"‘True Blood,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Deadwood,’ and HBO’s Relationship With Prostitutes"
I’ve been watching this season of True Blood, not out of any particular affection for the show, but because I need something to do on Mondays when I’m cleaning out my Google Reader. And while I think overall the show remains not very good (though it is marginally less racist than last season), I found myself unexpectedly struck by two stories in this most recent episode: Salome’s remembrance of being pimped out by her family as a young girl, and Pam’s reflections on how she came to know Eric while working as a prostitute shortly after the turn of the century. True Blood‘s always been a show deeply concerned with sex, but this episode was one of the first times it’s considered the issues that were threaded into Game of Thrones all season, and that reoccured in Deadwood: what happens when women either don’t have control of their own sexuality, and what risks do they face when they turn their sexuality into a commodity.
“We die alone, in the dark,” Pam, still human, told Eric. The pair met after Pam, the mistress of an upscale brothel, discovered that one of the women who worked for her had been murdered by a serial killer. Eric saved her from the same man, and intervened again when he found Bill Compton and his maker Loretta glamoring another woman who works for Pam so she’ll give them consent to drain her dry. Eric’s protective, but even as he develops a tentative relationship with Pam, who, though human is surprisingly accepting of Eric’s unusual abilities, he still holds her at a distance. When she asks him to turn her into a vampire to save her from the fate that awaits both working prostitutes and the women who have ascended to supervise them, Eric tells her that the bonds between maker and made vampire are too sacred to be entered into lightly. Pam remains a disposable to him. Eric may respect her and enjoy her company, but he’s still treating her like a prostitute, a woman who falls into a separate category from women he might actually consider forging a long-term relationship with. Pam forces his hand by slashing her wrists, forcing Eric to turn her if he wants to spend more time with her.
Joanie Stubbs, the prostitute who plays a similar role first in the Bella Union and then in her own establishment in Deadwood, has no such promise of a magical escape, and fewer emotional resources than Pam. When Joanie considers suicide by gunshot, crying out “What am I Lord, that I’m so helpless,” she means it. She’s alone in the room with that pistol. There’s no one to persuade, or frighten into transporting her into a new life. Pam, when she turns into a vampire, is able to reclaim her sexuality for herself, and ends up working with Eric to run a bar where people can meet on equal terms, rather than as client and prostitute, with all the inequalities and vulnerabilities that implies. It may take a while for Joanie to make good on what she tells Cy Tolliver, the owner of the Bella Union, and her former boss, that “I don’t want to run women no more,” but she eventually does. But she doesn’t have the luxury of living from one era into the next, from sexual constraint into sexual liberation.
And just as Joanie eventually moves towards teaching, we got a hint at the end of the second season of Game of Thrones that Ros on, a high-class prostitute threatened by her employer, abused by her king, and beaten and imprisoned on the order of her queen, would gain a measure of autonomy outside of the profession that’s dominated her adult life. Varys, the spymaster who serves the regime based in King’s Landing, approaches Ros to tell her that “Littlefinger looks at you and sees a collection of profitable holes. I see a partner.” His assumption is that what has previously been her vulnerability can be a strength, that men like to talk when they’re happy, that she can go where men cannot, and lull men in a way that noble women can’t.
In True Blood, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones, prostitutes are stalked by the constant prospect of violence. The serial killer who stalks Pam’s girls, Francis Wolcott, who assumes that George Hearst’s protection means he can continue to murder sex workers, and King Joffrey, who takes his kingship as license to abuse everyone from his fiancee to the prostitutes his uncle sends him as a birthday present, are all toxic illustrations of privilege and arrogance. There are men in these universes who have warmer relationships with sex workers, whether it’s Eric, Tyrion Lannister, or Sol Star, the Jewish merchant who’s set up shop in Deadwood. But Eric and Pam’s relationship will always be characterized by profound debts and supernatural bonds, rather than equality. Tyrion underestimates Joffrey’s brutality, unwittingly sending Ros and Daisy in to be tortured by his nephew, and continually doubts Shae’s loyalty. He’s paid for sex for so long, he can’t truly fathom that a woman would choose to be with him. And as Sol struggles to forge a relationship with Trixie, a prostitute who works for Deadwood man-of-all-functions Al Swearengen, he’s constantly attempting to convince her that he truly wants to be with her.
All three of these shows have their own measures of happy, consensual sex. But as blunt, small-scale examinations of the transactional nature of relationships and power imbalances between men and women their explorations of prostitution, none of which include visions of happy, empowered sex workers, are fairly grim. And these women, who unlike noble ladies in Westeros and upper-class women in the 1870s or the early 1900s, still have to fight and bleed for their autonomy, slash their wrists, break bottles over men’s, join conspiracies. It’s so much work for so small and basic a thing.