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This Girl’s Life (2003)

I was initially really impressed by This Girl’s Life. The idea of a sassy, intelligent woman who does her job and doesn’t seem to take it too seriously really made me smile. I like when people treat sex work like a job, because that doesn’t happen in every film. Then I kept watching—it gets crazy!

An Overview:

Moon (Juliette Marquis) is a world renowned porn star. Her old man has Parkinson’s, and he knows what she does for a living. She has a circle of cool girlfriends outside the business, and they tell sassy jokes at cigar bars (I wish I smoked cigars). She works for a guy who is at once a really sweet dude and also capable of being really cruel (but only to other workers, specifically the only black woman in the film) and is waffling on signing a contract renewal. She also begins dating a guy who Kat thought was pre-med because he wears a beanie, but he’s an actor… maybe he’s playing a pre-med student in a movie?

The Manor (2013)

Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions
Bobby explaining club rules (c) Six Island Productions

In one of this film’s first scenes, a manager tells a stripper “I’m fining you $20 because I’m so pissed at you,” while handing her a $40 payment for a shift. She tells him she was scheduled for one shift, she showed up for it and he couldn’t “fine her” or withhold her pay. “I can do whatever I want,” he says. 90 seconds in, and I already have a grudge against the people running this strip club.

Director Shawney Cohen tells us that The Manor, which opened the 2013 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, is not a documentary about the titular strip club—it is about his family. Shawney’s parents bought the Manor, a combination strip club/downmarket residential hotel in Ontario, when he was a child, and now it’s run as a family business with their two adult sons. The film is more mystifying than revealing, as it cites connections between family disorder, dysfunction and the running of a strip club which are never really clarified.

American Courtesans (2012)

The tagline for American Courtesans describes it as a “documentary that takes you into the lives of American Sex Workers” and telling “a different kind of American story…” The film is (thankfully) less ambitious in scope, focusing on high-end escorts instead of the entirety of the sex trades. What American Courtesans does, and does powerfully, is offer an intimate perspective into the lives of its subjects, giving them a space to talk about their lives and work. The women share stories of both triumph and trauma, showing that there is no single or simple story about work in the sex industries. With exceptional production quality and sincere, candid interviews, American Courtesans moves us further towards changing the popular conceptions of sex work.

The film weaves the stories of eleven current and former sex workers together through interviews and casual conversations with Kristen DiAngelo, the driving force behind the project. Though all of the women ended their careers as independent escorts charging high rates, their backgrounds up to that point are extremely varied. The majority of the women are still working, and quite a few illustrate the fluidity of the sex industries as they describe their experiences in pro-BDSM work, porn, stripping, and other fields of sex work than escorting. The women in the film give the audience a diverse set of experiences in the sex industries. From Juliet Capulet in San Francisco, who talks about escorting as a way to explore her identity as a sexual being, to Gina DePalma in New York City, who was working on the streets as a thirteen-year-old runaway, the audience is reminded that sex workers belong to and come from all communities.

Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss (2004) and Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam (1995)

Tearing through its exposition at a breakneck pace, Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss wastes no time getting to its main subject. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Heidi had a strict mother and an easygoing father who encouraged his children to act out. Soon after, we see teenage Heidi organizing the neighborhood girls’ babysitting schedules, foreshadowing of her management skills. In the next scene she learns her parents are divorcing. Three minutes later we see Heidi’s boobs as her creepy older boyfriend, Ivan Nagy, recruits and then sells Heidi to her future madam, Alex, for $450. At first, Heidi Fleiss is outraged with her pimp boyfriend, then for no apparent reason decides to go along with him.

Young Heidi’s first client is a curly-haired rock star. When he leans in to kiss her neck, she shoves her hand down his pants and demands $1,500. He scoffs at her so she turns to leave, asking, “Is it lonely at the top?” He then asks her to stay and the deal is sealed. Although I have never worked as a call girl—and please ladies, correct me if I’m wrong—but I’m going to make the assumption that insulting your client is a bad tactic. The scene felt unrealistic and I found myself doubting that the real-life Fleiss could have been so successful despite such poor social skills.

Whitewashed And Stole: Marsha P. Johnson, Reina Gossett, and David France


On Friday, October 6th, I settled in for a night of Netflix. But this night of Netflix would be epic, because Netflix had just released the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, directed by David France. The film follows the investigation into pioneering sex working black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson’s 1992 death by members of the New York Anti-Violence project. It also chronicles the trial of the murderer of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a young black trans-woman who was killed on August 17, 2013. After watching the documentary, I grabbed my phone and went on Facebook, and immediately saw a screenshot of a disturbing post on France’s documentary by Reina Gossett on her Instagram.

Reina Gossett is a black trans woman activist and writer as well as the producer of Happy Birthday Marsha. On her Instagram that day, Gossett spilled the tea and accused David France, a white cis-gay man, of using and being inspired by a grant she and Sasha Worzel wrote to Kalamazoo/Arcus Foundation Social Justice Center for a movie about Johnson—France volunteered at the foundation at the time. Gossett also accused him of plagiarizing their language and stealing their years of research on Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s community organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and having her video of Rivera’s revolutionary and mainstream-gay-movement-critical 1973 “ y’all better quiet down” speech at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally removed from Vimeo. Gossett began her Instagram post by writing, “this week while I’m borrowing money to pay my rent, david france is releasing his multimillion dollar netflix deal on marsha p johnson.”

Author and activist Janet Mock hit to Twitter and tweeted out the screenshots of Gossett’s Instagram post. Mock stated that “[f]ilmmaker David France released a Netflix doc Friday about Marsha P. Johnson. It is based on Reina Gossett’s work”. Mock’s tweet garnered 1000s of retweets and likes, as well as a comment by France, which he had to write on an Apple note and screenshot to Twitter. (Sometimes 140 characters isn’t enough to explain your white privilege and entitlement.) France also released a further statement responding to Gossett’s Instagram post on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson website. He states that he was friends with Marsha for a minute and he wanted to do a documentary about her around the time of her death but he had to focus on the AIDS epidemic at the time. He also claims that his work was not stolen from or inspired by Gossett’s research and film making. He goes on to acknowledge his privilege as a white cis gay male.