The Deuce is not a sexy show. The HBO series, which just concluded its first season, examines the sex trade in 1970s New York City, but does so through the eyes of professionals—sex workers and their pimps. Their jobs may be to fulfill fantasies, but the bulk of their day-to-day grind is remarkably unsexy, bound up in logistics, routine, bureaucratic rules, and going through the motions. In short, it’s a job, and that’s how it is depicted, time after time.
The star of the show is Eileen Merrill (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a veteran Times Square sex worker who goes by the street name Candy. Unlike the women she shares the streets with, Candy has no pimp—and neither the abuse nor the protection that comes with it. “Nobody makes money off of my pussy but me,” laughs Eileen when one of the pimps, Rodney (Method Men), tries to recruit her with promises of a better life. “I’m gonna keep what I earn.” She walks away laughing and chanting “money, money, money”—which is what it’s all about, in the end, for both the women and The Deuce. Rather than a show about sex, this a show about an industry that turns sex into cash, and the women whose bodies provide that conversion.
Although there are numerous graphic sex scenes—how could there not be?—the series has little interest in erotica. Particularly surprising, given how easily the show could pack its episodes with titillation, is its penchant for cutting away when the women take their johns into a room. When there is sex on screen, it’s contextual; we see it because it’s important to the stories of these women, not because it’s fun to look at. In short, it’s not gratuitous, which feels like a minor miracle after watching, say, Game of Thrones.
The sex that is shown is usually routine, sometimes repellent, and occasionally frightening. The few exceptions are romantic interludes between non-pimped couples, and a scene of Eileen masturbating that Gyllenhaal herself suggested suggested to show creator David Simon. “I thought here’s all this performative sex, all this transactional sex,” Gyllenhaal, also producer on the show, told New York magazine. “I wanted to know what her desire looks like.” Contrast that with a later scene on a porn set where we find the male performer thrusting monotonously into his costar, who stares into space blankly. “This is actually joyless,” says the director, throwing up his hands in resignation.
But more than just humanizing the sex trade, The Deuce offers a sharp critique of the inequalities and exploitations of late capitalism by examining sex work as labor—highly lucrative labor that comes saddled with a stigma that makes it easy to abuse. “What I stumbled into seemed to be a ready-made critique of market capitalism, and what happens when labor has no collective voice,” Simon told The Guardian. “That seemed to be apt for this moment because I think a lot of the lessons of the 20th century are going to have to be learned all over again thanks to Reagan and Thatcher and all the neoliberal and libertarian argument that has come after.”
This is Simon’s stock-in-trade. His most famous and beloved series, The Wire, earned praise for being less about drugs—or moralizing about drugs—and more about the systematic forces that preyed on marginalized people trying to survive. The Deuce, similarly, is less concerned with sex itself or the morality of sex work, and more with the societal layers that combine to make sex workers’ lives worse: misogyny; a legal system more interested in punishing them than protecting them; and, of course, capitalism.
Although free enterprise has a way of reducing all human beings to how well their bodies generate money, its intersection with sex is especially fraught. Sex work means commodifying an act so intense and varied that, depending on who is doing it and why, it can mean love, pleasure, procreation, or degradation. For its part, The Deuce doesn’t offer much commentary on whether sex work itself is inherently exploitative, only that many of the socioeconomic forces swirling around it certainly are.
The Deuce doesn’t offer much commentary on whether sex work itself is inherently exploitative, only that many of the socioeconomic forces swirling around it certainly are.
The most obvious sources of exploitation are the pimps, who hang around the train stations looking for fresh-faced girls arriving in the big city, and then break them down psychologically and physically until they’re obedient and codependent. At the end of night, the women turn all their earnings over to their pimps; keeping any of their hard-earned cash for themselves is a quick way to get a beating. Although the show doesn’t make the pimps into cackling villains, it’s difficult to see the them as anything besides abusive middlemen profiting off of other people’s work—an arrangement that may look intimately familiar to many corporate employees.
The women are treated as commodities not just conceptually but literally; when an inexperienced girl named Bernice gets lured into the trade, her first pimp sells her to another for $2,000. When a young woman named Darlene ends up with a bruise on her face from a customer who went too far with the rough sex, her pimp Larry is furious, indignant. He tells Darlene to relay a warning: “If he fucks you up like this again, he’s gonna have me raise up on him.” Of course, Larry beats Darlene and his other girls too—but they’re his. He’s not defending a woman he cares about so much as protecting something he owns. An assault on her is an assault on both his merchandise and his reputation, and he responds accordingly.
One exception to the rule is Gentle Ritchie, a mumbly, mellow pimp with Marxist leanings. He never abuses the one woman who works for him and actually seems to value her as a person, a laid-back approach that earns him scorn from the other pimps. “I don’t dig hierarchical oppression, man,” Ritchie says when a pimp advises him to hit her for talking back. “She controls the means of production.” It’s a bit of a joke at the time, but its larger point about labor becomes unexpectedly relevant.
When a pimp named Reggie rolls in to a local dive bar to drink while his girls are working, the barmaid, Abby, caustically asks him if he’s ever had a job. “I see Shay and Melissa doing all the work,” she says. “I don’t know exactly what it is you do, except count the cash and treat them like shit.” This is exploitation, to be sure, in all the most obvious ways. But take sex and abuse out of the equation, and you can see the same dynamic driving income equality across the country: money trickling up to people who aren’t doing the work, rather than down to the people who are.
Later, when cops drive the sex workers off the streets and into brothels where the police can take a cut of their profits, the pimps realize that their cushy managerial positions are in danger of being downsized. The de facto legalization of sex work—akin to the “Hamsterdam” drug legalization on The Wire— means better working conditions and less risk of violence for the women, and also less need for the protection of a pimp. “We’ve become extraneous in the whole situation,” says a pimp named C.C., worriedly. “The pussy is still the pussy. The money is still the money. But the pimp: who the fuck is he right now?”
Of course, under this new system, the women are being exploited not just by the pimps, but by a police force that alternately hauls them into jail and skims money off their paychecks. The illegal nature of their work makes it easy for them to be preyed on, by men who want to rape them, men who want to hurt them, or men who just want to reach into their wallet. “Always gonna be hoes,” says one pimp, trying to reassure himself as the implications of the brothels become clearer. “Always gonna need a man to hold their money.” But maybe in Season 2 the women will seize the means of production and prove him wrong.