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Analysis

Agency, Titillation, and Despondency Porn

Content warning for discussion of rape and prostitution as depicted on the show.

The first thing I should say is there are spoilers for the whole first series of Altered Carbon ahead. This isn’t an episode-by-episode deconstruction, but there will be spoilers for the bigger plot points.

So I finished my binge of Altered Carbon. It’s a cyberpunk science fiction TV show. I’m not gonna rate it because this isn’t a review, per se. Should you watch it? I think so. It’s fascinating, the way sleeves and DHF (Digital Human Freight) works is incredibly cool. It’s bloody, violent, intricate, sexy, and awesome. Also, it’s incredibly diverse in ways that no Blade Runner can live up to, and it directly addresses the white-washing from the Ghost in the Shell remake. Altered Carbon is at its heart, a thriller. It’s about trying to solve a crime, it just happens to take place in the future and that future is, well, ugly, unless you’re the richest people in the world. That’s the cornerstone of the science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk.

The thing about cyberpunk is that it’s a gritty, painful kind of story. It postulates that we don’t move into a utopian future; rather, things get worse. Our future is an exploited future. The gap between the rich and the rest of us becomes so extreme as to be obscene. Mega-corporations own the world. It rains a lot, but I suspect that’s just a visual metaphor. Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and The Matrix are all staples of the cyberpunk idea. And now, we have Altered Carbon.

The world of Altered Carbon is no kinder than any of its cyberpunk predecessors. But all the tropes of exploitation are here. Nameless women killed to motivate the heroes. Dead sex workers, killed horribly but never disfigured beyond the point of being sexy for the eye to behold, are featured heavily in this show.

That’s primarily what my hang-up here is. Women bear the vast majority of the nudity in this series, and even in death, agency is not a concern.

There are some fundamental truths to prostitution. The vast majority of these sex workers are unwilling. 20% are men. Human trafficking is rapidly becoming the biggest organized crime on earth. Every year in the United States, the single biggest instance of human trafficking in our own country occurs Super Bowl weekend. Sex workers are raped by the police, they are not protected by laws, they are not defended in court, and their options of escape are limited because of the way pimps and other manipulators control the industry.

And that brings us to the portrayal of it in Altered Carbon. It’s not that this show is the first to portray sex workers as beautiful, even in death. It’s just the latest in a long line of offenders.The thing is, though, you don’t have to do it. Dead sex workers do not have to be titillating to the eye. In movies like Se7en, and even the first Taken film, sex work is portrayed as something horrifying.

Another issue is treating sex workers as people. So often, they are reduced from a named human to their job. Even in Altered Carbon, I can only think of three sex workers who have names, out of the dozens that are portrayed in one way or another. And that’s because they’re supposed to be eye candy. Not people. They’re not treated with the basic human respect due to them. And this particular pitfall is entirely on the creators. In order to explain that, I need to make a brief aside.

Around the time that Justice League (JL) was coming out, I got into a protracted argument on Twitter with someone defending Zach Snyder and CO’s choice to replace the armor the Amazons wore in JL with what amounted to “bikini armor.” Bikini armor is just that; a glorified bikini that does not protect, but it’s dressed up in copper and made to look like “armor” while doing nothing to actively protect the wearer. The person I argued with insisted there were narrative reasons to justify the use of this armor, as if the characters had chosen to wear this armor, and not Snyder and CO. something that does not protect any part of their vital organs.

But there is no reason. The Amazons wore bikini armor in JL because the production team said so, at the expense of forgoing the armor and costumes already made for Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman movie. That may be a brash declaration except for this: General Antiope did not walk up to Zach Snyder and demand her and her army wear bikini armor. That’s not how it works. Trying to shift the blame for a decision about a character’s dress/actions/personality to the character is ridiculous. They are a figment, an invented person. The production team is responsible for every facet of a character, including their looks and their costume.

And so, when sex workers are murdered on a show or movie and they are framed for the audience to be seen as objects of desire even in death, that is a conscious decision made by the production team.

For example. There’s a murdered prostitute who died trying to bring ruin to a particularly vile character in the show. She’s on the police autopsy slab, and Detective Ortega is doing her “angsty detective driven too far for justice” routine and promising justice and such. It’s supposed to be an emotional scene. But there’s no sheet. There’s no modesty for the victim, Mary Lou. She’s naked and uncovered and you get to see the bruises and disfigured legs. But she’s still ‘sexy.’ Because it’s not gruesome. So even though her legs are bent at mildly unnatural angles, she’s still titillating to look at.

That’s a framing decision made by the production team. There’s no reason Mary Lou couldn’t have had a sheet, a body bag, some sort of sealant that fit the futuristic aesthetic of the show. She’s just left there, naked and sexy, while Detective Ortega has her moment and promises justice.

In the finale, two prostitutes are killed, a man and a woman. Neither has a name, neither does their killer. The male sex worker retains his modesty because the woman’s body is draped over his hips and genitals. But she, the second victim, is in lingerie and the camera frames it just-so, so while you can see how she was killed, she looks like she’s lounging, limbs stretched and head slightly back and body revealed in such a way that it remains sexy. He’s just dead. She remains an object of desire. In an earlier scene, a perverted guard (that’s literally his name in the credits) fondles a conscious-less body. When a consciousness is beamed into this body, the first act of this perverted guard is to try and rape the body.

The currency for almost every single one of the power moves in this story is to kill prostitutes. Got a political bill you need to pass and need to twist someone’s arm to get it done? Dose them with drugs, wait for them to kill two prostitutes, then blackmail him to do what you want. Need to keep a witness silent so they can’t testify to who hurt their friend? Kill the prostitute before abducting the main character. Need to show the expansive, perverted nature of the ultra-rich? You guessed it. Dead sex workers.

Certainly, it speaks to a larger issue about rape culture and the entitlement of men. Men get every single one of their whims catered to, and those who provide the service are ultimately expendable.

In the second episode where Kovacs visits a clinic, there are advertisements for the kinds of “sleeves” you can purchase. There are different male models, but a woman looks directly into the camera as the Kovacs passes and says, “Put your wife in me,” while she’s naked and inviting. That level of entitlement and the service paid to men in our world is hardly a fictional construct. Like everything else in a cyberpunk story, it’s just dialed up to eleven. The uncomfortable truth of that, however, is what appears as criticism and even satire now will seem measured and realistic in the future. When the Transmetropolitan comic was released originally, it was seen as sharp and witty satire. Reread that after the 2016 election cycle, it seems a whole lot more measured and grounded in a recognizable reality.

And another thing; except in one notable case, every dead prostitute is a white woman. That’s not to say white women aren’t sex workers, but statistically, the vast majority of those who work in prostitution are women of color. That’s not to say the show would be improved if all the murdered sex workers were POC. That’s not an improvement at all. But such depiction glosses over the fact that the vast majority of sex workers are at-risk people. Including transgender women and women of color.

To bring this full circle, my problem is this: almost every one of these women was treated as expendable meat. They were given no agency, no names, no anything except the instruction to look sexy while the hero characters look at the pain these pawns were caused and look sad and angry. We, the audience, didn’t have to be titillated by it. We could have been horrified, disgusted, made to be repulsed by the violence. But no. We’re meant to leer, while those who mourn on screen are given a moment to reaffirm their devotion to their duties while standing over the bodies of these exploited people.

The way the show frames the dead sex workers makes us, the audience, lechers. But it also doesn’t invite us to be introspective about that fact or about the way these people are treated; it makes us desire them, even in death, but without condemning that reaction. It veers perilously close to endorsement in its depiction of their artistically framed and desirable bodies even in death. And that’s what I have a problem with.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

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    a novel- and essay-ist interested in gaming, genre fiction, and better queer representation

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