Is The Deuce Just A Show About Misogyny & The Porn Industry?

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/Courtesy of HBO.
If you watch the trailer for HBO’s latest glossy prestige series, The Deuce, it’s heralded as the premium network’s new "porn drama." You see the cheesy-looking film sets synonymous with 1970s adult films, "twins" in baby doll dresses caressing each other, and flashes of a marquee reminding us Deep Throat was a porn movie before it was ever connected to Woodward and Bernstein. But, the premiere of Deuce, which is currently available to stream as a sneak peek and will officially debut on September 10, isn’t a simple deep dive into the retro porn utopia of the ‘70s à la Boogie Nights. Instead, it’s a reminder of what New York City’s Time Square, and the people who inhabited it, truly was before chain restaurants, bright lights, and photo-happy tourists conquered the midtown neighborhood. And that’s what makes The Deuce subvert your expectations.
The series-opener, "Pilot," helmed by woman director Michelle MacLaren, doesn’t even truly deal with porn. We don’t see any writhing bodies, poorly scripted "sexy" lines, or demeaning shots of bodily fluids sprayed on women for money. Instead, the XXX-film industry is a looming presence in the background, constantly hanging over our characters. The hour-and-a-half episode is nothing if not a character study.
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Most pilots suffer from time constraints — 44 minutes for a traditional drama, 22 minutes for a classic comedy — but, The Deuce doesn’t have that problem since it’s essentially the length of a movie. Shockingly, Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk is only 20 minutes longer than "Pilot." So, with the lengthy HBO introduction, we delve deep into the lives of our lead characters, Frankie Martino (James Franco), Candy Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva). Franco also plays Vincent Martino, Frankie's twin with a serious gambling problem, but we don't see much of the wayward brother in the opening edition.
Frankie has a failing marriage; a problem that clearly stems from his philandering and consistent absence from his home with young, vibrant wife Andrea (Zoe Kazan). Candy is a sex worker who knows her value and won’t let anyone tell her otherwise. Abby is a student in control of all sexual situations and laughs at her professor’s O-face. None of these people even work in porn yet. Rather, the faux glitzy draw of Time Square porn theaters, offering titles like Trader Hornee and Hammerhead, light their walks through life.
As you get to know the people populating The Deuce, it becomes obvious these men are terrible, stupid, or both. Frankie is originally painted as a man who is working impossibly hard to provide for his family, including Andrea and their two children, while his wife is out partying with strange men and leaving her beer-swigging mother to take care of the kids. Then you realize this isn’t all so black and white. Frankie is working all hours of the day, leaving Andrea to her own devices. While the bartender is doing whatever it is he does at work, he’s free to hit on both the women he works with and the ones who come into his bar. Andrea is rebelling against her forced status as a "stay-at-home-wife." Frankie doesn’t see this. Similarly oblivious is the overwhelmingly creepy police officer Danny Flanagan (Don Harvey) who believes he’s owed a "date," and implied sex, with young women when he doesn’t arrest them for attempted low-stakes drug purchases. Everyone around Danny recognizes how disgusting his behavior is.
That level of recognition is what keeps The Deuce from veering into tired misogyny. No one looks at Flanagan and thinks, "Wow, what a paragon of a masculine man." Even the short-sighted ridiculousness of Frankie is given the side-eye by the women around him like Abby and Andrea. When he decides to demeaningly sexualize his waitresses, he gets the chiding he deserves. "Ever wonder what it's like for them to be objectified?" Abby asks, explaining, "It means treating a person as a thing." It’s obvious Frankie isn't thoughtful enough to understand why reducing a human women to profitable window dressing is a problem, responding, "Object-a-who?"
Since Deuce is also filled with sex workers, we are also forced to meet their pimps. Yes, these are fashion-forward businessmen. They’re also misogynistic, violent emotional vampires who prey on women for profit and power. These men are shown as such without shying away from the cold, harsh truth about sex work.
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While the men of Deuce are 360 degrees of awful, the women are allowed to be complex. On a simpler show, New York newbie Lori (Emily Meade) would be introduced as a stereotypical Midwest bumpkin, tricked into the sex trade by a conniving Black pimp. This is decidedly not the case. Fellow sex worker Candy could fit the easy trope of playing to the "hooker with a heart of gold" expectations. A single interaction with a "date" that ends… prematurely proves Candy isn’t in this business as a charity for the orgasm-less men of the world. This is a business, and she has a child to provide for. Interestingly, as the trailer teases, we’ll get to see even more of Candy The Businesswoman as she tries to leave traditional sex work behind for a career behind porn cameras.
Of course, "Pilot" isn’t a perfect stand for feminism on television. One sex worker is named "Thunder Thighs," and nothing else is currently known about her character other than that problematically-titled anatomical feature. Some women live at the corners of the series, solely existing to fill space as A Sex Object. A plus-size woman appears on screen only to work the periphery of Frankie’s bar. With director Michelle MacLaren leading one more episode this season — along with fellow women directors Roxann Dawson and Uta Briesewitz helming their own — and Gyllenhaal scoring a producers credit for each installment, we can hope these pilot problems with be addressed soon.
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