Home Movies Misérable Politics: Why Anne Hathaway Should Go-Away

Misérable Politics: Why Anne Hathaway Should Go-Away

Image from LesMeanGirls
Image from LesMeanGirls

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.

Handjobs.... SOB!  (Image via Feminspire)
(Image via Feminspire)

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.’

Johanna is a hooker and a professional humiliatrix from New Zealand, now residing in Australia. She tutors in Media Studies, and is definitely probably going to start her MA any day now, honest. Her hobbies include drinking, righteous anger, and the internet (preferably at the same time). twitter.com/freetrial69.


  1. Not too long ago, actors & sex workers enjoyed roughly the same status in society – something for both to remember when considering the other’s current social standing!

    • Agreed, and very glad the similarities were drawn. I’ve done sexy things for money in a hotel room with men I’ll never seen again; I’ve done sexy things on film (and for a lot less money!) on a set filled with strangers. I’m a whore either way. Roles is roles.

  2. I think the problem here is trying to apply one kind of story about prostitution to all prostitutes everywhere. Some women are hookers by necessity, in the same way that a fast food worker is forced into flipping burgers out of necessity. Some are hookers because they want to be, and some are forced into it. Using the motivations and circumstances of one woman to understand or explain the circumstances of another will only end up being offensive and simplistic and nowhere near what reality is.
    Like… Fantine isn’t a worker, she doesn’t choose a profession by weighing her options and going for the best one, her only choice is prostitution or death for her and her daughter and that’s not a real choice. She’s a slave in practice, even if she is legally free. Trying to use the stories of women who fall into the first or second type of people I mentioned above to understand or critique Fantine’s portrayal or story doesn’t work, because it’s just not the same thing. She’s a victim, and her life really is terrible and damaging to her body and soul and saying otherwise is diminishing actual suffering suffered by non-fictional people both today and in the past. What Anne Hathaway is talking about isn’t sex workers, she’s talking about slaves and there’s a big difference even if there are also superficial similarities. I think her problem is not making that distinction out loud, not that she’s actually trying to run into a content hooker’s house guns ablazing to save her.

    • You’re right that the one story impulse is a serious problem. But I disagree with you that Fantine isn’t a worker; her unhappiness/suffering in her work doesn’t change the fact that she is laboring. We don’t do anyone any favors by eliminating the work aspect when talking about women who are in the sex trade because they have no better options for generating income. Erasing the monetary exchange from the equation severely limits how much we can help those doing work they don’t want to do.

      And I wish everyone who likes the “slave” framing of the issue were more careful to distinguish “wage slavery” as different from pre-Civil War slavery, and (as you noted) as not encountered exclusively in prostitution but rather something that impacts many, many people who work.

    • There’s a difference between wage slavery and slavery that is not superficial. Survival sex workers like Fantine are in a terrible position, but they are not sex slaves, and the abolitionist feminist discourse Anne Hathaway supports makes their lives harder by furthering their criminalization (just read accounts from our movement about what’s going on in Sweden under the Swedish model for sex workers, to see what happens under this abolitionist feminist agenda) and exposing them to rescue industry practices which lead to deportation and police abuse. “Save us from our saviors. We’re tired of being saved” is the slogan of VAMP, a sex workers’ collective in India, many of whom are survival sex workers, and our movement sees that reflected globally from EMPOWER in Thailand to the African Sex Workers’ Alliance when survival sex workers are asked about what THEY want.

      • Survival sex work is a ridiculous term. All work is survival work. Why does nobody talk about survival retail workers, or survival cleaners? Because they are nonsense terms just like survival sex work.

  3. I agree, we should be careful not to generalize the experiences of prostitutes (or anyone), but this piece does the same, but opposite, as Hathaway. “There may well be women out there who relate to Fantine”? I would have to say, yes. Like when Fantine was nearly arrested for attacking a man who intended to force sex on her? When, with absolutely no where else to turn, she chooses (but this is a much different choice than freely choosing to do what she wants) to sell herself? These are real experiences (certainly not universal, but real), and should not be undermined because they don’t fit into a certain empowered image of prostitution. Hathaway’s comments speak to a very real experience, particularly of those in “sex tourism” nations, such as the Philippines, who can hardly be called anything other than sex slaves. Like Hathaway, I do not intend to paint all women in prostitution with this brush, but I see no specific harm in acknowledging its reality. Many people would be shocked to see the conditions that some prostitutes face; what in god’s name is wrong with Hathaway drawing attention to this particular story?

      • Good point, my statement needed a qualifier: “many of whom can hardly be called anything other than sex slaves”

        However, the fact that 175 filipino prostitutes (A small number, when considering the magnitude of the sex industry in this country, or perhaps a large number when you consider how many filipino sex workers have access to facebook/computers. Who knows.) are empowered and fulfilled by their work does not discount the legacy of prostitution in this nation. Selling Sex in Heaven presents a pretty harrowing look at the lives of some of these young women. Those who wish to be prostitutes need to be protected with effective legislation and provided with safe working conditions, etc. Those who do not (and there are plenty. Majority or not, there are plenty, and they seem to have been pushed to the margins in these discussions), but find themselves engaged in it, need help getting out.

        • Those who wish to be prostitutes need to be protected with effective legislation and provided with safe working conditions, etc. Those who do not (and there are plenty. Majority or not, there are plenty, and they seem to have been pushed to the margins in these discussions), but find themselves engaged in it, need help getting out.

          Yes they need help getting out, but they also need to be protected with effective legislation and safe working conditions, because that help getting out isn’t going to materialise or be effective overnight. Abolitionist strategies fail to prioritise harm reduction, least of all for those who are already more vulnerable. I want to echo Caty Simon’s comment that she linked above.

          • Some pretty major mischaracterizations of what I’m trying to say. Obviously I don’t believe that only those who WANT to be prostitutes need protection, and those who don’t should be left to figure it out for themselves. Efforts to deal with the dangerous world of prostitution must be two pronged: Safety and harm reduction, so that I can stop turning on the news to hear someone callously dismiss the murder of a prostitute; and training, counselling, and special services for those who, regardless of safety concerns, are not fulfilled, satisfied or comfortable with working in the sex trade, and would like a hand getting out. I reiterate this because most of the comments posted here are unwilling to acknowledge this reality as anything other than the “creation” of the evil abolitionist scholars and feminists.
            And Caty, I feel that women who are bought, sold, controlled, and paid a penance would disagree with your characterization of their “superficial slavery” Who cares that there is a minor wage involved if a woman’s agency is taken away, and she is engaged in something against her will? Its tragic to see that the suffering of some women is increased by misguided saviour effects, but not entirely helpful for anyone to insist that “things are just find, leave it alone.” I’d simply like an acknowledment that more than one narrative of prostitution exists, and if we assume (incorrectly) that the only significant one is one in which sex workers are empowered, free, and safe, we overlook a population that doesn’t need us to stop helping, they simply need us to learn how to help in a way that doesn’t impose our repressive values on them.

  4. I know it’s probably unwise to say this, and everyone here is going to hate me. I’m not saying this to be judgmental, because everyone has different perceptions of reality… but the reality of Fantine is that she viewed her purity as sacred. Many women do, all over the world. So in turning to prostitution, she gave up her soul.

        • Charlotte – I think most people can connect to the idea that having sex you choose out of love or desire for your partner is qualitatively different from sex you choose because it is (in theory) out of dire economic necessity.

          A lot of people – then and now, but especially then – have feelings about promiscuity and how they would prefer not to do it. While I don’t share that particular delicacy, I’m not going to insist that they don’t feel it. I think we are meant to understand that Fantine would not, given a range of choice, have sex outside of a committed relationship. (Of course I acknowledge that what THAT means within the greater narrative of either the book or movie would require some unpacking and is not unproblematic) I think we also understand that Fantine (probably because she sold her hair and teeth and became an alcoholic) was not in a position – or simply wasn’t, regardless of her position – to be as discriminating with her clientele as she ideally could be, had she looked at the situation a little more dispassionately before the situation became quite so dire.

          Is that the only – or the most common – story of prostitution in North America? No. I think – and we probably all agree on this one – that middle class prostitution is increasingly the norm at least in this particular global zone.

          I’m not sure the problem here is a lack of nuance, the more that I think about it. I think there is too much nuance, and that totally interferes with solidarity. The more fine detail, the more stuff we can disagree on – in some ways broad strokes are better. Although when I looked at the original article, I kind of think context might be lacking from the problematic quote. She was talking about how she cries on demand, not making generalized political statements about prostitution or any legal status thereof, and I think that definitely feeds into how her statement should be interpreted in terms of generalizations. Like if I were summarizing that whole quote it would be “I make myself sad knowing that some people are still facing these conditions in their lives” which is a little different than “prostitutes are all (or mostly) sexual slaves”.

          • I wasn’t being snarky, I was asking a question of the original person commenting. Nor was I insisting that any one feel a certain way…let alone a fictional character in an already completed work.

  5. I don’t know – while I don’t disagree that neither Hathaway nor Hugo spent a lot of time thinking about middle class prostitutes, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it is about… unhappy and desperate people. She would be a tad out of place if she had become a hooker before selling her teeth and became instead a well-heeled and well compensated courtesan. Like: “and everyone died… except Fantine, who was left a considerable fortune by her dear friend, and eventually opened a shop to sell charming chapeaus. It turned out she had an unexpected head for figures.”

    I think that the other side is what Hugo and Hathaway ARE attentive to: that a prostitute is, in fact, a highly, highly moral person, while many of the people judging her in the novel are hypocritical and cruel. Fantine clearly has no head for business or she would have contemplated that she would need more money before the hair grew back, but her values are those that most people share, or at least think they share.

    Considering the prevailing attitudes that did not distinguish very well between consensual and non-consensual sex for unmarried, non-virgins it is overall a pretty interesting fact that it is acknowledged, and pretty forcefully argued, that a poor woman and a prostitute can actually be assaulted.

  6. I find it fascinating how most of the people criticising this article want to talk about Johanna’s lack of “””nuance””” when, y’know, she acknowledges the fact that people have varied experiences of sex work – it’s Hathaway who’s painting all sex workers with a single brush, and appointing herself our spokeswoman despite knowing so little about the subject before playing Fantine that she apparently wasn’t aware of even the most cliché tropes about trafficking and “white slavery”.

  7. Fantine is a character from a very specific historical context – poverty-ridden 1800s revolutionary France. Arguing that she doesn’t represent sex workers as a whole just seems… silly. Of course she doesn’t.

  8. just because you choose a life and are happy with it, doesn’t mean everyone living that life chose to be there and is happy with it. i really don’t know much about the world of “sex workers” but i’m willing to bet that there are more who are unhappy with it than ones like you who are so excited they need to blog about it. the one thing i do know about the world of sex workers is that they demand respect and want to live their life the way they see fit, so what’s so hard about treating other people that way? until anne hathaway comes knocking at your door trying to “save” you from your line of work, you don’t really have a reason to tell her to “go away.”

    • The “sex slave” hysteria dominating international discussions of sex work right now is a problem for all sex workers, whether or not Hathaway herself rolls up her sleeves and starts “knocking on doors” (aka knocking down doors in a police raid to arrest working women, which is what “saving” actually looks like.)

      And it is indeed safe to say you nothing about (quote unquote) sex workers if you think the only reason they’d speak out about the dominant rhetoric, mainstream culture, and ubiquitous laws that threaten their health, safety, personal freedoms, and livelihood, is because they’re “so excited” about their work.

  9. Johanna (love your name), great article, smart. Anne Hathaway needs to remember that fiction is fiction and research all she may, she’s not livin the life nor can she gain a depth of understanding about the nuances of whoring through the centuries and all over the world, including a block away from her. Like all well intentioned NGOs making shit loads of money ‘helping’ the impoverished nations they set up camp in, the contradiction between patronage ‘saving’ and keeping people in poverty as compared to working towards their legal rights, enabling their agency, currency and some basic respect for crissakes. Great article and some great commentary following.
    Lauren is simply ill informed. Charlotte’s reply is dead on.

  10. I think the main issue I have is the possible construction/conclusion that “becoming a prostitute” is Fantine’s problem. It isn’t.

    She had problems because she didn’t have sex-ed or plan b, because she was discriminated against for being a single mother, because she didn’t have child-support or welfare, because she didn’t have access to child-care while working, because her boss sexually harassed her, and because there was no social support network.

    In the book, you can ad “being fired because she was accused of being a prostitute,” “corporate governance & lack of work for independent contractors [Valjean’s factory was the only employment option in town, and though she tried to sew from home afterwards, this did not pay bills] and “domestic violence [she was beaten by a lover she found after getting kicked out of the factory]” to the cause of Fantine’s issues.

    So – she was screwed because she didn’t have education, other options to meet basic survival needs, or legal support. She didn’t need to be saved from prostitution. She needed to be saved from everything else she suffered, and she needed an option besides prostitution [and selling her teeth & hair…um…duh].

    I also think that Victor Hugo’s construction of the “fallen prostitute” — as erotic and salient as this trophe is — perpetuates the idea that “prostitution is the worst thing that can happen to you.” And for most people engaging in the sex trade, the decision is not faced with the same, highly-eroticized, morally-charged, self-sacrificing effect that Victor Hugo AND Anne Hathaway both understand it through.

    I get that emotional state (I totally had single-mother-forced-to-turn-tricks fantasies when I was an adolescent) … but ultimately, Anne Hathaway is engaging in the same type of “feeling projection” that most anti-prostitution feminists engage in.

    Melissa Gira Grant does a better job than I can of describing this: “Hollibaugh points to this most difficult place, this politics of feelings performed by some feminists, in absence of solidarity. They imagine how prostitution must feel, and how that in turn makes them feel, despite all the real-life prostitutes standing in front of them to dispute them.”

    And ultimately, I think that these “feeling games” are … at least in part … erotic. Imagining yourself as a “fallen, self-sacrificing hooker” is a covertly erotic fantasy (like rape fantasies) that a lot of women (and men) have… And I think that’s also the basis of Hugo’s Fantine generally.

    So — Anne Hathaway spouting her “empathy” with “sex slaves” is just another place where a middle/upper-class white woman IMAGINES what it would be like to HAVE TO SELL SEX… and then widely explain what SELLING SEX that this is what it REALLY IS like.

  11. So ultimately, I guess all of the commentators criticizing this article are imagining what it might be like to be Fantine. Which is ultimately what Anne Hathaway did in her performance.

    And, ever-so-confident in the authenticity of their own emotional projections, they feel urged to defend the authenticity of another emotional projection that aligns with their own.

  12. I know this was written pre-Oscars, but reading it after, I’m struck by the fact that the “we saw your boobs” musical number actually feels relevant to something even remotely intellectual.

  13. http://www.stopthetraffik.org/the-scale-of-human-traffiking Just for those who aren’t aware this is the scale of human trafficking (human trafficking for slave labour and trafficking for sex slaves). This seemed like a good place to bring light to the reality of sex slavery in our world today. Read some of these stories. Fantine’s story is a reality happening today. Often to girls under the age of twelve. They deserve a voice.

  14. I understand and applaud many of the thoughtful comments made here, but I do really think that when discussing the character of Fantine it is important to consider that she has NO choice but death for her and her daughter. She, and those who today still fit this category, is not one of those who chooses her role in society. This is like comparing a religious person, say a monk, who gives away all his earthly belongings for his faith and a homeless person who has lost everything and is forced to live on the street. I think the fact that Hathaway refers to ‘sex slavery’ also indicates that this issue of choice is central to her stance and her comments. Not all prostitutes feel forced into it, but the numbers are there to say that many do. I find it hard to condemn Hathaway for either her portrayal of Fantine (a character for whom context clearly states that she is a reluctant participant) or her stance on sex slavery. I applaud the close reading here, though, and the writer’s desire to discuss issues that in a modern context have taken on new meaning.

    • I would be as tolerant as you and take her comments in isolation. That is, if this were a different world, if she weren’t a well managed celebrity and if she didn’t choose to take such an engaged and totally contextually-aware political stance in life (explicity working with anti sex feminists like steinem and 1 billion rising).
      But to say “she’s just an artist talking about her particular work” is like saying the president is just musing about a hysterical public issue, because he feels like it…it’s not because he has an agenda, etc.

    • Also, “the numbers are there to say that many do”. The numbers are crap. Statistics on this issue are a mess and the overwhelming acceptable, right thinking attitude, when it comes to law and order on this issue, is that almost all prostitution is sex trafficking and inconceivably worse than any other job out there. Don’t tell me Hathaway just didn’t think of this when she joined the mission to stamp it out.

  15. Eh. You are drawing parallels but you’re refusing to acknowledge that Hathaway didn’t HAVE to cut off her hair or diet drastically, etc. She CHOSE to do those things. Same goes for the sex workers you are saying dislike Hathaway. They apparently are okay with their CHOICE. Fantine did not have a choice and THAT is why there is a huge difference there. I’m not entirely sure how the author, who seems to be intelligent, could miss this obvious distinction.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.