Why Sex Work Movies Don't Stand The Test Of Time

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Why Sex Work Movies Don't Stand The Test Of Time
Why Sex Work Movies Don't Stand The Test Of Time
Video: Why Sex Work Movies Don't Stand The Test Of Time
Video: Sex work is integral to the feminist movement | Tilly Lawless | [email protected] 2023, February

Dmitry Kurkin

The more active the discussions are about the rights of sex workers and sex workers and the very nature of sex work, the more noticeable the shortcomings and contradictions of how this controversial topic is talked about in films. Sex work has always been interested in cinematography, but with all the variety of approaches and views, stories and characters, many problematic aspects of sex work - primarily how it looks through the eyes of the people involved in it - have until recently found themselves in the blind spot.


Screen sex workers and sex workers in one way or another form attitudes towards their prototypes. And to the latter, the film industry owes so few people: while selling to viewers bright and memorable images, many of which have become classics, films, nevertheless, repeatedly broadcast the same clichés and fall into equally harmful extremes.

The traditional image of sex workers in artistic culture is inseparable from the moral condemnation of the craft and religious symbolism. A sex worker is either the quintessence of a "fallen woman" who is at the very bottom of vice (Lulu, the deviant heroine of Frank Wedekind's plays, having lost her capital and position in society, begins to trade in the body), or the version of Mary Magdalene, who, despite the depth of the fall, turns out to be capable to spiritual transformation (Sonya Marmeladova in "Crime and Punishment"). These two poles, usually not involving semitones, have migrated to cinema, where sex work is often either demonized or glamorized, and sex workers and workers or deeply hounded outcasts (River Phoenix in My Personal Idaho State by Gus Van Sant). or "harlots with a heart of gold" (from Cabiria Fellini, the symbol of an ineradicable faith in True Love, to Sera from "Leaving Las Vegas", trying to get the hero of Nicolas Cage out of the abyss of alcohol addiction).

"Pretty Woman" is a monument to an implausible depiction of sex work

like a ticket to the tale of Cinderella, which someday

let the yuppie appear on a white horse

As a rule, sex work in cinema means a “problematic” image, and first of all a female image: in Hollywood alone during the 90-year history of the “Oscars”, eleven actresses received statuettes for their roles as sex workers. It is worth making a couple of caveats here. First, sex work in cinema was not exclusively a female prerogative: John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" shot at one time precisely because it turned the gender stereotype over. Second, sex work did not necessarily involve drama. Frivolous comedies like The Happy Hooker (adapted from Xavier Hollander's memoir), The Night Shift or Risky Business paint the craft as a fun, if not always safe, adventure for adventurous people who just enjoy having sex for money. And above them rises "Pretty Woman" with Julia Roberts as a monument to the glossy and maximally implausible depiction of sex work - like a ticket to the tale of Cinderella, for which the yuppie on a white horse will one day come. The film by Harry Marshall, despite the box office, was repeatedly criticized for its naivety in the nineties, but today it looks like an outstanding example of social deafness.

However, most of the tapes with sex workers as the main characters still do not suffer from such one-sidedness as "Pretty Woman" and "The Happy Hooker". There are plenty of films that talk about sex work as “just another way to make money on bread and butter” (Soderbergh’s “Call Girl” as an example of a professional drama that is fundamentally non-judgmental). But more often than not, it is a deliberately chosen source of transgression and uncomfortable questions.


In film scripts, sex work is not so much an object of research as a prism for socio-psychological phenomena.Bunuel's "Beauty of the Day" is about sexual frustration that remains insoluble in the traditional model of a noble family. Patty Jenkins' "Monster" is about social isolation and a culture of violence, physical and - almost to a greater extent - emotional. "Intergirl" by Pyotr Todorovsky - about tectonic shifts in the perestroika USSR. The Indian film "Mandi" is about the bigotry of politicians who publicly preach morality during the day and go to a brothel at night.

An inescapable flaw that suffers from almost everyone - even very good films - about sex workers is optics: it is almost always sex work through the eyes of others - opponents and defenders, moral activists and transgressors, philosophers and sociologists. This optics usually makes it difficult to discern the people who are engaged in it, to see their everyday problems and everyday habits as something very everyday, and not scandalous.

Thriller "Webcam" turns the cliché about "a girl in trouble": the main character

not only does she not look like a person who needs to be saved - she fights for the right to return to her craft

But rare exceptions still come across. This includes Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, an early Sundance hit that captures the life of a Manhattan brothel with almost documentary fidelity. This is Mandarin, a touching drama directed by Sean Baker on an iPhone about transgender sex workers in Los Angeles, focusing less on gender and sex work than on what makes them individuals, ordinary people, and not representatives of the profession (Realism is also promoted by the fact that it is played by transgender women who engage in sex work).

This is the thriller "Webcam", which reverses the cliche about "a girl in trouble": the main character in it not only does not look like a person who needs to be saved from sex work in front of the camera - she fights for her right to return to her craft. “People often start watching it, expecting a story of salvation or some kind of morality,” says the film's screenwriter Isa Mazzei, who in the past has done the same thing as her heroine. "It was important for us from the very beginning to destigmatize sex work and show it as it is."

Mazzay, Baker, and Borden both argue that honest talking about sex work in movies is possible and, while maintaining a social lens, you don't have to go to extremes or use sex workers as a convenient plot tool or moral compass.

Photos: Magnolia Pictures, Soyuz-Video, Newmarket Films

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