With the topic of Rush Limbaugh’s misogynistic comments still hot in the media, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how women and particularly women in the sex trade are portrayed in pop culture. There is no doubt in my mind that movies and television reflect the beliefs and values of the culture that produces and consumes them.
The first Movie I would like to address is the 1990 romantic comedy starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, “Pretty Woman”. Yes, it’s kind of an old movie now, but believe it or not, it’s still considered the number one romantic comedy of all time. This Cinderella story is seems to still be widely discussed for both its pros and cons with regards to feminism. The following links give you an idea of the arguments regarding this movie as either being indicative of what is known as “third wave feminism” or simply downright sexist.
Even though I did really enjoy the movie, interpretation is that ultimately, it romanticizes prostitution. Julia Roberts plays the common “whore with the heart of gold” archetype. (see: http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/display.asp?id=5985 for an explanation of the four archetypes of prostitution in pop culture). Her character kicks ass in a lot of scenes, and we like to cheer her own while doing so, but ultimately it’s a modern Pygmalion, a story about a man who “rescues” a woman and she needs him to “fix” her.
A really strong character that’s more current, (in a way) is that is of the dominatrix Irene Adler in the BBC production of “Sherlock”. In the original Sherlock Holmes we see Irene Adler appear in the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. She is courtesan to the King of Bohemia in possession of scandalous photographs that may threaten his potential marriage to the daughter of the king of Scandinavia. Irene outwits the famous detective, remaining in possession of the photographs as protection so that she may lead a contented life in her own marriage. In the newer version, by BBC, “A Scandal in Belgravia”, Irene is a courtesan to the wealthy and powerful in the form of a dominatrix. Here we have an intelligent woman, equal to that of Holmes. She obviously has many options available to her but she chooses prostitution as her profession. Ms. Adler, like courtesans and geishas of old, is privy to all kinds of politically volatile information. This information is a double edged sword, she is in danger because of it, but it also serves as her protection as long as it remains in her possession.
While I absolutely LOVE this program, from the point of view of this article, I’d have to say that like “Pretty Woman” it romanticizes prostitution. Ms. Adler lives a wealthy and exciting life, regardless of the danger and that makes what she does look a lot better than reality.
UK born scientist and writer Brooke Magnanti also known as the “Belle de Jour” wrote a blog for several years about her life as a high society call girl while putting herself through her PhD. She has been accused of glamorizing prostitution but she herself says, “”My experiences of the business – let’s not mince words here – were very lucky. And I managed to get out of it before it became the bulk of my lifestyle.”
The most interesting interpretation of a prostitute from a political view is the character of Inara in Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”. In this science fiction program, we have a culture in which prostitution has been legalized. Women who are registered formally with the “Guild” as “Companions” are supposedly considered highly respected citizens. So much so, that Inara uses that air of respectability as a point in negotiating rent aboard Captain Reynolds ship.
Inara can be compared to a 17t or 18th century courtesan. Courtesans were often of fairly high social standing acting as prostitutes to members of the royal court. They were well educated, intellectual, and often so socially accepted that they acted as confidences not only of their benefactors, but to their benefactor’s wives. Inara is the scifi version of a Geisha. In the episode “Jayne’s Town” Inara’s work is portrayed as having an element of sacredness to it. This is reminiscent of a time when sex was sacred and the temple prostitutes were representatives of the Goddess, as I mentioned in part 1.
According to Whedon, prostitution in the future is a good thing right? Well, maybe not so much. For one, Mal, our Captain and fearless leader, persistently refers to Inara as a “whore”. At one point he explains during “The Shindig” that it was not herself that he objects to, but her profession. Also in the “Shindig” her client outright calls her a whore and tells her that she’ll never work again. In “Heart of Gold” (HA! There’s the archetype again, right up front in the title, gotta love Joss Whedon, so tongue in cheek!) Inara calls her rogue friend a “whore”, because she is not properly licensed. So a piece of paper from the patriarchal hegemony makes the difference of respectability even though the services provided are the same. This begs the question; will legalizing prostitution make it legitimate and respectable, and perhaps negate the crime surrounding the profession? That’s a whole different essay.
There are other, more subtle hints that perhaps that a Companion’s social respectability is only on the surface. In the pilot episode, when we first meet Inara, her client accuses her of speeding up her clock to “cheat them out of their fun”. The look on her face at this point says it all.
Apparently the religion of the time doesn’t approve of “Companionship” either. We see this when Mal introduces Inara to Shepard Book at first as the “Ambassador”. When the Shepard greets her with deference befitting a person of status, Mal snickers then explains that Inara is actually a “whore”. The whole deference thing becomes a joke inferring that indeed, the status granted a Companion really is hypocritical. Inara later asks the Shepard if he is going to lecture her on the “wickedness of her ways”. Since prostitution is legalized in this world obviously against the opinions of the church, we can assume that religion and politics are a little more separate than they are in our own society.
Now that my son is old enough we are going back to watching some television programs that we enjoyed in the past that he was too young for at the time and think he may also like. One of the shows we are rediscovering is “Heros”. You may remember the hype when “Heros” ran that first season in 2006… “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World!” One of the characters, Nicki, is a single mom trying to eke out a living and support herself and her child while her husband is incarcerated. Sensationalism aside, Nicki is a very good example of what I mentioned in my earlier “Whores”, “Sluts” and “Studs” posting of a disenfranchised woman, doing what she can to survive by entering the sex trade. In order to make ends meet, Nicki runs a website out of her garage. She tries to hide it from her son, but as we know, kids these days are pretty saavy. At one point, Nicki is incarcerated and her estranged husband is the one struggling to take care of the boy. Boy says to father, “It was hard for Mom too, you know. At least she always found a way to make money.”
Nicki suffers from multiple personality disorder with an alter ego named Jessica. When Nicki is reacquainted with her estranged father there are hints that perhaps he sexually abused her as a child. There is a strong correlation between dissociative disorders such as MPD and child abuse, especially child sexual abuse. There is also a very strong correlation between child sexual abuse, promiscuity and prostitution.
My first job when I graduated from University with a degree in Psychology was to work as an assistant to a therapist. One of our clients was diagnosed MPD. I can see a lot of that client in Nicki’s character. I have to give credit to the writers of Nicki’s character and the portrayal by the actress, Ali Larter, for doing a pretty fair job in keeping this character “real”. The only thing, besides super strength, that just doesn’t wash is the fact that even though neither parent has any money; they still live in a pretty nice place in the middle of New York. I could be wrong, but I doubt that Nicki’s website makes enough money for them to have a place in New York suburbia with a pool in the back yard.
Out of the four I’ve examined here, I’d have to say that Nicki’s situation is probably the most realistic, and it’s certainly not the life I’d want for my own daughter.