Steven Soderbergh’s decision to “retire” from feature filmmaking and focus on the smaller screen has proved to be a blessing for people who prefer TV anyway (like me). He kick started his second career with the award-winning HBO film Behind the Candelabra, and followed that up with The Knick, one of the most underappreciated shows in recent history. But it’s Soderbergh’s latest endeavour, The Girlfriend Experience, that may prove to be some of the best work he has ever done.
It’s some of his best work in part because he handed the reins to Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, who are listed as the show’s creators. Seimetz seems especially influential since she acted and produced for the show, and because quite frankly there’s no way a show this smart was written by men.
The Girlfriend Experience, which Soderbergh also produced and is based very loosely on his film by the same name, is about a law student who moonlights as a high-class prostitute. Despite how the premise makes it sound, the show is not highly sexually-charged. Yes, there are nudity and sex, but you can find much more graphic scenes on pretty much any other show Starz makes (seriously, they make HBO look like PBS).
Really, the best part of the show is the topic of sex: how it can strain relationships both intimate and otherwise; how women can and should have carefree sex if they so choose; how, if given the chance, women can use sex as a powerful tool to advance their career; how, largely because of a stigmatized society, having sex (for money or not) can jeopardize a promising career.
But Kerrigan and Seimetz didn’t stop there. There are countless examples throughout the 13-episode season of the showrunners doing little things that slowly chip away at the stereotypical expectations for women, their relationships and sex work in general. A small list:
- The Girlfriend Experience is the first time in either TV or film that I have seen a woman use a tampon. While that might seem silly or unimportant, it’s a big step in destigmatizing something that, for some reason, has become a topic people aren’t comfortable talking about. The first tampon commercial didn’t even air until the early 80’s, and the vast majority of references about women having periods are for gross-out humor. It’s time for everyone to grow up.
- There is slow buildup to the idea that the main character, Christine Reade, might have been abused at some point. While a majority of sex workers do suffer abuse at a young age, that’s not always the case. When her sister finally asks the big question, Reade snaps back, “Because I like it!” The point here is that sex work can be empowering, and in some cases, might be the only way for men or women to support themselves or loved ones.
- Reade is always in control. Before she sleeps with her very first client, she demands that he use a condom. She carefully vets each new customer and leaves situations in which she does not feel comfortable. In fact, the only time Reade is ever in real danger is when people start finding out she is a sex worker. Imagine if she didn’t have to worry about that.
Reade is played by Riley Keough, who made her name in Magic Mike, another Soderbergh project – and she’s also Elvis’s granddaughter. Though her involvement isn’t as attention-grabbing as it was when adult film actress Sasha Grey played the lead in the theatrical version, Keough more than holds her own, especially considering she is in nearly every shot.
Her character, like Grey’s was, is almost emotionless. She doesn’t like people, has never had a serious boyfriend and enjoys sex — with men or women — because who doesn’t enjoy sex? She is confident, decisive and in control of her situation, even when it looks like things aren’t going her way.
Keough’s role is to more or less act as a conduit through which things happen. For example, and this is a spoiler, when an email containing a video of her having sex is sent to her entire office, Keough’s total lack of expression highlights the reactions of people around her. Her coworkers whisper and glare and audibly play the video as she walks by, nevermind that she’s likely traumatized and could desperately use someone’s help.
It’s refreshing to see sex and sex work portrayed in a progressive manner, to see someone finally calling out all the bullshit standards that people (mostly men) hold women to. Once viewers get past the immature giddiness of seeing a naked lady on TV, if they can at all, they’ll find that The Girlfriend Experience has so many important messages to give, and that it gives them so well.