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P-Valley and how sensationalist narratives continue to harm sex workers

P-Valley and how sensationalist narratives continue to harm sex workers

. 4 min read

With the announcement that Hulu had cancelled Harlots, its original drama set in 18th-century London, the search is on for a new, accurate, preferably contemporary depiction of the everyday lives of sex workers. Because despite all sensationalized “evidence” to the contrary, the reality of sex work is truly quite mundane, and those in the industry know the lives they live. As I’ve said before, sex workers are starved for accurate, nuanced, authentic, and considerate representation.

In this era of pandemic and perpetual, forced introversion, it’s unsurprising that P-Valley is enjoying such a warm reception, with claims of “noir qualities” and “immersive layouts.” When lyrics that purport to toy with the idea of “starting any OnlyFans” are climbing the charts, sex work is a novelty for outsiders and participants alike. We’re all sitting at home, 4 or 5 months in, money dwindling with few or no prospects for employment or entertainment. Enter P-Valley. Short for Pussy-Valley, the newest Starz drama is described as “trap music meets film noir.” I won’t argue on the point of “trap music” when the soundtrack of the first episode is a clear display of the showrunners’ love for Southern rap. It’s no surprise that a show set in the Mississippi Delta is punctuated with tracks from Duke Deuce, Koopsta Knicca, Jucee Froot, and Jus Bentley. Those names may not be well known to anyone north of the Mason Dixon line, but these Southern natives certainly fit well with creator, Katori Hall’s, vision of “Delta Noir.”

I do, however, take issue with Hall’s claims of bringing empathy and understanding to portrayals of stripping. P-Valley is better than a lot of tv shows and films about sex work, to be sure, but we’re only one episode in and the stereotypes abound. From the beginning of the first episode, we’re given enough PTSD-induced flashbacks to know that Autumn Knight, the “high-yellow” lead is an abuse victim fleeing her assailant. That’s all we know about her though. We’re given nothing about her life, her personality, or her life beyond a brief glimpse of a driver’s license at the very beginning. One poorly developed character does not a bad show make, but P-Valley is one cliche after the next. Mercedes, the dark-skinned OG is mean, uncharitable, and aggressive. She has none of the alleged empathy or understanding the show claims to bring. In all honesty, Mercedes is less a “super-shero” and more a collection of stripper tropes mashed together to create a “real” person. Are there individual aspects and traits of Mercedes’ character that resonate with dancers? Certainly. But Hall’s haphazard combination of an abusive, late-life Christian mother with a money-hungry, single-minded, aggressive dark-skinned woman willing to ignore another woman’s discomfort for a man’s sexual gratification turns the show’s secondary lead into a caricature. There is even a brief moment where we see Mercedes take money from a stolen wallet and place it in a church collection plate. A brief comedic moment in an otherwise dark drama that is completely divorced from the reality of what consequences await a sex worker caught stealing.

Before I’m accused of being too harsh or critical, I admit that I like P-Valley. What little representation of sex work we get is often entirely white and focused on the “savior” narrative. Hall’s adaptation of her play is unique and long-awaited in that way, much like Numa Perrier’s Jezebel. Sex work is work, nothing more and nothing less. But even then, Hall cannot stop herself from falling back to old, tired cliches about “empowerment” when describing the show and her vision. Do some people find empowerment in sex work? Sure. But it’s far more likely that it’s just a job...a means to an end, a way to get by. And this is what shows like P-Valley continue to miss. Authentic representations of sex work and sex workers cannot focus solely on stories of abuse, terror, and trauma. Accurate, articulate, non-exploitative tales of sex work must include the every day mundane and insignificant minutiae that fill our days. The boring shit. Doing taxes, dropping children off at daycare or school, going to brunch, going grocery shopping, and watering the plants. Sex workers cannot be portrayed as “normal” people until their stories are told in their full, boring, redundant, and uninteresting glory. For all the authenticity of P-Valley, it is trauma porn. Miss Mississippi is onscreen for less than 10 minutes of the entire episode yet every scene focuses on her abusive partner. We know nothing about her, save her 2 children, except that her partner beats her and leaves bruises on her face. Where, exactly, is the person?

Stories about sex workers should not aim to make viewers “want to hang out with a stripper every day.” We’re not props or toys or trophies to be trotted out and displayed as evidence of political or moral superiority. We’re people with jobs that other people feel a moral imperative to demean or save through creative storytelling or ultimately violent diversionary tactics. I hope that P-Valley evolves beyond the tired, worn-out stereotypes it has on display in future episodes, and seasons. I really do, because we need to see Black sex workers on our screens, but the hill that Hall has to climb is a steep one.