From its very first episode, The Deuce made it clear that it was not going to fall into the usual traps of showing prostitution as a vehicle for male pleasure. With four out of eight episodes directed by women, including the pilot and the finale, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos have so far been true to their voiced commitment to portraying sex work and the rise of the porn industry from the female gaze.
That's not the only thing that makes The Deuce feel like one of the more progressive shows on TV. Take a look at the cast, and you'll find a surprising amount of body diversity, especially among the sex workers and johns. On the one hand, this is just an accurate representation of the period and setting. Not everyone going into sex work in the 1970s — or today, for that matter — looked like Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal); johns aren't all Abercrombie & Fitch models. To suggest so would be inauthentic. But going deeper, in a show that trades in human desire, showing a wide array of bodies is a significant choice. It sends the message that while we are socially conditioned to believe that certain traits are universally attractive, when it comes down to real-world desire, that's not actually the case. Different people desire different things.
As my colleague Sesali Bowen wrote in an earlier piece about the show, The Deuce doesn't shy away from examining the cultural and racial dynamics of American sexuality. Showing real, diverse bodies is a big part of that. It's no coincidence that as prostitution starts to move indoors, and porn becomes a mass, marketable industry, the likes of Lori (Emily Meade) and Candy get to rise up, while women like Ruby (Pernell Walker), aka "Thunder Thighs," start to drag behind. With white men in control of the narrative, the idea of the perfect, "fuckable" girl (read: white and thin) gains traction. It's a trend that's foreshadowed in the pilot, when Reggie Love (Tarik Trotter) and CeCe (Gary Carr) are sitting in Port Authority, hunting for new prey. Spotting a curvy black woman walking by, Reggie scoffs: "shit don't work for me." Why? Because his clientele, aka "the white boys," would find her two intimidating — she's got "too much ass." Fast-forward a couple of scenes, and a car full of post-pubescent white boys turn down Ruby in favour of Candy. None of this nuance could be conveyed in a show that wasn't willing to cast actors with varying body types.
With the show's finale on the horizon, we talked with The Deuce's executive producer, Nina Noble, about the casting process, the female gaze, and the decision to show naked men of all shapes and sizes onscreen.
Refinery29: What were you looking for when casting the show?
Nina Noble: "The first thing we really thought about was authenticity, which is really the hallmark of all of our shows. We’re really into details, and being not only period-authentic but being authentic to the story. So, the first thing we thought about was the way people looked in the '70s. We looked at a lot of books and we noticed that people were unadorned, there were less tattoos in those days, there were less people going to the gym. Breast implants were not really a big thing until the '80s. So, there was sort of an acceptance of bodies in their natural state, in a way that we don’t seem to have now, or haven’t for a long time. That was the first thing in terms of casting: trying to find people who were real, and unaltered."
Where do you go when you’re looking for a diverse array of unconventional women?
"We have a longtime casting director, Alexa Fogel, and what’s marvellous about Alexa is she really casts a wide net. She knows that we work with skilled actors, and less experienced actors. With all of our shows, we’re just looking for the right person for the role. She looks in America, of course, but also in other places — we cast Gary Carr as the pimp, CeCe, and he’s from the UK. And also, not just traditional television actors, but people from theatre, acting school. She’s a very good listener. We all talk about the characters, and what they’re going to have to do, who they are, and then we see a lot of people. We decide by consensus, and it’s usually David, George and myself, and the director, in this case Michelle McLaren for the first episode of the season. Especially when it comes to the prostitutes, the johns and the pimps, we did want to be diverse and have a variety of people, and not have the same kind of person that’s chosen to do sex work."
Why is that?
"Because that’s the reality of it. If this show had fallen into the wrong hands, if you imagine that this is a network show, every prostitute would look the same: they’d all be very white, and they’d all be very thin. And that’s not everybody’s taste. That’s not the way the world is."
There are certain things in the show that make it very obvious that there are women behind the camera and in the writers’ room. What were conversations about that like?
"The priority was having the right people for the show, and in this case, we felt that the show was more about gender than race, and it was important to surround the show and the story with women because we have a unique perspective."
You mentioned network shows and their lack of diversity. Why is that still the case, in your opinion?
"Oh gosh, I wish I knew. We wanted to have naked men, as well as women. A good example is there’s a scene where Dominique Fishback’s character Darlene gets beat up by her john. What I loved about the way Michelle [McLaren] shot that is the aftermath was sort of on the guy. We have Darlene in the foreground and she is topless, but the camera is not emphasising her. In another show, it would be about her being topless. For us, and the way Michelle shot it, your eye goes to the guy, who is sitting there. Maybe because we don’t see people like him on television. "
I want to talk a bit about the character of Ruby, because she kind of loses work — as the rise of porn becomes clear, she has less of a place in that world.
"I love the way the writers — going back to the scene in the pilot where the teenage boys show up. First Ruby approaches them, they don’t want Ruby, they want Candy. And between Ruby and Candy there’s this camaraderie, where I think the writers acknowledge that some people are interested in different things. There’s different thoughts about what’s attractive, and what’s beautiful. All these stories are an amalgamation of stories that we heard from actual sex workers — we talked to a lot of different people who had different experiences. The writers’ room tried to capture what that life would, or could have been like. "