The Covert Feminism of “The Girlfriend Experience”

In media, the act of selling oneself is oftentimes treated like something immoral that (usually) women are forced into and need to be rescued from. It is a rare piece of film or TV that treats sex work as what it is – a job like any other job – and explores that job without passing judgment.

Enter STARZ‘ “The Girlfriend Experience.” This is a show in its third season of telling stories about women who work as escorts without condemning the sex workers or their clients – and therein lies the show’s covert feminism. It is not overtly trying to make a “girl power” statement, but it explores the world of high-class prostitution in a way that is neither judgmental nor gratuitous, which is what makes the show stand out in its depiction.

The Double Standard

As with a lot of things in our society, there is a double standard when it comes to men and women and things that are sometimes viewed as immoral. What “The Girlfriend Experience” does is feature women who happen to be sex workers, exploring their choices and the consequences of those choices without editorializing – the same way male TV characters are often treated by their shows and viewers.

Co-creator Amy Seimetz told the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour audience that “part of the excitement” of the show is approaching it “in this non-judgmental space of not either glorifying or saying that sex working is bad.”

“Our intention was to explore a topic and be non-judgmental about the profession itself and not try to glorify it or to condemn it and just state it like any other sort of illicit behavior,” said Seimetz. “I mean, like, ‘The Sopranos,’ we have a male character who’s murdering people, and for some reason, everyone’s fine with that. But when a woman decides to sell her body, we’re suddenly in territory where everyone is up in arms and saying is this feminist or not? … we can approach the same subject matter with the objectivity that you do with something like the ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Breaking Bad‘ or something like that.”

At the same 2017 panel, co-creator Lodge Kerrigan added that they are striving to portray women who like sex and feel no guilt or shame about that, which is part of what drew season one star Riley Keough to the part.

“It’s not something you’ve really seen as a sort of lead character on a TV show … I wouldn’t say she’s extremely likable… she’s very controlling and kind of manipulative and kind of selfish and likes sex. It’s more of a character you’d see for a man, which is kind of what drew me to the show,” Keough told the TCA audience in a separate earlier panel.

It’s a Job

Sex work is a job like any other job. In fact, Kerrigan compared it to a hairstylist, saying, “It’s an act. You pay some money. You get something. It’s like getting a haircut. In terms of actual drama, there’s nothing dramatic about it.”

The transactional nature of “The Girlfriend Experience” characters’ work is another aspect of the show’s sly feminism. People need to earn a living. Some characters also enjoy the sexual aspect; for others, it’s just a job. Sometimes that changes from client to client. The bottom line is that the characters do not all behave one way, but they are all trying to earn a living.

Seimetz even says that “there is not a temptation for us to glorify at all or make it look pretty or make it look anything more than what it is,” because it’s just a job – though not a job just anyone can do.

“I think that you have to have a certain personality … You’ve got to have sort of a fearlessness [to do this job],” Seimetz said.

Season 2 star Carmen Ejogo added that her character isn’t doing any more acting than any other woman does.

“I admire the amount of acting, faking women have to do generally to get by. In some ways, this is an extreme version of what so many women go through … I think our show also speaks to, you know, an exploration of emotional truth,” said Ejogo. “We are dealing with the bravery of these women … but also the duplicity of them, the manipulation of them … There’s so many colors to these personalities that we delve into that I think it’s probably not smart to put one label or one sort of tag on this kind of a woman.”

Her season 2 co-star Louisa Krause added, “They are brave souls … I was thrilled to be a part of such a fearless, provocative, raw showing of truth. 

Going For Emotion, Not Titillation

A show about sex workers is probably going to have a lot of sex scenes. But one thing “The Girlfriend Experience” absolutely nails is that it is being made with the female gaze in mind and makes sure the sex scenes have a point within the show’s storylines. 

“I directed a lot of sex scenes before ‘Girlfriend Experience’ and now I think I’ve directed quite a few. I just direct the subtext,” said Kerrigan, adding, “I just direct the emotional and psychological subtext of the scene.  And if there isn’t any, then I try to cut the scene, because then it’s really titillation at that point.”

Kerrigan also said they are very cognizant of making the show a safe space for the actors.

“I try to make sure that the actress feels safe and there’s space for them and time for them because it is delicate to deal with nudity,” he said, which definitely comes across when you watch the show. 

“The Girlfriend Experience” depicts its sex scenes in a very respectful way – they are still sexy, but there is obviously a lot of care taken with the writing, directing and acting.

It all comes together in a very frank look at sex work, but also complicated women, complicated emotional relationships, and a profession that isn’t often depicted in such a nuanced way.