As I indicate on my About page, I am a professed and unabashed nerd. Torchwood is one of my favorite geekdoms. For those of you who may not be aware of the program, it is a spin-off of Doctor Who. If you don’t know what Doctor Who is, there’s just no hope for you. Torchwood’s new series is called “Miracle Day”. Before I get into the crux of my argument, I’m going to give you a very brief background of the show and the current series.
Torchwood is the name a secret, extra-legal agency in the United Kingdom created by Queen Victoria to investigate alien activity on Earth, specifically Britain (and even more specifically, The Doctor), eliminate any alien who poses a threat to the Britain, and appropriate any alien technology that would return Britain to its former glory. It’s priorities have changed a bit since then and the stories are set in present-day Wales (mostly). It’s one of the more entertaining programs and LGBTQ-friendly.
***Spoilers from here on***
This series of Torchwood, as I stated before is called “Miracle Day”. It is being co-produced by the Starz! network and many of the writers and co-producers are from the Joss Whedon family, formerly working on Buffy, Angel, and, notably for my argument, Firefly. The so-called Miracle is that human beings have stopped dying. Hooray! But, we still fall susceptible to disease, injury, aging, and other ailments that should by all rights kill us. Not so much of a miracle anymore. The first indication of The Miracle is seen during the execution of a child rapist and murderer named Oswald Danes (played by Bill Pullman) in that his execution by lethal injection isn’t lethal. Long story short, through some legal maneuvering, he is set free. Initially, this is met with wide condemnation and scorn by a national public (this is important) who wanted to see a rapist and murderer, who said upon his arrest that his 12-year-old victim “should have run faster”, executed for his crimes. Since then, Danes, with the help of a PR vulture, has become this messiah-like figure to a coterie of admirers. Not everyone has forgiven him, of course, but it’s a vocal minority who thinks he’s suddenly awesome.
The most recent episode of the series, “The End of the Road” was written and co-produced by Jane Espenson. If that name sounds familiar, it is because she has written for every Joss Whedon show in the last fifteen years, as well as Battlestar Galactica and Caprica. She also wrote an episode of Firefly (“Shindig”) that centered around the character Inara Serra, a 51st century Companion (aka courtesan/hetaera/sacred prostitute). Companions are a legal organization in that era, very highly regarded on most worlds and becoming a Companion requires many years of training. Ms. Espenson was also a fan of the entire program, which included an episode called “Heart of Gold” featuring non-Companion prostitutes working in an Old West sort of brothel. They lack Companion status and respect, but were nonetheless not the “lowly, pathetic, diseased” brothel worker or low-end, stupid stereotype popular in media. Again, this all has to do with my criticism. The episode sees Danes request of his PR rep to find him a legal age female companion with red hair. Though squeaked out by the request, the PR rep nonetheless has her own intern find him a prostitute fitting that description.
Enter the prostitute and her working bag of stereotypes. Danes, dressed nicely in a suit, opens the door. Luckily, she’s not dressed in a stereotypical way although she makes a comment about dressing nicely so that the hotel isn’t alerted to her presence. And so we encounter stereotype number 1: all prostitutes dress trashy and obvious. This young woman is very clearly well-groomed, wearing a very nice dress that was probably already in her closet, looking like a typical escort: blending into her environment, not chafing against it. Essentially, I doubt she’s working a stroll. In fact, the way she dressed and wore her makeup was a lot less “slutty” than the average 21-or-so year old I see going to the clubs these days. That is how most escorts dress: not like the average club goer, but like a regular, well-dressed woman.
This is followed quickly by stereotype number 2: prostitutes don’t have boundaries. This takes several forms in the episode:
1) Though she introduces herself as Claire, that is followed by the announcement that “or whatever you want to call me”. No. Names are always important boundaries and it is no less the case for a prostitute or escort or any other type of sex worker. In fact, the name (or names) a sex worker uses has been chosen for very specific reasons: safety, security, personality… Her name could be Sugar Walls, it really wouldn’t matter but having a client call you by the name you specify sets up the very important mutual respect boundary. After the respect is established, usually over several encounters, there may be the use of an affectionate nickname, but that’s very intimate and personal (yes, much more intimate than sex).
2) Not being contacted by the client himself, but some random woman “representing” the potential client. Uh, no. Escorts who do heterosexual couples calls will want to speak to the woman just to make sure that she is agreeing to the arrangement as well. But escorts always want to have contact with the client before the appointment. This is part of screening. Women who work the street do their own form of screening and since, despite popular belief, many streetworkers do not have pimps, they analyze potential clients as well as possible under those circumstances. While screening isn’t foolproof, unfortunately, it is a hell of a lot safer than just taking a random call from a random woman. Granted, she could have been sent by an agency that may have been lax on screening, but I doubt even those would just say, “okay” to a random call from a random woman. Women have been violent against sex workers in the past (ask the stripper who had acid thrown on her face, by a woman or escorts who have been threatened by angry girlfriends/wives of clients). Moreover, this random call from a random woman is on behalf of a known violent individual, since Claire knew who he was before she got there. It would be a different story, but no less disturbing, if his identity was a complete surprise to her.
3) While boundaries are highly individual according to the prostitute or escorts own comfort, they do exist.
Jumping ahead to their conversation, as I’m saving the most egregious stereotype/misconception for last, is stereotype number 3: prostitutes and escorts are never considered for companionship outside of sex. Danes shows some awkwardness around Claire and asks instead to just take her out for dinner. She expresses surprise that he just wants to talk. Outside of popular example of the Crack Whore, most prostitutes and escorts provide some amount of companionship outside of sex to their clients, even if only for a few minutes of a short session. That sessions can become therapeutic is well-known to anyone who has worked in sex work or sought the services in the sex industry. The further up in the hierarchy of paid sex, there’s almost a directly proportional increase in conversation the more time and money is spent per session. Whether it is a few cocktails, a full lunch/dinner, attending a concert or party or whatever, most escorts do this at some point (again, the more time and money is spent per session, the more these “extra-sexual” events occur). Unless Claire had fallen off the turnip truck two hours before and started hooking an hour afterward, this shouldn’t have been such a shock to her.
This is especially ridiculous considering she mentions bringing a change of clothes to do “roleplay”, which requires non-sexual interaction, ie. talking.
Her reaction also brings up stereotype number 4: prostitutes and escorts are always victimized by clients. She says tells him that she’s used to “being kicked and her face ground into the dirt” (but companionship requests are just so rare and strange!). Again, physical violence against prostitutes primarily, but not exclusively, takes place on the street level. This is because they are easier to target by scumbags who believe these women are not worthy of respect. So, while her statements make her sound like a streetworker, her exterior (namely, the complete LACK of scars, bruises, etc or hesitant body language that would show constant abuse, streetworker or not) gives lie to those words. Another tell? Supposedly, her other clients are Senators (right), which brings me to…
Stereotype number 5: prostitutes and escorts don’t have any discretion. This one is very similar to the idea that prostitutes and escorts have no boundaries. After all, having boundaries ensures discretion and safety in most instances. These senators that supposedly rank among her clientele blabbed to Claire that Oswald, despite the existence of The Miracle, is condemned to be placed in “the ovens”. You see, the only sure way to kill anyone with this Miracle occurring is to set them on fire until their bodies turn to ashes. She, in turn, tells Oswald about this. It may be difficult for many people to understand (especially in the wake of Ashley Dupree), but many to most escorts and prostitutes don’t betray a client’s confidence without very good reasons (ie. clear and present danger to self and others). Of course, if Oswald was a good person who wasn’t guilty of the sort of crime that he was, then informing him that politically powerful men have him in their crosshairs may be one of those times when those official-unofficial client confidentiality rules can be broken. But he’s not and she knows he’s not, so… yeah.
Finally, there is stereotype number 6: prostitutes and escorts will take anyone as a client, as long as they pay. I do not know of a prostitute or escort who will accept an internationally known rapist and murderer as a client. This. Is. INSANE! We do things like screening to hopefully avoid running into clients who may turn violent (using sex workers as “target practice”), so we sure as hell won’t knowingly take a client like Oswald Danes. This is insulting on so many levels because it’s essentially saying that prostitutes and escorts are so stupid and greedy that even though a client is a known rapist and murderer, we’ll still see them. Just stupid whores, right? And no, I would not say that The Miracle would encourage any prostitute or escort to forgo security precautions that become second nature in the industry.
Applying this stereotype was completely useless. As I mentioned earlier, Danes has attracted a coterie of followers and admirers, including women, who believe his “I’m a changed man in this Brave New World” spiel. It would have made much more sense to have one of those women who would actually have the dumb idea that “he’ll be different with me”, something that sex workers simply would not assume. After all, there are those women who fall in love with convicts and death row candidates whom they didn’t know before their incarceration. That a female follower would have been more than happy to give him a chance is decidedly more realistic than a hired prostitute knowingly taking a client with a proven record of extreme violence.
All this from a three-minute scene! I wouldn’t have been surprised if these tired clichés on CSI or one of the 10,000 Law and Order programs or similar shows. But on Torchwood, which featured a cast of characters that are mostly bisexual, led by a man from the far future were human sexuality is not nearly as conservative and restrictive as it is now (describes himself as omnisexual), I would not expect such stereotypes. And certainly not from a writer who has written a character who defies these stereotypes. As I mentioned the two Firefly episodes that showed both extremes of the spectrum (the Companion Inara Serra and the low-end prostitutes of the Heart of Gold brothel in “Heart of Gold”) with respect, complexity, and all that stuff that good writing that doesn’t focus on stereotypes. In the commentary on the DVD for the Firefly episode “Shindig” Jane Espenson, Shawna Trpcic (costume designer who also works on Torchwood for this series) and Morena Baccarin who played Inara Serra discuss admiration for Renaissance courtesans, Japanese geisha and tayuu… So I’m disappointed that Ms. Espenson didn’t include that same consideration in creating this character. Future prostitutes and escorts are okay and past ones are okay, but current-day ones are only negative, ignorant stereotypes?
To the character’s credit, however, she leaves after feeling uncomfortable. But then again, a realistic portrayal wouldn’t have placed her there at all. I think I would have felt better if she was another, consistent stereotype: a lowly streetwalker pressured into taking any and every client her pimp tells her to. But that wasn’t the case here. Not by a long shot.
But, see for yourself: http://vimeo.com/28251965