…and what the remastered queer film classic can teach us about sex work today.
Working Girls, the 1986 indie hit film, was re-released by the Criterion Collection in July. The film was made by queer feminist American filmmaker Lizzie Borden at the height of the feminist sex wars. It staked out bold territory by showing sex work as mundane and tedious, but also a viable job choice for some women.
The remastered edition provides a beautifully restored high-definition digitization of the film, a director’s commentary track and several conversations between Borden and others. It also brings the film back into public dialogue as sex work activists in Canada are preparing for yet another Supreme Court challenge to the laws criminalizing commercial sex.
The timely re-release of Working Girls is a powerful rejoinder to how poorly sex workers have often been represented on screen — and a reminder of how the moralization of sex work in our society has obscured urgent questions about the labour conditions that sex workers face.
Neither glorification nor condemnation
Working Girls, as Borden told me in an interview last spring, was in part a response to the Canadian documentary Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981). Representing commonly held feminist ideas at the time, Not A Love Story was both anti-pornography and anti-sex work. Working Girls, however, is neither a glorification nor a condemnation of sex work.
Rather, it is a sober depiction of gender and sexual relations in late 20th-century capitalist societies. The script was based on the real-life experiences of brothel workers whose stories Borden stitched together into a feature film.
Working Girls portrays a day in the life of a university-educated artist named Molly (Louise Smith) who funds her photography by working at a middle-class brothel in Manhattan. Viewers first see her, a white woman in her late 20s, preparing for her day in her apartment with her lover Diane (Deborah Banks), a similarly aged Black woman, and Diane’s child. They wake up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth and start the morning commute like everyone else. We soon see that Molly’s commute leads her to her day-time job as a brothel worker whose clientele are well-paying businessmen.
Methodical rituals, witty banter
Throughout the day, Molly repeatedly performs the methodical rituals of hygiene and copulation. This includes showing kindness to and interest in her clients before and after each session.
Viewers are also let in on the behind-the-scenes banter and camaraderie between the day-shift workers. Sometimes the women trick clients into paying more for services they don’t receive, laugh at clients’ odd kinks and cook the books to hide income from Lucy (Ellen McElduff), the controlling yuppie madam who runs the brothel.
The first third of the film takes place during a relatively uneventful and collegial day shift. The money is good, the clients are predictable and the women are friendly with one another. The middle third is marked by the arrival of Lucy, who is highly demanding, micromanages the women and makes the workplace atmosphere decidedly less pleasant. Here, the film showcases the sex workers as being involved in ordinary labour-management tensions that happen across all sectors of work.
The final third of the film is set during the evening-shift where Lucy has pressured Molly into working a double shift. During the night shift, the brothel grows increasingly claustrophobic, the boss acts progressively more controlling and the clients get pushier.
The camaraderie among the women is further strained by workplace homophobia, racism, ageism, a lack of child care and increasing competition for less and less desirable clients. By the end of the double shift, Molly is faced with the decision of continuing to work for Lucy, striking out on her own or quitting the industry entirely.
Perspective rarely seen in cinema
Borden’s film is a relative anomaly for its time, but it continues to stick out from the many sex-work-themed films made before and after its release. Catherine Deuneuve in Belle de Jour (1967), Jane Fonda in Klute (1971), Barbara Streisand in Nuts (1987), Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990) and Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) are all a far cry from Louise Smith’s portrayal of Molly.
By treating sex work as a job, rather than framing commercial sex as a moral dilemma or social problem to solve, Borden offers moviegoers a perspective rarely seen in cinemas in earlier decades and now.
The film doesn’t use sex workers as mere plot devices either. There are no abused women to rescue from pimps or murders to solve. And instead of psychologizing the women’s behaviour, the film assumes sex workers are rational people making reasonable economic choices given their options.
Work is work
The middle-class expectation that people should love their jobs or find their work fulfilling fails to deal with the reality of work. Many workers would rather be doing anything else than the labour done in exchange for the money necessary to live.
While sex workers may choose to work in the industry for a variety of reasons, no one should expect anyone to love it or any other job. Work is work.
We can expect that sex work activists in Canada will surely argue again, as Borden did in Working Girls, that the harms associated with sex work are the result of criminal law, social stigma and poor labour protections, not the industry itself. The question remains, will lawmakers actually listen to sex workers this time?