Debunking the stereotype ‹ CrimeReads

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While writing my recent thriller, Avenue of prostitutes (2022, Level Best Books), I was inspired by a true crime involving sex workers, which occurred in New York’s Hudson Valley, and my personal connection to those crimes. In the late 1990s, eight sex workers disappeared from the streets of Poughkeepsie, New York, and for two years police took little action to locate them. Finally, in September 1998, after a woman escaped the clutches of the attacker, the client, Kendall François, admitted to killing the women he had buried in his home.

What was my connection to the horrific crimes? Francois solicited the women on the steps of my law firm. Naturally, these heinous crimes and the lost lives of the victims haunt me.

From the Greta Garbo turn in Anna Christie (1930) to the more contemporary twist on the “world’s oldest profession” in Zola (2020), Hollywood has long told the story of sex workers. As a movie buff and writer, I wanted to find out if Hollywood had perpetuated the early 20th century stereotype that sex workers were boozed, broke, and burnt out. Or whether contemporary films have abandoned their pre-feminist era typing, and if so, how they have portrayed these vulnerable women.

With the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), the “traditional” roles of women in the home and in society were challenged, leading a movement for women’s social and economic equality. Joining prominent activists and leaders like Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, Friedan helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 to secure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which is finally became law in March 1972.

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What impact has feminism had on the portrayal of sex workers in movies? Simply, it broke the old stereotype. The women broke free, as well as those who had previously hidden the shadow. Cash for sex work has become a psychologically difficult occupation, filled with anguish and a desire to control one’s life, rather than becoming a victim. From Klute’s (1971) portrayal of a woman trying to break free from her sex addiction to a group of women seeking revenge in Unforgiven (1992), films have given sex workers a strong voice, reflecting the evolution times in America.

In recent decades, contemporary films have reflected the multiple personalities of women in the sex trade, including a psychopathic serial killer in Monster (2003) and a woman who pulls tricks for pleasure and profit in Zola ( 2020). The following films depict the six faces of another Eve, dark, complicated, idealized and sometimes comical.

The dark and complicated prostitute:
Klute (1971) Directed by Alan Pakula

A missing Pennsylvania business executive leads PI John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to New York following his only clue, a package of erotic letters found at the man’s home, allegedly from a call girl from the Big Apple. Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her performance as the complicated Bree Daniels, a high class escort, seeking to end her addiction to cheating through therapy, acting and modeling gigs. In this dark and twisted psychological crime drama, Klute searches for his missing person, protects Bree from a killer, and uncovers a connection between the two men. And Bree seeks redemption for a life full of questionable choices.

An idealized woman:
A pretty woman (1990) Directed by Garry Marshall

The quintessential Cinderella story finds Vivian (Julia Roberts) doing laps on Hollywood Boulevard one minute and hooking up with a handsome millionaire (Richard Gere) the next. Two of the prettiest people in 1990s Hollywood meet when corporate thief Edward (Gere) asks Vivian for directions while driving a friend’s Lotus. From bubble baths to polo matches to opera featuring Robert’s famous red dress with a plunging neckline, this is a romantic comedy match made in heaven and at the box office.

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Women take control of their lives:
unforgiven (1992) Written and directed by Clint Eastwood

Little Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman, is a motherfucker sheriff who dismisses allegations of a prostitute being lacerated by a drunken cowboy in the Wild West. The reward of a thousand dollars for the death of the cowboy and his accomplice offered by his prostitute sisters encourages Will Munny, the armed bandit of Clint Eastwood, to come out of retirement. He and his partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) embark on an adventure to exterminate the vermin and collect the reward, but it’s not as easy as it seems.

Old Hollywood Dream-Girl Quality:
LA Confidential (1997) Directed by Curtis Hanson

Ladies, drugs and dirty cops take center stage in this 1950s Hollywood thriller based on the titular novel by James McElroy. Two cops, an ambitious Edward Exley (Guy Pearce) and a deeply sentimental but outwardly crusty murderer Wendell White (Russell Crowe), are at loggerheads when someone tries to intrude on the turf vacated by the ringleader. imprisoned criminal Mickey Cohen. A glamorous upscale call girl, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the role), falls in love with White. Yet she doesn’t hesitate to help her infamous pimp (David Strathairn) frame and blackmail local politicians and businessmen. LA is a house of cards, only the LAPD protecting it from organized crime, or is it somehow involved?

The unsympathetic and unsympathetic psychopath
Freak (2003) Directed by Patty Jenkins

Charlize Theron is barely recognizable in her Oscar-winning performance as real-life hustler and hustler-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. A trick gone wrong results in Wuornos shooting a client in suspected self-defense, and scared, Wuornos tries but cannot remedy his life. Something snaps inside the woman, triggering a series of crimes of sexual encounters, murders and robberies. Pure psychopathy controls every action, for it murders without remorse. When her lover, Selby (Christina Ricci), turns against her and testifies to the broad swath of Wuornos’ bloodshed, Wuornos is convicted of the multiple murders and executed in a Florida death chamber in 2002.

A cartoon character:
Zola (2020) Directed by Janicza Bravo

A mostly true story leads Zola (Independent Spirit Award winner Taylour Paige) from struggling to earn a living at waiting tables in Detroit to life as a stripper. This contemporary comedy-drama centers on the conflicts between Zola and his stripper friend Stefani (Riley Keough), which arise during a crazy trip to Florida. At first, the naive Zola is in on the game to earn some extra cash by dancing at a Florida strip club. She quickly worries about the situation, but it’s too late to back down. Zola discovers that Stefani and her friend (Colman Domingo) have misled her, unwittingly plunging her into a world of sex trafficking and graphic violence. It’s a road trip that ends badly, but works hard for the laughs along the way.

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Fortunately, only one of these films, A pretty woman, glorifies sex trafficking. Unfortunately, this is the movie that comes to everyone’s mind on the subject. Sex trafficking isn’t pretty, like Julia Roberts. Unlike other films of the genre, A pretty woman ignores the hard daily struggle to survive. Instead, it focuses unrealistically on lifestyle frivolities.

Unfortunately, the most recent entry, Zola, is a Twitter-inspired cartoon that makes fun of sex, drugs, and stripping. Zola is a step back from her more realistic and insightful cinematic predecessors and feminism. This is another example of the stereotypical misperception that these women are the offenders rather than the men who seek their services.

Filmmakers have always strived to incorporate the realities of life into their work. And it’s a shame that #MeToo has had little impact on the accurate portrayal of vulnerable women trapped in tragic circumstances. We can hope that as states pass laws legalizing prostitution, the lives of sex workers will improve. Plus, that the filmmakers will continue to notice and portray them realistically, rather than as butts of jokes or objects of desire, revenge, and murder.

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