Christine is a law student who lives in a crammed apartment with a roommate and slaves away at a grueling internship. But when Christine (played by Riley Keough) becomes Chelsea, she’s earning $1,000 bucks an hour, and finds herself the center of attention as she’s swept away into boats and fancy restaurants. The only catch? She has to have sex for money. Given everything she has to endure as a broke, under-appreciated intern though, Christine’s life as an escort on Starz’s new suspenseful thriller actually seems way better than her life as a legal intern.
Writer and director Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan make Christine’s double lives — those of an ambitious millennial trying to navigate the legal world by day and escort by night — mirror one another in Starz’s racy new thriller The Girlfriend Experience. First of all, Christine is constantly lying and performing in both lines of work. In one of the season’s earlier scenes, Christine gets her friend Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) to quiz her on facts about different firms as she hustles for an internship at a job fair. As she regurgitates the same script to potential employers at each company, telling them she’s “particularly interested” in whatever area of law it is they specialize in, we can see that lying is essential if she wants to get ahead in the legal world. And of course, as an escort, Christine lies both to create a division between her ‘real’ and ‘pretend’ life and to appeal to her clients’ fantasies.
Both lines of work also require Christine to dumb herself down, as she’s continuously underestimated. When she does snag an internship, she’s berated by her boss for inserting her own words into a legal form, as he tells her it’s “a cut-and-paste job.” The coveted internship at a prestigious law firm hardly seems like an opportunity for growth, as none of the firm’s partners offer to mentor her in any way, preferring instead to use her as a human filing system. And of course she doesn’t tell most of her clients that she’s actually studying law or let on that she has a brain, as many of her older, wealthy clients are just looking for a younger woman to feign interest in them and boost their egos.
While working as a ‘high-class’ call girl may be an atypical experience, some of Christine’s struggles as a millennial are pretty relatable. For one, like Christine, most women have a tougher time finding mentors than men do (according to a study in the Academy of Management Journal). And it’s hardly surprising when, before she starts working as an escort, Christine tells her roommate she needs extra time to make rent. Millennials are way more broke than their boomer parents ever were, with one in five living in poverty. And her total lack of job security, both as an intern and as an escort (a client can drop her just as easily as her boss can ask for a new intern), is also unfortunately pretty typical, as millennials have high levels of unemployment. As we watch Christine work herself to the bone with few rewards, it’s hard to blame her for looking for a way out.
When people find out that Christine moonlights as an escort, she might as well be wearing a scarlet ‘A.’ But Christine hardly seems worthy of the judgment people throw her way. In fact, her work as a sex worker often seems more honest than the work people do at her firm — she’s upfront with clients about what she’s offering and what her boundaries are, while some of the lawyers she meets are quick to make shady backroom deals and put their own needs first. When another character tries to shame Christine for being paid for having sex, she points out how arbitrary our moral judgments of others can be, explaining that, while she may screw people for a living, she doesn’t screw them over.
What’s disturbing about this compulsively watchable new show is that it drives home just how limited millennial women’s options can be, even amongst the brightest and most ambitious. The Girlfriend Experience may focus on sex with wealthy clients in hotels that would cost more a night than most people’s rent, but it doesn’t glamorize high-end sex work. Some of Christine’s clients have unappealing characteristics, whether that may be foot fungus or alarmingly creepy behavior. Unfortunately though, given that she deals with plenty of creeps in her life as a law student and an intern — without getting paid for it — in the world The Girlfriend Experience’s writers have created for us, it’s easy to see why escort work seems more appealing than a thankless, dead-end internship.