There’s a scene in which under-the-weather-feeling, anti-heroine protagonist Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) describes the way she feels as “shit city.” Afternoon Delight, directed by Jill Soloway, is shit city. This film screamed “rescue project” from the very start. Rachel is a bored, restless, wealthy, vaguely hipster stay-at-home mom living with her husband and young son in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her contemporaries are mostly other jobless, Jewish, “hip” housewives who spend their time doing volunteer work, if only to thoroughly document it on social media; organizing play dates amongst their elementary school-aged children, and running something called “Craftacular.” Thing is, Rachel doesn’t like this life and she doesn’t like these women. She wanted to be a war journalist. In a scene near the end she wails, “I was so bored I could have died!!!!” One of this film’s only saving graces is the fact that her therapist is Jane Lynch, whose character is truly the only “delight” Afternoon Delight has to offer.
Afternoon Delight begins by painting a portrait of Rachel’s life, and her unhappiness with it. As you can imagine, Rachel’s stagnant, sexless marriage and her boredom with housewife life are the perfect ingredients to become Captain Save-a-Ho (a term that is, ironically, spoken in the film.) A girlfriend suggests a trip to the strip club. (How risqué! Surely if one of these women were wearing pearls, said pearls would be clutched.) A few couples go to Sam’s Hofbrau, a well-known strip club in downtown Los Angeles. Rachel’s husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) buys her a lap dance with McKenna (Juno Temple). The lap dance is uncomfortable, marked by her asking McKenna her age and responding to it by saying, “God that’s young!” while nervously pulling on her tee shirt. Flash forward to Rachel lying to her friends a few days later, canceling plans, getting in her Honda mini-van, and driving back to Sam’s Hofbrau, looking for McKenna. Rachel tells her husband, McKenna, her friends, and maybe even herself later that she ended up there because a coffee truck she supposedly follows on Twitter (“I thought you hated Twitter,” her husband quips) was parked nearby. Such is not the case. This woman stalked this woman’s place of work in the daytime on three different occasions, just hoping she’d find a way to save her.
My first question is this: do any sex workers loiter outside our strip clubs/brothels/dungeons during our off time in full makeup, as is the case here? Oh, none of us? That’s what I thought. On Rachel’s third stalking mission, she sees someone throwing McKenna’s belongs from a car, rendering her homeless, vulnerable, and ripe to be “saved” and moved into Rachel’s home. Rachel moves McKenna into their former nanny’s room, and this is the role McKenna assumes around the house: caring for the couple’s young son. Rachel tells friends she found McKenna through an agency.
As McKenna, The Stripper Turned Nanny gets folded into the yuppie L.A. landscape, there are fleeting moments of sex-positive feminism. McKenna refers to herself as a sex worker. Her agency and intentions are clear. She explains that she’s a “full-service sex worker,” telling Rachel that she uses the club for “networking,” i.e.: to meet clients. In a particularly uncomfortable scene, Rachel tags along to one of McKenna’s dates because a client is into being watched. Rachel quickly realizes she’s in too deep, and no longer wants to be part of this project, nor does she want McKenna to continue nannying her and her friends’ children.
McKenna’s role in the film and these couples’ lives concludes when she joins the husbands in a night of poker and ends up sleeping with one of them. All hookers are home wreckers, right? Of course prior to this she was “55 days sober,” because of course all sex workers grapple with substance abuse. Of course she grew up with no father figure. Of course so many things. This film is so rife with stereotypes that to quote white women in Starbucks everywhere, “I can’t even.” In one of the film’s last lines, Rachel says to her husband: “I’m sorry for throwing a bomb into our lives.”
As a stripper, almost none of this resonated with me. I can’t imagine myself or any of my co-workers moving in with a woman who creepily staked me out and attempted to utilize me to fix her broken life. I can’t imagine ever feeling safe or okay with going anywhere with anyone I danced for who just “happened” to find me outside work. But who knows, I mean desperate times do call for desperate measures. It’s strange though, when McKenna is being forced out she tells Rachel, “I have tons of places to go,” implying that she never needed to be in their household in the way Rachel would have liked to think. The way Afternoon Delight insinuates that all strippers and sex workers are just wretched, broken women waiting to be rescued by literally almost anyone is a thoroughly exhausted narrative, and one that hopefully won’t be perpetuated any time soon.