John Doyle: Why The Deuce is All about Pornography, capitalism and today’s politics

David Simon believes Hillary Clinton was absolutely on point to emphasize that she was “creeped out” by Donald Trump looming behind her and stalking her every move during the second presidential debate this past year.

“It was misogyny, pure and simple,” he says. “He had been bullying her, invading her space, treating her in a way that speaks volumes about how girls are treated daily to day at work in all types of jobs.”

His point is linked to the material of The Deuce, his new HBO series, which had a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last Sunday. It is the morning after the screening and Simon, together with co-writer George Pelecanos and the Canadian producer/director Michelle MacLaren, are in room together describing to me how The Deuce, though set in 1971, is attached to the events of today.

The show, an astonishing job of storytelling, is tough to summarize. Its intricately knit cast of characters is used on the seamy side of life in Manhattan. They’re sex workers, pimps, con artists, waiters and low-level mobsters. What happens to them and their milieu is a drift away from prostitution as company to low-level pornography to generate way more money.

“What you see is how pornography became a business,” Simon says. “It was always there but not an industry. As it became an industry and X-rated movies became what we now call ‘porn’ and the electronic age let it be so ubiquitous, everything changed.”

“We are not trafficking in the vision of porn; the story is all about that vision which has had such an impact and directed us to where we are now. And where we are now is girls get rated in their looks, women writers at newspapers are attacked for their appearances.”

I set it to the trio that discussion of the effect of pornography has become almost trivial. Parents are no longer shocked at how their teenaged brothers mimic the personas and wear the clothes of sex workers, and society at large sighs about teens exchanging porn-like images in their telephones.

“That is a smokescreen,” Pelecanos interjects. “Without being a moralist, misogyny has raised its ugly head {}, you could see that throughout the U.S. election. And pornography has something to with that.”

“Let me give you an analogy,” he continues. “In the 1970s, when The Deuce is set, Jimmy Carter was running for president and he gave a lengthy interview to Playboy magazine. He was asked if he had ever cheated on his wife. He said no but confessed that he’d lusted after other women in his heart. That caused a sensation. It was something he had to overcome in his effort. While we were shooting The Deuce, Donald Trump was discovered on movie boasting about groping girls. And he got elected. That, right there, tells you what people will accept about the terms used to describe girls and the attitude toward them. Porn has had an influence on how men and boys consider and talk about girls.”

MacLaren adds, “Trump’s election was dreadful for so many girls. It is important to keep saying that.”

Lots of the formidable details in The Deuce, particularly the stunningly grimy, garbage-filled streets and the sense of literal filth from the air, is the job of MacLaren. The Canadian has led some classics of stature TV, including numerous episodes of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. “You have to comprehend the ambience of New York City in the early 1970s,” she says. “If you’re going to a Broadway show, you passed pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes on the road. There was a garbage strike in 1971 and the roads were littered with garbage all of the time. Recreating that was a massive undertaking.”

However, MacLaren is much more interested in the issues of misogyny and the portrayal of sex work from the sequence. “I get asked a lot in interviews, ‘How can you feel filming those sex scenes?’ And I must tell people that the only way to picture it’s head-on, to bring out the rawness of this circumstance. You must demonstrate that when the pornography sex scenes are being created in the show, there is an enthusiasm for the characters about what they’re doing, but you also need to demonstrate the consequences of the, of lines being crossed.”

In the show, the viewer gets a feeling it’s the desperate and the doomed who are involved with the upstart X-rated film business, but also the way the sort-of grimy progress has been made. The show opens in 1971 and a year on from the fiction at the series, the true X-rated film Deep Throat was created. It entered the mainstream, is perhaps the largest grossing film of this period and has been reviewed by Roger Ebert. There was a different sense, at that moment, that porn was about advocating sexual liberty, that social progress was being made.

“Some people involved in pornography in that age were proud of what they did,” MacLaren says. “And they stay proud. Speak to some of them now, as we did, and they tell you, ‘Do not think everyone ended up a victim.'”

While The Deuce is clearly a serious-minded series, part of the existing Golden Age of premium cable dramas dealing with adult problems, there’s 1 thing that Simon (a key figure in this age of TV, as he generated The Cable) needs to become clear about — it’s about pornography but is not pornography itself.

Much has been written, rightly, about this Golden Age featuring white-male angst and girls that are mere props — “Crazy mistresses, nameless strippers, disgruntled daughters, dismayed wives,” as one critic has put it. Sex aids sell Golden Age drama. “We do not use misogyny as a money for you interested,” Simon insists.

And MacLaren fully agrees: “It is a matter of looking at capitalism by taking a look at misogyny and pornography,” she says.

That is true and The Deuce has almost as many topics as it’s characters. But fundamentally, it’s about the journey to stage where Clinton felt creeped out and what happened to the dialogue about gender and sexism that made Trump’s behavior seem normal.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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