The Problem

HBO’s television series The Deuce continues the premium cable television network’s onslaught of programs that glorify and normalize harmful sexual behaviors, particularly acts of sexual exploitation that degrade women. The show’s main themes – the pornography industry and prostitution – tee up its producers for gratuitous pornographic scenes and disturbing, graphic sexual content.

What is the Show About?

The show chronicles the growth of the pornography industry and of prostitution in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s.  This shift gave rise to a multi-million dollar sexually exploitive industry, contributed to the drug epidemic, and accelerated the spread of HIV. The main characters are twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, both played by The Deuce EP James Franco. Vincent owns a bar in Times Square, and both he and his brother, Frankie, are fronts for the mob. The female lead, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, portrays a prostituting woman, Eileen “Candy” Merrell, who is also a mother, sister, and daughter – and who ostensibly claims that prostitution is a lucrative and empowering business venture.

The problem with this show, as with all shows that exploit human sexuality for entertainment, occurs when the show will inevitably depict sexual violence, degradation, and exploitation as acceptable, or even attractive, in certain circumstances. For example, the female lead is portrayed as an “empowered” self-prostituted woman who simply sees the sale of her body to men for sex as a business venture, suggesting that prostitution is sometimes a good, economically viable employment option for women.  To learn more about the true harms prostituted persons’ experience, visit our project Bright Light on the Red Light.

Throughout history and across cultures, pornography and prostitution have been inherently misogynistic and harmful. The producers of The Deuce go to great lengths to either justify their depiction of this misogyny, or to suggest that the exploitive industries they show are somehow empowering to women.

Co-creator David Simon’s mental origami is perhaps the most self-deceiving:

You portray it by being direct. It would be a mistake to look at this and think that we are in any way trafficking in misogynistic imagery or objectification as one of the currencies driving the show. That’s what the show is about. I’m not sure how you make the show and avert your eyes and clean it up.[1]

First, there are shows and movies that artfully allude to the horrors of sexual exploitation (The Color Purple, The Shawshank Redemption) without actually putting them on full display, so such justifications for the gratuitous sexual scenes in The Deuce simply do not stand. However, the topic of the explosion of New York City’s pornography and prostitution need not be depicted as a form of television entertainment at all. The point of the show is not to educate or enlighten, but to entertain, and ultimately, the substance of that entertainment is the exploitation of women.

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal echoes Simon’s dubious assertion. She claims that The Deuce is a “feminist project,” because the producers agreed to bring her onboard as a producer and to allow her to have a direct say in her character’s development throughout the show.  Although she admits prostitution “requires an amount of dissociation that makes it impossible to keep your mind intact,” she maintains that showing this sexually graphic content on television for entertainment is justified because it’s “interesting”:

Sometimes I do feel a little bit worried about the nudity being out there, but at the same time, I think that I’m using my body to make something really interesting, and I like the message that that sends my daughters.[2]

To understand this show as anything other than gratuitous sexual exploitation requires rhetorical justifications and mental acrobatics. Weed through the rhetoric, and it is easy to identify the show’s true purpose and the producers’ true motivation. The culture is saturated in gratuitous depictions of sex for entertainment and, ultimately, profit. The producers of this show know that and have no qualms about it. “If we made something titillating, then damn us,” said EP and co-creator David Simon.

As New York Times reporter Dan Barry notes, “The premium cable network needs an attention-getting hit to replace the departing ‘Game of Thrones’.”[3] Regarding that show, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has stated, “HBO’s Game of Thrones is brimming with pornographic sex scenes, awash in misogynistic dialogue, and bloated with depictions of sexual violence and torture so savage as to be unrivaled in television history.”  That’s the standard The Deuce will have to meet to captivate its audience.

Yes, pornography and sexually explicit materials are “attention getting,” but they are inherently harmful, exploitive, and no amount of whitewashing can change that. The Deuce will inevitably continue HBO’s tradition of making sexual violence and exploitation the stuff of mainstream entertainment, and such normalization will not be without real life victims.







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