Fox TV's new series "The Street" -- billed as a "Sex and the City" for guys -- succeeded in offending before it had even aired: a PR-gasm by any other name.
Apparently, the people of Winchendon, Mass., were so offended by a billboard featuring a bit of breast and a slogan with much post-feminist attitude -- "They say Wall Street is a man's world. They're only half right" -- that the billboard had to be removed.
What was more annoying to the good politicians of Winchendon -- sex or greed? Wall Street's intrusive sexuality pushing and shoving its way onto Main Street? Or a chick brashly wearing a pair of men's briefs?
Sometimes, a billboard doesn't tell you what a show's really about, but this one indirectly gets at the sexual ambiguity running through at least one character's love life. Evan, the hippest guy at the fictional investment firm of Balmont Stevens, is a sensitive type with warm, lovable eyes -- the only male character (so far) who looks like he's ever read a novel. He knows something about pro-sex feminism, uses poetic pickup lines and makes knowing small talk about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena the Warrior Princess." (Naturally, this feminist guy in a suit is a Xena-phile.)
What's not to like -- when you compare him to the swaggering, insecure bullies and neurotic MBAs at Balmont Stevens, otherwise known as "the Balmont boys"? Evan meets his match when he woos Allison, an exotic dancer he meets at a co-worker's bachelor party.
In real life, we working girls (whether dancers or hookers) have all encountered Evan's type. He tries to endear himself to you by offering not to pay -- a trait that doesn't go over well with most hookers but does hit the spot with many dancers.
Allison, it turns out, has a thing for dungeon decor and wears a strap-on to bed. Though Evan is shocked at first, he's open-hearted enough to babble about the impact of this discovery with his buddies -- and gentleman enough to bring roses to their second date.
Millennial date etiquette: Be cool about her dildo collection and remember, you can't go wrong with red roses. (Though we never see Allison's sex toy, producer Darren Star and friends manage to show us by letting their male characters dish about it. As for the deeper questions -- Does Allison actually do Evan? Or is the dildo just a style choice? -- the viewer is allowed to believe whatever the viewer is comfortable believing. Some will find this prudish, but maybe it's kinkier to be coy. Whatever did or didn't happen on that first date, Evan comes back for more -- of what we're not quite sure. But something more than his office buddies can handle.)
Evan's not the central character -- Jack's personal life gets a lot more play in the pilot -- but who knows? Evan might develop a following among sex workers if he continues to date an exotic dancer. I can't help wondering: Will he pursue a serious relationship with Allison? Or will he wise up to what he "really" is and mate with an MBA bound for Greenwich, Conn., the way his buddy Jack has done?
The joke is that Evan tells Allison -- a vegan who does bachelor parties to pay for her degree -- that she's "a very unique person." Well, we can't expect Evan to know that kinky feminists who moonlight as exotic dancers -- along with drug-addicted streetwalkers and sexaholic call girls -- are regarded as a cliché in some circles. But I'm rooting for this budding romance to turn real, to challenge both Allison and Evan. We need to see a long-running complex relationship between a sex worker and her oh-so-respectable boyfriend, on network TV if possible. The 21st century demands it.
The attraction between Wall Street guy and sex industry gal feels natural. There have always been Wall Street guys who party with hookers and strippers -- but only a small number who actually fall in love. To complicate life further, we're faced with an almost pathological openness -- in pop culture, on the news, in daily life -- about everything pertaining to sex work. As the sex industry becomes more mainstream, you have to wonder where these relationships are heading. For the closet? For total openness? Or something in between?
And what happens to their sex life, if Evan and Allison decide to settle down? When a dancer or a hooker leaves her job behind for a guy, the transition isn't always easy. Dancers are often addicted to the attention of an audience, and call girls are often afflicted with Don Juanish tendencies that complicate their love lives.
Despite her gender-bending bedroom accessories, Allison is a pretty sanitized "bad girl": Her sex industry job is just one rung on the expensive educational ladder. She's also a nurse, so she's not planning to build her life around selling her body to men -- which could effectively wall her off romantically from a guy like Evan. And she doesn't "socialize" (as she puts it) with her customers. Perhaps, if this show were on HBO instead of Fox, we'd see Evan falling for a thoroughgoing career hooker, instead of a part-time dancer who's a vegan.
Exotic dancers, more so than call girls, are constantly being reminded by a fresh crew of professional exhibitionists that their dancing days are numbered, that a career in this wing of the sex trade is likely to be a brief one. A call girl might even theorize that Allison, the part-time dancer, wears a dildo because she's unwilling to really exploit her female sexuality -- by working as a prostitute.
But this good girl/bad girl hybrid and her sensitive Wall Street admirer aren't the only game in town. How do the other characters and relationships measure up, Zeitgeist-wise?
As a show about financial markets, "The Street" is cartoonish. I've never been the sort of viewer who favors realism -- my favorite vintage TV shows featured girlish women with magical abilities: "Bewitched," "I Dream of Jeannie." (And I wouldn't stand a chance with Evan because I prefer the complicated, vulnerable Buffy to the crusading Xena, who looks like a soccer mom pretending to be a drag queen.)
A show can amuse with its cartoon moments and still get it right.
You might wonder about the outrageous spectacle of two trashy stripper-hookers getting an insider tip from the show's most obnoxious bachelor. Especially when they show up at his office to remind him that they have a deal. But think of James McDermott, the former Keefe, Bruyette & Woods CEO, who gave a former porn actress insider tips -- and was charged with securities fraud. The point is that guys can and do get in way over their heads when dealing with their most immediate needs. Evan makes the effort to romance a topless dancer on her own time, but his co-workers are less imaginative.
Moving away from commercial sex, "The Street" is certainly accurate about the relationship market and the way all kinds of women view men as commodities or acquisitions.
Jack and Alexandra -- she's his Harvard MBA fiancée -- appear to be the happiest couple, building a peer marriage in which Jack will be able to boast that his wife actually earns more than he does. That bubble bursts when Jack learns about Alexandra's double standard: It's OK for her to be emotionally unfaithful as long as he's sexually faithful. (Or, as she puts it, as long as nobody else "touches his pecker.") Like most double standards, it works well when it's not discussed.
Girls who sleep with guys in the office come in two flavors -- the winners and the losers. Put another way, they're femme fatales or bimbos -- a message that pro-sex feminists might not want to hear. Yes, it's offensive and brutal -- even judgmental -- but there's a lot of truth to it.
Catherine, the new VP, who slept with a senior guy in her last job, confronts an obnoxious smart aleck, first making jokes about his penis size, then threatening to have him professionally blackballed when he tries to embarrass her. She's one of the winners, clearly, and her threat implies that mixing business with pleasure has yielded some powerful contacts who owe her favors -- which could be fatal to those who cross her.
At the other end of the chain of command, an ambitious secretary tries to turn a disappointing one-night stand into something better. She bluntly admits she's been sexually ripped off but gamely proposes to make lemonade out of lemons -- by turning the cad who slept with her into a career mentor. She may be a "loser" in the sexual game, but she still believes in the American dream. Apparently, a guy who doesn't bother to call the next day can, in his own way, be inspiring -- after all, he made it in the business without an MBA. But he discourages her, dismissing her American dream as a ridiculous fantasy.
What really defines a femme fatale or a bimbo? Apparently, it's not animal magnetism or sexual technique -- it's whether a woman has an MBA from the right school. Wow. Has it come to this?
But perhaps she simply played the wrong card by sleeping with a recently successful single guy rather than a senior guy who's married. Ironically, a married lover at the office may take his dalliances more seriously and treat a woman with more sensitivity and respect than a guy who's single and available.
Perhaps, with the right attitude and an eye for detail, a so-called bimbo can bootstrap into a femme fatale. (I am also rooting for the pissed-off secretary.)
"The Street" is also accurate about the sexiness of the money game. Though you might quibble with the way an IPO is depicted in the first episode -- and with the business model of an Ivy League sperm-and-egg bank -- I for one felt a stirring in my loins when the opening stock price began to rise. The pace, the panic, the fear of losing are, indeed, sexy -- and much of this rubs off on the men and women who can handle it, who make their living on Wall Street.
"The Street" has been described as recession-proof -- a fascinating topic as long as the boom continues, and a curiously compelling one in the event of a crash.
Wall Street guys have long been important to those who make their living at sex. Before there were silicone theme parks (sports bars with topless dancers), there were private call girls -- and, of course, there still are. The older generation on Wall Street has always indulged itself behind closed doors -- rather than the communal playground of the vulgar "titty club." And it's pretty clear to me that older Wall Streeters have more fun.
New York call girls who are now in their early 20s -- the newest girls in the business -- have never really experienced a crash. As a beginner call girl, I enjoyed the notorious '80s boom -- it was a great time to be a working girl. I also experienced the subsequent crash. Having lived through two boom cycles, I've concluded that a boom economy doesn't really test your sex appeal. Almost everybody looks -- and feels -- sexy during a boom. The guys are feeling generous and they're less concerned about how their sex dollar is being spent.
A madam I know was a 30-ish call girl at the top of her game in 1984: "Things were cooking -- I had clients who paid by the hour. They spent five and six hours with me, they were doing cocaine all night and getting up the next day on an hour of sleep to go to work. I knew a girl who had a nitrous tank in her bedroom. She charged, on top of her hourly rate, $50 for a nitrous hit and often made an extra thousand that way. I never put a dime of my money in the market because of what I saw -- these guys were generous but they were incredibly reckless."
After a crash, wild-spending guys in their 30s can morph into middle-aged conservatives. They stop living for the moment and start trying to figure out how they will continue to get laid on a regular basis for the next decade. Some develop enough foresight to think about the next four decades.
During the last big crash, underemployed female yuppies flooded the sex market and began running ads in New York magazine, the Village Voice and other local weeklies. Only the genuinely sexy can survive in the aftermath of a crash.
My friend the madam recalls: "Suddenly, those Wall Street guys lost a lot of their appeal and Garment Center guys started looking almost sexy. Especially if they were dealing with the lowest end of the clothing market -- like K-mart. That's where the money was! My best client was a guy who bought and sold foreclosure apartments after the crash. Co-op boards hated and feared him but my girls loved him. He was in and out fast because he was so busy -- there were a lot of real estate disasters and his business came first."
Booms and busts have much in common. But Wall Street in 2000 is unlike the 1980s -- described by some as "the Gekko era" (referring to Gordon Gekko, a character in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street") -- in many ways. In days gone by, when a call girl or madam bought a client list, she was not afraid to pick up the phone. An ambitious girl in the sex business would call every man on her newly acquired list and (politely) solicit him: "It was like cold calling," my friend the madam explains. "But you used your girlfriend's name as a reference. Today, you have to think twice about calling a number. A lot of the desk phones on Wall Street are monitored to protect the firms from lawsuits. But half of 'Wall Street' has moved to Midtown, so now they're closer to where the girls are -- on the East Side."
Today's Wall Street smart aleck is always on call -- thanks to cellphones, e-mail and paging technology -- so disappearing for hours at a time is no longer an option, unless you're at the top of the hierarchy. Nostalgia for the '80s punctuates the present-day boom because young guys on the Street wonder: What was it like to have privacy?
A Wharton B-school graduate recently explained: "They didn't work as hard during the '80s. Today, if you're on the Street, you're available 24-7. I can afford to spend a few hours with a call girl -- financially -- but I don't have time for more than a quickie. You can't hide your time or pretend you missed a call from your boss. It's frustrating, you know? We've got bucks and virility but nobody has the time. Hanging out with a hooker and doing cocaine? You must be kidding! Of course, you get drug-tested when you interview -- and there's always the threat of a random test."
The millennial boom has created yet another hierarchy among the johns of Wall Street. Sexual leisure time, the multihour session, has ended up in the hands of a privileged few. Call it the revenge of the senior guys.
Speaking of which, senior guys are somewhat invisible in the first episode of "The Street." Most of the characters, even the big shots, were hungry junior guys all too recently -- and it shows. Especially when they have to deal with women. I guess we'll have to tune in next week to see whether Jack will be man enough to forgive his fiancée -- or whether Evan will catch his dancer sweetheart socializing with another customer.