“Gritty” and “authentic” — these words of praise are now commonplace when discussing the television dramas of David Simon. And no less so with The Deuce, his series about the rise of the pornography industry in the 1970s, which debuted Sept. 10 on HBO. But there’s another term that helps explain the show’s appeal: Nostalgia.

Simon’s The Deuce is a searing critique of late capitalism, with the central thesis that pornography itself ushered in an era of libertarian market forces and with it, misogyny.

It was probably only a matter of time before high-quality television attempted to dig into the complex world of 1970s porn, a world that, once profoundly visible, is all but erased from the streets of 21st century New York City.

Today’s porn, now primarily based in Los Angeles, bears little resemblance to the porn produced in the time known as the “Golden Age.” Simon is riding a swell of renewed interest in this curious blip in porn history.

Companies such as Vinegar Syndrome and Distribpix lovingly restore and re-release HD copies of classic porno of the era, while artsy cinemas such as the New Beverly in Los Angeles and Anthology Archives in New York run XXX retrospectives. Showtime channel aired two seasons of Dave’s Old Porn as well as two documentaries, X-Rated and X-Rated 2, that listed the greatest adult films and adult stars of all time.

Understanding sex workers

Marketing surrounding The Deuce has highlighted the authentic portrayal of the New York City that once was, including the players that lived the golden age.

Series co-star Maggie Gyllenhall has been particularly vocal about her commitment to understanding the women sex workers of the time, reading Tina Russell’s autobiography Porno Star and speaking with show consultant, Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker and sex educator.

Simon has repeatedly insisted pornography is central to problems of 21st century labour and gender relations. But if we accept pornography (and the sex industry in general) is to blame for everything that went wrong with postmodern America, what does that mean for the progressive politics of work and sex?

The Deuce follows twin brothers, Vincent and Frankie Martino (Franco) and street-based sex workers, Candy (Gyllenhall) and Darlene (Fishback).
(Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

 

The show follows twin brothers, Vincent and Frankie Martino (played by James Franco), and street-based sex worker Eileen “Candy” Merrell (played by Maggie Gyllenhall). They’re looking for ways out of poverty by getting in on the ground floor of the emerging pornographic film industry. For Candy, especially, pornography is a chance to exert more control over her work by moving indoors and selling sex as a performance instead of a trade.

Gender diversity

Simon and his co-creator, George Pelacanos, went to great lengths to consult with sex workers of the era, most notably Sprinkle. They also hired women such as crime novelist Megan Abbott and Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren into significant creative roles. Gyllenhall also serves as a series producer.

The conscious gender diversity adds considerably to the nuanced portraits of the women characters. Candy, an independent worker, is unique among the women strolling 42nd Street, who typically rely on pimps who simultaneously protect and abuse them.

Yet, Candy is not the only one who sees opportunity in pornography. Darlene (Dominique Fishback), a sweet-faced young worker, feels exploited when she realizes a client is making money from a film of their date, and turns to her pimp for fair remuneration. It dawns on her that there may be alternatives to the street. Importantly, that doesn’t mean leaving sex work completely, but transitioning into other fields.

There is a lot of promise, then, that as the series unfolds. We will see more than the usual downtrodden prostitutes upstaged by colourful pimps and mobsters. So why suggest, as Simon and Pelacanos have, that pornography is the driving force of 21st century misogyny?

Lessons on pornography

Disgust toward sex work runs deep in our culture and will be very hard to redirect if the headlines about The Deuce are anything to go by. “Sleazy,” and “dirty” seem to be popular adjectives, alongside some strange longings for the era before a porn industry existed, when misogyny was a little more palatable.

More concerning is the claim that it isn’t pornography per se, but its co-ordination into a major media industry, that has led to the systematic exploitation of women. This is typical of contemporary anti-porn rhetoric which combines sex panic with vulgar Marxism to suggest the very act of commercializing sex causes gender violence. Such arguments contribute to the stigma that make sex work dangerous in the first place.

Sure, Pelacanos confides, he and his friends would drive downtown to purchase sex when they were 16 and engage in “locker-room talk” about women, but not as badly as kids these days do.

It’s not surprising many of the reviews of The Deuce focus on the lessons of pornography in the same way The Wire invoked conversations about the drug trade. But there is something qualitatively different going on.

In The Wire, it wasn’t drugs themselves as much as failures of the “War on Drugs” that were dramatized: carceral or prison culture, institutional racism, political corruption and media sensationalism were searingly depicted as the structural causes for the drug crisis.

Similarly, sex work rights advocates and harm reduction agencies point out the issues that make sex work far more dangerous and its representation more disturbing than it needs to be. These include: Criminalization, whorephobia, gendered poverty and stigma.

There is no question many were harmed in the early porn industry — and many continue to be harmed today. Organized crime underfunded much of the production and pocketed most of the profits. Performer pay was low, with no unionization or occupational health and safety regulations.

But to focus on the sleaziness of porn and not on the kinds of social forces that made the early porn industry rife for labour abuse exacerbates a titillating gaze on sex workers as objects of both prurience and pity.

A turning point in misogyny?

While it’s clear The Deuce has no nostalgia for the industry, the sentimentality comes through the claims of its creators who say the era is marking a turning point in misogyny. At the same time, they invest in the stylistics of ‘70s American cinema — an era well-documented for its own sexism, objectification and systematic discrimination of women.

The era of Frankenheimer and Scorsese is known for great social commentary cinema, but is hardly known for its advancement of women’s rights either representationally or professionally. Meanwhile, feminist champions such as Veronica Hart, Candida Royalle, Veronica Vera, Gloria Leonard and Annie Sprinkle found a home in New York’s pornography industry.

Along with many others, they thrived personally and artistically, despite the abuse and neglect they faced by systems that should have been working to make them safer. At the same time, they were honestly critical of sex work. Early on, they founded Club 90, a support group, which focused on improving both representation and workplace for women in the industry. Crucially, they built a foundation for sex worker politics to combat both the sleaze and the moral panic inside and outside the industry.

The global pornography industry of today is rife with the same abuses that confound labour activists across all sectors. Monopolies, outsourcing, tax evasion, digital piracy, zoning and gig economies are destroying sex workers’ livelihoods and with them whatever labour victories they had previously earned.

It is also creating new kinds of collectives, built on the foundations of the ’70s and the legacies of women porn producers who survived. Does that make up for the misogyny? Of course not.

It is crucial, therefore, to distinguish between exploitative and self-determined sex work and to look for the structural causes rather than claim that sex work itself is at the root of its own exploitation.

Moreover, as sex worker Lorelei Lee recently indicated, mainstream media might take a look in the mirror. While they borrow the voices, images, and work of sex workers for prestige, awards, and of course, money, the subjects they claim to depict remain at the margins of society.

The ConversationThe Deuce has the talent and the expertise to do justice by sex workers. Let’s hope it doesn’t get caught in its own nostalgic gaze.

Rebecca Sullivan, Director, Women’s Studies Program Professor, Department of English, University of Calgary and Laura Helen Marks, Postdoctoral Fellow, Tulane University

This article was originally published on The Conversation, and is republished here with permission. Read the original article.