Steven Soderbergh’s Cinema of the Precariat
September 27, 2012 10:58 am
By: Claire E. Peters
“The Girlfriend Experience” (Steven Soderbergh, 2009) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment. Running time: 77 minutes; Rated R.
“Magic Mike” is still showing at select theaters. Running time: 110 minutes; Rated R.
Reading my homage to Whit Stillman, that great balladeer of the bourgeoisie, moved a friend of mine to confess that he’d never seen any of Stillman’s work. Nor would he ever, “I am only interested in proletarian cinema,” he said. I chose not to question him, so I can only assume that he was referring to Soviet cinema of the early twentieth century, although he could also have meant any number of films inspired by the post-“May ‘68” wave of revolutionary Marxism, or, perhaps, any films that do not focus as intently on the yachting class as those of Mr. Stillman. But if the age of western industrialism has ended, as many economists, sociologists, and cultural analysts claim it has, and with it, the image of the glorious proletarian laborer, what sort of work and worker will replace it? And what will we call the category of writing and filmmaking that will depict this new working-life?
Two recent films directed by Steven Soderbergh offer us cinematic depictions of the emergent working class—the so-called “precariat.” Sociologist Guy Standing, who popularized the term “precariat”, defines these workers by their willingness to cobble together a living by taking several jobs, and engage in episodic contract work. In order to keep work flowing their way, they must constantly advertise, market, and develop their own unique “brands” to distinguish themselves from the competition. Precarians may achieve financial success this way, but without a dependable income or the fringe benefits that usually (until recently) accompany full-time employment, the life of the precarious worker tends to be marked by financial and social instability.
“The Girlfriend Experience”
In contrast to the laborer of the past, who might have relied on his or her body to physically perform the task of producing the good to be sold, workers in the now prevalent (and rapidly growing) service economy must sell themselves. Their bodies and their personalities do not produce a product, they arethe product (For more on this concept, see the work of sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, particularly “The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling.”)
The precariously employed characters in Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” (2009) and “Magic Mike” (2012) have turned their own bodies into commodities; they engage in the act of selling themselves with the vigor and enthusiasm of the ideal capitalist entrepreneur. They are temporarily able to separate their “real selves” from the self that is for sale, but they eventually reach crisis points where they can no longer maintain the tenuous separation of their physical bodies and their intellectual and emotional interiors. These films compel the viewer to consider the problems that arise when the commodified body is supposed to be discrete from the “off-duty” body in private life. They also compel viewers to consider how, even in jobs that involve the body less explicitly than prostitution or stripping, the amount of time Americans spend at work affects their ability to separate their self-worth from the work they do for money.
“The Girlfriend Experience”
In “The Girlfriend Experience,” former pornographic film star Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, a high-end escort who specializes in providing her clients with conversation, companionship, and (frequently, but not always) sex. The camera follows Chelsea, whose actual name is Christine, as she visits her clients, interacts with her boyfriend, and considers various ways in which she can increase her income by marketing her services and improving her “product.”
Set in 2008, as half of the United States’ canoe hung over the gushing Niagara Falls that was the financial crisis, “The Girlfriend Experience” finds Chelsea receiving many an earful from her wealthy clients. They offer advice on how she can protect her assets (accept only cash, invest in gold), how she should vote in the 2008 presidential election (one client insists that she vote for McCain to protect the state of Israel), and how she can improve her business and increase revenue. Chelsea visits a web designer to discuss how she can increase traffic on her site and optimize her search engine results. She also meets with a consultant to discuss how she can better position herself within the high-end escort industry (he suggests she write a book or let someone make a film about her, as stories like hers are “very hot” at the moment). Fearful of being overtaken by a competing escort named Tara, she considers allowing a blogger (who calls himself “The Erotic Connoisseur”) to evaluate her services for his website, in exchange for a free sample of the goods. She manages to overcome her revulsion at his obsequiousness and poor hygiene, heartened by his pledges to make her “higher than high-end.” He entices her with the assertion, “You think you know an idea of upscale, but what I’m offering you is upscale—beyond.” She is unable to conceal her disgust, however, and the blogger retaliates by writing an extremely negative review in which he insults her physical appearance, her sexual abilities, and, most devastatingly, her intellect (her defining selling point). This last aspect creates an interesting parallel to Sasha Grey’s own life and career. Prior to her work with Soderbergh, Grey gained a reputation as the “intellectual porn star,” due to her cool, analytical attitude towards her work in the porn industry, and her self-professed interest in Russian literature and the films of the French New Wave. These characteristics, along her with her ability to intellectualize a separation of her “true self” from her pornographic persona, undoubtedly influenced Soderbergh’s decision to cast Grey as Chelsea/Christine.
“The Girlfriend Experience”
“The Girlfriend Experience” features cameos by a rainbow coalition of other members of the precariat. We see a street drummer, a singing couple, the disembodied hands of a shampoo girl as she washes Chelsea’s hair, a hairdresser, Chelsea’s personal trainer, and a number of shopkeepers, waiters, and drivers. By packing the film with service laborers, Soderbergh obliges us to consider their experiences of the financial crisis, especially in comparison to those of the wealthy patrons who pay their wages.
Soderbergh emphasizes the similarities between members of the precariat by providing parallel views of Chelsea’s life as an escort and that of her boyfriend Chris, a personal trainer. Chelsea shops for new clothes and fusses over her makeup and hair; Chris rises before dawn to run and abstains from alcohol (and, it would appear, solid food), in order to keep his “product” in top form. Chelsea quietly absorbs financial advice from her clients, and meets with consultants and web designers. Chris is a more outspoken hustler. He attempts to persuade the owners of a sporting goods store to display his line of athletic gear, he encourages a regular client to increase the number of sessions in his training package from five to fifty, and he shops his services to competing gyms before attempting to negotiate for a managerial position with his employer. Chris’s mercenary approach to maximizing his income follows the rules of the capitalist handbook to the letter. The similarities between Chris’s work and Chelsea’s are emphasized by the complaints of one of Chris’s female colleagues, who groans about a client who won’t stop hitting on her. Much like that of an escort, part of the trainer’s job is to make the client feel attractive and desirable; rebuffing advances is very bad for business.
“Magic Mike” (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)
In “Magic Mike,” Channing Tatum plays a hardworking stripper/furniture-maker/entrepreneur whose seemingly unassailable optimism is finally punctured by a series of letdowns, disappointments, and failures. Complex power relationships play out between the strippers and their customers, between club-owner Dallas and his men, between Mike and the PhD-student paramour who doesn’t want to hear him talk (“Just look pretty,” she commands), between Mike and the besotted loan officer (who, despite Mike’s charms, simply can’t give him the loan), and between Mike and his friend/nemesis Adam’s sister Brooke. With her steady job as a nurse’s assistant, Brooke can afford something even more enviable than a supremely beige Tampa condo, she can afford the blissful stability that Mike craves. What Mike doesn’t seem to recognize until the end of the film, however, is that in order to have achieved stability, he would have to have gone through an established set of channels (a high school diploma, a bachelor’s, or at least an associate’s degree, time spent in steady, often thankless entry-level jobs, and an early-to-bed, early-to-rise work ethic that apparently hasn’t appealed to him). As exhausting and thankless as Brooke’s job may be, her adherence to established social norms about “legitimate work” affords her a stable life. We can’t know whether or not she would be approved for the loan Mike wanted, but we know that her work doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Brooke’s and Mike’s professional paths impel us to consider the inherent duality of America’s worker mythos. Depending on whether we judge Brooke’s life against the august myth of the risk-taking entrepreneur, or, in contrast, against the docile and compliant “company man” (happy as he or she is to make the slow climb up the ladder of his or her chosen industry), she is either a play-by-the-rules success or a cowardly failure.
“Magic Mike” [SourceURL here]
Rather than try to expand the reach of his Magic Mike stripper persona (as Chelsea and Chris do), Mike diversifies his skill set. In addition to stripping, Mike runs his own car-detailing service and works construction. He seems to take all of these positions seriously and believes whole-heartedly in one facet of the American dream: that it will all pay off in the end. Mike’s dream of one day leaving it all behind and opening a custom furniture business bumps up against the reality of the financial crisis (and the insidious deterioration of financial security for the middle class) when he is denied a loan at the bank. He may have ample savings (which he demonstrates by bringing a portion of it with him in a briefcase), but without paychecks, credit, or proof of an employment history, he is an extremely risky potential client from the bank’s perspective. Here Soderbergh illustrates one of the most frustrating difficulties faced by the precarious worker: contract work with no paper trail is as worthless in the eyes of the money-keepers as a crayon-written I.O.U. Despite the fact that contracted service work constitutes a sizeable (and rapidly growing) portion of labor in America, enterprising freelancers such as Mike are considered risky candidates (for loans, for permanent work positions) due to their lack of “legitimate” employment histories.
When we meet Mike the stripper and Chelsea the high-end escort, they are at the top of their games. They appear to have no qualms about their chosen work. They seem to view their success as evidence that they’re doing the right thing. Both, however, harbor secret wishes that one day they’ll be able to do something else, which undermines the genuineness of their outspokenly cavalier attitudes towards their professions. But near the ends of their respective films, both Mike and Chelsea find that they can no longer separate themselves from their jobs. Mike endures Brooke’s insults about being a “thirty-year-old bullshit male stripper,” and at the same time, he is betrayed by Adam and Dallas. He can no longer separate himself from what he does for a living, and, justifiably or not, he can see how that choice reflects on him. In “The Girlfriend Experience,” Chelsea loses a client to Tara, is humiliated by the Erotic Connoisseur, and is abandoned in the Hudson Valley by a john for whom she developed romantic feelings. It is at this point that her cool detachment from her job is broken. She is forced to acknowledge that her professional persona as “Chelsea” and her “real”/non-professional self are one and the same. The viewer gets the feeling that while Chelsea is successful at keeping her true identity a secret, she is nevertheless having trouble keeping her own psyche at a safe distance from the hazards of her work.
Speaking of the hazards of work, the critical reception of “The Girlfriend Experience” was, with a few exceptions, deeply negative. The reviews indicated that critics were unreceptive to Soderbergh’s exploration of the complications that arise when the experience of love and companionship (rather than sexual pleasure alone) are marketed and sold. Many seemed put off by Grey’s flat delivery and the simplicity of the plot. Moviegoers were equally nonplussed; “The Girlfriend Experience” was a flop. “Magic Mike,” on the other hand, was a box office smash, raking in millions of dollars and accolades from film critics. The film boasted a budget seven times larger than that of “The Girlfriend Experience,” a cast of sexy (but wholesome) actors, and in the lead, real-life stripper-turned-dancer-turned-movie-star Channing Tatum. Surely the lack of traditional narrative structure and character development in “The Girlfriend Experience” contributed to its lack of mass appeal.” I would argue, however, that the presence of Sasha Grey, an incendiary figure and a casting choice for which Soderbergh was frequently questioned and criticized, also contributed to this disparity. The insidious influence of sexism also likely played a role. In her review of “Magic Mike” for The New Inquiry, the writer Elizabeth Greenwood delves into this topic, analyzing the ways in which stories about women engaged in sex work nearly always devolve into tragedy or melodrama, whereas the characters in “Magic Mike” are allowed to be motivated by capitalism alone. Not only are the male strippers in “Magic Mike” portrayed as smart entrepreneurs, Greenwood argues, but also, she writes, “Their performance actually enhances their masculinity rather than corrupting it, because when they are on stage writhing and strutting, the pressures of making ends meet seem to dissolve, and their chiseled Adonis-like bodies are worshipped like kings.”
Channing Tatum coyly revealed the slightly seamy stripper escapades that took place before he became a big-screen heartthrob, and he has been allowed to draw on that experience for artistic expression (and financial gain) without criticism. When Sasha Grey was cast in “The Girlfriend Experience,” she was already famous for pushing the already far-flung boundary of hardcore pornography, an industry still considered odious within the context of mainstream American culture (despite its continued online proliferation and ubiquitous consumption), and certainly not within the realm of acceptable artistic expression. Tatum made a seamless transition from stripper/backup dancer, to B-list teen dream, to A-list superstar, while Grey’s attempted move to mainstream films proved relatively unpalatable to mainstream American audiences.
This is not to say that Soderbergh himself means to engage in any sort of moralizing about whether or not prostitution and stripping are good, bad, or in any way damaging to the people who engage in them. What he shows us, rather, is the hazards of precarious work, and the unique difficulties experienced by workers who sell their bodies, their beauty, and their personal charms with the belief that they’re on their way to more “legitimate” work and better lives. What he shows us is the crisis that occurs when the futility of this exercise begins to dawn upon the worker. What he does not show us, however, is the possibility of better work, what that work would look like, how it would be performed, or how workers would be more justly compensated. Chelsea and Mike are so fully immersed in and infused with the capitalist impulses that drive their world that it’s nigh impossible to imagine how they would operate under different conditions.