Between one night-stands, flings and relationships, across all boundaries of love and sex lies one common determinant: power. It’s occasionally hard to admit how much sway one person can have over another and the effects of status on behavior in relationships. On television, much of the actual sex is not shown. You are rarely given a look into the bedrooms of these couples and how the power dynamics play out in real time.
In Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” however, viewers are afforded the opportunity to see exactly what happens in relationships in which power (money) is at the front of every decision: sugar-babying. The main character, Christine Reade (Riley Keough, “American Honey”), is a young woman in law school, who has landed a prestigious internship at the same time. As a way to both earn money and to satisfy curiosity, she creates a sugar-baby persona. Sugar-babying straddles a line between pure, sexual fantasy and real-life truth. It’s not a romance novel, where the man is devilishly handsome and undefeatable and the woman is gorgeous and helpless. It’s a dynamic that plays out between lonely, rich men and clever, often desperate young women.
This gritty, real-life phenomenon of modern sex is hard to define. It’s further mystified by the show’s refusal to openly diagnose, comprehend and compartmentalize Christine’s actions. As the newly-inducted sugar-baby, Christine is pulled into a fast-paced world of sexual thrill as a high-end escort, and the show doesn’t give viewers a moment to breathe. High-stakes dramas often set aside certain characters or spaces to allow for explanation, like Dr. Melfi’s office in “The Sopranos,” or the many bedsides of Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Maybe Christine has a general lack of self-awareness that the writers refuse to explore for the viewer’s own good. Refusing to give answers to the questions you propose is a great way to keep people engaged. As David Lynch, creator of “Twin Peaks,” has said, “It’s human nature to have a tremendous letdown once you receive the answer to a question, especially one that you’ve been searching for and waiting for.”
Or, maybe this brand of sex is something that the culture-at-large refuses to define. Christine’s induction into the world of providing “the girlfriend experience” is not warm, easy or seamless. At the same time, nothing about Christine’s inward character is vulnerable or weak — she knows what she wants. As Christine’s determination and the escorting world’s expansiveness meet, she is eventually has to face her sexual persona in the public eye. There’s no term or trope to define the ostensibly strong, sexually liberated woman who must answer for her past actions in the bedroom. This gray area fosters both intrigue and disgust. Is Christine truly strong? Should she be able to keep her sexual, escorting life free from her professional, working life even when they are forced to intersect?
One thing is certain — the gray area blurs the lines of the power in Christine’s relationships. When an attorney (Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”) she has a fling with reappears in her line of work, who holds the upper hand? Is it the attorney, who has the power to expose Christine’s other line of work? Or is it Christine, who has seduced him in the past and could do it again? And, on all her many sexual escapades, that quickly deviate from conventional ideas of sex, does Christine or her client get the better end of the deal, so to speak?
Ultimately, viewers will not get to know. “The Girlfriend Experience” returns Nov. 5, with two new storylines working in parallel. Co-executive producers Soderbergh and Philip Fleishman, are tasked with exploring another aspect of sugar-babying, which hopefully goes beyond the pure ambiguous character of those that partake in the system. There’s no doubt that the aesthetic standard of “The Girlfriend Experience” will be maintained, but keeping the narrative fresh should be the paramount effort of the series’ second season.