The new Starz drama series The Girlfriend Experience offers a view of sex work that has not often been seen in media. The first season, released in its entirety online on April 10, follows Riley Keough as law student Christine, who decides to juggle her studies and a prestigious internship with the added profession of high-end escort. The chilly drama moves slowly at first, but you will soon see the allure of Christine's mysterious nature and perhaps begin to understand how this highly intelligent woman benefits from her new job.
You likely won't relate to Keough's character in The Girlfriend Experience. Although the series follows Christine through her monochromatic Chicago world, it does not offer much insight or commentary on its lead. Christine is an enigma to me, though I know she is smart, driven, and emotionally distant — not necessarily by choice, but by nature. She herself claims to have no friends and the audience only gets glimpses of who Christine is through her interactions with her fellow student Avery (who introduces her to the "GFE" world), coworkers, roommate, and sister. When Christine is working as an escort, she goes by the name Chelsea, where she excels at feigning emotional connections to her clients. Chelsea may smile and flip her hair a bit more than Christine, but that's only because she is acting as a mirror for what her clients want to see.
While the sex is explicit, the emotions never are in The Girlfriend Experience. Yet, Christine's motives for becoming a sex worker can be reasoned to stem from her need for power and control. During the day, she is a lowly legal intern, getting reprimanded for being too creative with her cease and desist letters. At night (and sometimes during the day), she is the one who is in control — dictating when she will see her clients and for how much she will see them. Although she must give into her clients' desires and fantasies, it's her game and the men are just playing in it.
Sex educator Lux Alptraum wrote for Vulture that Christine "seems to completely lack any of the basic skills that are necessary for the job" of being an escort, but to me, it seemed like she was a natural almost instantly. While she does have some significant missteps as she launches into her new career, Christine gets rid of the liaison who introduced her to clients as soon as she enters the business and finds success. When an emotionally dependent client asks her to lower her rates so that he can continue to see her, she rightly terminates their relationship with no pity or remorse. It's not always clear why the men who see Chelsea are so immediately enamored by her, but that's kind of the point: These clients see what they want to and that's all Christine gives them. It's a much more empowering view of sex work than we've seen in films and TV before, notably like in the movie Pretty Woman.
The topic of sex work is one that the entertainment industry cannot get enough of, based on the plethora of movies and TV shows that feature sex workers as either minor characters or pivotal parts. And The Girlfriend Experience is not the first TV show to be built on the premise of high-end escorts.
The British show Secret Diary of a Call Girl , which you can watch through Showtime and stars Doctor Who 's Billie Piper, has a similar premise but handles the lead character's exploits with humor and first-person narration. Although Piper's character Hannah is very different from Keough's Christine, it should be noted that in the very first episode, Hannah's reasons for entering the field are similar to Christine's — she loves the money, the independence, and the sex. Because, though control is a major allure to the business, you can't forget about the sex and Christine is a sexual person who seems to sometimes enjoy that part of it as well.
Another movie and series that The Girlfriend Experience notably differs from is Lifetime's The Client List, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Hewitt's Riley goes on a date with one of her clients in the series, but Christine's clients are not welcome into her personal life. When client Jack calls Christine on her personal phone in The Girlfriend Experience, she quickly snaps, saying he can't see her anymore. That's the correct move to make, of course, but Jack brings up that darker side to Christine's new role. For as much control as she may have, there is an unsafe, vulnerable element to sex work — no matter how wealthy you or your clientele are.
But Christine is not necessarily being taken advantage of by her clients — she is benefitting professionally from their fantasies. While there are still unsafe elements and Christine clearly benefits from the extra money, The Girlfriend Experience depicts a situation where a sex worker is in control. While sex work is a controversial topic, The Girlfriend Experience portrays a strong female lead who has decided to enter this career for reasons all of her own. And she's not looking for or expecting a romantic happy ending to come out of it — she's doing it for the power.
Images: Starz (3); Touchstone Pictures