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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

March 25, 2020: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Ashley, Abby, and Activism

[Last fall I had the chance to watch the third and final season of The Deuce, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s phenomenal HBO series about, well, all the things I’ll AmericanStudy in this series and more! I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Deuce, or other TV you’d recommend, in comments!]
[FYI: SPOILERS for The Deuce in most of this week’s posts, so if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee hence and then come on back!]
On two compelling characters who embody two distinct forms and outcomes of activism.
I could write this entire week’s series on the women of The Deuce, which reflects a really important aspect of the show’s cast and diversity (and, it’s worth noting, represents a bit of a departure for David Simon, whose prior shows have tended to focus mostly if not at times entirely on male characters). My final two posts will turn to male characters and their contexts, but today I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy two more compelling women, a pair of characters who were linked not only through their blossoming friendship but also through shared activist goals and efforts: Jamie Neumann’s Ashley/Dorothy Spina, whom we meet in season one as a veteran prostitute but who leaves and then returns to New York in season two as part of a group of activists and social workers seeking to help prostitutes survive and ideally leave the life; and Margarita Levieva’s Abby Parker, whom we meet as a brilliant and ambitious college student and whose evolution to a bar manager and owner is paralleled by her deepening desire to fight for the legal rights of her midtown friends and neighbors and the city’s most disadvantaged communities.
As those brief summaries suggest, these two strong women both focus much of their attention on advocating for other women (as well as men in Abby’s case, but she likewise frequently focuses on women’s rights and issues in particular). Yet they arrive at those activist roles very differently, with Ashley/Dorothy coming out of the gritty, working-class world on which her activism subsequently focuses, and Abby approaching a similar world from (initially at least) an outsider’s and more privileged position. Perhaps as a result of those different origin points (among other, related differences between the two women), their respective activist perspectives and goals likewise feel distinct: Dorothy (Ashley’s birth name, which she uses when she returns to the city) takes a hands-on, pragmatic approach, engaging prostitutes and pimps on the streets in an effort to change both individual lives and the culture as a whole; while Abby approaches the issues with a more legal and philosophical perspective, even choosing to back away from a feminist anti-pornography campaign she had helped originate when the movement begins to threaten First Amendment rights. As that latter detail illustrates, although Dorothy and Abby’s activisms could in many ways be seen as complementary, the distinction between pragmatism and philosophy can and does lead them to diverge significantly as well.
Nowhere is the divergence between Dorothy and Abby clearer than in the endpoint of their respective arcs on the show [serious SPOILERS in this paragraph]. At the end of season two, Dorothy’s past as Ashley catches up with her, and she is murdered by pimps (it’s not precisely clear which ones, but they all had known her in her prior life as a prostitute); whereas Abby not only survives, but at the end of season three leaves the world of her bar to return to college (and, in the finale’s 2019 coda, we see that she has gone on to become a successful lawyer, likely fighting similar activist battles in that world). It’d be possible to see these respective endpoints as a commentary on what forms of activism are more or less likely to endure and succeed, and I do think that’s part of what these characters and their arcs depict. But knowing David Simon’s consistent critique of social structures and hierarchies, I would also argue that the characters’ ends have a great deal to do with their beginnings: that Abby’s outsider and privileged position make it much easier for her to leave the world of the Deuce and enter another like the law; whereas Dorothy’s apparently lifelong entanglement in a much more working-class, impoverished world seems to trap her, despite her best efforts to change both her own situation and that world as a whole.
Next DeuceStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent TV you’d recommend?

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