The Girlfriend Experience and Why We Are All in Grave Danger


Steven Soderbergh’s new movie combines porn’s storylessness with the brutality and bad improv of Reality tv, in an assault on complexity and honesty.

As the dominant mode of 20th and 21st century western literature and art, Realism has always had problems. One need only survey all the various prefixes and modifiers—social, hyper-, magical, sur-, dirty, hysterical, et. al.—with which it has coupled to begin to wonder how faithful this lover can be to its professed mission of representing human life and relationships in an authentic way. Serving so many masters, the suspicion is that Realism in fact serves none particularly well, instead bending promiscuously to the will of any dominant social or political aesthetic that will buy it a drink and a meal, pour its bubble bath, pay for its taxi home the next morning. This is why dictators always come for the artists first: They have the means to tell the masses how the world “really is,” and thereby affect people’s expectations, attitudes, and longings, a power that is crucial to tyranny’s project of total control.

Still, Realism has some attractive qualities, one of them being its determination, in whatever hyphenated flavor, to rescue the unique from the generic, the particular person or situation from the masses. Realism privileges the concrete over the abstract; whatever it believes the world is like, it sets out to demonstrate this through individuals and their struggles with, or against, their environments, their fellow men and women, themselves. Stereotype is the sworn enemy of Realism, and narratives that confirm prejudices and received wisdom, that validate generalities and clichés, are failures, however skillfully constructed or entertaining they may be. Anna Karenina doesn’t jump in front of a train because she’s a woman (i.e. unintelligent, fickle, premenstrual)—she jumps in front of a train because she’s Anna Karenina, and even the most absurdly hyperbolic of David Foster Wallace’s protagonists is a masterpiece of quirks, memories, and singular desires unmistakable for any broad, blunt sketch of “how people are generally.”

This raises a problem for aspiring artists who happen to be untalented, unimaginative, bigoted, immature, or just generally lazy, those writers—and any undergraduate creative writing instructor knows they are legion—who rely on stereotypes and use narrative to express deeply cherished but deeply false views of the world, whose preferred response from their audience is a solemn nod of agreement, rather than a brow furrowed in thought. Oversimplification goes hand in hand with the moralizing urge that is so strong in adolescents, and these writers can count on approval from equally naïve and intolerant readers: “This character is so mean to his wife, I’m glad that North Korean missile hit his car!” or “She knows she shouldn’t do drugs, so she totally deserved to get date raped!” That literary journals, film festivals, and publishing houses still attached to Realism discriminate against such crap has always seemed cruelly unfair to its creators—like Republicans, they insist on their right to be judged right, even when they are flagrantly, stupidly wrong.

Starting in the mid-1990s, television began to rectify this imbalance, moving beyond Realism to create a narrative mode in which stereotype rules the day, the vindictive prejudices of the ignorant govern the story, and no one ever has to rethink what they’ve been told about life. This genre goes by the poisonous name of “Reality,” its arrogance and coarseness suggested by its refusal to even admit that it is an –ism, a representation: “This is how the world is. Case closed.”

the_girlfriend_experience_poster-337x500For various technical and economic reasons—most prominently the fact that bad writers and actors usually come cheaper than good ones—Reality has successfully colonized all of network television, and begun campaigns to take over cable and film as well. Steven Soderbergh’s new movie The Girlfriend Experience is a smashing success when judged by this standard. Built around pornstar Sasha Grey, The GFE combines prominent features of pornography (storylessness, implausible characters and situations, a world seen in two dimensions or fewer) with the distinctive techniques of Reality (amateur players, bad improvisations, pseudo-documentary structure used to no purpose, a near-religious belief in the brutality, selfishness, and unredeemable superficiality of human life) in a full-frontal assault on the complexity and honesty audiences once looked for in independent films.

Grey plays Chelsea, a high-end escort in New York who provides her clients not just sex but the “girlfriend experience”—a term which apparently means she will eat the meal they buy for her, sleep in the five-star hotel room they rent, and listen to their secret fears and desires, every last one of which involves the acquisition of money. (That a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, might, say, help balance a checkbook, give advice, disagree with pigheadedness, express any needs of their own, or do anything beyond the ornamental, seems not to have been considered by the providers or consumers of the “experience.”) She conducts this business with no visible affect beyond a cryptic half-smirk which might indicate either terrible acting skills or deep emotional damage but which in Soderbergh’s film indicates nothing at all—it’s a given, a MacGuffin, Reality’s insistence that humans don’t actually feel, they act.

Chelsea documents her encounters in a diary that pays more attention to clothing brands and prices than to what actually transpired between the two parties (an almost perfect analogy with the concerns of Reality in general). Then she shares take-out and painfully banal chit-chat with her live-in boyfriend, a likable bimbo named Chris (played by Chris Santos) who works as a personal trainer and spends most of the film trying to hustle up more work. There is no discussion whatsoever of what brought these two together, nor of what it is about Chris that makes this situation tolerable to him, just as there’s no background to Chelsea’s career choice; aside from the agreed-upon rule that she may not spend the weekend with a client, her chosen profession is as uncontroversial in the bounds of their relationship as if she were a waitress or real estate agent. Here, as elsewhere, The GFE mistakes implausibility for radicalism—Look how modern and liberated we all are!—refusing to provide any expository foundation for its premise, insisting that this is just how the world is.

The plot is childishly slight and offensively priggish. Chelsea believes that she has fallen in love with a client and breaks the no-weekends rule, despite Chris’s threat to invoke the nuclear option; as any reader of Victorian cautionary tales can predict, the client turns out to be just another jerk, and Chelsea is left alone to regret the foolishness of her desires, while Chris jets off to Reality’s Mecca—Las Vegas—where he may freely spew misogynistic observations and inspect the wares of other quasi-prostitutes. In the final scene, we see Chelsea fallen to a lower rung of prostitution, motionless in the embrace of a right-wing Jewish diamond merchant who spouts off neo-conservative Zionist propaganda while ejaculating, fully clothed, yarmulke included. I shit you not.

What is the purpose of this Jewish character, this collection of filthy stereotypes that no serious artist would attempt? What is the purpose of a female protagonist whose only personality traits are her interests in sex and money but who is too stupid to see the piano plummeting toward her head? Or of the uniformity of the film’s lizardy men, every one of whom is obsessed with money, hates and fears women, is uninterested in fidelity, and can love only the things he owns and controls? Are we to sympathize with Chris, to pity him, or to share a smirk with him at the realization that, yes, indeed his girlfriend was nothing but a prostitute? Is Chelsea a plucky girl who charts her own course in a world controlled by men, or just a dopey narcissist who gets what’s coming to her? What does this film really think of its characters? Like a Neil LaBute film (see In the Company of Men), it loathes them, loathes everyone who wanders into its frames. It can’t imagine a human being with any integrity or nobility of character—or any character at all—and it mistakes its own narrow worldview for reality and then imposes that Reality on the rest of us.

It’s hard to overstate how easy, how lazy a stance this is, or how irresponsible. But this is perhaps the main goal of Reality: to re-enshrine the stereotypes that late 20th century art diligently debunked, to the consternation of unthinking people everywhere. No longer should the masses have to trouble themselves with unpredictability or complexity in the ways they interact with others; no longer should salespeople (and in Reality, everyone is selling something) be forced to see their customers as individuals rather than demographics. Men are unfaithful predators whose only true passion is buying and selling things. Women are all prostitutes, who want money and control but lack the talent and imagination to achieve these things and so rely upon deception and sex. They are fucking machines, fucking machines with websites—though they need men to build those websites for them. And all people—male or female, black or white, rich or poor—are to be avoided and feared, because they care about nothing but themselves.sashadots2

In this way, Reality confirms the things “we all know.” It treats us all as moral children, indulging our self-regard, encouraging simplicity and its accompanying vindictiveness. Things rarely turn out well in Reality, nor do we want them to—most of its inhabitants are so repulsive we hope they’ll catch a disease and die. Where art teaches empathy, an ability to see the world from another person’s perspective, Reality preaches survival: everyone’s perspective is the same, everyone is after the same scarce resources, so it’s every man or woman for themselves.

Looked at this way, The GFE’s many stylistic irrelevancies make more sense—as further distraction from the adolescent nastiness of the story. The narrative unfolds in nonlinear fashion, a mainstay of postmodernist storytelling but one Soderbergh uses reflexively, not to bring out aspects of the story that would be obscured in a traditional telling but simply to disorient, to lend an illusion of dynamism and breadth. The intermittent scenes in which a journalist is interviewing Chelsea about her vocation and her relationship with Chris lead nowhere, add up to nothing other than another opportunity to demonstrate that all men want is to penetrate women. As in most Reality television, scenes would appear to have been written only in summary, blocked-out fashion, arguments outlined, motivations written on cue cards; the actors, if that’s the proper word for them, are left to interpret and improvise—as a result every scene is wooden and slow to develop, the dialogue is dull, every jab or riposte is a cliché or an aphorism, the choreography and physical chemistry inferior to what most pre-teen girls can accomplish with Barbie and Ken.

But here, too, what seems to be a flaw is actually a point of pride: In Reality we don’t need Laurence Olivier or Katherine Hepburn, we don’t need talented “elites” to write our scripts and shove complicated ideas about human nature down our throats. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan showed us, and the message of Reality is that we are all actors, all writers, all of our opinions and abilities are as good as everyone else’s. Reality wants us to understand that the performers can’t perform, the writers can’t write, so as to better discredit and discard the function of true art and artists. They aren’t Real people: Olivier wasn’t better than you or me—just luckier; Toni Morrison’s ideas are no more important than David Duke’s.

What is at stake here is a reconfiguration of the relationship between art and audience, product and consumer, and The Girlfriend Experience does great work in further tearing down the barrier that once separated the tale from the ego to which the tale is being told. However trashy or fantastic the films and soap operas of the past were, however obsessed with the characters we became, very few people ever “believed” them to be anything other than stories, representations, artifice. The lengths to which Reality goes to convince us that there is no artifice, far from the rhetoric of democratization it sometimes espouses, has as its real goal the elimination of precisely our ability to know when we are being told a lie and when we are seeing something real. The usefulness of this project hardly needs laying out: If the populace can be stripped of its ability to distinguish between the real and the scripted, then it is much easier to gin up support for, say, phony wars fought against vulnerable countries, marketed and packaged like entertainment, “rolled out” at the beginning of a new season. It is much less likely to doubt the words of the generals who defend that war, or to suspect that they aren’t the same generals actually fighting it rather than retired hacks collecting consulting fees from defense contractors. If we “know” that everyone is uncontrollably greedy, we’re happy to acquiesce to trillion-dollar bailouts for executive malfeasance—men are just irresponsible, distracted by their constant need to destroy and humiliate women, so who can blame them for tanking the world economy? Boys will be boys!

It’s this last issue that shows up as a kind of fetish in The Girlfriend Experience, in which every character is fixated on the financial crisis, desperate to find a way to protect their own interests from the global collapse. There are incessant references to the 2008 presidential candidates and their proposals, including a plug for McCain from the Zionist diamond merchant and a phony headline that seems to predict some kind of kickback scandal bringing down the Obama presidency. At first, this tedious fixation comes off as quirky, a kind of showing off: Look how fast we can slap a timely film together when we don’t have to bother with real actors or writers! But it turns out that this obsession with economic matters is essential to the film’s sophomoric theme that we’re all slaves, all shamelessly chasing after money, the personal trainer just as much as the prostitute. Money is the great moral equalizer—we all have to get our share, so there’s no difference in our methods, nor in the damage our chosen methods might inflict on others. On the one hand, this is merely the kind of “wisdom” frequently achieved by high school students clustered around a bong. But on the other, it’s a profound and terrifying revelation of the nature of the Reality universe, in which all of us, every last one of us, is a whore.


original art for the rumpus by ilyse magy

Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor at The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →