On ‘The Girlfriend Experience,’ Sex is Business

Who says millennials are afraid of hard work?

Who says millennials are afraid of hard work? Played with steely-eyed intensity by Riley Keough, the protagonist of Starz’s taut new half-hour drama The Girlfriend Experience is a stark counterpart to TV’s hip, colorful millennial women. Unlike the screwballs of Broad City or Love’s sarcastic-cool Mickey, Christine Reade, a Chicago law-student-turned-escort, is all business.

“Suggested by” Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, The Girlfriend Experience follows Christine as she dives into the world of paid sex. The look of the show might best be described as “urban WASP”: the law offices, restaurants, and apartments are coldly luxurious, all clean lines and monochromes, and perpetually overcast skies flood the spaces with a muted natural light. The environment suits Christine, whose icy gaze indicates a woman with a plan. That she never really articulates that plan to anyone — not even the viewer — makes The Girlfriend Experience a potent if somewhat frustrating meditation on sex, power, and control.

Soderbergh enlisted 28-year-old Amy Seimetz and 52-year-old Lodge Kerrigan to write and direct the series (they split writing credits on all 13 episodes and take turns directing), which mirrors the dynamic between Christine and her clients. The latter are mostly middle-aged, rich, and white, the kind of men who will drop thousands a night for the full “girlfriend experience” — not just sex but the illusion of intimacy.

Christine is extremely skilled at stroking egos, seeming to give her clients her full attention. She asks questions about their work, tells them how much she enjoys their time together. She can make men forget that they’re paying for her company. Keough, who had a small part in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and more recently appeared in Mad Max: Fury Road, has an incredible presence onscreen. She plays Christine with an almost frightening composure: When men stare at her, she stares back.

In a way, the “girlfriend experience” is not only the clients’ but Christine’s, too. In a rare moment of introspection, she tells her sister (played by Seimetz), “I just don’t like sharing my time with anyone unless something’s being accomplished.” Her job gives her brief moments of connection with other people, and it appears that’s all she wants.

The show refuses to explain Christine’s behavior. When her clients ask her about the other men she sees, she looks at them and says nothing. There’s power in her evasion, in the way she can manipulate powerful older men, expose their insecurities and soothe them away. We see her having lots of sex, but we also see her insert a tampon, put her feet up in the stirrups at the doctor’s office, get a bikini wax. When she has sex with her clients, we see her put on condoms.

We also see her enjoy the sex itself, particularly in early episodes. Her first encounter with a paying customer is clearly a pleasurable one: The camera closes in on her face as she gasps, “Perfect. Just like that.” Starz appears to be capitalizing on the success of Outlander, which was praised in particular for its depiction of hot sex from a woman’s perspective.

But The Girlfriend Experience is not such an unambiguous win for the female gaze. Even before she embarks on her new career, it’s clear that Christine enjoys being watched: in the first episode, she picks up a guy at a bar and instructs him to watch her while she masturbates. Later, fearing a jealous ex-client, she sets up security cameras in her apartment and watches video of her touching herself, mesmerized.

So it feels appropriate that the viewer spends a lot of time watching Christine have sex, and do we ever! Some early reviews have insisted that The Girlfriend Experience is not a sexy show, or not really a show about sex, which is like saying Billions isn’t really a show about money: It may not be the only thing it’s about, but it’s hard to ignore its centrality to the show. While The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t only take place in the bedroom — the middle chunk of episodes is mostly devoted to a plot involving the law firm where Christine is an intern — it’s absolutely about sex. There’s so much graphic sex on this show it almost loses its ability to titillate. (Almost. Anyone who watches these 13 episodes and claims to have not been titillated is a liar or a robot.)

Christine may get off on her paid trysts, and more power to her. But this isn’t Outlander; there’s no Jamie Fraser for the ladies to ogle. It’s Christine whose body the camera can’t stop scanning. Do we need that shot of her soaping up her boobs in the shower after another graphically filmed tryst, as if to say, look at her — aren’t those just the perkiest little tits you ever did see? Even when she’s getting herself off, alone, she’s perfectly poised and posed, like a living, heavy-breathing centerfold.

I like the idea of a 25-year-old woman whose priority is not finding a boyfriend, but who still unabashedly likes sex. And it’s refreshing to see a story about a sex worker who’s not a victim; by the end, The Girlfriend Experience is a business tale, tracing Christine’s evolution from employee to owner. But as she becomes less interested in law school and more interesting in sex work, I had a harder time cheering her on. Will this work still be exciting for her ten, twenty years in the future?

But The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t tell; it only suggests. In the end, the viewer is left wondering what will become of Christine. Her apartments may keep getting bigger and nicer as she finds more and more success as an escort, but it still looks like a pretty depressing life to me. What it looks like to Christine is less clear. But maybe that’s none of our business.