How Abby’s painting heralds emerging feminism in The Deuce Season 2

Episode 9 (season 2, episode 1), debut 9/9/18: Margarita Levieva, Dominique Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Episode 9 (season 2, episode 1), debut 9/9/18: Margarita Levieva, Dominique Paul Schiraldi/HBO /

The simple orientation of a painting says so much about the evolving role of feminism on The Deuce.

There’s something very different about Season 2 of The Deuce. After a five-year time jump, the premiere caught us up with the colorful cast of characters by wending its way through the burgeoning porn industry and the sundry indoor establishments that have somewhat shielded sex workers from the dangers of the streets.

In The Deuce Season 2, things still aren’t great for women, but times are certainly changing.

By the end of the 1970’s, feminism had become part of the cultural consciousness in the U.S. Trailblazing feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan had set the stage for change in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but their doctrines took time to trickle down to marginalized women such as the ones working the Deuce. These hard working women – especially the ones monitored by controlling pimps – wouldn’t have had the opportunity or time to learn about emerging feminism. But, eventually, the fight for equality came to them.

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The premiere episode of The Deuce Season 2 illustrates a shift in power for many of the main female characters. Darling Darlene (Dominque Fishback) has obtained her GED, newly empowered Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struts through a club like she owns the place, and Abby (Margarita Levieva) has taken control of the Hi-Hat bar.

These women are taking control both in front of and behind closed doors. A key scene at the conclusion of the episode takes a pointed beat, linking Abby and Eileen as they embrace their respective sexual freedoms. It’s one of the very first scenes on the series to showcase pleasure from a female perspective and, no surprise, it’s sexy as hell.

A reclaiming of women’s physical bodies was an important part of the feminist movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And, in the Season 2 premiere, nothing telegraphs that demand for bodily agency more specifically than the vagina painting that Abby hangs in the Hi-Hat.

feminism in The Deuce
Episode 9 (season 2, episode 1), debut 9/9/18: James Franco as Vincent Martino, Margarita Levieva, Kat Cunning, James Franco as Frankie Paul Schiraldi/HBO. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site. /

As her boyfriend Vincent (James Franco) visits the Hi-Hat, he notes some new decor on the wall. Abby’s in charge now, and she’s decided to stake her claim by hanging an overtly vaginal piece in the main room of the bar. It’s abstract enough to perhaps pass under the radar of less perceptive patrons, but Vincent takes a long look at it, claiming it’s upside down.

Is the painting upside down? Well, we reached out to The Deuce Production Designer Scott Dougan for answers. Dougan notes that under the direction of scenic designer Doug Cluff, artists from the art department painted the vagina painting for inclusion in this episode.

Dougan explained the rationale behind Abby’s painting a bit further:

"I don’t think there’s a right answer to whether or not it’s upside down, but I will say two things: The painting, while abstract, references actual female anatomy, so we talked about the side of the butt and the side of the belly (look closely I think you can see). So you could say that maybe it depends on your point of view, and that’s the point (or the joke).We referenced period artists all throughout the show, from May Stevens to Kiki Smith to Nan Goldin, and I think you can see the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe in this particular painting. But more important, the idea is that an artist friend of Abby’s made it, maybe someone young who’s still figuring it out, but somebody interesting, and somebody that Abby has chosen to showcase. It’s Abby’s bar now: her new world, her friends making the art, her passions adorning the walls. Right side up is whatever way Abby wants it to be."

Next. Gary Carr talks pimp survival in The Deuce Season 2. dark

Abby’s vaginal painting is a symbolic representation of women reclaiming their bodies and their own right to sexual pleasure. After Vincent leaves, she unhooks the canvas from the wall and stares at it with careful consideration. We don’t get to see her decision, because ultimately it doesn’t matter which way she opts to orient the painting. What’s truly important is that she’s afforded the right to choose at all.

‘The Deuce’ airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.