The Best Movies About Sex Work
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Sure, you've seen Natalie Portman's mild masquerade as a stripper in Closer, watched Melanie Griffith ditz around as a prostitute in Milk Money, and enjoyed the delightful cheesiness of Sandra Oh and Daryl Hannah in the absolutely fabulous Dancing at the Blue Iguana, but is that really satisfying your penchant for sex workers on celluloid? Here's a handy guide for you to better navigate the wealth of sex work-centric films Hollywood has to offer.
Most Realistic: Working Girls
Working Girls set the gold standard for realism in prostitute pictures due to its pitch perfect, un-sensationalized depiction of several women working in an incall location for a day. It's nonjudgmental, understated, and entirely wonderful. Main character Molly bikes to work in the mornings fresh from sharing a bed with her female lover. Youthful and obnoxious Dawn does homework between appointments and baits the madam by sticking gum on the walls, while pleasant Gina restocks clean towels and greets johns with a smile. These women are entirely normal, literal girls next door both in looks (which are resolutely ordinary) and behavior. None are damaged or vulnerable; most are capable, articulate, and levelheaded.
The film refrains from demonizing clients as well as escorts, although it features one particularly aggressive customer among the otherwise mild-mannered ones. Working Girls manages to touch upon racism and ageism within the industry, but is most thorough in its commitment to portraying prostitution as a service job much like any other, complete with the ups and downs that accompany all forms of employment.
Cruelest Treatment of a Call Girl: Mighty Aphrodite
We all know that movie plots generally treat escorts like shite. Leaving Las Vegas's Sera is gang raped before the man she loves dies—while she's screwing him. Butterfield 8's Gloria burns out with a car crash just after vowing to start a new life. And Blow Out's Sally is murdered on July 4th, because what's more American than a dead prostitute? But Mighty Aphrodite dwarfs these pedestrian and predictable examples of sex worker hate with its venomous scorn posing as good-natured comedy.
Linda (Mira Sorvino) is the remarkably kind yet stupid prostitute/porn star who birthed the adopted son of Lenny (Woody Allen). After Lenny seeks out Linda and discovers her distinctly low class lifestyle, he resolves to make her into an honorable woman, which involves sleeping with her and setting her up with an abusive boxer. Lenny's nasty reaction to Linda's childlike, cheerful attitude renders her the movie's eternal (and only) punch line: this hooker is so dense that she doesn't even have the decency to be ashamed of her career. Watching vivacious Linda transform into a cookie cutter housewife is heart breaking. By the end of the movie, she's dressed like an L.L.Bean model and shopping at F.A.O. Schwartz, totally devoid of her earlier verve. Sorvino herself referred to her character as "just a dumb little hooker" but if there's ever been a case for prizing dumb and compassionate over smart and heartless, Mighty Aphrodite is certainly it.
Sweetest Surprise: Sweet Charity
Chances are you've heard "Big Spender" tarted up and sexy-soft (a la the Pussycat Dolls), and so you might be surprised by the aggressive, martini-dry rendition in this 1969 film. The sex workers in Sweet Charity are forward, fierce, and ready to make some money. They're also at the core of the story, acting as family for Charity (Shirley McLaine, who also played a sex worker in Irma La Douce) as she's subjected to the rollercoaster ride of life in New York City.