Earlier this summer my roommates turned me on to HBO’s Hung, a sitcom starring Thomas Jane as Ray, a Detroit highschool teacher who decides to become a prostitute to make ends meet. The show also stars Jane Adams as Ray’s pimp/friend Tanya, and Anne Heche as Ray’s ex-wife. When I heard the plot I was immediately intrigued. How could the show’s creators deal with sex work in a humourous way without being crude or cheap? Surprisingly, they do.
I expect a lot of it has to do with the fact that the plot is unlikely enough and the characters zany enough to prevent it from being taken too seriously. Ray decides to market himself to wealthy, lonely, middle-aged women after his wife leaves him for a wealthier man and his house burns down. Tanya, his unlikely and neurotic pimp, is a failed poet whose other business venture, “lyric bread”, consists of making baked goods with messages inside them.
But the unreality of the show also makes it pretty hard for me to form an opinion on whether or not it’s feminist. It’s not really useful to look at how it depicts sex work because it doesn’t seem to be sending any political messages on that front. I decided to check out what some other people had to say.
No one here is starry-eyed about the American Dream; everyone knows that it’s precarious at best, diseased and desiccated at worse. But the series finds something sweet and poignant, rather than resigned and bitter, about the prevailing state of affairs, drawing the characters’ humanity against the odds…Happily, it’s the proto-feminist Tanya who gives them all hope, who swats away references to her own inferior looks (a constructed claim, since Adams is actually very cute), who glows with newly found confidence, who schemes about ways to increase their business, and who engages her clients with tough pragmatism and no-nonsense business ethics.
On the other hand, Juliette at Examiner.com suggests the show might actually reinforce sexual power dynamics by showing what men can get away with compared to women. She argues the protagonist would be more likely to be judged if it was a woman or a male prostitute who slept with men.
The New York Times says it’s not about sex at all, but rather a “finely drawn satire of the Great Recession”. Their analysis points to the setting of Detroit, Ray’s lack of ambition, and the comparative economic power of women in the show as indicative: “Collective aspiration and the kind of mercenary will that might move things along belong, in the universe of “Hung,” to the women in Ray’s immediate orbit. As a fantasy of male sexual objectification, “Hung” is a de facto dreamscape of female social authority.”
I can see all of their points, so I’m still on the fence as far as reviewing Hung politically. But no matter what, it’s an entertaining show with decent acting, clever dialogue, and intriguing characters. And it’s worth checking out.