‘You can be whoever you want to be’: Neoliberal Culture and The Girlfriend Experience (2016)

by Martin Fradley, University of Brighton, UK.

Based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, Starz’ US television drama The Girlfriend Experience (2016) is an unsettling tale of entrepreneurial selfhood. Taking place within a rarefied social universe, it is filmed in the visual lingua franca of the neoliberal present: a coolly desaturated blue-grey world of glacial surfaces, relentlessly minimalist décor and panoramic urban vistas. Redolent of American Psycho (2000) and Shame (2011), this antiseptic mise-en-scène is a visual register for a reified society in which human subjectivity is entirely sublimated to economic self-interest.

Soderbergh’s film largely took place in downtown Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 economic implosion. In the televisual reimagining there is no direct acknowledgement of the epochal financial catastrophe. Series creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimitz instead set The Girlfriend Experience in present-day Chicago – the home, of course, of the notorious ‘Chicago School’ and the birthplace of neoliberal economic philosophy. The film’s cold-eyed anti-hero is Christine Reade (Riley Keough), an ambitious 20-something who begins work as a high-class escort to fund her college studies and unpaid internship at a prestigious downtown law firm. Christine is introduced to an opulent world of affluent clients and ‘transactional relationships’ by college acquaintance Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil). When Christine suggests ‘Chelsea’ as a professional pseudonym for her new life as a sex worker, Avery responds with icily Randian confidence: ‘You can be whoever you want to be.’

It is a telling moment and one which invokes the neoliberal shibboleths of self-optimisation and individualised success. Avery valorises the benefits of the ‘gig economy’ with the wide-eyed devotion of a Silicon Valley ideologue. But this upscale zero-hours existence has its inevitable pitfalls. Living in her main client’s opulent mansion, Avery is rendered destitute and homeless when he abruptly ends her employment. Casually dropped from her de facto pimp’s roster of ‘flexible’ sexual labourers, Avery is revealed as an unwitting member of the precariat, a victim of the perpetual insecurity of platform capitalism.

Keough’s sultry good looks are undercut by her unsmiling demeanour and perpetual air of sullen anomie. In contradistinction to the postfeminist culture’s heady emphasis on female ‘positivity’, in The Girlfriend Experience socio-economic success has rarely looked so unappealing. The Girlfriend Experience explores the casualised nature of all human relationships under neoliberal conditions. New clients come and go with predictable regularity. Christine’s friendship with Avery is initially presented as a cornerstone of the series but vanishes into the ether after the second episode. A relationship with a work colleague ends abruptly when Christine is crudely ‘rotated’ to another department without explanation; their brief dalliance later descends into a bitter sexual harassment lawsuit. By the end of the first season, Christine leads an increasingly atomised existence: ‘I don’t have any friends’, she states with self-sufficient pride. ‘I just don’t like sharing my time with anyone unless it means being accomplished.’

In his incisive book The Happiness Industry (2015), William Davies argues that homo economicus is ‘a somewhat miserable version of a human being who […] doesn’t have friends and doesn’t relax. [S]he is too busy looking out for number one’. [1] At the risk of stating the obvious, it is clear that The Girlfriend Experience posits Christine as the atomised neoliberal subject par excellence. Christine draws little distinction between deep-throating her demanding clients and being humiliated over the banalities of mundane secretarial tasks. The Girlfriend Experience is not a regressive postfeminist morality tale about trying to ‘have it all’, but instead a precise critique of a culture which normalises the dehumanising demands it makes upon its subjects.

Despite its frequent nudity and sexually explicit scenes, The Girlfriend Experience is not primarily ‘about’ sex work per se. Carefully cropped to ensure that her eyes remain unseen, Christine’s online erotic portfolio is redolent of the mainstream culture of selfies and online representation, encompassing the normalisation of Tinder hook-ups, ‘sexting’ and pornographic self-presentation. When Christine begins regular webcam sex with a client in Toronto she opens up a new window of sexual entrepreneurship that critically refracts the pixelated normalcy of 21st century post-human sexuality.

Sex in The Girlfriend Experience is always coldly ambiguous; Christine’s professional performativity always undercuts any notion of affective transparency. Where Christine is emotionally disconnected and rarely smiles, ‘Chelsea’ is attentive and beams at her clients. Chelsea’s biographical back-story is amorphous and ever-changing; her vocalisation of sexual pleasure is indeterminate from her desire to provide a fulfilling ‘experience’ for her clients. In one episode (‘Available’ 1:10), Christine has sex with a new client in Toronto (Matt Baram). Mimetically, he removes his condom and ejaculates over her abdomen in the stylised fashion of pornography’s ‘money shot’. Clearly struggling with human proximity, the client prefers to have regular cam-sex with Christine. In the age of digital screening and online disconnection, the map always precedes the territory. Another online client demands simply: ‘show me your pussy’. Christine complies without hesitation or affect, digitally part-icipating in a Mulveyan dystopia where the monetisation of pornified selfhood has been entirely normalised.

The final episode begins with a montage of Christine undergoing expensively painful grooming procedures that are axiomatic to postfeminist culture: pubic waxing and skin rejuvenation techniques that fetishistically prolong youthful appearance. Protracted and dispassionately shot, the sequence underscores the aesthetic labour involved in self-optimisation and the maintenance of erotic capital. The series concludes with one of The Girlfriend Experience’s recurrent motifs. Christine masturbates alone – apparently unsatisfactorily – dwarfed by her vast upscale apartment. Christine’s failure to achieve an orgasm – the goal-oriented holy grail of neoliberal sexual culture – reveals even the most primal form of self-determination to be a cruel illusion. Underscoring the series’ concern with the somnambulistic pursuit of economic autonomy, the bleak closing tableau is quietly devastating. If the unknowable Christine is largely a blank canvas, she is also unequivocally the perfect cipher for the emaciated politics of our age.

Notes

[1] William Davies. 2015. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. London and New York: Verso, 62. My parentheses.

Contributor

Martin Fradley is Lecturer at the University of Brighton and has taught widely across the UK university sector. He is a regular contributor to Film Quarterly and his work has also appeared in Screen, Journal of British Cinema and Television and Film Criticism. He is co-editor of Shane Meadows: Critical Essays (2013) and has published work in Post-Feminism and Contemporary American Cinema (2013) and Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3 (2016).

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