‘The Girlfriend Experience’: Loneliness, Sex, Power, and Performance

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While the immediate motivation is money for rent and law school tuition, the quickness and unreserved willingness with which Christine Read (a fantastically steely Riley Keough), the center of the Starz series The Girlfriend Experience, becomes a prostitute signals something much more complex at work. Christine is drawn to the pleasure of performance within dangerously ambiguous, simultaneously private and exposed, spaces of seduction. The way in which the frame embeds her in wider, transparent spaces that emphasize her body as on display takes on increasing layers of significance and menace. Yet the stakes are not fully realized until a client oversteps bounds and threatens her sense of control. It is when she begins to confront her own limits as an object of observation that the show becomes especially fascinating. Her resurgence in the final episode is then a tour de force performance of confounding revelation.

Angered by an ex-client’s invasion of her privacy and crossing of professional lines into her self-designated personal space, Christine breaks off contact with him. He attempts to reassert his power by hacking her email and sending out a mass message containing an edited video of them having sex that he had secretly recorded. “Blindsided” is dominated by the multiple framings of that video’s visuals and sounds being spread like a virus throughout her office, and, in a later episode that follows her home for her parents’ anniversary, her ex-boss (and ex-lover) finds refuge from family and work by watching it on repeat in a corner room of his house.

Stages multiply, and Christine seeks them out, disappearing into them as part of their landscape. In one beguiling sequence, she sits on her bed clicking her mouse among different video chatrooms on her computer, eventually settling on a lone, frumpy man, in front of whom she begins to masturbate. She opens a window onto her body of pleasure, as she does in multiple scenes of interacting with clients via video and posing for photographers in half-open blouses. When her paranoia peaks, she has surveillance cameras installed in her apartment. The only person she catches on film and observes is herself, and in one scene she watches herself masturbate. She is addicted to being in the frame and to being framed, and the series likewise cannot take its eyes off of her, from all angles and directions, through all kinds of frames, videos, windows, and transparent walls. The “male-gaze” dictates that popular images teach us to see women through the eyes of men and to identify with their desire. Christine complicates the simplicity of this dynamic, using men as a mirror through which her own desire transcends theirs. The caveat, however, holds: men’s prying eyes and sexual whims must remain satisfied.

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Everything appears to be more and other than what is there at first glance; the surface reveals textures in its images of clean, metallic hues and subtly abrasive sounds. As viewers, we become paranoid, too, of the sinister undertones of every image, look, movement, and touch. We become suspicious of seeming transparencies and the flatness of the dollar signs attached to all things.

Christine as a performer has tainted the realism whose verisimilitude has been both threatened and elevated by the very truth in fabrication and performance. She exposes the office as a setting for power plays of knowledge, sex, words, and secrets. After the sex video has been circulating the office, Christine walks around the law firm recording every conversation, capturing the double meanings of her male coworkers’ suggestive, cynically passive aggressive comments. Every exchange is an act, and Christine desperately grasps for sobering power by taking control over those acts – literally containing them in recorded evidence, what a lawyer is taught to value.

This is what makes these images ring true, even if their characters seem to lack relatability. We are under the watchful eye of a mass of potential external desires. Christine is always under threat of being looked at and exposed to the demanding desire enfolded in that voyeurism.

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We are always vulnerable to external, sexualized entitlements to our bodies. But what if instead of being exhausted by managing the power that is never fully ours we exhaust others with our bodies, begging for attention? Men constantly look at her, approach her, want something from her; she relishes the game of making them believe that she is enacting their desire. Perhaps the show is irresponsible to let her get away with it physically unharmed. It is, nevertheless, a fantasy—and one that reveals other, subtler tragedies of the monetizing of power and sex.

Christine maintains a captivating air of mystery by showing herself fully and fearlessly, in all of her empty sensuousness. She exposes the isolating visual shallowness of capitalist social dynamics, with its transparencies that render our separate habitats one vast landscape of door to door, wall to wall, failed connections. The final shot of the finale has her facing a sea of glass curtains. Alone, her sole comfort is the arousing knowledge that we are, without fail, watching.

The Girlfriend Experience is co-written and co-directed by Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz – a mixed gender creative team. It airs on STARZ and recently finished its first season.

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