By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
If it seems impossible to imagine Richard asking a female colleague to accompany him on his trip for sex and no pay, it isn’t simply because the world in which he works is male-dominated. It’s because in American film it isimpossible. Florence fucks without a wedding ring, she fucks without emotional commitment, she fucks without apology — in other words, she fucks like a man. Or, rather, like a Frenchwoman, as evidenced by recent films such as An Affair of Love (originally titled A Pornographic Affair); Late August, Early September; and even The Dreamlife of Angels, in which the one girl who makes it out alive does so in part because she doesn’t become a slave to love. (Stateside, only the women on Sex and the City enjoy such zipless pleasures.) In the Wang film, Florence fucks like a Frenchwoman but gets punished for it: Her john becomes her rapist. Which stinks — not because it’s untrue that some prostitutes, like some wives and some girlfriends, are sometimes brutalized by the men who fuck them. It stinks because for all its San Francisco cool and its canned heat, Wang’s film makes the familiar case that to be a sexual woman is to be a danger to men, to yourself, to the world.
The Center of the World isn’t much different from numerous films in which a woman’s sexual desire is deviant, pathological and even deadly — Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Wild Things, The General’s Daughter, American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, ad infinitum. The fact remains that if she’s not boiling a rabbit, wielding an ice pick or plotting a death (sometimes her own), a woman in American movies is usually sexual for a price. That’s why directors from Woody Allen to Billy Wilder have looked to hookers for laughs while still others have played them for tears. It’s also why so many women have played whores, sometimes earning themselves an Academy Award in the bargain. Drew Barrymore, Kim Basinger, Angela Bassett, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Melanie Griffith, Barbara Hershey, Milla Jovovich, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lucy Liu, Andie MacDowell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Theresa Russell, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Elisabeth Shue, Mira Sorvino, Sharon Stone and Madeleine Stowe have all played prostitutes, as â have Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens more.
Bad girls, fast girls, sexy girls, sexual girls and especially sexual women almost always translate into prostitutes, both in Hollywood and independent film. More recently, though, a new kink has emerged in this familiar story line: female characters who aren’t prostitutes, they just look like them. Of the 50 top-grossing features released last year, only four were driven by women — Erin Brockovich, Charlie’s Angels, Bring It On and Coyote Ugly. And while these are radically different films in intention and quality, they have one striking thing in common: All feature female characters who are as memorable for their body-baring clothes as for their ideas, their dreams, their actions.
In her groundbreaking 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell observed, “Until the Production Code went into full force, between 1933 and 1934, women were conceived of as having sexual desire without being freaks, villains or even necessarily Europeans — an attitude surprising to those of us nurtured on the movies of any other period.” Surprising in 1973, depressing in 2001, when female characters are routinely conceived as being freaks and villains (though rarely European) if they do have sexual desire. Or, to be even more specific: freaks, villains, prostitutes, and fun girls who shop at Trashy Lingerie.
Erin Brockovich, Charlie’s Angels, Bring It On and Coyote Ugly have another shared trait: It’s clear that the success of each was, in part, dependent on the way their lead characters were sold to the audience. None may be prostitutes, but the characters’ relationship to the audience is one of pleasing, teasingly sexual accessibility. Erotically packaged for our pleasure, these women might pose a threat if dressed in pinstripes, but their décolletage, smiles and acquiescent physicality mitigate that threat — along with any hint of aggression, any trace of so-called masculine behavior. The fact that the real Erin Brockovich looks the way she does helped to separate that movie from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other possible stories about other, less bodacious warriors of righteousness. It is, after all, difficult to believe that Erin Brockovich would have earned a scintilla of its money if the environmental crusader had been played by, say, Kathy Bates or Sally Field, stripped of makeup and wearing pants, as Field does in Norma Rae. Then again, who would you rather ogle for two hours, especially in a miniskirt — Bates or Julia Roberts?Klute
“I think the fascination for film producers is gross bottom line,” writer-director Allison Anders wrote to me recently about the subject of whores and Hollywood, revealing, along the way, that she was in the middle of writing a television script featuring a young prostitute. (“I’m trying to avoid all the clichés.”) “It’s pure fantasy, lust for women for sale,” wrote Anders, “like if you pay for it you can have it your way, like a Whopper at Burger King. The films born from this fantasy are filled with ridiculous clichés and seldom show the job as it really is — a tedious, thankless, often dangerous one with absolutely no protection under the law. But likewise one where a woman can sometimes work it where she’s calling her own shots, controlling her own destiny and owning her own sexuality.”
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