Maggie Gyllenhaal and the power of female sex on ‘The Deuce’
Sex is everything on The Deuce. It is the language the characters speak and the currency they exchange. After all, New York in 1971 was a gratuitous place. Whatever your vices, predilection or persuasion, on The Deuce, sex is raw, physical, and animalistic.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight) delivers an incredible performance as sex worker Candy, which is anchored by an internalized solemnity. She embodies innocence and the loss of what sex can be – sensual, loving, pleasurable, transcendent. 1971 has all but eradicated those emotions from sex and all that’s left are bodies. Bodies which are tired, drained, and in dire need of emotional and spiritual retreat.
Gyllenhaal manages to capture the purity and nuance of sex in an extremely male and misogynistic world and her character is fascinating for it. She is empowered yet a victim, strong yet defeated, in control yet vulnerable. Candy is intelligent, sophisticated, and industrious way beyond the likes of her male acquaintances, but she lacks the infrastructure to capitalize on her talents.
“There’s this fake power structure for prostitutes where you go ‘I’m in charge, I’m going to set the price, I’m going to set the boundaries’ and yet you’re alone in a room with someone that could rape you if they wanted to,” Gyllenhaal told Vulture while discussing how The Deuce explores the control women can exert over their bodies. “I think that’s troubling, and I think that requires an amount of dissociation that makes it impossible to keep your mind intact.”
What Gyllenhaal does is capture the duality of her character – both the inner life and inner turmoil plus the effects of her exterior environment. There is emotional depth and great nuance in the female perspective which makes her character seem so revolutionary for the time. She is brazen, defiant, and although desperate, she is not broken. She understands that sex is a currency and it is the only asset she has.
But she also understands its power on a more sublime and sensual level that the men could never understand. This is somewhat reflected in the manner with which Gyllenhaal insisted that a realistic depiction of a female orgasm be shown in the series to highlight the difference between a genuine orgasm (the kind you enjoy for yourself) and one that’s performative (the kind you fake for another).
There’s an exchange of power between the experience of the two that is powerfully explored within Gyllenhaal’s precise portrayal of the varying roles a female orgasm can provide. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about her desire to “illuminate the misogyny and the performance” of some orgasms in life and on screen, Gyllenhaal described the realistic female orgasm David Simon (The Wire) had written into the script for her:
I was like, ‘This orgasm needs to be the realest orgasm ever. This needs to be one that takes 30 seconds, that’s very quiet, that’s super internal, that’s just about her’ and I thought about that and then I went in and did that on TV and I think that’s very vulnerable. That’s way more vulnerable than the orgasm that’s the performance.
Candy symbolizes the female perspective in an oppressively male world and embodies the grace of femininity and the hardened pragmatism of a desperate woman. In turn, Gyllenhaal’s performance is extraordinary, layered, and amplifies the greater themes of the show. Sex is everything on The Deuce and Gyllenhaal understands why.