By now, you are probably aware of Rough Night and the animated and practiced (if not exhausted and slightly jaded because this happens all the f*cking time) reaction to it from the sex worker online community.
But if not, here’s a quick recap: on March 8th Paulilu Productions released the trailer for their latest summer chick-flick Rough Night, a film about five college besties (played by Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) drawn apart by their busy, upper-middle class lives who then…accidentally kill a male stripper at Johansen’s bachelorette party, and, according to the film’s PR materials, “are brought closer together…amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up.”
Because nothing says “female solidarity and bonding” like trying to cover up the manslaughter of a dead hooker.
You can probably imagine sex worker Twitter’s (and Tumblr’s and Facebook’s) reaction: Jacq the Stripper killed it, first with a heartfelt video appeal from a “human stripper with a simple request” and then with a killer cartoon. Lucille B (among others) pointed out that “As long as the ‘dead hooker’ is a valid, comedic plot device, filmmakers perpetuate stigma that gets #sexworkers killed.” Stella Zine commented on the impropriety of using a sex worker death to bring women together: “It is bullshit to make a lady bonding ‘comedy’ about killing #sexworkers WTF?”
Lynsie Lee also pointed out that the death of another professional would not have been treated in the same way: “if the characters in #RoughNightMovie tried to cover up a school teacher’s death it wouldn’t be a comedy #StrippersArePeopleToo.”
And Thansy Dancer put into words one of the first things going through all of our minds when yet another whorephobic/death-of-a- sex-worker/white-slavery-trafficking-trope film comes out when she tweeted: “I take it no one involved in this movie knows any real strippers or SWs because if you did maybe you would be smarter.”
Heck, even folks from outside the hive got involved. (Nothing like finding new friends over outrage at a film using the death of a sex worker as a comedic device. Which, actually, would be a better lady-bonding comedy concept than yet another dead hooker.) “#RoughNightMovie looks icky y’all. Violence against sex workers- regardless of their gender- is not feminist; trailer made my stomach hurt,” Jaunty_July tweeted, representing a common sentiment. “Finally the feminist movie we’ve been waiting for, a combination of violence against sex workers and fat jokes #RoughNightMovie,” Masters in Science student Tastykake added.
And many opposed the movie for non-ideological reasons: “The #RoughNightMovie trailer looks like bad movie from 1986 that should’ve stayed there, like C. Thomas Howell’s blackface in Soul Man,” financial analyst Brandy Betz tweeted, expressing the views of many. “So #RoughNightMovie is gonna be a #weekendatbernies ripoff??” Dexter, a gym junkie, asked. Not just Weekend at Bernies…more like a film that has been done 100 times before.
Some suggested a boycott. (Although, looking at the box office flop that was Very Bad Things, the 1988 dead-sex-worker-at-a-bachelor-party film Rough Night is a rough gender-bender rip-off of, and the been-there-done-that reaction of Twitter in general, this, thank god, most likely won’t even be necessary.) Some commented on the impropriety of releasing the trailer a day after International Women’s Day. But the trailer was actually released on International Women’s Day! And not only on International Women’s Day: it was promoted using the official UN Women’s Day hashtag.
— Rough Night (@RoughNightMovie) March 9, 2017
And this, for me, was what was most striking about this unfortunate white-Hollywood-slapstick-summer-box-office-flop flick.
I’m quite used to dead sex worker jokes (Tina Fey and Anna Kendrick, side-eye to you); to B-list films using dead sex workers as comedic plot devices (Dirty Work, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, and—not a joke, y’all—What to Do with Your Dead Hooker); to the adoption of sex work as trafficking as the new hot cause of white and beautiful actresses the world over (Hi Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham!). I’m also quite used to capitalism labeling anything that will move product feminist (thanks for your shameless appropriation, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Burger King)! And finally, I’m ever so used to white self-proclaimed feminist actresses throwing sex workers under the bus while deflecting any criticism as bullying and “sexism.”
But using International Women’s Day to promote a film in which a gaggle of mostly white, upper-middle-class college besties bond over trying to cover up the accidental death of a sex worker takes Hollywood Feminism to a new low. And it robs the folks behind Rough Night of the usual deflection of criticism of doing something seriously fucked: namely, “Just because I am a feminist, and a woman, everything I do is not political!”
So I feel, without question, that it is fair to equate this disaster of a film with Hollywood Feminism, and I share Caty Simon’s reaction that “[a]pparently, Hollywood feminism means that now women protagonists can also participate in screen violence against sex workers.”
And this equation is the strange thing for me. While Old Guard Hollywood has a long history of laughing over dead sex workers, it has never linked violence against or stigmatization of sex workers with empowerment or progressivism, as is increasingly common for new guard comedy queens like Rough Night director Lucia Aniello, Tina Fey, and Amy Schumer. And there is something very strange about this—about, for example, Lucia Aniello (her Twitter bio reads “we’re all in this together”) sharing her brand new film trailer a few tweets above “if you are racist, sexist or homophobic i feel bad for you.”
if you are racist, sexist or homophobic i feel bad for you
— Lucia Aniello (@LuciaAniello) February 12, 2017
So Hollywood Feminism, in a way, like mainstream feminism, means joining the “boy’s club” of classism, chauvinism, and blatant insensitivity towards marginalized groups. And, in the case of Rough Night, not simply joining it but surpassing it. In Very Bad Things, the film that Rough Night most closely resembles, the accidental bachelor party death of a stripper is a comedic plot device, but only to the extent that it uncovers the core of awfulness in the party-goers who, for the most part, wind up killing each other. The stripper in Very Bad Things isn’t humanized, but neither is anyone else: the entire cast is depicted as a crew of closet psychopaths set free by manslaughter. In contrast, in Rough Night, we can speculate that death and the cover-up become a ya-ya-sisterhood goofy bonding activity. And conceding that more may come through the movie, from the material we’re working with, the director and screenwriter seem to want us to like the bachelorette crew, to construct them as ya know, your stereotypical White Hollywood sisterhood—quirky, maybe egocentric, but ultimately relatable “our girls.”
And in Very Bad Things, while still deplorable, the stripper’s corpse serves as a comedic object for just a few minutes before she is buried, and the real comedic object is the atrociousness of the wedding party as they turn against each other and their violence against…each other. In contrast, as far as one can tell from the Rough Night trailer, the corpse provides laughs through much of the movie as the sex-worker-killing-clique flip over his eyes moving, relocate him to a sex swing, drag him through the sand, and fail at getting him to sink when they try to drown the body in the ocean.
Which is, you know, besides the issue of promoting violence against a vulnerable group of people (albeit, as people have pointed out, in this film less vulnerable than most sex workers), is just such a Debby Downer for sex workers (and people who love them) who love movies. But as Broke Hoe Leading the Blind pointed out in her scathing critique of the film, White Feminist Hollywood is not all of Feminist Hollywood. “…White people wrote the dumb ass movie so what indeed is wrong with white people?”
So true. And, as Broke Hoe points out, we have options:
“Instead of seeing Rough Night where the joke is literally the murder of sex workers, see Girl’s Trip instead where four beautiful black women (Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish) get wild without having to kill someone!”