In last year’s Les Miserables, a movie with a lot of famous people in it that will probably win some Oscars, Anne Hathaway plays Fantine, a single mother struggling to provide for her child. Fantine turns to prostitution in a moment of ultimate desperation, having already sold her hair and teeth—I know I’m not the only hooker whose first response to that was “Wrong order, girl”, but whatever—and she and the audience feel very sad. Then she’s saved, and we feel happy, but then she dies of tuberculosis, and we are sad again. At least she’s not a hooker now though. Phew!
No one is more concerned about Hathaway’s Fantine, however, than Hathaway herself, as evidenced by her various comments during the lead-up to the film’s release. One of the most circulated quotes has Hathaway outlining her research “into the lives of sex slaves, which are just unspeakably harrowing,” and her attempts to “honor” the experiences of women who are “forced to sell sex”:
I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now, probably less than a block away. This injustice exists in our world. So every day that I was her, I just thought ‘This isn’t an invention. This isn’t me acting. This is me honoring that this pain lives in this world.’ I hope that in all our lifetimes, we see it end.”
Bold, patronizing words. In this quote and others (see “I’m so happy, it was hard to play a miserable whore…” ), Hathaway emphasizes how the role allowed her to channel the suffering of hapless prostitutes everywhere. When a non-consensual upskirt shot elicited a skeezy jibe from Matt Lauer, Hathaway used her retort to critique “a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants.” She threw her lot in with One Billion Rising, and declared her commitment to ending sex slavery. Lady bloggers cheered, abolitionist feminists nodded approvingly, and sex workers everywhere threw up in their mouths a little bit.
This response might surprise Hathaway and fans; after all, the only thing more upsetting than a woman trapped in prostitution is one who doesn’t want to be rescued. And yet Hathaway has had her own brush with the unapologetic whore as well, in her other big role of 2012 as Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) in The Dark Knight Rises.
Hathway’s turn as Catwoman arguably tells us more about sex work than her own comments on prostitution do. Catwoman is a complex character, who has been handled and mishandled across a variety of texts. In her most recent filmic incarnation, she’s a woman defined and restricted by her circumstances, using her looks and her wits to do what she can. “I started out doing what I had to,” says Hathaway’s Selina. “Once you’ve done what you had to, they’ll never let you do what you want to.” It’s not hard to see the sex work connection there. Hathaway, however, likes Catwoman. She admires her. When she was little, she wanted to be her. “I think a lot of women feel that way….she’s totally independent. And let’s face it, she’s badass.” Selina’s story is different from Fantine’s, but not categorically so. Like Fantine, she’s someone working out of necessity, using what power she has available to her to get a break. Like Fantine, she’s doing what she has to with what she can. So why is she admirable while Fantine is representative of the worst depths of exploitation? Is it because Selina’s life turns out better? Is it because she still has teeth?
Hathaway’s comments on prostitution aren’t the only ones that are relevant here. Much media attention has also been given to the work on her own body Hathaway did to prepare for the role of Fantine. Accounts of hair-cutting and drastic weight loss (achieved via a diet of lettuce leaves and squares of oatmeal paste) are accompanied by expressions of concern from director Tom Hooper, and Hathaway’s insistence that it was all necessary for the role. Emphasizing her own dedication to the authenticity of her performance, Hathaway tells us that “since I play a tubercular, impoverished prostitute, my weight-loss regimen was to make me look incredibly sick and near death. I lost 25 pounds. It was very hard.” She’s not bragging though: “I never thought about what I was doing as a sacrifice, because there are people that really do it.” In this way, she resists ‘undeserved’ admiration, while simultaneously drawing attention to her labor as an actor and her own desire to be good at her job.
The line between seeking recognition and performing humility is one we see female celebrities walk all the time in regard to work and their bodies, particularly when they seek to define themselves as a real-deal actor, not ‘just’ a star. What seems strange to me though, is that Hathaway and the lady bloggers who love her apparently can’t see any similarities between her use of her body in work and performance, and the experiences of sex workers. Like sex workers, Hathaway’s physicality is central to her job. Like sex workers, Hathaway has to make decisions about how to deploy her body in order to get the most out of an obviously flawed system. Like sex workers, Hathaway is making these decisions based on needs and circumstances, some of which are sexist and unfair. But somehow, when she diets to the point of frailness (her words), we call that work; when women in a film give hand jobs, we call it “the darkest place imaginable.” Fantine cuts off her hair for money and we cry. Hathaway cuts off her hair (also for money) and we nod admiringly. What a brave performance, what a dedicated actor, what a good feminist. Okay.
Les Miserables’ particular brand of poverty porn presents Fantine as the ultimate object of pity. Hathaway’s comments not only support this reading, they also treat one fictional character as universally representative of the lives of real people. Contrary to Hathaway’s feelings on the matter, Fantine isn’t “living in the world right now”. That is because she’s not actually real, Anne. She’s the fictional product of one dead white guy’s perception of sex workers written over a hundred years ago (not a very representative one either, if this 19th century letter is anything to go by). Celebrities seeking to provide “a voice for the voiceless” would do well to remember that sex workers aren’t voiceless, just consistently ignored. There may well be women out there who relate to Fantine, but in reducing the experiences of all sex workers to one tale of tragic misery, Hathaway’s comments silence and dehumanize the same women she seeks to ‘help.’