by Ariel Dougherty
Working Girls is a classic film on sex work, which many professors report using in college courses for discussion purposes. The narrative of the 1986 award-winning feature by Lizzie Borden holds up well twenty-some years after its release, but perhaps it’s also time to rethink its feminist applications.
In the movie, the central character, Molly (played by Louise Smith), is established in a series of quick opening shots as she awakens in the lesbian household where she lives with her partner and her partner’s daughter. She is shown in her darkroom, portraying her aspirations as a photographer. But the bulk of the movie is formed around her income-producing work as a brothel prostitute. (See 1986 trailer here)
In a tight script written by Borden and Sandra Kay, Working Girls intertwines the interaction among a half-dozen prostitutes, their madam and a stream of clients into a challenging and provocative “day-at-the-bordello.” Borden said that she wanted to explore “the idea of women choosing prostitution as a economic choice,” according to an interview in Canada after completion of the film.
Money and Strings
On one level, the film is about financial autonomy acquired through the “good” income earned in such high paying work. But as viewers see as the day’s activities and intricacies unfold, clearly there is no autonomy. Many strings are attached.
The madam sets a controlling overtone. When she is absent for a period, Molly and another prostitute allocate client fees to their own liking. They log into the house black-book a lower amount, for less costly sex acts, keeping the difference for themselves. A sisterly rapport between the working women takes the form of advice they give to one another —how to handle certain clients, systems within the house, and, most prominently, safety.
Conversations among the women address the huge challenges they encounter with openness to loved ones on the outside about sharing the nature of their work. Molly, for one, has not informed her lesbian lover about how she earns her income. She worries because, as a college-educated woman who can interact about literary and cultural issues, some clients are enticed to want a “relationship” with her outside the brothel.
When the women discuss terminology for their work, Molly bristles at the word “whore,” displaying her own ambivalence for this work. Borden confronts viewers with the high emotional stakes of this day-in and day-out sex work. Are the monetary rewards really a benefit?
Reconsidering the Work
Two decades later, there are women who consider prostitution to be easy, high-paying work in the style of Working Girls. For some, it’s an opportunity to pay educational and living expenses, support a child, pay for housing. And they have concerns similar to the women in Working Girls: they worry about their health and clients’ willingness to use condoms, violence by a john and the blatant double standard that puts women at risk with the law, while male clients go scot-free for the same acts.
When Borden shot Working Girls, she considered forced-against-their-will-prostitution to be a minor proportion of the overall business. Two decades later, some feminists believe that a rise in international trafficking of women and children makes sex-work issues increasingly complex and challenging. New digital media offer many opportunities for expanded storytelling and exploration of the intersections of sex-work, race, class, sexual preference and domination, as well has prostitution rights. Sex Workers Outreach Project in Los Angeles, (SWOP-LA) is one such example with a jam-packed website. Numerous videos are available for online viewing — one deals specifically with violence against sex workers. A “friends’ comments” space allows for community postings and information exchange, and there are links to other resources.
But there is a different problem in Working Girls, whether in 1986 or 2008. One of the basic struggles of feminism is to achieve more open, honest exchange among people. Molly feels the need to hide her sex-work from her lesbian lover. Yet, history tells us that in a hidden context, people are exploited. Molly might have more money; but does she possess the whole of herself?
In the 1980s BORDEN might have thought prostitution a viable economic choice. Organizations like COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) and North American Task Force on Prostitution (NTFP), founded in 1979, then as now, encourage greater education and awareness about prostitutes’ rights and create a political framework for Working Girls. But in the wildly different landscape of 2008 with numerous other directly related issues, such as AIDS, trafficking and pimping — all issues unexplored in Working Girls — the Borden film seems idealized. The relatively easy-going madam’s house represents a very small fraction of “the business.” Unlike Molly, not every prostitute can so easily hop on her bicycle and pedal home.
Ariel Dougherty is associate producer for Lynn Hershman’s documentary/memoir on the Feminist Art Movement, 1968-2007, Women Art and Revolution. She is part of Women’s Media Equity Collaborative, a project funded by the Social Science Research Council that is conducting the first survey of women’s media justice organizations and analyzing sustainable funding models. Dougherty is a co-founder of Women Make Movies.
Also see, Of Victims and Vixens in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.