More than a decade ago, David Simon created The Wire, a TV series that still tops the lists of the most critically acclaimed of all time. Even if the series about the illegal drug trade featured plenty of memorable, complex characters, it was fundamentally about something bigger: The social ecosystems, the interconnectedness of different social groups, and the inevitable influence the institutions have on their individual lives. Simon’s The Deuce continues in the same vein, even if it does exchange the contemporary drug commerce of Baltimore for the legalisation and rise of the porn industry in New York of the—elsewhere often nostalgically-portrayed—early 70s. The premise sounds like a typical HBO series: It promises crime, violence and glamour, and above all, nudity and sex, all trademarks of some of the most successful series the cable network has produced, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones.
With its ensemble cast of women prostituted by mostly black pimps (with the exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy, loosely inspired by the feminist-porn entrepreneur Candida Royalle), their johns, the mafia and their front men, the twin brothers Vincent and Frankie (both played by James Franco), who eventually start running a brothel, and the complicated web of exploitative relations (and relationships) between them, The Deuce cannot portray the sex industry without touching on the feminist dilemma on prostitution and pornography, which proved critical to the criticism of the series, as well. If, since the late 1960s, feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett and Kathleen Barry have analysed prostitution as the ultimate reduction of women to sexual objects which can be bought and sold, the prostitutes’ rights movements of the 1980s proposed that prostitution was a form of work just like any other, freely chosen. Even more, prostitution and pornography could, they argued, represent sexual liberation for women; they would now exercise the agency and free will necessary to their subject-hood, which—among other rights—assures them the ‘feminist’ right to prostitute. And after all: Wasn’t it contrary to the feminist method to disbelieve women who are themselves saying they choose and enjoy prostituting, to reduce their beliefs to ‘false consciousness’, especially from a standpoint of an observer—even if their truth claims are found problematic by existing feminist theories? In the same vein in which postmodernism sometimes sought to identify women’s agency in the most unlikely situations, the liberal criticism of The Deuce has often endeavoured to scour its portrayals of prostituted women for at least a glimmer of tough, empowered, sexually liberated women, who either love sex or love taking money from naive johns.
The rhetoric is typical of the ‘postfeminist’ discussions of the 1980s and 1990s, which revolved around the questions of victimisation, autonomy and responsibility of women, and which didn’t concern just pornography and prostitution, but issues such as sexual violence itself, as in the case of anti-violence movements such as Take Back The Night, which were accused of bringing back the image of the helpless woman of the 50s. The new vocabulary, however, of prostitution as a ‘choice’, prostituted women as ‘sex workers’ and the men using them as ‘clients’ reveals its intrinsic connection to the free-market capitalism—an ideology that legitimises the global industrialisation of the many forms of gendered sexual exploitation, constructed out of men’s dominance and women’s subordination inherent to the patriarchal institution of heterosexuality.
If the politics of personal choice can be seen as a manifestation of the liberal ideology that emphasises individualism to serve the interests of the market and consumerism—even if the question of how people in general, or women in particular, come to ‘choose’ and what they have to ‘choose’ from is carefully avoided—then this is precisely what The Deuce is aiming at: As a series, it is not so much about individual choices and actions as it is about the system itself. The sex industry acts as a sustained allegory for capitalism; it is outside the world of legitimate business, governed by different rules and principles of loyalty, and the dark mirror of business, revealing the effects of a relentless pursuit of profit through the lives of those caught in its grip.
Where The Deuce differs from the HBO series that have been simultaneously praised for their supposedly gritty realism and complex narrative arcs, and criticised for their eroticisation of sexual violence towards women, of whom they have often made no more than a sexual spectacle—is that its exploration of society and politics, and astonishingly realistic portrayals of urban lives, are far from pleasant to watch. The women of The Deuce are emotionally, physically and sexually abused by their pimps, who take advantage of their economic circumstances, as well as past traumas. They are too emotionally dependant on their pimps to rebel or run away, too used to their lives to try to get out. The toughest of them is murdered by a man she is prostituted to, the most independent of them is brutally beaten, while the protagonist—the good guy—sees a prostitute getting cut by her pimp and does nothing, and even starts running his own brothel later on. It is a depressing reality: The series features provocative issues without the relief offered by exploitative titillation; it takes a premise which would have been easily turned into a parade of objectification and cheap thrills, under the guise of contemplating violence as a human condition, but instead refuses to shy away from its grim, hopeless realities. There can be no doubt—The Deuce is relentlessly critical of the industry it portrays, and it offers no excuses for its inherent exploitation and violence. Perhaps, its greatest achievement is what Simon has shown he does best before: Instead of limiting the critique to individually occurring instances of misogyny, he extends it to how it underlies the industry as a whole, the porn culture as well as its effect on the society.