Sex Work in the Media: What if the Star of "Pretty Woman" Was a Woman of Color?

Eva Rivera is a proud lesbian Chicana, daughter, sister and sex worker who can walk in 6 inch heels and twirl naked on a pole in front of total strangers but is still viciously afraid of moths. She hails from Fresno, CA and is a poet and aspiring film maker. You can find her more personal writing on her blog.

I have been thinking about reviewing and deconstructing films which depict sex workers and a few movies instantly came into mind: Player’s Club, This Girls Life, and Monster, but growing up in the 90’s, one movie in particular felt like it became somewhat of a cultural symbol. Pretty Woman stands out not only because of the attention it got from both Academy and Golden Globes, but also because it’s one of the only movies about sex work that actually has a “fairytale ending”. Even though it feels a bit dated, I think the issues presented in the movie and the fact that it had such wide acclaim and mainstream approval still holds much relevance today.

I believe it has everything to do with the fact that the actress who plays the part of the escort, Julia Roberts, is a white, able-bodied cis-woman. This made it possible to introduce the concept of sex worker agency to a mainstream audience. I don’t want to dismiss the work of white female sex workers as something that is insignificant to today’s discourse, but I find so much lacking when skimming through dialogues, texts and blogs that discuss sex work from this perspective. Critical examinations of sex work are often very much focused on white, cis-gendered, able bodied, straight women, like so many other themes of feminism. As a lesbian Chicana feminist, I feel it’s my responsibility to expand what feminism means and what sex work means as well. Here is my take on what Pretty Woman would have been, if the actress was anything BUT.

In all honesty, I don’t dislike the movie Pretty Woman. I think that the movie does an okay job portraying escorts as having agency. There were moments where I felt like her portrayal was authentic in some ways, at least by Hollywood standards. However, I think its unspoken truths are just as telling as its script. Ironically authentic was her class mobility and the ease at which she passed in white, upper-class social situations. Her cute little quirks garner some shocked looks, but mostly are seen as spunky. With the exception of a couple of scenes, (her first experience in an upscale clothing store….my girlfriend suggested that if she had been black or Latina, they would have likely called the police on her) she certainly doesn’t experience the intense scorn and hate that are common responses sex workers who aren’t the white, able, cis-gendered woman. Besides a few scenes which are meant to shock the audience by reminding them that Vivian is still, in fact, a “hooker,” the entire movie is based on the promise of her ability to transcend her place in society- that of a sex worker. She is a white woman, after all, and therefore deserves the life of a princess and fairytale ending. 

The movie itself doesn’t seem like it should attract so much of my scorn, I suppose, but when compared with other movies, which focus on sex workers, or at least use us as characters or props, I feel like this movie becomes important. It sets a standard for whose story is told and how. Of the movies I have seen that set the white sex worker as a woman with agency, and who audiences are expected to empathize with, the established pattern is to  use sex workers of color (especially trans) as mere props, jokes, and examples of bad women.

Recently, I went to see the movie Hangover II, (still don’t know why I chose to see this) and was reminded that society still hasn’t got a damn clue, when it comes to treating sex workers with respect, instead of as a joke, or props for shock factor. In one scene, the main character goes to a strip club to ask the dancers there what happened to him the night before. One of the dancers, a Thai sex worker named Kimmy, played by famous porn star Yasmin Lee, gently reminds him that they had sex that night. Kelly continues by genuinely reminiscing about how special it was. Of course the reaction from the characters and audience is complete horror and disgust. I suppose this was coming from two levels 1.)Kimmy is a trans sex worker and has a penis 2)Kimmy was seen as simply an unclean and foreign “hooker”. Imagine for a moment that the scene was shot with Julia Roberts’ character instead. You’d hear whistles and high fives instead of moans of disgust. This is also another example of whose story gets told and how. Yasmin Lee is a dynamic and complex individual, and her story is one worth telling, and even reflects others lives. Why delegate her experience to the task of playing a role meant to demean that real lived experience? Why does the white cis-woman get a pass and her prince in the end, and a story that treats her experience as one worth telling and rooting for?

Ultimately, when I consume media that depicts any representation of sex workers, the question I ask myself is: “does this help build sex worker solidarity and community, or does this degrade us and strip us of our agency and self respect”? Too often its the latter. When you combine this with racism, ableism, classism, transphobia and heteronormativity, it becomes a serious problem for those of us existing in the margins. When you stop and think about why it’s now cool and sexy to be a stripper, take a second to reflect on the image of the sex worker that comes to mind. Does she mirror Pretty Woman, or is zie a reflection of reality?

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