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,” 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, 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.