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Tragic Kingdom

David Simon's The Deuce and the Disneyfication of porn

“Walk along the Deuce, though, and you felt the shabbier and shabbier theater fronts holding their breath,” wrote Samuel R. Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, his book of memoir and criticism about the emergence of the sex industry—and its subsequent sanitization—in New York’s Times Square. Delany made his observation about the area as it was in 1966, before those buildings housed porn theaters and peep shows and cruising sites for gay men.

The shabbiness of Times Square gave way to the “attraction” of a porn industry driven by economic exploitation.

A little later, in the early seventies, Kathy Acker penned Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works, a collection of diary entries and writing exercises that documents her time as a Times Square stripper. For her part, Acker echoes and elaborates Delany’s observation: the “shabbiness” of the 1960s has given way to the “attraction” of a Times Square porn industry driven by economic exploitation. The diaries were composed in an attempt to map Acker’s “total present consciousness”:

whatever’s literally true the reality I have to show my cunt I have to stay alive I could get too crazy to know when to kill myself the bosses decide they’re not making enough profit so the extra shows Kali’s sex so on I think now that I sold out to work in the show it might have been better to get a shitty 8-hour-a-day robot specialty who knows I’d probably still do the same since money has the same fucking attraction given this society

Elsewhere in the diary, Acker describes coming to work sick with cramps and being unable to afford medical treatment. She observes dancers who feel pressure to perform sex acts while being barked at by the boss. And she tells of underpaid projectionists who work at the theater for almost a fourth of the union rate. All this under the auspices of a “14 hour day no union.” The workers have become “practiced at denying all of experience but the constant rent bill gas bill phone bill amusement source of color light quick change.” Her prose style, in this respect, is a performance—of the idea that exploitation breeds a dangerous kind of detachment.

Indeed, this myopic “denial of experience” on the part of Acker and her co-workers would soon be the norm for porn’s consumers, who, in today’s moment of cam girls and corporate hub sites, have psychologically divided their pleasure from the worker’s labor. In much the same way that Times Square is now home to a Disney Store—it has literally been Disneyfied—today’s porn industry is gentrified, a largely free system saturated by online hub and tube sites that diverts money away from workers.

In The Deuce, HBO’s new drama about the legalization of the porn industry in 1970s Times Square, David Simon and George Pelecanos shift through the perspectives of hookers, pimps, bar managers, porn actors, feminist students, and other transgressive figures who made tracks along the glittering lights and garbage-strewn streets of New York City. And, crucially, they chart the shared consciousness of Times Square in the early 1970s, only a few years before the 42nd Street Development Corporation engineered the district’s rehab.

Early in The Deuce’s first episode, a pimp makes a pitch. “Don’t you want to be a part of something bigger?” Rodney (Method Man) asks a hooker named Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He’s petitioning her to join his team, which means she would hand over all of her earnings in exchange for nominal protection. After Rodney threatens her with anecdotes about prostitutes who were hurt working solo, Candy’s heard enough. “Rodney, sugar,” she tells him, “Nobody makes money off of my pussy but me. I’m gonna keep what I earn. I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody else to hold my fucking money for me.” Candy has rebuffed his offer, but her rejection doesn’t keep her from being “a part of something bigger.”

After all, she’s a character in a David Simon show. Candy, like Rodney—and the other pimps and sex workers and johns and night owls—fill out a vintage Simonian panorama, one where exploitation is the nastiest force. Simon told Market Watch that despite its premise about the Times Square sex industry in the early seventies, the show is actually “a critique of market capitalism—the idea that the unencumbered market is anything more than a tool for building mass profit.” It’s not, he said, “a blueprint for building society.”

Still, it is part of a grander project. In his past shows, including The Corner, The Wire, Treme, and Show Me a Hero, all for HBO, Simon outlined inequality across several East Coast cities that had been ravaged by the failure of American economic and civic policies. He used a journalist’s eye to detail the intersecting factions of these places—the drug dealers, city council members, police officers, addicts, bartenders—and show how all the pieces fit. Pelecanos revealed that in subsequent seasons, the pair will show Times Square throughout several eras, so maybe we’ll get to see the pre-1971 blight Delany described, along with the Disneyfication of the Square he recounts in Times Square Red.

A variety of perspectives—the Second Wave feminist pornography debate, city planning theory, and pimp psychology—all find screen time.

Which is also to say that The Deuce offers a Balzacian range of viewpoints reminiscent of The Wire. Simon and Pelecanos could have subtitled the show Homage to Iceberg Slim, Andrea Dworkin, and Jane Jacobs. This seems like an unwieldy mix of influences, but that’s the point. A variety of perspectives about sex work, the Second Wave feminist pornography debate, city planning theory, and pimp psychology all find screen time in the debut episode alone; and all of these ideas are delivered in Manhattan’s derelict ports of call—dive bars, the Port Authority lobby, after-hours restaurant, pool halls. Watching the pilot is like viewing a seventies adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, only transposed to the City with its freaks and pornstached wastrels.

Even given The Deuce’s ambitious scope, its granularity is what matters most: it depicts the market exploitation of sex workers with a precision that recalls Acker’s diaries. Candy, for example, is a study in double-life. When she takes off her platinum wig, she returns to her parents’ home to visit her son. But when she returns to the hotel rooms to work, she’s all business. None of the characters work the standard eight hours Acker alluded to in her diary, but the work is nonetheless rote for everyone, a way to make a living, pure and simple. Darlene (Dominique Fishback) is paid to watch a movie with her john, and although they don’t have sex, she asks him for an extra twenty dollars, knowing that her pimp will want the money to justify the time she spent (not) fucking. Another woman, Ashley (Jamie Neumann), is cut by her pimp when she refuses to work in the rain. 

This dispassionate realism is also reflected by the flurry of penises in the show—okay, they’re maybe prosthetics, but still. The sheer number of naked dudes makes for convincing verisimilitude. “It was important to me that we don’t ever shoot [sex work] in a way that isn’t real, or how it would actually look. If you put a camera on two people having sex, it’s not necessarily going to look beautiful and romantic,” McLaren told The Ringer’s Allison Herman. This unromantic portrayal reflects something else Simon said in the Market Watch interview: “The [economic] allegory is that much more powerful when the laborer is the product.”

Despite Simon’s dry, “Economics 101” explanation, his laborers are rendered with humanity. While Times Square is probably better off without the peep shows and porn theaters that Delany grieved—women’s safety was more of an issue than he admits in his book—Simon’s attention to these figures feels urgent. The Deuce is a welcome rejoinder to today’s porn industry and the viewers it creates, who see its laborers as merely products to be consumed.

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