The Whore of Six Feet Under

I’ve been rewatching Six Feet Under (yes, again), and I’ve been struck by the character of Melissa, who appears in the second season during Brenda’s ‘dark sexual journey’ (as described by the producers and writers in the DVD commentary—yes, I listen to the commentary). She starts out as a client of Brenda’s who starts seeing her for massage, and confesses that she’s a sex worker, radically changing the dynamic between the two women and setting off a complicated chain of events.

In the framing of the show, Melissa initially appears as an independent, confident woman who views sex work as simply a transactional job. She has a been there, done that attitude, and Brenda is fascinated by every minute of it, exploiting Melissa as a source of research for the book she’s working on, and longing to dabble her toes in the waters Melissa frequents. There’s a great scene where the women have met up for lunch and Brenda’s angling for information, while Melissa cannily makes it clear that she knows exactly what Brenda wants and might be willing to give it up…for a price.

Their relationship really changes when Brenda agrees to be Melissa’s watcher, satisfying a client who likes to be watched during sex. The moment proves inspirational, as it were, to Brenda, who uses it to fire up her book. And she starts leaning on Melissa more as both a friend and source of support, but also a validating force in her life.

This was the season where the producers chose to have Brenda pursuing multiple sexual partners and various sexual liaisons. They describe it as ‘acting out,’ as of course sexually active women are so frequently described, and in the framing of the show, it’s supposed to be negative. First she’s giving a hand job to a massage client, then she’s fantasizing about rough sex with strangers, then having sex with random surfer boys who walk by on the street, and her fantasies, as well as her activities, keep escalating.

This is the fall of Brenda, where we see that she’s uneasy about where she’s going with Nate, and because she’s a broken, disturbed woman, of course this manifests sexually. (There’s no way being promiscuous could be healthy, right? No way that people attending sex parties might be experiencing balanced, open sexuality with people?) Tellingly, Melissa becomes the gateway drug, the facilitator; Brenda doesn’t start ‘acting out’ until after she meets Melissa and is exposed to her life and career, and it’s Melissa who takes her on a job with a client, Melissa who brings her to a sex party.

Melissa, in other words, who corrupts Brenda with her evil, whore-like influence. That’s really driven home over the course of the season as we watch the two interact in a way that starts to feel somewhat toxic; there’s even a point where Melissa seems to regret what she’s done, when she suggests that Brenda might want to see a therapist and refers Brenda specifically to a sex therapist. The implication here is that Brenda has sex addiction, but it’s fascinating that this doesn’t come up until she meets a sex worker.

It may be that Brenda would have been promiscuous all on her own because of nerves about the wedding to Nate, about committing, about what she was doing with her life. She is, after all, as one of the producers points out in a commentary, ‘the kind of woman who has sex in an airport utility closet with a man she’s just met.’ But her sex life is by and large stable until she meets Melissa and it all starts to go into a downward spiral, one in which she can’t seem to figure out who she is and what she wants, so she just settles for rampant, often meaningless, sex. In her case, her promiscuity does carry an unhealthy edge because she’s using it to avoid responsibility for confronting tough things going on in her life.

Brenda ultimately makes the decision to harshly cut Melissa off, pushing her out of her life as though this will magically make her problems go away. This, too, is telling; even as the show frames the problem as mostly Melissa, not Brenda, so does Brenda, when this is obviously a problem that runs deeper, and has more to do with what is going on inside Brenda. Why must it be a sex worker who’s the catalyst for this, and what is Six Feet Under saying about sex work?

The show very rarely has sex workers. We see a porn star’s funeral at one point, and it’s almost played in a comical way, with people talking about how great she was on set, and Rico having trouble with organizing her breasts inside the negligee her friends insist she be buried in. David at one point gets caught with a sex worker in Las Vegas, an incident that’s deeply shameful for him; the whole transaction is framed as seedy, dirty, something that could only happen in a place far from home and to a lonely, desperate, confused man who’s reaching out for some kind of meaning in his life.

Many of the attitudes in the show are surprisingly puritanical; its stance on abortion, for example, definitely leans towards the negative. Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that sex workers are rarely presented in a positive, let alone neutral, light, not least because this is a story about the Fishers, not the sex workers they encounter. But it’s telling that the producers and writers acknowledged the role of sex workers in sexuality and the sexuality of their characters, but didn’t treat them as fully realised human beings with their own motivations and experiences.

Sex work, in this framing, is something dirty, unpleasant, grimy, and, often, wrong.