I have spent the last two years documenting the addicts and prostitutes of the Hunts Point section of Bronx (NY poorest and highest crime neighborhood). When I heard that Law and Order SVU was preparing an episode, “Dreams Deferred,” whose main character was a Hunts Point prostitute, I was worried. Most mainstream portraits of streetwalkers are overly simple narratives of helpless women sex trafficked or desperate women waiting to be saved. The prostitutes are rarely complex.
After stumbling onto the film set late one evening I wrote a critique, voicing my concerns. I was mostly frustrated by the image of the prostitute, a pretty, sexy, white women played by Patricia Arquette. (I watch little TV or movies so the name was unfamiliar to me.) Hunts Point is 99% black and Hispanic, and that is reflected in the women who work the streets, save for a few white women drawn by the drugs.
(Law and Order set)
My concern was misplaced. What the show got right was far more important than what little they got wrong.
The prostitute in the episode, Jeannie, is a fair composite of the women (and men) I know. She is shown as a complex human struggling with addiction (hers was alcohol most is crack and heroin), with pain, with stigma, with family, with faith, and with abuse. She is clever, cynical, and most of all tough. She trusts nobody because she has been the victim almost all her life. She lives with burdens that few have and most can’t imagine. She has dreams that she is scared to admit, knowing how far away they are.
Most of all she has dignity, pride, and a hidden fragility, qualities not normally given by the media to streetwalkers, but that I see in abundance every day.
Yes, she is healthier looking than most streetwalkers. Yes, she seems to have her addiction under control and a stable house and a blood family that, in the end, wanted to help. Those things are not often there for most of the women, but they are also not wrong.
TV drama is a tough medium. Every show must weigh competing variables, a battle between realism and watchability. The art comes in sacrificing the unimportant details, to gain visibility for the important. By that measure “Dream Deferred” was a success.
(Takeesha smoking crack)
Takeesha was prostituted at the age of 11, and came to Hunts Point at 14. She is now close to 40. She is addicted to heroin and crack, and has to clear about $200 a day to outrun the drug sickness. I had intended to watch the episode with her, but I was not able to make it, but she did watch, and we spoke the next day.
“I loved it! Law and Order showed that people can care about us.” She especially loved Patricia Arquette. “Tell her I love her. I want to give her a big hug.”
The last ten minutes, which I found to be the only real stretch, was her favorite part. “I loved the ending, I hope it happens like that to me. It shows that maybe I can get better.”
Takeesha does not have a lot of hope in her life. “Dreams Deferred” gave her some. That alone is enough reason for me to love the show.
(Takeesha in her new apartment)
My series on Hunts Point addiction: Faces of addiction
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