Original Airdates: September 25th and October 2nd, 2008 on ITV2
Secret Diary of a Call Girl is one of those shows that belongs to a micro-genre—it’s a soapy sex comedy in the vein of Sex and the City or Coupling. Those are the only two other examples I can think of, but there have got to be others. It’s vaguely provocative and somewhat raunchy while being decidedly softcore. The soapiness and the comedy can be distributed in wildly unpredictable proportions but usually there’s at least a little of both. You’ll also notice that this is a first for the blog—I’m officially reviewing two episodes instead of one for reasons that will become apparent.
- Telling a sympathetic story about a prostitute with agency. It’s exceedingly rare to see a prostitute as the protagonist of a movie or TV show. When Secret first appeared, it occasioned a firestorm of controversy around the subject of its handling of gender, feminism and sex work. One of the lynchpins of that controversy is the fact that the protagonist, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), is in Piper’s words “a witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it.” It’s certainly true that this is the type of prostitute you’re most likely to see as a protagonist in movies and TV—Pretty Woman and Firefly come to mind—but that doesn’t necessarily make it unrealistic, either. Secret does not make a claim to tell the stories of all prostitutes everywhere and sex work is not a monolith. It’s insulting to sex workers to assume that no one would ever do this by choice, just as it would be insulting to assume that all sex workers were doing it by choice. The world is rich and multifaceted and it would be extremely unfair to dismiss Secret out of hand because its chosen subject matter challenges easy platitudes about sex work. The critique deepens with claims that the show both sanitizes and glamorizes Hannah’s profession, and while that may have held some water when the show’s first few episodes were generating an avalanche of hot takes, that’s not what I saw here. Sure, the fact that Hannah is on the high end of the economic scale means that she can afford fancy restaurants and a nice apartment, but each of these two episodes features a scene with Hannah on the job, and both seem rather unglamorous and distinctly awkward. Even when it pays well, work is still work. Having said that, there’s quite a lot of people out there with extensive expertise in the subject with a wide variety of opinions and points to make about the politics of the show, and you can read more about that here. I will point out that most of the opinions there are pretty negative, but, again, these folks were reacting to early episodes of the show and it may have changed course by the middle of the second season.
- Portraying people with disabilities as sexually active. Hannah’s encounter in the second episode is with Blake (David Proud, EastEnders,) who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. As you can imagine, this is also politically fraught and it’s not executed perfectly, as you’ll see below. Let me preface this by saying that if you’re in a wheelchair and you’ve got an opinion about this scene, I’d really love to hear it—hit me up in the contact form. The internet is littered with inarticulate college students who have been forced to publicly write undercooked response papers critiquing the representation on display here—I’m not sure if it’s one professor inflicting these on the internet or a multitude, but the prompt seems to have been “Explain how this scene reinforces stereotypes about the disabled,” so there’s not a lot of diversity of opinion. I’m much more interested in hearing the opinions of people who are actually in a wheelchair, and the only thing I could find was a YouTube video from a guy who said he thought the scene was realistic amidst a slew of lecherous comments about Ms. Piper’s body. Admittedly, the scene invites lechery—it’s actually pretty damn sexy and David Proud is something of a fox. Regardless, the scene taps into larger issues around stereotypes about the sexuality of the disabled—many have remarked upon pernicious myths centering around the idea that the physically disabled are unilaterally uninterested in or incapable of sex. On the other hand, the idea that sexual release for the disabled inevitably happens through the lens of prostitution is also controversial. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen. There are entire organizations devoted to connecting the disabled with compassionate, trained and well-vetted sex workers, and a 2005 survey revealed that 63% of disabled men would see a sex worker under the right conditions. Some disability activists are campaigning for governments to subsidize sexual services for the disabled, a service which is already available in The Netherlands. Of course, there’s nuance here as well—some in the disabled community have said that meeting needs further down the Maslow hierarchy should take precedence. Others have pointed out that as with all sex work, there’s a vast disparity here when it comes to gender. That same 2005 survey also found that only 19% of disabled women would feel comfortable with a sex worker. Others have pointed out that plenty of disabled people are able to have healthy and fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships without needing to rely on sex workers—in fact, Secret suggests this as well when Hannah reassures Blake that this is eminently possible and that he shouldn’t despair of the possibility. Perhaps the most resonant quote on this issue that I came across in my research was from YouTube activist Mik Scarlet: “I don’t want a world where it’s easier for disabled people to visit sex workers, I want a world that sees disabled people as sexual and valid prospective partners.” I still think Secret is a positive intervention—it’s a sensitive depiction of the subject and I came away from it very inclined to see David Proud as a sexual and valid prospective partner.
- Using a person with a disability as a narrative device. Well, it was unlikely that a smutty cable comedy was going to be able to pull this off effortlessly, wasn’t it? The whole reason we’re given this extended scene between Blake and Hannah is that it’s a reflection on Hannah’s personal problems and her conception of herself. You see, these two episodes center on Hannah’s abortive attempt at a romantic relationship with Dr. Alex McCloud (Callum Blue, Smallville.) It’s difficult for obvious reasons—Hannah is very discreet and doesn’t advertise her line of work to most of the people in her life, including men she hooks up with in her personal life. But before she knows it, a casual hook-up turns into something more serious, and Alex is getting suspicious about why she’s disinclined to show him her apartment or introduce him to friends. In addition, Hannah’s best friend Ben (Iddo Goldberg, Salem) is secretly carrying a torch for her and aggressively disapproves of her keeping this secret from Alex. Of course, Ben’s opinion isn’t stemming from a deeply principled moral code but rather from incandescent jealousy, and this leads to a decidedly unpleasant lunch date with Hannah, Alex and Ben. Given Hannah’s serious feelings for Alex, she realizes the deep tensions here will need to be resolved fairly immediately and resolves to tell Alex very soon. In the meantime, Hannah has her appointment with Blake. In the conversation where Blake bemoans having to resort to prostitution to have a sexual outlet, Hannah muses that sex with strangers can make a person feel even more alone. She also tells him she can relate to his fears about never being able to have a normal relationship. It’s exceedingly obvious that this conversation exists to reinforce Hannah’s fears that her profession forecloses on her ability to find love. Blake is a guest star in Hannah’s life, and the reason he’s here isn’t to tell a story about what Blake’s going through, or to start a conversation about disability and sexuality and prostitution—it’s to underline the poignancy of Hannah’s problems. It’s dehumanizing and disrespectful to use other people’s subaltern identities as narrative props.
- Lazy lover. This is infuriatingly common—I can think of examples stretching all the way back to Romeo & Juliet-–but that doesn’t make it less stupid. We’re meant to believe that Alex and Hannah have a deep and meaningful love connection. The climax of the first episode is this big conversation about how Alex feels too strongly about Hannah to be able to abide her seeming unwillingness to commit, and the final line of the episode is Hannah tearfully confessing her love to him. But this is entirely unearned. We have no reason to believe that Alex and Hannah are any more special of a couple than any other two people. They don’t seem to have much in common. There’s not buckets of chemistry. There’s no wonderful shared romantic experiences. The best we’re given is a bit of cutesy banter. A romance story can be bewitching and frustrating and an all-around emotional roller coaster. Its myriad flaws notwithstanding, this is something that Secret’s American cousin City pulled off on the regular. It’s interesting that Hannah’s job makes it very challenging for her to have a traditional relationship, but because this romance is so unconvincing, it’s really only interesting in the abstract.
- Unnecessary and somewhat implausible dramatics. So how does that conversation with Hannah and Alex go? It doesn’t happen at all, because he finds out about her job in the worst and most dramatic way possible—he shows up unannounced in her apartment as Hannah and Blake are having sex. How was he able to get in? The show foregrounds the fact that Hannah left her door unlocked for the stupidest of reasons–Blake was ferried to the appointment by his father Gary (Clive Russell, The 13th Warrior.) He goes to wait in the car and for some dumb reason Hannah thinks she needs to leave the door unlocked in case Gary needs to get back into her apartment. Buh? He has her phone number. She has his phone number. And in the worst case scenario, Hannah knows that he’s downstairs waiting in the car. The mind rebels at any scenario where Gary would need to come into the apartment and Hannah wouldn’t be available to unlock the door. The incredibly awkward scene where Gary dotingly delivers Blake to the apartment and fusses over him and kisses him goodbye, as well as a brief interlude where we see him fidgeting in the car with nothing to do, makes it seem like he’s going to interrupt Blake and Hannah at a crucial moment. If this is obvious to us, why isn’t it obvious to Hannah? If for some reason the writers were set on Alex dramatically interrupting Hannah at work, why not just have Hannah leave the door unlocked because her presence in the apartment makes her unwary of intruders, or simply because she forgot? But that assumes that this ridiculous scene needs to happen in the first place. Wouldn’t it be more affecting to have Hannah do everything perfectly in revealing her secret to Alex and having him still reject her in abject disgust? Sure, it’s wacky for him to walk in on Hannah and Blake, but it’s also improbable. A difficult conversation makes for better television than a misadventure straight out of the script of Three’s Company.
- Not freestanding. So the reason that I had to cover two episodes of this show instead of one is that Episode 2.4 is entirely set up. I get that allowances must be made for a serialized show to develop stories and characters over time. But that doesn’t mean that an individual episode can’t tell a satisfying, discrete story while still being a part of a larger whole. Here’s the story we get in Episode 2.4. Hannah is realizing she has serious feelings for Alex, and this makes it impossible for her to have a seamy threeway instigated by a guy in a mullet and a leopard print speedo (Jeff Rawle, Hollyoaks.) Alex is eager to meet Hannah’s friends, so she makes a lunch date with Ben. Ben insists that Hannah tell Alex about her job. During the lunch date Ben acts like a pissy little baby and threatens to tell Alex himself before storming off. Alex tells Hannah it’s too painful for him to continue if she won’t commit and she tells him she loves him. That’s it. All the show does is establish the tensions underlying this relationship, tensions which could be established in less than five minutes. It doesn’t tell a story. A story would look like “Hannah meets a guy, but her job makes things difficult, ultimately resulting in rejection and heartbreak.” Diary stretched that out over three episodes, and there’s simply not enough meat there.
Motivation: Sure, she has a lucrative career—but will Hannah ever find looooooove? Can today’s high-priced call girl HAVE IT ALL!? Expect a think piece in The Atlantic on that very subject before the year is out.
Final Episode Judgments: 2.5 gets a 4/10 for actually telling a story. 2.4 only musters a 3/10. For a more probing look at sexuality and disability, check out the movie The Sessions, which occasioned the Guardian article linked above.
NEXT TIME: I review a cartoon based on an action figure: Max Steel. Will it clear the high water mark set by Danny Phantom? Only time will tell!