Skip to main content

David Simon thinks Hillary Clinton was absolutely on point to emphasize that she was "creeped out" by Donald Trump looming behind her and stalking her every move during the second presidential debate last year.

"It was misogyny, pure and simple," he says. "He was bullying her, invading her space, treating her in a manner that speaks volumes about how women are treated day to day at work in all kinds of jobs."

His point is related to the substance of The Deuce, his new HBO series, which had a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last Sunday. It's the morning after the screening and Simon, along with co-writer George Pelecanos and the Canadian producer/director Michelle MacLaren, are in room together explaining to me how The Deuce, although set in 1971, is connected to the events of today.

Story continues below advertisement

The series, an astonishing work of storytelling, is difficult to summarize. Its intricately knit cast of characters is employed on the seamy side of life in Manhattan. They are sex workers, pimps, con artists, waiters and low-level mobsters. What happens to them and their milieu is a drift away from prostitution as business to low-level pornography to make way more money.

"What you see is how porn became an industry," Simon says. "It was always there but never an industry. As it became an industry and X-rated films became what we now call 'porn' and the digital age allowed it to be so ubiquitous, everything changed."

"We're not trafficking in the imagery of pornography; the story is about that imagery that has had such an impact and led us to where we are today. And where we are today is women get rated on their looks, women writers at newspapers are attacked for their looks."

I put it to the trio that discussion of the influence of porn has become almost banal. Parents are no longer shocked at how their teenage daughters mimic the personas and wear the clothing of sex workers, and society at large sighs about teenagers exchanging porn-like images on their smartphones.

"That's a smokescreen," Pelecanos interjects. "Without being a moralist, misogyny has raised its ugly head again, you could see that during the U.S. election. And porn has something to with that."

"Let me give you an analogy," he continues. "In the 1970s, when The Deuce is set, Jimmy Carter was running for president and he gave a lengthy interview to Playboy magazine. He was asked if he'd ever cheated on his wife. He said no but admitted that he had lusted after other women in his heart. That caused a sensation. It was something he had to overcome in his campaign. While we were shooting The Deuce, Donald Trump was heard on video boasting about groping women. And he got elected. That, right there, tells you what people will accept about the terms used to describe women and the attitude toward them. Porn has had an influence on the way boys and men think about and talk about women."

MacLaren adds, "Trump's election was heartbreaking for so many women. It's important to keep saying that."

Story continues below advertisement

Many of the formidable details in The Deuce, in particular the stunningly grimy, garbage-filled streets and the sense of literal filth in the atmosphere, is the work of MacLaren. The Canadian has directed some classics of prestige TV, including multiple episodes of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. "You have to understand the ambience of New York City in the early 1970s," she says. "If you were going to a Broadway show, you passed pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes on the street. There was a garbage strike in 1971 and the streets were littered with trash all the time. Recreating that was a huge undertaking."

But MacLaren is more interested in the issues of misogyny and the portrayal of sex work in the series. "I get asked a lot in interviews, 'How did you feel filming these sex scenes?' and I have to tell people that the only way to film it is head-on, to bring out the rawness of the situation. You have to show that when the porn sex scenes are being made in the series, there's an excitement for the characters about what they are doing, but you also have to show the consequences of that, of lines being crossed."

In the series, the viewer gets a sense that it is the desperate and the doomed who are involved with the upstart X-rated film industry, but also how a sort-of grimy progress was being made. The series opens in 1971 and a year on from the fiction in the show, the real X-rated movie Deep Throat was made. It entered the mainstream, is possibly the biggest grossing movie of the period and was reviewed by Roger Ebert. There was a distinct sense, at that time, that pornography was about advocating sexual freedom, that social progress was being made.

"Some people involved in porn in that era were proud of what they did," MacLaren says. "And they remain proud. Talk to some of them today, as we did, and they tell you, 'Don't think everybody ended up a victim.'"

While The Deuce is obviously a serious-minded series, part of the current Golden Age of premium cable dramas dealing with adult issues, there is one thing that Simon (a key figure in this age of TV, as he created The Wire) wants to be clear about – it's about porn but is not porn itself.

Much has been written, rightly, about this Golden Age featuring white-male angst and women who are mere props – "Crazy mistresses, nameless strippers, disgruntled daughters, dismayed wives," as one critic has put it. Sex helps sell Golden Age drama. "We don't use misogyny as a currency to get you interested," Simon insists.

Story continues below advertisement

And MacLaren fully agrees: "It's a matter of looking at capitalism by looking at misogyny and porn," she says.

That is all true and The Deuce has almost as many themes as it has characters. But fundamentally, it is about the journey to point where Clinton felt creeped out and what happened to the conversation about sex and sexism that eventually made Trump's behaviour seem normal.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies