Screen Test

Breaking gender stereotypes

Riley Keough plays a law student who moonlights as an escort in The Girlfriend Experience.
Riley Keough plays a law student who moonlights as an escort in The Girlfriend Experience.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In any kind of story where a bunch of people are going to die or suffer, a surefire way for a character to join their ranks is to have sex, especially the illicit kind. The "death by sex" trope surfaces time and again in slasher flicks, where the "final girl" - the one who makes it to the end and lives to tell the tale - is in many cases the most wholesome one. Even in more respectable genres, graphic sex is often accompanied by graphic violence.

So it is refreshing to watch a show where a woman unapologetically seeks out and enjoys sex, and not only survives but also thrives.

That said, things are slightly more complicated than that in The Girlfriend Experience, a new television drama that debuted in the United States recently. It is based on Steven Soderbergh's 2009 experimental film of the same name, where the esteemed director cast a real porn star, Sasha Grey, to play a high-class female escort offering the "girlfriend experience", a service that includes not just sex but also the niceties of romance.

The series, starring model and Hollywood ingenue Riley Keough, is an intriguing depiction of female sexuality. Keough is Christine Reade, an ambitious young law student who lands a coveted internship at a firm specialising in patent law. Struggling with her rent and tuition, she is recruited as an escort by a classmate who moonlights as a high-class call girl.

Once Christine sees how much the job pays - up to US$1,500 (S$2,016) an hour or more - she is hooked. But she also gets a kick out of slipping on her alter ego, Chelsea Raynes, who, depending on how Christine feels, may hail from Philadelphia or Paris.

Crucially, Christine also enjoys sex and has a series of consensual encounters with clients, as well as an affair with a law partner and a young man she hits on at a bar.

Many viewers will tune in for the titillation and eye-candy factor - the gorgeous Keough, a fashion model and Elvis Presley's granddaughter, is often beautifully dressed or naked.

Stylistically, it feels very late Soderbergh or a close cousin of the prestige hacker drama Mr Robot, complete with a muted colour scheme and a soundtrack of ambient electronica giving it a modernist, almost science-fiction feel.

Keough's acting is naturalistic and, as with many Soderbergh heroines, her expression is often blank - which in this case works particularly well, with its suggestion of a sphinx-like protagonist.


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But there is a lot more to sink your teeth into. One of the many intriguing questions the show raises is whether Christine does indeed end up being "punished" for her profession, which she keeps a secret from her family and co-workers. A possessive client ends up stalking her, which then threatens to expose her secret. But the danger comes more from leading a double life than the prostitution itself, which she has a good handle on and is rarely afraid for her safety.

The bigger issue is that she is flouting social norms (and, technically, breaking the law, although escorting in the US can get around this by charging for only the company and throwing the sex in for "free").

In many ways, the condemnation of what she is doing is an extension of the double standard that praises men for being sexually experienced and condemns women for the same behaviour. After all, this is not what a nice girl is supposed to do, let alone enjoy doing, and Christine herself has her doubts, wondering aloud if she is a sociopath or really "selfish".

The series admirably resists the urge to pathologise her choices and Christine proves a deeply sympathetic protagonist, one you easily root for to get away with her high-risk gamble, to be safe from her creepy client and to be shielded from the accusing eyes of her colleagues and loved ones.

Like the best TV, the show thus challenges you to examine your own judgments and what it means for a women to be an empowered sexual being.

Continuing with the theme of things women are not supposed to do is Confirmation, HBO's movie about the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas.

The woman in this case was law professor Anita Hill, who almost derailed Thomas' bid when she came forward to claim her former boss had sexually harassed her.

And what she was not supposed to do, evidently, was speak out against a powerful man - especially one supported by other powerful men, in this case Republican senators looking to further their own agenda by making the Supreme Court more conservative.

What followed was a classic "he said, she said" that deeply divided Americans, especially blacks. Thomas categorically denied the accusations and, rallying around him, Republican lawmakers and supporters tried to discredit Hill.

Like the recent drama American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson, the show does not come right out and say who it believes is telling the truth. But just as that show dropped big hints that Simpson was guilty, Confirmation clearly skews the narrative in Hill's favour as she ably answers the senators' questions. Yet just like the dramatisation of Simpson's 1995 murder trial, this is not really about guilt or innocence. The show's more important work is to explore, firstly, the culture of victim-shaming and bias against anyone claiming sexual harassment or abuse.

It then layers that over the issue of racial bias, which is further complicated by the fact that it works against both Thomas and his accuser here. Just as Simpson's legal team won by playing "the race card" and suggesting their client was framed by racist policemen, Thomas calls the hearing "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" and says deep-seated attitudes towards black men and sex mean that once this accusation is hurled at him, he "can't get it off".

He has a point, but what makes the case maddening is that Thomas was also exploiting racial biases against Hill. As her lawyer says of Thomas, whose wife is white: "He's trying to dismiss you precisely because you're a black woman. You know it would be different if you looked like his wife."

The 90-minute film is not as well-assembled or acted as The People V O.J. Simpson, which also had more time - 10 episodes - to flesh out its characters and social commentary. But the story is timely nonetheless, in part because the culture of victim-blaming persists to this day and, of course, there is the storm brewing over US President Barack Obama's bid to nominate a new Supreme Court judge.

If anyone doubts how ruthlessly politicised the process can get, this movie is a sobering history lesson.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Breaking gender stereotypes'. Subscribe