“It’s essential to include input from sex workers when writing a narrative about them”
When award-winning creator Misha Calvert first showed her new series, “Strut,” at the Tribeca Film Festival Creators Market in 2018, she offered some choice words on the show’s daring subject matter. “Hollywood has long used the archetype of the prostitute to heighten storytelling, be it as a seductress, a villain, seedy set decoration, or another dead body,” she said. “The reality of sex workers is so much more complex.”
Calvert came up with the idea for “Strut,” her new show on the LGBTQ streaming network Revry, during post-production of “Textual Intercourse,” a show Calvert created, which she described to Salon as an exploration of “dating in this time, and the intersection of technology and intimacy, the transactionalism of dating.”
“I just thought, well, the natural conclusion to this narrative of technology and intimacy and transaction is to just put a price on sex,” Calvert said of her inspiration for “Strut.” “And what does that actually mean? What is the experience looking at that from the inside? I wanted to make something that was inside-out, that was also light-hearted and sympathetic toward that experience.”
“Strut,” starring Margaret Judson (“The Newsroom”), Christina Toh (“Orange is the New Black“), Manini Gupta (“You“), and Calvert herself, tells the story of a group of best friends in New York indulging in a relatable hot girl summer of their own, which eventually leads to the friends starting their own escorting agency, wading into the world of sex work, and loving it.
The series begins with Eddie (Calvert), a porn editor whose three best friends are determined to save her from a life of lonely solitude. They wind up bringing her to a sex party, which leads the friends to debate the pros and cons of sex work, and eventually launch their own business. Calvert herself is a queer woman, and “Strut” tells the story of Lucy (Gupta), a journalist exploring her lesbian identity. The show also builds out Eddie’s best friends as a lovable and relatable crew that female audiences feel an immediate bond with — Eva (Judson) is Eddie’s risk-taking roommate and best friend, and Chandaleer (Toth), a hard-partying fashion model and troublemaker. “Strut” is written very purposefully, Calvert proudly notes, for the female gaze.
Calvert has worked on many unique projects before, including plays, short films, and web series, often telling stories of very different women, injected with her dark, modern comedic sensibilities. But in the age of sex work-friendly platforms like Seeking Arrangements and OnlyFans, which Calvert notes wasn’t even a thing at the time when they were filming for her show, “Strut” is a new kind of show, and it feels like a perfect contribution to the times we’re in — that is, mounting public support for sex workers’ rights, destigmitization of sex work, and a growing movement to decriminalize sex work. Other movies and shows, including Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” HBO’s “The Deuce,” Hulu period drama “Harlots,” reality show “Gigolos,” British drama “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and 2000s dramedy “Hung,” have waded into sex work before. But none are quite like “Strut,” which is foremost a story of female friendship, agency, and empowerment.
One key way “Strut” achieves this, Calvert says, is through the significant role of actual sex workers in the writing and creation of the show. She notes that this level of representation is crucial.
“‘Bonding’ Season 1 didn’t, and they got in trouble,” Calvert said of the Netflix dark comedy series following the life of a dominatrix, without actually consulting any dominatrix. “They enlisted a dominatrix to help them save the show, for Season 2, which — I’m glad they found someone who was willing to jump in, because they were getting a lot of flack from the BDSM community.”
Lack of an authentic voice or person with lived experience to tell a story about such experiences is unacceptable to Calvert as a creator, and she followed this conviction in her creation of “Strut.” “Some of my best friends are sex workers, and I have enough experience in that world to be able to write authentically about these characters,” she said, adding that she sees sex workers as “a sacred population,” who have “always been healers for humankind.” (“Jesus knew what’s up,” she noted. “He was hanging out with prostitutes from day one.”)
“It’s essential to include input from sex workers when writing a narrative about a sex worker character, or that role in general. I’m so annoyed by shows that continue even now, and do not utilize authentic viewpoints in their narratives,” Calvert added. In particular, she hopes “men writing stories about sex workers” becomes “a bygone practice,” altogether.
Speaking of some key differences between men writing women, versus women writing women, and certainly, if the protagonists of “Strut” feel familiar to audiences, the reason is very simple. “All of the characters are drawn from various women I’ve known over the years,” Calvert said. “It’s so important we see female friendships in the media that are not competitive and not catty, and not based around men, where [in ‘Strut’] the women have their own thing going on, and their own individuality, their own personal problems and conflicts, but are able to support each other nevertheless.”
“Strut” is foremost, a fun story of friendship, and an exploration of modern sexuality and power. But it’s also inseparable from the times we’re in. Activists are increasingly making the case for how sex workers’ rights are inseparable from feminist and progressive struggles, and while public support for sex workers is growing, stigma and policies that harm or police sex workers persist. With its humor and realness, “Strut” challenges the otherization of sex workers, which lies at the heart of stigma and anti-sex work policies.
“One stigma is that sex workers are different from the people that we know. They are, in fact, the people we know,” Calvert said. “Whoever is reading this, you know a sex worker. They maybe don’t talk about it, but they’re human beings like everyone else; they’re entrepreneurs like any other entrepreneur, trying to make it in an increasingly saturated market, and struggling with the same issues that any business owner is: client services, advertising and marketing, overhead. They are us, we are them.”
Of course, Calvert notes, “Strut” is able to tell this story today with the help of Revry. “It was really amazing getting ‘Strut’ off the ground, because I faced no pushback whatsoever,” she said, describing how she met “Strut” director Michelle Cutolo, and one of the show’s producers, Kimberley Browning, and their excitement about the project.
“The only pushback I got was once we had made it, and I was pitching it to other bigger networks initially,” Calvert recounted. “I love that we ended up at Revry. Initially I was taking [‘Strut’] out to the premium cable networks, and streaming platforms, and I could see it in their eyes — they were frightened by the content. It was just a series of doors closing in my face, until I landed at Revry. Because they’re so open-minded and progressive, they didn’t have any problem with the material.”
“Strut” is now streaming on Revry.