Television

The creators of Hot Girls Wanted and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On— Jill Bauer, Rashida Jones, and Ronna Gradus. (Still from Youtube)

I first heard that a sequel to Hot Girls Wanted was being made about three months ago. A performer I followed posted about being approached for filming. He rejected the offer immediately. I shared his discomfort.

The first Hot Girls Wanted was a documentary film carefully designed to manipulate the viewer into feeling disgust towards the porn industry. It followed a household of porn models, predominantly new to the industry, for several months as they journeyed into what Hot Girls Wanted creator Rashida Jones referred to as “pro-amateur porn.” While the filmmakers claimed a totally unbiased approach, I watched the documentary taking note of each carefully placed, mid-sentence cut designed to de-contextualize industry critiques; each depressing tone played at low volumes creating emotionally charged responses to a comment; each unsourced statistic and each citation from disreputable websites.

Porn performers responded harshly yet appropriately to the documentary. They aimed their critiques primarily at the film’s producer, actress Rashida Jones. With the announcement of a sequel came promises of an improved, non-stigmatizing, and nuanced discussion of the porn industry.

It was not delivered.

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I want to believe with all my heart that material can be made about sex workers that doesn’t demonize or belittle us. I want to get the same feeling chefs get while watching Chopped or car enthusiasts feel watching Top Gear UK. Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is not that feel-good series—there is no perspective through which it is not problematic.

The show eases you into the material in the first episode with living legend producers Suze Randall and her daughter Holly working on photoshoots and erotic film. The episode focuses on their business practices, how they treat the talent, and their issues with male producers. This segment is the only redeeming portion of the show. Savor the mother-daughter bonding and camaraderie; no warm and fuzzy feelings lie ahead.

I could give you a blow-by-blow of the other five episodes, but to be perfectly frank, it’s a waste of time. This docu-series is even more harmful than its predecessor, 2015 documentary film Hot Girls Wanted, which covered amateur porn. Creator Rashida Jones and the other people behind this film are not sex workers. In fact, Jones has a long Twitter history of belittling women and out-right slut shaming other celebrities.

 

The show creators have no experience in sex work and aren’t even close to anyone who uses the sex industry as their main source of income. They use adult film star Lisa Ann as their poster girl, but she has never dealt with stigma the same way transgender performers or performers who are people of color do. In fact, she is apathetic about the plight of more marginalized sex workers.

The series features screen caps of people surfing cam girl sites. Though these cam performers signed up to be on those platforms, they did not sign up to have their identities exposed on a Netflix documentary. When sex workers on Twitter saw this, they exploded in response, and soon tweets by other sex workers roped into the project revealed further outrages: Not only did HGW:TO reveal screen caps; they showed the legal names of other performers; interviewed workers and agents under false pretenses, insisting the material wasn’t for Hot Girls Wanted; and even used interview footage of someone who’d changed their mind about being involved. Lisa Ann has been less than sympathetic about this, stating on Twitter:

 

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“A 16-year old-white girl from Monterey? Wolf Blitzer is gonna saddle that up.” Abigail (Kathryn Newton) contemplates auctioning off her virginity for charity in Big Little Lies.

[Content warning: this piece includes general discussion of rape and domestic violence.]

Maybe every rich little white girl should auction off her virginity in support of Amnesty International, the way Abigail Carlson (Kathryn Newton), teenage daughter of HBO’s Big Little Lies protagonist Madeline Mackenzie, proposes to do.

Abigail’s plot line gained little more than an eye-roll in popular analysis lauding the mini-series as a vision of female solidarity telling a vital story about abuse. Initially, I would tend to agree that Abigail’s pursuit of justice for child sex slaves is nothing more than a pulpy side-line trotted out for shock value. After all, Big Little Lies is famed prime time soap opera producer David E. Kelley’s project. And, as the perennially popular Law & Order: SVU franchise demonstrates, narratives exploiting child sex trafficking victims are reliable fodder for ratings.

But Big Little Lies deserves a more subtle read. Everything about it is meticulously intentional, from the melancholy pop soundtrack to the pristine landscape of the surf, suggesting sinister undercurrents to all that is pretty on the surface of the idyllic Monterrey community setting. The show was adapted from a book of the same name by Liane Moriarty published in 2014. Kelley was necessarily selective about which elements from the 460-page novel made it to television. Notably, Bonnie Carlson’s backstory 1 was not included in the series, nor was there a broader exploration of her character development as there was in the book. Her identity was also changed from a white woman in the novel to a Black woman in the series—the only significant Black character in the series—and the setting was relocated from Australia in the book to the upper-class U.S. coastal community of Monterey on-screen. Rather than treating these as auteurial afterthoughts, these changes are better understood as instrumental choices in adapting the central point of the work for television.

[Spoilers after the jump]

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Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and William North (Danny Sapani) at the door of her brothel in Harlots.

Harlots is a new drama on Hulu following the misadventures and rivalries of two competing brothels in mid-18th century London. Created by Moira Buffini and Allison Newman, and loosely based on research by Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots isn’t only notable for being about harlots—all the writers and  directors are women also, which allows for a truly unprecedented lack of the male gaze and titillation shots, and instead creates room for the characters to be fully-fleshed people. History geek Tits and Sass contributors Kitty Stryker and Red discuss the first episodes and what sex worker life was like in the Georgian England setting of the show. 

On historical context:

Kitty: The one in five women are sex workers at the time statistic, cited in the beginning of the show, is a high estimate, but it is quoted a lot, and may not be incorrect. The number appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book, The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital. He is also where the number of of £1.5 billion in today’s money as the gross turnover of sex work funds at the time comes from.

Red: Capitalism and a market economy were just starting to take over and the situation of women was changing, as the public sphere became the exclusive province of men in England. At the same time, capitalism was pushing the growth of a relatively new genre: porn! Much of the earliest porn consists of dialogues between whores or a whore recounting her exploits (a la Fanny Hill).

While the one in five stat is high, women dipped in and out of sex work as necessary, and the word whore didn’t exclusively mean a professional until later on in the century.

Kitty: It’s also worth noting that while sex work was prominent, “bawds,” or madams, were deeply loathed by London society—one famous bawd was stoned to death for her part in “corrupting the innocent.” Now, to be fair, many bawds did go around looking for naive farm girls to offer free housing to, only to then trap them with false debt for the lodgings and food they used. But this is also definitely where the hatred of pimps strongly developed.

Covent Garden was the place for sex workers at the time! Golden Square, also referenced in the show, incidentally, went from being a place for wealthy up-and-coming sex workers to a place for dire poverty—it becomes the epicenter of the cholera epidemic that wiped out a lot of London in 1854.

On Harris’ List, an anonymous book of commentary on Covent Garden prostitutes, a kind of antecedent to today’s board escort reviews—the show opens with Lucy (Eloise Smyth) reading each brothel worker’s entry aloud to her:

Kitty: The history of Harris’s List is actually super interesting and this was a good book on it—Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, the book this show is actually loosely based on. You can read the list here for free, by the way!

Red: Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is based on a real woman Rubenhold wrote about, and so is her mother—Elizabeth Ward, Samantha Morton’s character. They changed the last name to Wells in the show, and her first name to Margaret. The real Charlotte changed her last name to Hayes after she got her first rich protector and left her mother’s brothel.

Interesting note: Some of the women who paid Harris to write good reviews of them in his list formed a “Whores’ Club” where they met and drank together and paid dues, and any of the club members who needed help got some of the dues.

On the contract Charlotte’s thinking about signing with her benefactor and how it compared to marriage at the time:

These contracts were common among famous, sought-after sex workers. Some had two or more going at a time sometimes! Many times these contracts were oral contracts, and would stipulate how much the kept woman would get per month in cash and gifts, if she would be given an apartment or not, if her bills would be paid, new clothing, etc.

Because what she gave in exchange was often just “understood,” it left a lot of wiggle room for her. Often, when such a contract was broken and the arrangement was declared over, she could also negotiate for annuities, perhaps in exchange for keeping his secrets.

One attractive thing about having such a contract is that the person paying often paid to the bawd who “owned” the sex worker in question. In order for the sex worker to be “released” to the status of kept woman, the buyer would have to pay off all debts the sex worker had accrued according to the bawd. Becoming a kept woman could mean less risk of syphilis, which was a disfiguring death sentence at the time, and also could mean when the arrangement ended, you were free to do what you wanted as you weren’t indebted to a house anymore.

I think it’s interesting that while Margaret obviously feels a lot of resentment for being sold to Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) when she was 10 (a sadly pretty common occurrence at the time—the youngest on record was eight, and people believed having sex with a child would cure you of STIs), and Charlotte’s virginity was auctioned off at the age of consent (which was 12 for girls, 14 for boys at the time), Lucy appears to be at least 18 and is still “not ready.” I wonder if Charlotte is upset that her mother got her into sex work, or that she’s upset that despite her mother’s distaste for marriage, here she is being roped into a different but similar contract with Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner).

Red: My main thoughts on watching were how laughably anachronistic both Charlotte and Lucy ‘s (a fictional character made up for the show) unwillingness to participate in such a huge money generating activity is. The contract that Charlotte turns her nose up at wouldn’t have given him anything close to coverture over her. Instead, it would have offered her either carte blanche over his money or a specific amount of credit to use when shopping. It couldn’t have prevented her from having other lovers; he would have to rely on her discretion. The idea that someone raised in the poverty of Covent Garden would turn up her nose at that and just want to fuck for money without it is so hilarious to me. This was the ultimate goal of whores in the 18th century, because it was a step up to a security just below that of marriage (which also could and did happen between contemporary sex workers and their clients).

My guess is that Charlotte’s reluctance comes from the producers thinking they need some sort of 21st century young woman angst in order to make these characters relatable.

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Thandie Newton as Maeve, the badass robot Black sex working heroine who keeps us invested in this glossy Game of Thrones replacement wannabe.

by Clara and Caty

[Content warning: some discussion of rape. Also, spoiler warning.]

Clara: Westworld is a science fiction western thriller created and produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. JJ Abrams is also a producer, so think Jurassic Park meets Firefly with a dash of Lost. As with its predecessors—Blade Runner. Battlestar Galactica, etc—Westworld uses human-like robots to tell us a story about humanity. Questions like “How do you know you are human?” “What is consciousness?” “What are dreams?” “What are memories?” “How does does your past define you?” “What is free will?” “What is consent?” are asked but not always answered.

The titular Westworld is a Western theme park where life-life robots—”hosts”—act out stories called narratives in a controlled environment for guests of the park. The park is marketed as “life without limits.” The idea is that because the hosts are robots you can do anything you want with them and it doesn’t matter.

While not a show directly about sex work, Westworld in its over-all arc is about the push/pull of market forces between client and worker. It is also about the uprising of a group who is fed up with being used. Sex workers who have to constantly prove their humanity to society and deal with client entitlement every day might find the show reminiscent of their lives.

Caty: I would argue that this show is about sex work. It’s about a separate, disposable class of people who perform reproductive/emotional labor so that guests can enjoy their leisure. The hosts’ very lives are this labor, so they can’t even be compensated for it. And they literally have false consciousness.

As the show reminds us constantly, the hosts’ purpose is to be fucked or hurt, or at the very least to immerse the clients in a fantasy, which sounds like the sex worker job description to a T. In fact, the hosts are the ideal sex workers from a certain client perspective. They are the ultimate pro-subs, who can be beaten, stabbed, strangled, and shot, only to be refurbished, resurrected, and brought back as a clean slate in terms of both their memories and their bodies, ready to take those blows again. They are entirely “authentic,” programmed to believe that the role play they engage the guests in is what is actually happening. If the Westworld story that the guest is indulging in is that Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the damsel host, is in love with him, she actually is in love with him.

But what Westworld actually does best is reflect the client mentality—an Entertainment Weekly recapper quipped that the Man In Black (Ed Harris) sounds like “a dork playing Dungeons & Dragons who yells at other players for asking for a bathroom break” when he gets pissed off after some other guests refer to his work in the real world. But to me, he actually sounds like the BDSM client I used to have who would shriek “WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE MONEY” if I ever said anything which derailed his fantasy of being a scene elder teaching eager young acolyte (unpaid) me about kink.

And who does William (Jimmi Simpson) remind us of most but a stalker regular when he turns (even more) murderous and rapacious after realizing that Dolores doesn’t remember him—that he isn’t special enough to her to override the programming that forces her to forget him after each go-round? At first, he’s a Nice Guy—that trusted reg, the one who believes Dolores is sapient and Not Like All The Other Hosts. He’s Captain-Save-A-Host! But later, after his embittered violence runs roughshod over the park for 30 years, after he assaults Dolores over and over, and then grows “tired” of her like the most jaded hobbyist, Dolores tells him, “I thought you were different, but you’re just like all the rest.”

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