Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

My favorite image in the entirety of Lizzie Boden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is the hands-on application of a condom. Casually included in one of the many montages set to Red Krayola’s titular anthem that repeats throughout the film, there’s something intensely provocative about that matter-of-fact condom application. Juxtaposed with a wide range of images depicting labor derisively considered “women’s work,” the hands-on work of applying a condom is (somewhat in dark humor) positioned as a burden often laid on women, no different than dental assistant labor, child care, call-center duty, or the factory work of shrink-wrapping raw chicken. Its contextless, matter-of-fact presentation leaves a lot of room for interpretation, though, dividing me & Alli on whether that image was being coded as domestic labor of professional sex work. Similarly, Born in Flames’s attitude toward sex work at large is open for interpretation, as it’s a narratively disjointed picture that relies in the strengths of ideas & images (like the contextless condom application) more than concrete explanations of intent. My personal interpretation of Born in Flames saw its attitude toward sex work as the only aspect of the film’s radical politics that did not age particularly well. In my view, the film advocates for the abolition of sex work as an industry, lumping it in with rape & gendered subjugation. Boomer & Alli both saw it differently, saying Born in Flames presents sex work as just any other kind of job (albeit one in desperate need of advocacy for workers’ rights), which would put it closer in line with modern political thinking on the subject, as opposed to the more hardline stances of feminism past. It could be that I was lumping individual characters’ negativity toward sex work in with Lizzie Borden’s own views; all sides of nearly every political issue are allowed to conflict onscreen in Born in Flames with equal weight. It’s tough to tell with just one picture as evidence, especially one this deliberately disjointed.

Thankfully, Lizzie Borden’s next feature film, Working Girls, delves further into this exact topic. Depicting a single workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls finds Lizzie Borden tackling the topic of sex work head-on and at feature length.  It even follows a much more straight-forward, linear narrative than Born in Flames, so much so that it could easily be adapted into a stage play. Weirdly, though, it never fully settled my mind on Borden’s political views of sex work as an industry, which is indicative of both her own internal ideological conflicts and the complex nature of the subject. ­­Louise Smith stars in Working Girls as an aspiring photographer with a live-in girlfriend (and daughter) who secretly pays her bills by working johns in a brothel/apartment that resembles a windowless version of the Seinfeld set. Over the course of the film she works a double shift, making money off a variety of men who visit the apartment by appointment and pay to spend time with her in rooms upstairs. As the title suggests, brothel work is depicted in the film as if it were any other kind of industry. The workers who comprise the operation are tasked to alternate personalities & functions, from receptionist to office girl to therapist to hostess to actor to lover to dominatrix to housecleaner, as the minute-to-minute demands of the job shift. The manual labor of condom application implied by that single image in Born in Flames is expanded to include used condom disposal, laundering of soiled towels, and the insertion of diaphragms. This matter-of-fact presentation of sex work in a functioning office context even comes with a demanding boss who takes credit for all their employees’ labor and changes the mood of the room depending on their emotional outbursts. Judging by its office environment hierarchies & work flows, Working Girls indeed reinforces the idea that Lizzie Borden views sex work as just being like any other profession. That would indicate Born in Flames’s views were much closer to modern radical politics than the prostitution abolitionist views of feminism past. That’s not all that’s going on in the film, however.

The function & method of sex work might be framed in the context of office culture mundanity in Working Girls, but the sex itself is a punishing, relentless nightmare that complicates that intellectual distancing. The disjointed landscapes of Art of Noise-style music & disembodied grunts mix with subtly grotesque expressions of masculine violence in a never-ending nightmare that resembles an early 80s slasher with condom-wrapped dicks instead of glistening kitchen knives. Consensual trading of cash for pleasure shifts into acts of rape within the span of a single phrase or physical gesture. The capitalist hierarchy & financial desperation that presses its boot on the neck of the workers with increasing intensity makes the cramped setting feel like an ongoing hostage crisis. Even the women eating junk food between customers is a stomach-churning display, an effect Borden plays for a sinisterly humorous tone. Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.

Where that leaves Borden’s political views on sex work at large is still as hazy as the contextless, provocative imagery of Born in Flames, but that’s honestly a large part of what makes her work so engaging. According to Borden herself, she made Working Girls after collaborating with the women who starred in & crewed Born in Flames, noticing that a large number of them were financially dependent on sex work to survive (and had fascinating stories to tell on the subject). That at least acknowledges that if Borden was politically opposed to sex work as an industry, it was a question of anti-oppressive ideals, not of denigrating individual people it employed. The shame is that we never had a chance to see her expand even further on the subject. Because of the studio influence that compromised her later work, Borden considers Born in Flames & Working Girls to be the only two titles that are truly hers as the principle artist at the helm. With more, better funded movies her world view may have had a chance to clarify, evolve, or self-conflict in a clearer political display, but instead she’s been effectively silenced by a lack of opportunity. Luckily, the two films she was able to compete without outside fuckery are both ideologically dense, provocative works of D.I.Y. political filmmaking, as well as essential documentation of a long-gone, grimy era in NYC history. I’m unsure of my interpretations of either film, something that’s made no better through repetition, but I’m also awestruck by the potency of her D.I.Y. matter of fact imagery. Isolated images of a condom application, a greasy cheeseburger, a pantied spanking, and an exploding World Trade Center miniature will haunt me forever in their political implications & daringness to provoke. In two no-budget films, Borden left me with more to think about & debate within myself than most directors achieve with entire catalogs of professionally financed, polished studio productions. That’s about as punk as you can get, no matter what your exact political stances may be or how they may age with time.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its place in the No Wave movement.

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

  1. Pingback: The Red Krayola’s Anthemic Repetition in Born in Flames (1983) | Swampflix

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