A few weeks ago, we spent my daughter’s February vacation from high school in one of our favorite places: New Orleans. We go for the architecture and the history, the music and the food. We try to stay clear of Bourbon Street’s strip clubs (I don’t think my daughter really needs to be exposed to neon signs promoting “All-Nude, Barely Legal”). But we can’t escape the souvenir shops. Several of them, this time around, had a tee shirt in the window that read “I Support Single Mothers,” with a silhouette of a pole dancer.
Clever? Maybe. Funny? Not really. But it does reveal a sad truth about sex workers. According to Global Women’s Strike, a not-for-profit in the U.K., “over 70% of prostitutes are mothers, mostly single mothers, doing what we can to survive and give our children a better chance in life.”
In this country, single-mother households have grown exponentially, now making up more than 25 percent of all households with children. They’re also the most likely to be living below the poverty line. Prostitution, enabled now by text messages and Craigslist, is a viable, if illegal and dangerous, way to make ends meet. Just ask “Blue.”
Blue, intensely—and believably—portrayed by Julia Stiles, is the eponymous heroine of a dramatic online series; she’s an accountant by day, escort by night, and devoted single mother. Like working moms everywhere, Blue has to juggle her roles, but the stakes are higher and the settings grittier. In the first episode, for example, her son calls and interrupts her “date” with a homework question. In less professional hands, this might be a mood killer, but Blue is adept at keeping everyone satisfied. She offers the john a 33 percent discount, then heads to the powder room for a moment to tackle junior high physics.
Dressed in complicated call-girl lingerie as often as she’s clothed, Blue puts her extracurricular life out there for us to see. But her background remains a mystery—and, we assume, not a happy one. Was she abused? Raped? It’s hard to know. She’s surrounded by strong secondary characters, like her cougar mother (Kathleen Quinlan), a hometown neighbor who knows her secret (David Harbour), her precocious son (Uriah Shelton), a mousy coworker (Sarah Paulson), and two competing madams (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Wanda De Jesus). The writing is crisp, the scenes feel true, and there is very little irony. In fact, there’s a matter-of-fact-ness to Blue’s situation. She’s good at what she does, but doesn’t particularly enjoy it. At the same time, she doesn’t feel compelled to get out of the business either. Despite the dramatic setup, there’s very little drama—it feels as if we’re watching a real life. As such, it’s hard to pull away from, and there’s no need to. With three seasons of Blue available 24/7 online, we can binge.
Blue, Season 3 Trailer
Blue is, to date, the most successful program produced by WIGS (the acronym stands for ‘Where it gets . . . ’ nodding to the channel’s marketing campaign: “Where it gets interesting,” “Where it gets sexy,” etc.) Dedicated to creating content for and with strong women, WIGS was founded a couple of years ago by a team of Hollywood visionaries. Interestingly, despite their new woman-centric initiative, they’re all men: Jon Avnet (Black Swan), Rodrigo Garcia (Big Love), and Jon’s son Jake Avnet. Nevertheless, roughly half of the WIGS shows have been written and directed by women, a stark contrast (and happy victory) when compared with the Hollywood industry average (a mere 6%).
Celebrating its second anniversary this spring, WIGS offers more than 150 episodes of scripted content, including 15 high-end original series, 7 short films, and 10 documentaries, all starring female leads. Like Blue, each program is named for its protagonist (real or fictional). And Ms. Stiles is in excellent company; WIGS has featured performances from a wealth of female actors, ranging from the very young (Dakota Fanning, 20) to the more mature (Lois Smith, 83), and every age between.
Topics for each of the projects fall neatly into the category of women’s issues. But, like Blue, each program presents a fresh take and a more intimate perspective than we might find in more traditional or mainstream media. Susanna, with Maggie Grace and Anna Paquin, looks at debilitating post-partum depression. Lauren, starring Troian Bellisario and Jennifer Beals, focuses on rape in the military. Ruth and Erica deals with the difficult decisions a daughter (Maura Tierney) faces as her mother (Lois Smith) ages. Multiple series, such as Christine and Paloma, showcase the vagaries of modern romance, while others—Leslie, Jan, Audrey, and Kendra—examine careers. While it’s tempting to plug each of the series into a particular pigeonhole, as I’ve done here, I’m really doing them a disservice. One of the best things about WIGS is that each series offers a more dimensional portrait of an individual woman. (This may be why so many well-known actresses were willing to work at SAG’s lowest day rate in order to participate.)
If you’re strapped for time (or not quite convinced), WIGS’s short films are a great way to dip your toe in. Ranging from six to twelve minutes in length, they are perfect for a mid-afternoon coffee break at your desk. Serena, one of WIGS’s first projects, features Jennifer Garner as a congregant lusting after her priest. Celia stars Allison Janney as a gynecologist who must examine her feelings about abortion when her patient turns out to be the teenage daughter of a friend. And Denise lets us watch actress Allison Pill get a little of her own back when she runs into an ex-lover at an audition. But I think my favorite of the short films is Gumdrop. In it, a young actress is brought in to read for a part, and her audition is as much about her personal life as it is about her acting. We’ve seen this before (think: A Chorus Line), but in this case, Gumdrop is a robot, as sweet and endearing as anything you’ll find coming out of Pixar, and a lot more grown up.
The WIGS documentaries include true stories of international figures (like Diana Nyad), inspiring artists, society’s outcasts, and unsung heroes. Again, the main figures are women and the issues examined are particularly relevant to us, as women, today.
I mentioned earlier that the actors who worked on the WIGS projects took a pay cut to do so. Online programming is new and the financial model hasn’t been figured out quite yet. But that hasn’t discouraged some very big players from showing interest. WIGS has had multimillion-dollar backing from Google and signed an undisclosed deal with Fox in 2013. Traditional media companies will have to adapt as more and more of our entertainment is delivered digitally. It’s too early to predict which channels will succeed, but WIGS has made a most impressive start.
And, if it opens the market to more smart, interesting, relevant content for women, we’re all winners.
WIGS programs are available through several different channels. You can watch online at www.watchwigs.com, or www.imdb.com. You can find the series episodes, shorts, and documentaries at YouTube (a good option if you’re watching from a mobile device like a smart phone or tablet). You can also watch on your television if you have an Internet connection through your cable company or through a digital box.