“The Deuce” Is More Than Sex

Photo Credit: HBO.com

When I started watching The Deuce a few years ago I didn’t really know what I was getting into. My husband said it looked interesting, had good actors, and we all know HBO often churns out good stuff (Six Feet Under, Watchman, etc.).

A quick note: I should add here that I am not someone who particularly enjoys watching simulated sex on TV or in film – especially if it is gratuitous or just plain gross. So I wasn’t 100% sold that I would enjoy this show, but I wanted to give it a chance. 

If you don’t know already, The Deuce is a show about the sex industry, starting in the 70s and moving eventually into the 80s. It has a lot of sex. But more than the sex is the people. They are utterly riveting.

What we see is a group of people in 1970s New York that we think are trying to make their lives mean something, but really they are just trying to survive more than anything else. This results in the fact that they often make choices that don’t make sense to people unfamiliar with the sex industry.

It would never occur to me that to make extra money I should become a prostitute or work in pornography. But for these people, all they want is to survive.

“The Deuce” relishes the difficult choices. It lives in the shadowy corners of the streets it mourns and celebrates. It never lets anyone off easy …

Ben Travers, Indiewire

What’s funny is I keep writing lines about the characters wanting power or control over their lives. That they want to make something of their time on Earth, but do they really? I don’t know. Their lifestyles are so alien to me I have no real idea of their motivations. I just see what I see on screen, and the fact is, this is a group of people (some good, some mediocre, some terrible) trying to get through each day and night alive.

“The Deuce” makes a case that the fight matters.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

The Cast

There are a lot of storylines, and that’s what makes this show so entertaining. Sure, we start out following James Franco as he plays twin brothers, Vinnie and Frankie (based on real guys, FYI), but the show is about way more than just his characters.

My favorite character is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I love her anyway from Secretary, but she is exceptional in The Deuce.

Gyllenhaal plays Aileen/Candy – Candy is her prostitute name – and she is one of the only prostitutes walking the streets without a pimp to “protect” her. She refuses their advances. She doesn’t need anyone, especially a man, to dictate who she does, what she does, and especially, take a chunk of her earnings. 

Photo Credit: HBO.com

This independence is inspiring, but it also proves to eventually be a detriment to Aileen in her real life. By being so separated from others, she continually pushes people away in favor of pursuing her dreams (to be a film maker). She has a one-track mind, that while it doesn’t make her a huge success, it does seem to get her a modicum of success in her later life.

But The Deuce isn’t about one character, it’s about an entire community of sex workers. We have Laurie, who gets off the bus from Minnesota and is instantly taken in by a seemingly charismatic pimp who turns her out into the streets. The audience watches as she descends into drugs and sex, and doing what she is told. Her story is painful and tragic, but as we see with Aileen/Candy, and what I like about this show, is that not every sex worker story is tragic. They may not be full of inspiration, but there is a realism there that I appreciate.

There are even more characters, I clearly resonated with the female characters, but the show is so much bigger than I can possibly articulate in a short blog. In the last season, we are catapulted in the 80s and the AIDs epidemic, it’s tragic and touching, and handled well.

What Would You Do To Survive?

The show is about watching people make choices because they are trying, like you and I, to be better people. To make money. To survive. It’s a universal theme that I think every single one of us can relate to in some way. 

The series wrapped up recently and the last two episodes especially took me a few days to process (so much so that I forgot to write this blog last week!).

I was still processing the ends of storylines about characters that I had grown to really care about. That I really wanted to see do well. They had become people who I wanted to see succeed, who I wanted to see get what they wanted because dammit, they deserved it after all they’d been through!

But, that’s not how life works.

The Deuce doesn’t have a resolution that ties everything up neatly (which I really appreciate), but, Inkoo King from Slate made the point that “…its lack of resolution was haunting, underscoring one of The Deuce’s greatest and most distinct strengths: its unflinching exploration of the manifold and frequently unforeseen costs of sex work.”

The Cost for Women

The Deuce in its final season has Aileen making a film that makes her see that there is a price for everything women do, a cost for us moving in this world. That price is often paid by our bodies and our emotional well-being.

Gyllenhaal’s character works with that idea in the final season when she watches a waitress be sexualized by her customers. It’s again, a theme that I think many women (and probably men too) can relate to. How many times are we told to “Smile” and pushed aside simply because we are female? I like that she stepped out of the porn industry to show that the sex industry isn’t just about the act of sex, it’s about anatomical sexuality as well, and how that affects different sexes differently.

What The Deuce always did so brilliantly was expose our own choices, our own desires, and asked us how hard would we fight to get what we want, to survive in a world that doesn’t even notice us.

 Photo Credit: The Deuce: Lori and CC Photograph: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

When I look at the actors (both male and female) in this show, I think that they are amazingly brave. Not only to be naked and having sex on screen, but to do so with dignity and class, in a show that is often about the opposite. 

Sex and Vulnerability

I think a lot of people might be turned off by a show like The Deuce. Turned off by its harshness, its language, its unflinching look at pornography and sex, but it made me see how sex can be shown for what it is without it being made something to be ashamed of. 

Sex is a scary topic for a lot of people. It makes us feel vulnerable and shameful, something that I think harkens back to the Pilgrims and puritanical teachings (I am no scholar, this is just my guess), and it’s something we need to push past because consensual sex is nothing to be ashamed of. Even watching a show about the sex industry is trying to tell us, this is natural, it can be beautiful, and it can be ugly. 

At one point near the end of the show, Aileen/Candy says that there isn’t a lot of tragedy in porn, and I think she’s partly right and partly wrong.

I personally don’t have an issue with porn if the actors are treated well, but therein lies the issue with pornography. It can be in itself a tragedy of women and men being used up, spit out, and forgotten. But it could also be a pure exploration and celebration of what we do with our bodies. 

I think The Deuce was trying to show us the tragedy and the triumph (to use a cliche here) of what the sex industry was and is, but to also offer us a glimpse of what it could be. It’s well worth your time.

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