The Girlfriend Experience Wants You To Look At Sex Work Differently

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Riley Keough
What is "the girlfriend experience?" It's a form of escorting in which a woman engages in a transactional relationship with someone (usually an older man) in exchange for money, her time and company, and emotional intimacy. Other possible benefits for the woman can include a place to live, expensive meals, clothing, and — sometimes, but not always — sex.
What is The Girlfriend Experience? It's a new show on Starz "suggested by" Steven Soderbergh's 2009 movie of the same name starring Sasha Grey. In the 13-episode series, Riley Keough stars as Christine Reade, a driven law student who enters the world of transactional relationships because...well, because she decides she wants to.
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Christine is quite unlike any female character you've ever seen on TV before. For the first three episodes, she's mostly described by other people, leaving the viewer to try to intuit what her interior life is like. It's a somewhat frustrating guessing game.
"She's particularly interested in what we do," one of the lawyers interviewing Christine for an internship at their prestigious firm says after she leaves the interview. "She's not bad," another responds. "You can be whoever you want to be," her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) says before Christine — who decides to go by Chelsea when she's escorting — meets the man who will become her first client. Avery describes Christine as smarter and more beautiful than she is. It's difficult to get a full portrait of the lady at the center of the series when there's so much telling being done by other people, and so little showing of herself.
While she doesn't reveal much about herself, Christine is someone who likes to be looked at. The first time we see her having sex is before she starts escorting. It's right after her interview at Kirkland & Allen, the aforementioned law firm where she lands an internship, and she's celebrating at a bar with Avery. She spots a man from across the room, goes up to him, and says, "I saw you across the room, and I want to fuck you" in his ear. Back at his place, Christine has the man watch her masturbate.
When Christine starts entering into transactional relationships, she usually lets the men do most of the talking. They seem happy to have someone to whom they can open up. Christine nods at the appropriate points in the conversation and offers a witty rejoinder, but she rarely shares any details about herself.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Riley Keough
It's during the sexual part of her relationships that we're finally able to learn more about Christine. When she has sex, she's always on top. She likes to be watched. She likes to be in control and have the power. That much is also clear from the optics of her appearance. She usually wears her hair in a tight chignon, unless she's having sex (and then it's tumbling down her back and around her face). Her style can be described as elegantly covered up — tailored blouses, pencil skirts, and black pants at the office and law school; fitted long-sleeve shirts and dresses with heels when she's entertaining clients.
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She's enigmatic, but it's not actually a conscious decision. This isn't a person who spends time cultivating appearance and behavior to make people respond to her in a certain way. She already knows how people respond to her (they're enamored of her beauty and excited to be in its presence), and she doesn't really care. Christine takes advantage of situations in ways that she thinks will be advantageous to her in the long run. Every move is strategic. She doesn't waste time worrying what other people think about her. It's just not something she's ever expended mental energy on, and this type of character — especially in the form of a female — is quite rare.
"I just don't enjoy spending time with people. I find it to be a waste of time, and it makes me anxious...I just don't like sharing my time with anyone unless it makes me accomplished," Christine tells her sister Annabelle (Amy Seimetz, who is also the show's co-creator, co-writer, and directed six of the 13 episodes). "You're really selfish," her sister says, but when Christine just looks at her with her big, probing eyes, Annabelle — a district attorney — retracts her statement. "You value your time," Annabelle says. "Exactly," Christine responds.
During a separate encounter, a client (Shaun Benson) asks Christine what her life is like outside of their relationship. Does she have a real boyfriend, he wants to know. "As soon as a I realized there was such a thing and me and other people, I kind of...I don't have the same reactions to things or feelings about the way things are supposed to be," Christine says. "That makes total sense. You're like a female Ted Bundy," her client notes, comparing Christine to the famous serial killer. "Okay, I should have made something up," Christine counters. "Yeah, like always," the guy says.
Christine has decided to use her time to engage in sex work that helps her pay her law school tuition and living expenses. Her actions are directly contrasted with those of Erin (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a female lawyer at the firm, who sleeps with an executive at XHP, a high-profile client Kirkland is at risk of losing. The XHP executive chooses to keep Kirkland as the company's legal representation after Erin has sex with him. He also requests she become his main point person at the firm, which angers Christine's boss David Tellis (Paul Sparks), who formerly handled all XHP business.
Are Christine's choices any different than Erin's? Is that a question The Girlfriend Experience wants us to ponder? The show moves in such a rapid-fire manner that it doesn't suggest passing judgment on any character's actions. It merely points the camera at them and shoots, catching them in whatever acts they choose to engage.
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Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Riley Keough
Christine is focused and driven in all areas of her life. She knows she wants to practice patent law. She lands an internship at one of the most high-profile firms in Chicago. She immediately figures out how to remove the madam trying to take 30% from her escort earnings by finding clients for her. When a client asks Christine to reduce her rates so he can continue seeing her, she says she can't acquiesce. This is a person who doesn't back down from her convictions, even if it makes her question whether or not she's on the brink of sociopathy.
Is that where we are as a society, though? That someone who confesses to a client that she "likes to be alone, doesn't believe in marriage, and hands down doesn't want kids" should wonder about being "DSM-classifiable as a sociopath?" On the other hand, if Seimetz and her co-writer Lodge Kerrigan have written a sociopath, that's also a fascinating character study.
The type of empathy — whether real or fake — Christine is able to demonstrate when she's with clients is another constant enigma and point of ambiguity. It's an ongoing stereotype of prostitution in pop culture (the "hooker with a heart of gold") that the majority of the profession is merely being someone for clients to talk to, because these men's wives have stopped listening to them in favor of persistent nagging. The Girlfriend Experience places this trope within glass-walled hotel rooms and stuffy, dimly-lit bars, though, where conversation feels stilted and braggadocio.
The men Christine entertains mostly want to tell her about the big deals they're brokering. As an aspiring corporate ladder-climber herself, she seems to enjoy hearing about it. Maybe that's what really gets her off, though, more than the money, power, and security: the secrets she learns when she sees these men at their most vulnerable. As someone who has trouble feeling checked in enough to be in a real relationship, the identity she's found in the girlfriend experience has a lot less pretense for Christine than we might think.
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