Review of Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema: New Takes on Fallen Women, eds. Danielle Hipkins and Kate Taylor-Jones. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Review by Will Visconti, The University of Sydney, Australia
Though the majority of the narratives addressed in Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema are negative, pessimistic, or (at best) ambiguous in their endings, there is a great diversity of cultural contexts that comprises this volume. Ranging from Nigeria to Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia and Mexico, and covering the nineteenth century through to the present, there is a similar wealth of theoretical frameworks and analytical tools deployed. Musicology, Hegelian philosophy and the writings of Luce Irigaray feature alongside close analyses of dialogue, cinematic devices and scenography. Some of the recurring theorists who are cited by contributors speak to the films’ common foci: Laura Mulvey’s writing is applied to discussions of agency and the gaze either upon the sex workers in film or their own perspectives; Walter Benjamin’s appearances connect to analyses of urban space, modernity, and the emblematic nature of the sex worker within urban centres.
Divided into five parts, each with two to three chapters, Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Cinema addresses a few unifying themes that span contexts and class difference and issues of economic independence, law and crime as linked to sex work, and capitalism (with ensuing debates or ambiguities around commodification). The films examined address roughly 150 years of history where the popular representation of sex workers is concerned. Among them are 1950s Japan, contemporary Nigerian brothel workers and “paid dates” in South Korea; others include twenty-first century Moldovan women who variously emigrate or are trafficked, and the glamorous courtesans of pre-Colonial India or nineteenth-century France and Italy. Some discussion of literature and texts like opera or song is judiciously used, to better contextualise material for the reader. The legacy of women like Marie Duplessis, the consumptive courtesan who inspired some of the literary, stage and screen adaptations examined in this volume, permeates the discussion. Duplessis embodied the “tart with a heart” as well as the “fallen woman” who is redeemed in death, both of which are recurrent stereotypes in many of the films. The death of the sex worker, as argued by Linda Nead and then highlighted by Jane Arthurs, removes society’s sense of responsibility or need to feel guilt (p.26). Another reappearing figure is Marlene Dietrich, famous for her onscreen portrayal of sex workers or femmes fatales, the influence of which is evident implicitly or explicitly in many works discussed here, including Mexican cabaretera films featuring María Félix, German films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Helma Sanders, and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001). At the same time as the “hooker with a heart of gold” appears in several instances, so too is Laura Harvey and Rosalind Gill’s representation of the female sex worker as a “sexual entrepreneur” (p.49). Emerging in the wake of accelerated neoliberalism and consumerism, the sexual entrepreneur is an ambivalent, contradictory figure who fits neither within traditional feminist pro-sex paradigms, nor postfeminist criticism that could suggest greater critical engagement with the same ideas around sex.
The role of the city is a significant element in many of the chapters, most notably in Fiona Handyside’s examination of Chloe (Egoyan, 2009) and how both the female protagonist and city where the narrative unfolds become sites of “fantasy substitution” (p.245). Beyond the shift from rural to urban communities that is a feature of several plots, or from one city to another, the very nature of community or family is scrutinised. Sometimes this is specifically in relation to sex work and red-light districts, or non-biological family among marginalised groups, as Kate Taylor-Jones and Adam Bingham show in their contributions. The older sex worker is also more prominent in these chapters than elsewhere, but representation of older women generally is equally lacking, partly because of the predominance of male fantasy in representations of women onscreen (pp.279-280).
Almost all of the chapters offer comparative analyses of more than one film, sometimes as many as three, and generally the combinations work well. The threads weaving the chapters together extend beyond aspects like the unfortunate ends of many of the sex workers discussed: Aparna Sharma and Katie N. Johnson have common ground in their examination of Hindi musicals and nineteenth-century history, which recur in Pakeezah (Amrohi, 1971) and Moulin Rouge!. Parallels can also be drawn between the traviate (fallen women) within Italian Catholic culture (bound up with ideas of sacrifice in Danielle Hipkins and Katherine Mitchell’s chapter) and in Mexican macho culture, though the line between sacrifice, loss and relinquishment are explored by Alice Bardan in Schimb Valutar (Margineanu, 2008) and the Moldovan sex worker, Lily, at its centre. The book’s concluding remarks both reiterate the common threads weaving the films together and introduce new material. The inclusion of American Honey (Arnold, 2016) comes as a surprise in the final pages but is pertinent given the film’s premiere on the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, and bears comparison with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi that features in an earlier chapter. Ultimately, the volume demonstrates how “resistant” the trope of the “fallen woman” in core narratives has become, but how the forms in which she reaches audiences are ever shifting.
Will Visconti’s work focuses on transgression, the arts, and sex, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of his previous research has featured in The European Journal of Humour Research and Essays in French Literature & Culture, and in books published by Bloomsbury Academic and the University of London. Recent publications include a cross-cultural examination of nineteenth-century popular performance, and the Marchesa Luisa Casati’s impact on contemporary fashion. Among his current projects are an article for French Screen Studies about representations of sex work in television, and a biography of the performer La Goulue.