WORKING GIRLS ON FILM: IMAGES AND ISSUES 

 

By: Leslie Fishbein 

 

Leslie Fishbein is Associate Professor of American Studies and Jewish Studies at Rutgers /The State University of New Jersey. She is the author of Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917 (1982), a book about bohemians and radicals in Greenwich Village in the Teens, and of numerous articles in scholarly journals on Women's Studies, American cultural history, and film. She currently is working on a book entitled Memoirs of the Sex Trade: Constructing the Deviant Female Self, which treats the self representation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American prostitutes and madams.

The past century has witnessed a sea change in American films seeking to document prostitution. That change occurred with respect both to the notion of documentation and to the subject of that documentation, and it has been reflected in genre and tone. In fact, the filmic documentation of prostitution by those sympathetic to the plight of prostitutes and seeking reform has moved from a Victorian view that saw prostitution in melodramatic terms of innocence and victimization, that treated the problem with high seriousness yet invaded its dimensions as work, to a postmodern view that allows for overt fictionalization of its subject and sees prostitution in far more ironic and comic terms as alienated labor by women who, nevertheless, seek to be agents of their own fate and to control their work environment.

While even the earliest silent films had treated the seduction of innocent women by sexually rapacious men, these films tended to be brief melodramas whose moral lessons could be gleaned from mere perusal of their title: The Downward Path (1902) or The Fate of the Artist's Model (1903) both spelled doom for women who strayed from virtue (1). There is little filmic depiction of the work of prostitution in the early films; rather the focus is on the finality of its outcome: drunkenness, dissipation, and death.

Even the invention of a distinctively American filmic genre, the white slavery film, that appeared following the plethora of Progressive Era urban vice commission reports, did little to alter this approach. The film attempted to dramatize the findings of these reports and to argue vigorously against regulating prostitution in the European fashion and for its eradication to preserve the purity of American society (2).

Because the filmic medium has an inherent need to dramatize and simplify a complex social problem, filmmakers perpetuated the stereotypes of prostitution already accepted by purity reformers and vice commissions, thereby reducing prostitution to white slavery rather than examining the problem in socioeconomic terms. Reformers welcomed such films because movies reached a wider audience than fiction or the legitimate stage and had the moral legitimacy of endorsement from experts (3).

The film that pioneered the genre and achieved immense popular success, Traffic in Souls, claimed to have been based on the long-awaited report on prostitution by the Bureau of Social Hygiene, Commercialized Prostitution in New York City. In fact, the report made only incidental mention of white slavery and instead provoked controversy by linking extensive prostitution inextricably with rampant police corruption. Robert C. Allen has noted: "Far from being based on the report, Traffic in Souls actually contradicts it. White slavery is seen in the film as a highly efficient business enterprise of immense proportions, and it is the police, led by the incorruptible Officer Burke, who expose the slavers and save Mary's sister."(4). The film posited a problem - an international white slave syndicate - of immense proportions and offered as a solution only individual rescue, a response that was clearly both inadequate and inappropriate. More fundamentally, white slavery films assumed that only coercion or duplicity could impel a woman to enter prostitution, but historian Ruth Rosen has demonstrated that "the vast majority of women who practiced prostitution were not dragged, drugged, or clubbed into involuntary servitude," that for most women it represented a bleak choice among rather unpalatable alternatives (5).

Ironically, the birth of the prostitutes' rights movement with the founding of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) by Margo St. James on Mother's Day in 1973 witnessed a decision by movement activists to use documentary film to sway public opinion to the cause of prostitutes' rights. Only two years after the birth of COYOTE Hookers (1975) was released (6). Made in cooperation with that organization, the film was a low budget effort that featured many men and women active in the early days of COYOTE in a celebration of prostitution that in both form and content tended to undercut that very message. The film opens with scenes from the first Hookers' Ball in San Francisco, one of COYOTE's most successful fundraising activities, an event that closely resembled bacchanalia in which prostitutes cavorted with other guests of both genders. These scenes, with their dancing, singing, feasting on food, and capering, present prostitution not as work, but as play.

However, the commentary by St. James in filmed interviews in Hookers treats prostitution as work, namely the sale of sexual services, and mounts a serious protest against the gender, racial, and class discrimination that prostitutes face in a patriarchal legal system that singles out black prostitutes for more frequent arrests and police harassment, that permits police to prey on novices in the profession, and allows women engaging in prostitution to be arrested while their clients go scot-free. However, the film's apparently staged depictions of prostitution include streetwalking scenes with women who prostituted themselves as early as age fifteen or as a result of divorce, depression, or destitution, which makes it impossible to construct their work as a matter of choice, and more elaborately staged depictions of the actual work of prostitution that, in fact, glamorize prostitution, much in the style of Hollywood films. As a result, Hookers is disconcerting as a propaganda vehicle, not merely because it includes scenes of the Hookers' Ball that many potential adherents of prostitutes' rights might find morally repugnant, but also because the film veers dizzyingly between fantasy and reality in a style that undercuts its appeal to authenticity to document its claims.

A more elaborate documentary of the early days of the prostitutes' rights movement, Sally Barrett-Page's Ain't Nobody's Business, (1977) also undercuts its fundamental message of celebrating prostitution with testimony that interrogates its assumption that decriminalization of prostitution is essential to ending the oppression of prostitutes. While the film recurs repeatedly to the scenes of conviviality and bonhomie of the First International Prostitutes' Rights convention in Washington, D.C., the actuality material that it interpolates is far more troubling. The film begins its actuality footage with a portrait of a prostitute and her family that is intended to demonstrate that prostitution can be a viable social and economic choice for women. However, Carla's parents are so visibly uncomfortable with acquiescing in their daughter's choice that it is hard to believe their conversion is genuine.

Virtually all of the prostitutes and former prostitutes presented individually in Ain't Nobody's Business (7) suffer from alienation or false consciousness or both, whether an elderly black woman fearful of exposure of her shameful past, a younger black prostitute who had been tempted into sexual activities with a stranger at age fifteen and later aided by her own grandmother who offered her a telephone to save her from the perils of streetwalking, or a tone deaf singer who claims both to be a sex therapist and to be working only until her musical career. While Ain't Nobody's Business celebrates the rights of women to control their bodies free of legal oppression, the women it features seem so alienated, victimized, and/or deluded that it is hard to square their lives with a celebration of prostitution.

Just as the early white slavery films felt compelled to dramatize their findings by inserting melodramatic episodes, so, too, did a film like Lizzie Borden's Working Girls (1986) (8) seek to dispel myths about prostitution by reenacting in docudrama form a day in the life of an elegant call flat in midtown Manhattan. Despite the film's ostensible desire to demonstrate that prostitution is work, Working Girls blurs the distinction between work and play. The film's heroine Molly (Louise Smith) drives to work from lower Manhattan on her bicycle, thereby turning her commute into a form of sport, and the prostitutes make a game out of defying their greedy martinet of a madam Lucy (Ellen McElduff) by smoking more marijuana than she and the law allow as a misdemeanor and seeking to blow the telltale smoke away playfully when she unexpectedly arrives. The films does seek to dispel prevailing myths about prostitution: its protagonist is a lesbian in a committed relationship and a Yale graduate, and the other prostitutes include a gum cracking coed, a women with dreams of using prostitution to provide the capital for a beauty shop, an aging prostitute who has reluctantly turned to drug trafficking, and a naive mother who answered an advertisement for a hostess job and decided to see if she could endure actual work as a prostitute. The films seems almost obsessed wit the quotidian details of running a call house: the variety of contraceptives and prophylactic practices, the necessity of never putting the phone on hold, the devices used to prevent entrapment by a vice officer: "Make sure the client is completely comfortable before you take any money, " that is make sure that he is nude as proof that he is a genuine client and not a cop. The film also demonstrates the kind of camaraderie that grows up among the women who respond to their exploitation by Lucy by secretly withholding their earnings and by attempting to assert more control over their bodies and time than she would prefer. While the film has a kind of gritty realism about the health risks posed bycontraceptive choicesandthe susceptibility to venereal diseases trnsmitted by clients, and the manipulation by the madam, Working Girls fails to achieve much in the way of resolution. Molly leaves the business because she is disgusted by Lucy's indifference to the newest woman's concern for a child left at home with a baby-sitter because a call from that child interrupted the atmosphere of fantasy that Lucy tries to cultivate for her clients, but her solution, like those of early white slavery films, is an individual one that depends upon her essential middle class status as a Yale Graduate and photographer rather than more universal one applicable to prostitutes in general.

A film that employs a postmodern style veering between comedy and social realism is Julia Query and Vicki Funari's Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000) (9), a film whose narrator and protagonist is both a stripper and a stand up comedienne, thus embodying the work's quirky duality. The film opens on an ironic note as Query tells us that she had been raised by her social activist mother to fight the good fight and we hear the voiceover of the mature Julia say: "But I never dreamed that my first attempt at labor activism would be as a stripper."

Unlike early twentieth-century documentaries on prostitution that rarely depicted any form of sex work, Live Nude Girls Unite! explicitly treats the working conditions of peep shows, explaining that peep shows differed from strip joints because in the former there was no direct physical contact between performer and client. It refuses to view this work purely in terms of sexual or gender exploitation, instead celebrating female camaraderie and the erotic satisfactions of working with other women with remarks like: "I loved dancing in a little room with other women. It's like a weird pajama party." and "And the women I met dancing were some of the strongest women I met in my life."

Like Working Girls, Live Nude Girls Unite! seems obsessed with the details of sex work. The film carefully details all the work practices of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco with respect to hours, classification of the women by race, hair color, breast size, and scheduling. It also documents the degree to which management had ironically stripped the dancers of ever the ostensible control they had over their work environment by failing to protect them against secret videotaping by clients that led to images of the women turning up on the Internet and in pornography tapes. Angered at management's failure, the exotic dancers at the Lusty Lady called in the Service Workers International Union, Local 790 to unionize them.

It is at this juncture that Live Nude Girls Unite! begins to blend melodrama with screwball comedy, subverting the historical usage of melodrama as heightening moral earnestness by linking it to an idiosyncratic mother/daughter relationship. Query was afraid that the intensive media coverage of the Lusty Lady job action would reveal her secret identity as a stripper to her mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, an internist who for a decade had been distributing condoms and advocating safe sex for the poorest streetwalkers in New York. Query's own activism included her work on the documentary film that will unmask her.

While the early white slavery films posited an absolute distinction between true women and their fallen sisters, Live Nude Girls Unite! acknowledges that a clear distinction between prostitution and other forms of sex work no longer exists as exotic dancers turn to the far more lucrative work of lap dancing but lament the decline of craftsmanship and artistry once associated with stripping, the deskilling of their work as well as their resulting exploitation as workers charged increasingly steep stage fees and being coerced by management into selling sexual services to the clientele.

Query tries to situate the exotic dancers' union within the historical context of the struggle for prostitutes' rights with which her mother had familiarized her as a teen, so she is thrilled when activists Margo St. James and Carol Leigh a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot supported the Lusty Lady organizing efforts. The very notion of job action takes on aspects of "carnival" of the kind pioneered by COYOTE when the Lusty Lady exotic dancers decided to do a slowdown by refusing t o show pink to customers, picketing with signs like "NO CONTRACT, NO PUSSY," and encouraging customer support with chants of: " Two, four, six, eight. Don't go in and masturbate."

Live Nude Girls Unite! alternately satirizes and engages in the feminist debates over sex work. Query recognizes that the subject of sex work is a peculiarly vexed one, that it creates a barrier even between her feminist mother and herself: "I wondered why I could tell my mom I was gay but not a stripper." The film presents both the feminist critique of sex work as exploitative and the sex workers' defense that their work is empowering, only to end with Query's observation based on personal experience that the work is simply boring. The intense debate over what choice means for women in sex work is reduced to humor as the film quickly alternates between cartoon clips of a dowdy older feminist dropping her bra into a bonfire and a stripper dangling her bra in front of a customer, thereby conflating the two acts as emblems of choice.

Melodrama and comedy finally converge in Live Nude Girls Unite! when Query discovers that both she and her mother are scheduled to appear on the program of the 1997 International Conference on Prostitution and decides to disclose her true identity because it seems impossible to conceal it any longer and because it is a terrific plot device for the film. Despite her initial revulsion at Query's revelation, Wallace struggles to deal with her daughter's choice, claiming to respect her for empowering other women yet insisting that the battle should be construed as one over civil liberties and encouraging Query to turn to other organizing activities. The sexual issue remains unresolved because the personal and the political are so intertwined. In the film's final moments Wallace reminisces to her daughter: "Do you remember the time with Grandma when you were five years old? Well, you were running around the house naked. And my mother said to you, 'You have to put something on. You should be ashamed.' And I really, I just took her by the shoulders and I said, 'Never ever tell my child she should have shame.' I was so upset with that. [pregnant pause] Well, I think you overdid it." Query laughs, and in humor the women achieve a moment of harmony.

Live Nude Girls Unite! completes the trajectory of the documentary on sex work by creating a hybrid form. Unlike the earliest documentaries, it directs focused attention to the everyday details of sex work, but it eschews their use of melodrama to promote high seriousness and to justify the audience's prurient interest in its subject. Instead it yokes melodrama to comedy, the personal and the political, activism and eroticism. The film recognizes the exploitation of women as exotic dancers but simultaneously acknowledges their strength, solidarity, and sexiness. While the final frames list the union's achievement in organizing 95% of the dancers at the Lusty Lady, improving their working conditions, and ending racial scheduling, its final title is form that most iconoclastic of radicals, Emma Goldman: " If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." The shift has been marked one, from eradicating 'the social evil" in the earliest documentaries to recognizing that the battle for feminism is not purely a social or economic one but a cultural one as well, that it is personal as well as political, and that while there are victories against oppressors to be won, any resolution is at best tentative. It's even harder to win a struggle when one seeks not merely bread, but roses, too!

1.) The Downward Path, 1902, Motion Picture Selection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Hereafter referred to as MPS/LC; The Fate of the Aristist's Model, 1903, MPS, LC.

2.) Between 1910 and 1917 forty-three cities conducted vice investigations, beginning in 1902 with the release of The Social Evil, based upon the New York Committee of Fifteen studies, and climaxing in the release of two highly influential investigations of prostitution sponsored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s Bureau of Social Hygiene: George Kneeland's Commercialized Prostitution in New York City (1913) and Abraham Flexner's Prostitution in Europe (1914). Mark Thomas Connelly, The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era (Chapel HIll: University of North Carolina Press, 1980) 15-16; Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982) 14-15; New York, Committee of Fifteen, The Social Evil, With Special Reference to Conditions Existing in the City of New York (New York: G.P. Putnam's Son's, 1902; George J. Kneeland, Commericalized Prostitution in New York City (1913; reprint Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1969); Abraham Flexner, Prostitution in Europe (New York: Century, 1914).

3.) "White Slave Films, "The Outlook 106 (17 January 1914) L 120-122; Kathleen Karr, "The Long Squareup: Exploitation Trends in the Silent Film," The Journal of Popular Film 3 (Spring 1974): 107-117.

4.) Terry Ramsaye, "The Screen Discovers Sex," in A Million and One Nights, Vol. 2 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926) 612-619; George Blaisdell, "Traffic in Souls, "The Moving Picture World 18 (22 November 1913): 849; Robert C. Allen, "Traffic in Souls," Sight and Sound 44 (Winter 1974): 50-52; "Relations of Vice to Police Graft in N.Y.," The Survey 29 (8 March 1913): 802-880; Graham Taylor, Morals Commission and Police Morals," The Survey 30 (12 April 1913): 62-64.

5.) Rosen 137-168. Quotation appears on p. 137.

6.) Hookers, directed by Max Scherr and George Csicsery, a Max Scherr Production, filmed in collaboration with Margo St. James and COYOTE, a loose woman's organization founded in San Francisco on Mother's Day, 1973, 1975.

7.) Ain't Nobody's Business, directed by Sally Barrett-Page 1977.

8.) Working Girls, directed by Lizzie Borden. With Louise Smith, Ellen McElduff, Amanda Goodwin, Marusia Zach, Janne Peters, Helen Nicholas, Alternate Current, 1986.

9.) Live Nude Girls Unite!, written and directed by Julia Query and Vicky Funari, 2000.