Capital Relations in Bed

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

Lizzie Olesker

Working Girls
Directed by Lizzie Borden; screenplay by Lizzie Borden with Sandra Kay; director of photography, Judy Irola.
With Louise Smith, Ellen McElduff, Amanda Goodwin, Marusia Zach,
Janne Peters & Helen Nicholas. Running time: 90 minutes.

THE PROSTITUTE IS a cultural icon of tremendous power. She often represents the ultimate object of desire in uncensored male imaginings of female sexuality. Her body is available to men without questions of emotional return.

The Hollywood version of the “whore” is probably one of the most pervasive: the good girl gone bad, the whore with a heart of gold, the desperate victim. Whatever the particular variation, the prostitute is culturally understood as someone to be feared and/or degraded.

Beyond our preconceptions, fears and images, or perhaps very much a part of them, is the work of prostitution itself. It is the understanding and critical analysis of prostitution as work that makes director/writer Lizzie Borden’s new film, Working Girls unique and important.

Working Girls has a direct and simple aesthetic that grows out of the economic reality of its low-budget independent production as well as from a clear set of intentions and sensibilities. Researched by Ms. Borden, through interviews with prostitutes and johns, and the actresses, who each visited and applied for work in a real brothel, Working Girls demystifies its subject while challenging us to break with common assumptions.

Harrowing in its cool and objective portrayal of a normal day in the business of prostitution, the film builds to a claustrophobic alienation. The more closely we examine, the more distanced we feel.

The film follows the day of Molly (Louise Smith), a Yale graduate, who practices photography in the morning before riding her bicycle to work in a high-rise brothel all afternoon. She lives with her Black female lover and her lover’s daughter.

We find out about Molly by witnessing her daily routine, not through the depiction of the moral pathology that customarily explains the film character of the prostitute. This is also true of the women Molly works with at the brothel.

Dawn (Amanda Goodwin) is a young college student who does her homework between tricks and talks about how she lets her boyfriend drive her to work in a nearby office building, where she hides in the lobby until he is safely gone.

Gina (Marusia Zach} is saving up to open her own business, a boutique or beauty salon. April (Janne Peters) feels envious and hostile; she’s forty-three and has to deal coke on the side.

The working girls in this film are not just victims of drugs, poverty, bad fathers or uncontrollable sexuality. Rather, they are real women who have had to make a choice in a world of limited options. Prostitution is another way to make money, and like other jobs, has its own special hassles.

The Hazards of the Workplace

The brothel where Molly works is seemingly upscale. It is as impersonal and efficient in decor as a Holiday Inn or a dentist’s waiting room. The johns who visit there are varied in their identities and desires. Each brings cash and most are regulars.

Fantasy Fred wants Molly to pretend she’s blind. Wealthy Joseph will pay extra for a little domination in the “jungle room,” so-called because of the printed sheets used in it. Neil brings Molly a present-the shirt she’d admired on him last week-but mostly he likes to talk about how to land a girlfriend.

Even though the men clearly buy some time in which to possess Molly, she maintains her autonomy. She is friendly and efficient, conversational and non-threatening. When it comes to customers, Molly is in control.

Where Molly isn’t in control, and where much of the film’s conflict resides, is in her relationship with Lucy, the owner of the brothel. Lucy (Ellen McElduff) asks a lot of her girls and the film strongly emphasizes her role as “the boss.”

She treats the girls like the commodities she thinks they are: “On today’s shift we have Molly. She’s sandy blonde, has two college degrees.”

She uses her “femininity” to manipulate the girls and the male customers. She is representative of what can be most oppressive in a working situation, prostitution being no exception: hierarchy and lack of power.

The economics of Lucy’s house is made very clear. After each trick, Molly records the time and charge on a little pad. Lucy is supposed to get half of her earnings on every trick. Molly ends up working a double shift and in a final scene she confronts Lucy, asking her if she’s ever heard of surplus value.

During all the grueling intimacy, Molly has the need and ability to distance herself emotionally in order to survive. All the women possess this quality-it seems to be the only way to tolerate the work. Molly tells the new girl, Mary, “You’ll get used to it. And if you don’t, you should just find something else to do.”

In Working Girls we see lunch breaks, speed-ups, scheduling problems and ripping-off-the-boss. Things are kept in order. Every towel and rubber has its place, thus giving a rationalized air to the sex trade, showing fetishism as business.

Borden’s film hints at a grittiness lurking very close to the smooth, unfettered surface of this midtown bordello. Importance and focus are given to such details as Listerine, clean sheets, the rituals of dressing and undressing.

By watching a working routine performed again and again, a world which seemed so mysterious and taboo is revealed as “just another job.”

Illusion, Reality & Power

At the same time, the sex scenes between Molly and her customers have an almost dream-like quality. There is interplay between what is real and what is imagined, who is in control and who is being controlled.

In an interview, Borden explained that these scenes reflect a woman’s perspective as both the cinematographer, Judy Irola, and the director are women.

Borden insists that her film is “graphic not pornographic.” Sexual explicitness is important to the film but is not intended to titillate. The acting is important to this as well. Louise Smith’s Molly is portrayed sensitively and with great detail. It is a demanding role because of its highly exposed nature, but Smith handles it with brave and convincing poignancy.

Working Girls is finally about power. For women, sexuality has been inextricably connected to issues of power, and prostitution demonstrates this in a particularly direct way. Reflecting one side of the double standard of male sexuality, prostitutes serve as the pleasure factor outside of emotional and familial commitment.

An especially interesting aspect of this film is the way in which it expands our perceptions and definitions. Prostitution begins to look like other forms of women’s wage work. It might be included in the service sector, right next to waitressing and airline hostessing. This is not an attempt to treat the choice to work as a prostitute or the work of prostitution superficially but rather suggests that we might relinquish moralistic judgement for realistic illumination.

“Selling one’s body” exists on many levels, and prostitution is only the most literal example. In light of this, Working Girls has something to say to all working women, as it reveals our differences and unexpected similarities.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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