About six episodes into Starz’s latest series The Girlfriend Experience something clicked.
Christine Reade (Riley Keough) is a second year law student, intern at a major law firm (with a curious and, it’s suggested fake, fascination with patent law) and a big bucks escort.
Listen to Laura Brodnik and Rosie Waterland break down The Girlfriend Experience. (Post continues after audio.)
Escort Christine is largely a vessel for other people’s expectations, desires and feelings. In her day to day life she performs a series of roles, from student to sister to sex worker.
In the very first episode, we see Christine perform for potential employers – she’s studied hard and she knows all the right things to say about the law firms she interviews with.
One firm calls her in for a shot at an internship, and then mocks her professed interest in their specialty field of law – medical patents.
They hire her anyway, which reinforces that how well you pretend determines whether you succeed or fail.
Christine’s escort friend Avery doesn’t get an internship anywhere, and that’s clearly because she’s stopped pretending to care.
The Girlfriend Experience, a good friend put forward, is really trashy.
“It’s just so ridiculous. When she’s at work her hair is up in a bun and then she’s all fancy with this flowing mane and it’s just…” she trailed off before the sentence finished.
I hadn’t watched it, and so I filed it under maybe later, after I’ve finished The Good Wife, Janet King, Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Then Matt Zoller Seitz, a TV critic who I usually find myself agreeing with, wrote a rave review. “I think it’s easily one of the best shows of the year, and a major work by everyone involved,” he said.
It went right to the top of my watch list, and within a day of starting I’d knocked the whole thing over.
Sure, The Girlfriend Experience isn’t perfect, but it is one of the most subtly challenging things I’ve watched since Mad Men.
What kicks you in the guts is not the sex, or the legal intrigue (both of which the show has in spades), it’s the central driving force: The question of being a woman, and everything that means.
Scroll through to see some images from The Girlfriend Experience. (Post continues after gallery.)
When was the last time you were told to smile? You waxed your eyebrows, legs, bikini line? You wore lipstick or foundation (quite literally, you painted your face)? When was the last time you pretended not to be creeped out by the guy at the bar so he would hopefully leave you alone? When did you last hold your tongue after a male colleague told you to calm down?
Being a woman is one big performance. From the clothes we wear, to the language we use and the gestures and movements we make.
Women are constantly under scrutiny, and we all know the masks we wear, the roles we play. Perhaps it’s never as nakedly obvious as in The Girlfriend Experience but it is ever-present.
What’s it like to be an attractive woman, constantly under society gaze? (Post continues after video.)
Watching Christine unravel, from a person whose entire existence is a performance into one who performs only when she wants to, and almost exclusively for money, is for want of a better word, enlightening.
Throughout the series run, Christine seems to be slowly setting her entire world on fire. Burning her relationships, her career path, her future. All of it. Burning it to the ground.
There are opportunities for her not to, but every time she chooses to keep on destroying the world, and the image, she has built.
In the season finale there is an extended sex scene, between Christine and a male escort, for the pleasure of a client who wants the fantasy of a girlfriend who fights with him about her lover, and then fornicates with the lover in front of him.
It’s elaborate, and exquisite (no not the sex, the set up). When the client is looking, Christine is in total control. She is the girlfriend. She’s in charge of the male escort who doesn’t know how to pretend. She covers for his lack of imagination (and his lack of wood).
"Christine is in total control." Image via @gfe_starz.
She is, it seems, a performer by choice now.
Only when she wants and on her own terms. Which is a paradox because the prevailing wisdom about sex work is that is wrests power and control from the women who do it, and while that can certainly be true, there are lots of sex workers who do not feel that way.
I wasn't prepared for how much The Girlfriend Experience would make me think about womanhood, and how exhausting it is.
Those themes are present in other great shows, particularly Buffy The Vampire Slayer and more recently The Good Wife, but the performance never seems to end for Buffy or Alicia Florrick .
Buffy's ultimate freedom is no longer being the only chosen one. She is essentially set free in the series finale - but we never get to see what liberated Buffy is really like, or how she chooses to live once she's no longer a prisoner of fate. A constant Buffy thread is her struggle to appear in control, unafraid, cocky even. A willing slayer, not a forced one.
The performance never seems to end for these two women. Images via Facebook.
Alicia Florrick's journey isn't over yet, but there are signs her highly performative life is about to come undone. The Governor's wife has quite a lot in common with the Chicago escort, Christine, constantly performing a role, largely at the behest of a man, never quite satisfied with her lot.
Watching The Girlfriend Experience didn't make me think about sex work or sex, instead it feels like it's much more of a show about expectations and facades than about sex. It's about navigating this man's world we live in as a woman, and finding a way to bend a corner of it to our will.
It's about compromise and conflict and control.
It's fascinating and brooding. In some respects it seethes with resentment, in other ways it feels like a soapy confection of a drama designed to titillate.
It is a contradiction. And I highly recommend you watch it.