“Everyone is paid to be everywhere; it’s called an economy.”
— Christine, The Girlfriend Experience, episode eleven, ‘Fabrication’
Being rich and earning a lot of money is relentless, wearying work and having to work at relationships and intimacy is a further burden on the already time-poor. When rich men engage ‘the girlfriend experience’ they get more than just sex (as if ‘just sex’ were even a thing). With the girlfriend experience there are add-ons: comfort, affection, glamorous company, intellectual stimulation, distraction, flattery, an empathic ear—or at least an authentic-seeming performance of it, which is just as good. Of course there is sex, negotiated within certain parameters, but there is also a customised form of intimacy that is obliging and undemanding. The girlfriend experience is a bespoke romantic service, tailored to individual sexual and emotional needs. It is a rarefied form of sex work for an exclusive clientele, although in many ways the women’s labour is utterly mundane.
The Starz network’s reboot of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film The Girlfriend Experience, shares its precursor’s conceit of a smart, beautiful young woman doing this kind of high-end sex work. The series revolves tightly around the working life of Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a law student who secures a highly competitive internship at a top-tier Chicago law firm that deals with intellectual property. Fellow law student Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) recognises her classmate’s distinctive attributes and introduces Christine to the world of premium sex work by setting up her first ‘date’ and connecting her with her ‘booker’, Jacqueline (Alex Castillo). Christine is soon multi-tasking her internship, law school and after-hours escort work as ‘Chelsea’—“burning the candle at three ends,” as she puts it. Soderbergh is executive producer but the series is written and directed by showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. Comprising thirteen half-hour episodes, season one documents Christine’s life distributed across these three competing spheres of school, office and sex work, which intersect in more than symbolic ways.
Christine is white, beautiful, smart and ambitious. She possesses a highly competitive suite of personal and professional advantages: erotic capital, mobility, technological literacy, education. Her skills and competencies make her especially attractive to certain elite segments of the job market: she’s assertive, brutally direct, motivated, and effective. She demonstrates a willingness to take calculated risks, deliver outcomes and work around the clock.
We quickly learn how some of these attributes apply to the sexual realm when Christine hooks up with a stranger in the first episode, titled ‘Entry’. She’s in a noisy bar when she spots a handsome young professional. She approaches, leans in and says something that he doesn’t hear. “I want to fuck you,” she repeats. In the next scene they’re in the man’s upscale but anodyne apartment and Christine is on top—a setting and sexual motif we’ll see again and again throughout The Girlfriend Experience. She gets off and sits on a couch opposite the man, masturbating. “Tell me what you like about this,” she orders.
Christine is confident and detached. We’ve already seen her nail an interview to secure her future at the prominent law firm, Kirkland & Allen. “You just say their own words back to them,” she explains to Avery affectlessly. “It’s what they want.” Her boss’s first instruction to “copy and paste” legal letters is an early reminder that time is money; every moment of (billable) time wasted, is money wasted. She is neither awed nor baffled by the corporate realm’s outwardly intimidating, looking-glass world. This same disposition helps Christine attract clients and dispense with them when required. These men are either fascinated by her opacity, or else happy enough to project their desires into her languid void. Her combination of confidence and detachment gives her a competitive advantage in entrepreneurial, neoliberal employment markets—confidence is good for leveraging your personal brand; detachment helps keep you mobile and flexible. In both her day and night roles Christine is ruthlessly pragmatic and self-assured.
We next see Christine preparing to leave the guy’s apartment. He tells her she can stay, which is a solicitation to further intimacy, but she turns him down, politely but with chilly civility. Men are instrumental in Christine’s world until they exceed their value, or they become obstacles or threats. The guy she has just fucked is inconsequential. He looks like a younger version of David (Paul Sparks), her boss at Kirkland & Allen, who she will have an affair with later in the season. The same guy approaches her later, in another bar where she’s having a drink with Avery. She’s forgotten his name and makes little attempt to conceal her indifference. She could be warmer, friendlier, offer him the impression of interest and potential availability, but why should she waste time and emotional energy when there is so little in it for her? It’s not that Christine is cruel—it’s just an obvious calculus of human resources. “I just don’t enjoy spending time with people,” she tells her sister, a lawyer, over a strained dinner. “I find it a waste of time, and it makes me anxious.”
Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender studies who works on film, TV, sex and popular culture. Listen to him talk on fortnightly culture podcast The Rereaders.