When it comes to the relationship between sex and television, it’s complicated. On the one hand, there are more shows with graphic sex than there have ever been before. Titillation is titillating! Very attractive naked people are something audiences will pay to see. All the rapidly proliferating cable channels and streaming platforms with their rapidly proliferating content are not held to tame network standards, and so butts and boobs and penetration abound. (On premium cable, in particular, you can set a stopwatch by how long a drama will take to exercise its right to nudity: hardly ever longer than five minutes.) On the other hand, there is almost nothing as likely to be deemed “problematic” or in fact to be problematic than sex on television.
The standard mode for graphic sex on TV, developed in lockstep with the rise of the prestige antihero drama, is to throw a formulaic bone at gritty realism and a formulaic boner at the male gaze. Some female character who barely has a name takes her top off and/or/while another female character, maybe with a name, is brutalized. The girls at the Bada Bing expose their tits in the background, and Dr. Melfi is violently raped in a parking garage. Game of Thrones’ extras display their neatly groomed pubic hair, and Sansa Stark is sadistically violated in a castle. (There are exceptions, of course; Emily Nussbaum just wrote a piece about The Americans and Outlander, two shows that do sex particularly well.)
Violence and titillation so often appear together because they are connected: The brutality is meant to counter the frivolity. A show may contain entertaining nudity, but it still knows that women aren’t props: look how seriously it takes the awful things that happen to them. True Detective displays Marty Hart’s girlfriend’s tits because the whole show is concerned with the creeping, insidious threat against harmless women. The more female corpses appear on a crime procedural, the more grotesque and perverted the way the woman died, as though the one can balance out the other. That, anyway, is how it’s meant to work. Instead, the nudity often plays like hypocrisy, perpetuating the objectification of women in series that purport to take the dangers of that objectification seriously. If you’re really concerned about your female characters, give them some lines.
Into this minefield saunters Starz’s fascinating The Girlfriend Experience, which is not merely in conversation with questions of the male gaze, female autonomy, titillation, sex, and violence but quite literally about them. It is based on Steven Soderbergh’s movie of the same name but has been reinterpreted by directors and writers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz. It stars Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter, with eerie charisma and a gorgeously gnarled widow’s peak) as Christine Reade, a Chicago law student who becomes a high-end escort entirely of her own volition.
Christine, who goes by the name Chelsea Rayne in her escort work, does not believe she is being exploited. Or rather, Christine is not being exploited. That sentence is hard to type, and The Girlfriend Experience knows it’s hard to type—or think. We are acculturated to have certain judgments about sex work, and the show is aware of this and seeks to cut them off at the pass. It goes out of its way to cross off any easy explanations for Christine’s behavior and to keep her from the creepiest, most dangerous possibilities of her profession. Christine does not have a traumatic history. She comes from an intact family. She is not in financial trouble. She is eminently hirable in other fields: As the show begins, she has just secured a prestigious law firm internship. Christine worries that she might be a sociopath, but she probably isn’t. The sex is not particularly porny or far out. Christine knows what she likes and she likes it pretty much the same ways. The men, by and large, are attractive, nonviolent, respectful, sure to get her off. After a brief entanglement with a madam, she works for herself.
Christine enjoys her work, and not just sexually. She likes the money and the clarity of the arrangement. “I don’t like spending my time with anyone unless something is being accomplished,” she tells her sister (played by Seimetz). But within the parameters of accomplishment, she does like spending time with people quite a bit: The only time she laughs in the entire series is in the company of various johns.
If there were any television show in which an audience could feel entirely comfortable about getting turned on watching a beautiful woman screw a lot of presentable, decently behaved older men without a twinge of conscience, it seems like it would be this show. Christine wants to be seen so much that she even likes to watch herself masturbate. And yet The Girlfriend Experience, to its credit, is not that show. Christine wants to sell her own body and people want to buy it, but there is something compulsive about her sex drive: She’s a workaholic. What makes the series so intriguing—and the rare series that uses its absolute lack of humor to its benefit, not detriment—is that as Christine has lots of consensual, mutually satisfying sex with older men in various gleaming, hard-edged, modern hotels, it is at once undeniably hot and utterly unsettling. The show is provocative, sexually and mentally; it’s alluring and sordid, arousing and disturbing, a unique viewing experience.
As the show goes on—and at 13 episodes, it is overly long, but at least the episodes are only half an hour: more 30 minute dramas, please!—Christine’s life becomes complicated and disrupted by exactly the kind of judgment that the show simultaneously foments and dissipates in its audience. There’s nothing wrong with a woman doing exactly what she wants with her body, except almost everyone in Christine’s life does not feel this way. Her parents, her colleagues, her nonpaying paramours, her john’s relatives, even a few of her johns—and perhaps those of us watching at home—all have reservations, if not downright opprobrium, for what she does, and it is their opinions, more than her behavior, that complicate her life. The Girlfriend Experience forces its audience to consider how committed it is not to the idea of a woman doing as she pleases, but the actuality of it.
The show that The Girlfriend Experience most reminds me of is USA’s Mr. Robot, not that you should expect any big plot twists from The Girlfriend Experience. Rather, like Mr. Robot, The Girlfriend Experience is about an alienated and furious loner who seeks connection in socially unsanctioned ways created by the corruptions of capitalism. (“Everyone is paid to be everywhere, it’s called an economy,” Christine yells at a furious ex-lover, late in the series, defending her choices.) Christine, like Elliot Alderson, is a worker bee who comes alive when breaking the law and who finds herself in conflict with high-tech and malign corporate interests and sexual hypocrites. Unlike Elliot, however, she’s not trying to bring down the system, just make it work for her. She has something to sell. If it also sells subscriptions for Starz, as long as she gets paid, she’s surely fine with that.