A RECENT EPISODE of The Deuce, a show that wrapped up its second season in November and is slated for a third and final season on HBO, shows a sleek James Franco hunched over in the dark office of a peep-show arcade, counting bundles of cash. It’s Times Square in the 1970s, and Franco’s character, Frankie, has opened the joint in a neighborhood whose denizens — pimps, streetwalkers, mobsters, questionable cops — roam between brothels, adult cinemas, and sex shops. Screams erupt from the room next door. When Frankie follows the noise, he finds a client with his arm trapped under one of the peep-show booth’s sliding doors. On the other side of the window is the dancer, Elise (Hannah Townsend), bloody claw marks down her chest. “Fuck you!” she screams. “Fuck you too, Frankie!”
This is one of the show’s many scenes depicting a man running in to protect a female sex worker. The Deuce uses its promise to reveal the behind-closed-doors happenings of sex work to argue relentlessly for the regulation and oversight of the industry. During the show’s first-season finale, a prostitute is murdered by her client; in other episodes, johns beat the streetwalkers they frequent. Such danger lies in stark contrast to the purported safety provided by exposed places of work: the peep show, the brothel, the porn set. Indeed, Frankie recruited Elise and her colleagues through the ostensible security promised by the structure of the peep-show booth. Dancers would be protected by their windows, like tellers at a bank; if anything went wrong, they could push a red button. The button is faulty, however, so it is Elise’s screams that send Frankie scrambling to intervene.
The show has an activist motive characteristic of former journalist David Simon’s oeuvre, which also includes The Wire, yet it is nervous about the way it represents sex work, anxious to inform but not to titillate. In pinpointing the sex-work industry as a “secret,” however, and then exposing it through a surveillance-cum-safety structure, the show satisfies an intellectual craving for knowledge that echoes the pleasures of pornography. And even while fulfilling these conventions, the show takes care to pat viewers on the back, framing their pleasure as different from that of the porn viewer. Through gridline-marked shots of pornography in the making, for example, The Deuce allows viewers to indulge in pornographic voyeurism under the guise of cautionary surveillance. At the same time, it frames their viewing position as a sanctimonious one.
The Deuce is very much a show of our time. In February 2018, an op-ed in The New York Times arguing for a pornography ban prompted a sharp outcry, and in the same season, Time ran an anxious cover story called “Porn and the Threat to Virility.” A few months later, The Atlantic ran an article by the co-chair of the Center for Domestic Peace, urging parents to talk to their kids about porn. Why is it that we can’t figure out how to feel about pornography?
Such ambivalence has roots in the inextricable link between curiosity and voyeurism. In the field of gender studies, these urges have historically been analyzed in tandem. Linda Williams, in her now-seminal 1989 book, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, argues that pornography is driven by a hunger for knowledge about the hidden truths of the body. The genre documents bodily pleasure in an almost scientific way, through a fixation on what Williams calls maximum visibility: “[T]o privilege close-ups of body parts over other shots; to overlight easily obscured genitals; to select sexual positions that show the most of bodies and organs.” It “obsessively seeks knowledge, through a voyeuristic record of confessional, involuntary paroxysm.” Her theory accounts for porn’s fixation on both the money shot, showing male ejaculation, and depictions of female sexual pleasure elicited against her will, as in orgasm during rape.
Several reviews of The Deuce note the power of visibility in the show’s depiction of sex work, focusing on the pleasures this visibility affords rather than on the purported safety provided to sex workers. In The New York Times, for example, James Poniewozik writes that “[t]he value of the female gaze behind the camera is echoed” in the story of prostitute-turned-porn-director Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) “as she learns the ropes of porn production.” In a review in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum observes that a scene in which a porn star watches herself on a peep-show screen “understands that, when the world aims at erasing you, it’s a thrill to be made visible, by whatever means necessary.” Nussbaum also argues that the show’s “smartest move is to resist turning sex into a thesis, exploiting the contradictions instead.” Though the show doesn’t turn sex into a thesis, it turns the safety of visibility into one. In framing the sex-work apparatus as a secret, and then exposing it, the show satisfies an intellectual craving for knowledge without implicating the viewer in voyeurism. Setting the show in the glitzy past of 1970s Times Square allows for a nostalgic romanticism that absolves us from the guilt of watching.
To illustrate the principle of maximum visibility, Williams explores the public obsession with Deep Throat, a pornographic film — referenced in The Deuce — that opened in 1972 in Times Square. Deep Throat follows a sexually frustrated Linda Lovelace (Linda Boreman) as she seeks advice on how to achieve orgasm. Her friend Helen (Dolly Sharp) suggests seeing a male doctor (Harry Reems), who discovers that her clitoris is located in her throat; thus, she can only achieve orgasm during fellatio. The theater owner who screened Deep Throat was arrested twice for promoting obscenity, but the publicity only helped. In Williams’s words, it “enhanced the public’s desire to see what censors would withhold: the latest revelations about sex.” The film’s notoriety fed the public’s curiosity: cultural literacy seemed to demand sexual knowledge gleaned through mainstream porn. “Not to have seen it,” Nora Ephron remarked in Esquire, “seemed somehow … derelict.” Williams argues that Deep Throat’s story line shows the central conceit of pornography: its “insistence that th[e] visual confession of a solitary male ‘truth’ coincides with the orgasmic bliss of the female.”
It is not a coincidence that peep-show booths resemble the Christian confessional. According to Michel Foucault, confession makes formerly concealed desires visible, and this exposure serves as a means to regulate sexuality. During the course of the 18th century, Foucault argues, sex became “not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered. It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytical discourses.” The Deuce’s depictions of sex work lift the veil to reveal what the show sees as the truth of sex, in the process exploiting the contradictory nuances of the sex industry: its commercialism, coupled with its liberatory idealism; its casual abuse, coupled with its frequent intimacies and moments of kindness. The Deuce illustrates Foucault’s thesis that sexual pleasure has been subjected to scientific management: in one porn shoot, Darlene (Dominique Fishback) plays a doctor who administers injections; in another, Eileen plays a teacher.
In its making visible the apparatus of the porn industry, the show satisfies the cognitive quest outlined by Williams. We see lighting technicians, gaffers, the director, and other actors waiting on set; we see the camera and tripod, the light reflector, the mess of wires, the lights, the boom, the dolly, the costumes. The shoot comes to a halt because the actors get hungry and, as Eileen says, “not everybody fucks good on an empty stomach.” Male actors lose their erections; one reaches for gay porn as he tries to get it back up. A fake money shot is concocted out of cold potato soup squirted out of a baster. The director is distinctly bored: “This is actually joyless. I know it’s been a long damn day and fucking is the last thing that anyone wants to do anymore, but we can pretend, can we not?” By rendering visible what is supposed to be hidden, The Deuce bestows on its viewers an insider status.
Zooming out to show the apparatus of the porn shoot serves as a constant reminder of the difference between our perspective and that of the porn viewer, another pat-on-the-back of insider knowledge. A scene during the first season opens with a panning shot around a porn set. The camera does not permit unfettered access, however: it pans behind props that are so close they are blurry and indistinguishable. Our view of the shoot is first obscured by someone’s shoulder, then by the bed’s headboard; the final shot of the sequence also has something blocking our view, but it is too close to tell what it is — the point is clear by now.
The show nevertheless does not shy away from depicting male genitals, which Williams locates as the visible crux of pornographic truth. We see them often — as porn actors hang around the set, as a man, post-coitus, pulls up his pants — but we don’t see them erect or in action, even while the show makes clear that they are the focus of the porn shoot. In one scene, Eileen instructs the male actor: “Lift up her hips so I can see the inside of her thighs.” As he obeys, we cut to a gridline-marked shot taken from behind the viewfinder that reminds us of the difference between our perspective and that of the porn viewer. The shot does not show the genitals of the male actor or of Lori (the wide-eyed Emily Meade), just Lori’s chest and face. The scene ends with another shot of Lori’s top half marked by gridlines, again reminding us of the difference between us and the future viewers of this pornographic film. As a result, we experience the elite status of viewers who get off on knowledge of the apparatus rather than on shots of maximum visibility.
The Deuce carefully keeps sanctimony and creepiness separate, a boundary that porn threatens. Our access point in the first season, for example, is Sandra (Natalie Paul), a journalist who, like us, seeks to discover the hidden mechanics of the industry. Through her status as a researcher and earnest do-gooder, Sandra eases the viewer’s voyeuristic ambivalence. But she is nonetheless implicated in her quest for knowledge, whereas the viewer, by contrast, reaps the benefits without the burden, the pleasure without the responsibility.
Today, the academy struggles to decide whether researchers like Sandra are creepy or curious. A recent analysis in the journal Porn Studies found that sexuality research is often treated as though it is itself pornographic: critics use sexualized language to censure the field, arguing that it should be defunded, that it does not belong in the academy. Studying porn shatters the partition between noble intellectual endeavors and seedy voyeuristic ones. The thrill of The Deuce is that it, like Sandra’s work, can be both.