The world of prostitution has been a fascination of director Steven Soderbergh since 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, and with his 13-episode series of the same name debuting on Starz this weekend, it’s clear he’s not tired of the subject. How sex work is portrayed—and there’s no shortage of those portrayals in film or television—is, naturally, analyzed by a subset of educated viewers, though this time around, they may not come to any firm conclusions.
The girlfriend in question is law student, legal intern and eventual escort Christine, played by Riley Keough; she’s still probably best known for being the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, but she’s had parts in Mad Max, The Runaways, and Magic Mike, where she met Soderbergh. The show works as Keough’s coming out party, and is an homage of sorts to her physical being, featuring endless close-ups of her face and many more of her body. She is selling sex, after all: we must see it how it works. But in this case, the freeness of her physical form functions in stark contrast to how tightly wound she is about her actual emotional state.
Christine is beautiful and driven, we learn quickly, but her real relationships amount to none. The one woman with whom she has a friendship is Avery, a fellow student who high-end escorts, finds it easy as a woman who loves to have sex, and introduces Christine to it as well. We quickly learn Christine has the disposition for it; she wields her sexuality not as a weapon to protect her wounds, the way many women in the sex trade are represented, but as perhaps the only way she can feel something.
“I find everything online,” Avery tells Christine about the ease with which she books clients, arguing that it’s easy: “All I really have to do is listen and ask questions.”
“And fuck,” responds Christine.
“Yeah.” says Avery, pausing for a beat. “And fuck.”
The Girlfriend Experience explores the progression of Christine’s commitment to escorting; it would be less accurate to say that she is sucked into it as much as she is willfully committed to living on the edge, and that this lifestyle works in her favor. She has no other friends that we see, an ex-boyfriend she quickly gets over, and somewhat distant relationships with her family. While escorting is at first portrayed as a way for her to make money to pay for school and rent, it becomes clear that while the money is large part of the pull. The only way Christine can have relationships is to perform them.
“I just don’t enjoy spending time with people, I find it to be a waste of time and it makes me anxious,” she says of dating. “You’re like a female Ted Bundy,” a client tells her, prompting her to ask her sister Annabel later, in a rare moment, “Am I abnormally selfish? Like, could I be a sociopath?”
It’s clear that Christine is very smart, and relishes manipulating people, but it’s never clear what her motivations are for getting ahead at work, though she hustles hard (the show deftly and naturally blends the legal profession and sex work, showing the monotony and stress of both). Her youth certainly shows in the inevitable mess that occurs as her professional sex life and personal sex life intermingle with her internship at the law firm, where she both tries to have relationship with her married boss David while investigating his potentially illegal practices. Evidence is a huge part of Christine’s world, as it is in ours; she collects proof of her coworkers and sex partners’s behaviors, information she uses to her advantage—but that knife cuts both ways. Honesty is often discussed, but valued only as a currency to one-up other people.
The Girlfriend Experience takes place in Chicago, but you barely see the city, as if to suggest that Christine’s world isn’t human, but cold and alien, a sea of skyscrapers, rich, disposable men, and perfect outfits. (In this sense, the show is very Soderbergh, though the rest is a testament to the team who created it, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz; Seimetz also plays Annabel.) Her area of law—patent law—is strict and not particularly sexy, but what gets Christine off is the control and who has it. Her moments of real fear come only when she realizes she is in over her head and has lost it; her frustration with her family seems to stem from the fact that they live in a world where people feel feelings, and she might have less of those than average.
“Did something happen to you when you were little and you didn’t say anything?” Annabel asks Christine, upon becoming aware of her sister’s new life choices. “She’s always loved the attention,” her mother says later to her father. “She’s always been selfish. It’s the truth.”
We have to take their descriptions of what Christine’s personality is or was like at face value, for what we see of a whole person is limited, mostly to a young woman trying very hard to be the boss in an ecosystem that would naturally peg her at the bottom. Orgasms, in Christine’s world, seem to function as a way to glean feeling out of life, but also keep a hold on it. At one point, she spits at Annabel that she escorts “because I like it”—but what does liking something mean to her?
While it’s much less campy than recent predecessor Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The Girlfriend Experience uses escorting to explore the same themes of isolation and paranoia. This time, the sex for money is bleak, but not because it’s prostitution, but because of what Christine’s using it to do: hold herself back while propelling herself forward. One thing that’s refreshing: it never appears to pass judgment on its lead (in their research, Kerrigan and Seimetz interviewed only women who liked being escorts and said Soderberg specifically wanted the show to be “about a girl who’s not a victim”). And in a turn of events rare for any work of film or television, The Girlfriend Experience barely seems to have an agenda.
Sex work will always be a hot-button issue, and there have certainly been more fictional depictions of wealthy women participating in it than portrayals of the many women who are far less well off, emotionally, financially and physically. But rarely do we get a show, regardless of subject matter, that leaves the viewer with no real sense of how you’re supposed to feel about it. In that sense, The Girlfriend Experience is as much an enigma as its lead character.
Images via Starz.