care about Abby and Daddy and the Goombahs all that much. Her scene with Method Man after the EVIL man beat my Angel was harrowingly good. It will be the “money shot” at the award shows.

  • radwonka

    haha, best comment Ive read so far

  • Liz

    Just listened to this interview from Fresh Air with Terri Gross: http://www.npr.org/2017/09/27/553867653/deuce-creators-capture-the-birth-of-americas-billion-dollar-porn-industry

    I think I’m going to give it a try. I would love to hear Meghan Murphy interview the show creators though. I’ve listened to two interviews with them now and it feels like they’re holding back. Maybe they feel like the work will speak for itself, I don’t know.

  • thaddeusbuttmunchmd

    I LOVE the actresses, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal, of course, but it’s SO hard to see the terrible things that happen to her. I wish I could just take her by the hand, and say “Babe, I’m a man with money (MD) take 25k and do what you want with your life.” And, of course, to avenge the men who Really hurt her. )-;. But-IMHO it’s BULL that it’s “not titillation” (what a word.) Those lovely actresses like Maggie and the younger ones being almost totally nude and even getting pseudo-ejaculated on?? I’m a straight Man and it bothers me. I’m sorry that they “have” to do that.

  • Semolina

    I’m actually kind of glad he didn’t ally himself with feminism, only because when you do that, people assume you have an agenda, put up their walls and stop hearing you. And he has the chance to actually be heard. Yes because he’s male, and yes because he’s a critical darling, but also because he doesn’t represent an ideology. And I am so grateful for this show, so grateful for the sanity check, so grateful to have some audible mainstream voice speaking out against the current insanity, that I sort of don’t care who he credits for the message if he can actually deliver it.