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Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing strip club was not far removed from the brothels portrayed in such westerns as Deadwood.
Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing strip club was not far removed from the brothels portrayed in such westerns as Deadwood.

Why brothels have staying power – at least on TV Add to ...

Television drama teaches us useful things about how important business is done. If you have an important business meeting, television shows tell us, it must take place in a brothel.

A brothel is a useful place for secret financial, criminal or geopolitical planning because: 1) it is highly public; 2) it is loud and full of distractions; and 3) it has non-existent security, so you can be instantly assassinated by an enemy who decides to barge in. Also, a powerful man can reward his associates there by calling over a naked girl and sending them upstairs together without ever having to negotiate payment: Brothels are purely friendly spots, not commercial establishments. If you ever thought a brothel might be a kind of tightly controlled place with many gates and doorways and rules, television drama proves you wrong. A brothel is more like a harem. It is a place of unfailing cheerful compliance. It is just free love.

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These are the advantages for the fictional characters, at least. For directors, the benefits of brothel as set are even simpler: It provides a pleasing backdrop of naked breasts. So it becomes the necessary clubhouse for negotiations in The Sopranos (the Bada Bing strip club is a de facto brothel), Boardwalk Empire (Johnny Torrio’s “cathouse”), Game of Thrones, The Crimson Petal and the White … And True Detective, where a couple of utterly unrealistic bordellos are visited – including a sylvan one where girls in cotton sundresses gambol in the woods like nymphs in Arcady.

The brothel as plotting ground featured as early as Twin Peaks, where a place called One-Eyed Jacks had a typical belle-epoque, corsets-and-fishnets look. In True Blood, some of the vampires start their relationships in a San Francisco joint called the Comstock Brothel – its name is an inside joke on an early Hollywood code of propriety in movies.

But the filmic tradition of bordello as set for macho confrontation goes back even further than cable series. It originates in the western, where the “saloon” is a euphemism. The hardscrabble towns of the wild west and the north did indeed offer prostitution to its lonely prospectors, but films of the 1950s couldn’t openly praise whorehouses, so the conventions of the “saloon” (usually also an inn, with rooms upstairs, wink wink) developed. Notice that fictional saloons are often run by women – shrewd older women, usually. This stock character is known to TV writers as a “Miss Kitty,” a madam-like character who often has a heart of gold.

And those late-19th century aesthetics stay with us as markers of how a brothel should appear. That’s why movie brothels still almost always have ornate dark furniture, wallpaper and a piano.

In fairness, Deadwood was one western series that at least tried to inject some reality to its portrayal of the frontier sex trade: Its sex workers suffered from coercion and heroin addiction. But in that series, the prevailing fantasy was not of pleasure but of a kind of inevitable orgiastic violence.

The wild west itself is what crime dramas are still trying to mythologize, a place beyond both law and inhibition, where all pleasures are instantly available. Prostitution is essential to the allure of the wild west and every similarly unregulated fantasy land, in the fictional New Jersey of The Sopranos, or the city of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.

Consider the 1973 sci-fi film Westworld, a cult B-movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, that overtly combines sexual fantasy with western romance. It depicts a future Disneyland-style resort animated by humanoid robots. The park has a wild west theme; visitors can engage in gunfights and gamble in the saloon. Sex with the always-compliant female robots in the saloon is, of course, one of its tourist draws. (A sequel, Futureworld, used the same robot-sex-tourism plot point.)

In Total Recall (1999), the mining colony on Mars copies the tropes of the wild-west town, including the red-light district subtly called Venusville, where sex is on offer – not with robots, this time, but with freakish mutants (including the famous three-breasted prostitute, an allegory of corrupting abundance).

All dramatic cinema is essentially pornographic in that it shows dark desires fulfilled and taboos broken: It expresses the id. It is said that all these entertainments are created by men and that is why male fantasies are so relentlessly presented, and that if women respond with excitement (as the ratings show that they do) it is because women are conditioned to imagine themselves as part of male fantasies. (As John Berger said: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”)

Whatever the reason, the fantasy of the plushly upholstered palace of pleasure seems to be unkillable. This might be simply because such places don’t actually exist.

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