Thursday, May 28, 2009

Relationship Thursdays (The Girlfriend Experience)

¡Hola! Everybody...
Well, well, well... I already like Judge Sonia Sotomayor! Apparently she’s a bigot/ racist just like yours truly! Yaaaay! In today’s political climate any mention of racism or privilege, or even having the fortitude to point out that the post-racial Emperor has no clothes, makes one a racist. Well, if that’s the case, then I am a flaming racist and proud of it!

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-=[ The Girlfriend Experience ]=-

The Commodification of Intimacy in the Post-Capitalist Era

As reported by the Village Voice, for $60 an hour, a NYC agency arranges for a smart young woman to accompany you, laugh at your jokes, and make you feel interesting and special. It may sound like just another escort service -- complete with a negotiable “happy ending” sex service -- but it’s not. In fact, the young women who set up the agency spell it out on their website: “If there are any attempts at sexual activity, the girl has the right to end the date immediately.”

A colleague of mine has employed the same nanny for the past seven years. When he speaks of her, it’s almost as if he’s speaking a dear aunt or close family friend. His two sons adore her and have known her all their lives. They too see her as more than a nanny.

A few years ago, I joined a gym and, realizing that I needed more than a little motivation and guidance, I opted for a few sessions with a personal trainer. The trainer was very attractive in an athletic sense -- streamlined slinkiness expressed with cat-like grace in a body hinting at barely contained sex. At first, our relationship was purely business, but eventually I was able to convince her to go out on a date with me -- against her hard and fast rule about “dating customers.” Sometimes I can be persuasive. LOL

What all the above scenarios share is that they are paid situations that can easily lead to the blurring of professional relationships in ways that leach out into relationships that simulate or give the illusion of intimacy. We see this all the time in all areas of our hectic lives. For example, with an increased workload accompanied by decreasing wages, many people are using their places of employment as dating pools. It seems that one consequence of neoliberal uber-capitalism is that everything has become a commodity -- including intimacy or its simulation.

In the new Steven Soderbergh film, The Girlfriend Experience, the main character (more psychological study than lead actress) Chelsea (played by porn star Sasha Grey), is not only a consumer of top-of-the line merchandise, she is also a commodity: a prostitute whose specialty is implied in the title of the movie. She offers her wealthy clients more than sex with a pretty young woman. In fact, sometimes there is no sex at all. What she sells instead is a simulation of intimacy.

The first scenes are of Chelsea in the company of a handsome, well-mannered man. For all we know, these two attractive people leisurely chatting over dinner, then kissing on the couch before making their way to bed, are intimate lovers. Only when cash changes hands the following morning is the audience made aware of transactional nature of the affair.

Working out of a stylish Manhattan loft she shares with her boyfriend Chris, Chelsea charges $2,000 an hour. For something like $25,000, a “date” with this slim, pretty, perfectly-carnately fashioned 20-year-old can really be like a date. Chris (real life trainer Chris Santos), works as a personal trainer, tending to the bodies of some of the same kinds of guys who hire Chelsea for her services. The similarities between them are thought provoking. Both Chris and Chelsea belong to a segment of the economy that depends on the blurring of certain distinctions, between service and friendship, profit and warmth. As I noted previously, exercise instructors, nannies, life coaches, bartenders -- when you think about it, they are all paid for something that can easily be mistaken for love.

Up to now, Ms. Grey’s screen performances have been almost entirely in hard-core pornography (she calls it performance art) and along with her character’s profession, this adds another dimension to the movie. Is Soderbergh also commodifying Ms. Grey?

However, the film’s main interest is in money rather than sex, which is shown to be a far more powerful and dangerous cause of obsession and confusion. The movie takes place during the first glimpses of our current economic collapse, October 2008, lending the piece an anxiety riding just underneath the surface of a film that is all about surfaces. Occasionally, this palpable anxiety bubbles to the top.

The movie follows Chelsea from one encounter to the next, and with some clients, Chelsea plays the shrink, low-key and attentive; with others, she’s simply a source of physical pleasure. With most, however, she’s the ideal girlfriend which is more or less the role that Sasha Grey, music composer and winner of the 2008 AVN Award for Best Oral Sex Scene, plays in real life.

Grey is the only professional actor in the movie, playing a character who is always acting. Some of the most interesting insights come during the scenes where Chelsea is being pursued by a journalist (played by real-life journalist Mark Jacobson), who wants to write a profile and seems genuinely eager to discuss her “inner you.” At one point, repeatedly frustrated by his attempts to delve into her psyche, he mentions that by necessity, Chelsea has had to create an impenetrable psychological armor. Soderbergh’s camera lingers on Chelsea’s facial reaction to this insight and her spare approach to acting lends this scene power.

The Girlfriend Experience is a mosaic of short, largely a-chronological scenes. Flashbacks are impossible to differentiate from flash-forwards; the emphasis is on Chelsea’s behavior is in the here and now. Soderbergh’s camera placement reinforces the feeling of intimacy that is the escort’s product. This economic imperative rules nearly every interaction: Chelsea’s capital is her body and her persona.

Soderbergh also explores the two-way street/ nature of selling intimacy when he locks into Chelsea’s falling for a client. This could have been a weak point in the movie, but the minimalist approach to acting utilized by Ms. Grey combined with Soderbergh's almost clinical, apathetic distance, stops this from becoming too melodramatic. Grey's hard-won defenses keep the camera (and the audience) at arm’s length -- even when prying underneath the beautiful yet hard exterior of her character. Perhaps part of the price Chelsea and all of us pay is to be forever locked inside the character armor we erect to protect ourvelves from the very thing we desire -- intimacy?

I fear many people will not enjoy The Girlfriend Experience. Its subject hits too close to home and it’s not a movie in the traditional sense. It’s more character study and it poses more questions than it answers. In fact, I don’t know if the film answers any questions at all. However, it is exactly the questions that intrigued me the most.




  1. Very interesting psychological topics involved in this film.
    For some reason I have this feeling that being in the "Girlfriend Experience" business as depicted in this film does indeed require a steel veneer to hide the real self. But then ..this is a business that just happens to sell a unique (and morally loaded) commodity that has a hefty price tag.
    Packaging prostitution with the illusion of intimacy certainly seems more genteel...but real intimacy can't be bought. This is simply the illusion of intimacy. The psychological effects of playing in such a payed scenario does indeed seem quite empty once the charade of the moment ends.And perhaps this is exactly what the clients by the hour fantasy without any real life emotional investment or baggage.
    Thanks for sharing !

  2. SweetP: I would tend to agree with you, but as I was watching the movie I kept asking myself: who are we to decide what is intimacy?

    It's an even more loaded moral question, but one I cannot answer honestly without feeling just a tad hypocritical.

    But that's just me.

  3. I like how this movie sounds. I think the idea of where we find intimacy -- that conversation, rather -- is important.

    The lines in relationships get blurred all the time, and it goes back and forth. I can say I've had "inappropriate" (mostly inappropriate because of what our relationship was supposed to be) interactions with lots of people... we just blur the lines, it's what we do.

    But why -- there was a time where your nanny was your nanny, your best friend was just a friend. Now we feel free to use anyone to fill whatever void. It's crazy...

  4. @A.Smith: You wrote:

    "But why -- there was a time where your nanny was your nanny, your best friend was just a friend. Now we feel free to use anyone to fill whatever void. It's crazy..."

    Yeah, I think the lines have been irreversibly blurred and the question you pose is not an easy one to answer.

  5. "as I was watching the movie I kept asking myself: who are we to decide what is intimacy?"

    I'm a great believer in to each their own...if this experience provides what a person seeks then great..enjoy!!

    Intimacy by definition:
    Intimacy refers to a familiar and very close connection with another as a result of entering deeply or closely into relationship through knowledge and experience of the other. Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity.

    The Girlfriend Experience simply isnt the "real" deal with it comes intimacy no matter how well it might be promoted.

  6. @Sweetp: I do think, however, if people are chasing something illusory that brings more pain, then that should be the ultimate measure. I don't think too many ppl engaging in superficial relationships are REALLY happy at heart.


What say you?


[un]Common Sense