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Deconstructing Aphrodite:
Prostitutes in Woody Allen Movies

Deconstructing Aphrodite:
Prostitutes in Woody Allen Movies
by Greta Christina

So I was walking out of Deconstructing Harry, pondering (as is my wont) its depiction of sex in general and prostitution in particular, when it struck me that Woody Allen has made an unusually high number of movies about prostitutes. (Well... four, that I can think of anyway, which maybe isn't all that many when you look at an entire lifetime's body of work. And "about" prostitutes may not be the most precise term; "having a prostitute in the movie somewhere as a fairly major character" would probably be more accurate. But how many other serious cinematic auteur types have made even that many movies even touching on the subject? Huh?) And in a blinding flash of brilliance and insight, it suddenly hit me: "Aha! Next week's column!"

And so I spent a couple of days in front of the VCR, checking out one of his movies that I'd never seen and refreshing my memory about a few that I had, looking at the prostitute characters and the prostitute-customer characters and the institution of prostitution just in general. And what I saw was a seriously odd mish-mosh of cliches and inventiveness, three-dimensional characters and tired stereotypes, thoughtful ideas and unquestioned assumptions. Not too surprising, I guess; given that Allen's movies are full of stereotypical neurotic New York intellectuals that are still (sometimes) interesting and three-dimensional, it makes a fair amount of sense that they'd be full of stereotypical hookers that are still (sometimes) interesting and three-dimensional as well.

Let's look first at his latest movie, Deconstructing Harry, and the main prostitute character in it, Cookie (Hazelle Goodman). I suppose you could call Cookie a hooker with a heart of gold (that tiredest of all tired cliches), in that she's a pretty great person. She's sharp, perceptive, clear-headed, funny, caring, and generally decent; in fact, she provides a sort of counterpoint of sanity and inner coherence to Harry's (Woody Allen) solipsistic mess of a life. She's also one of the few movie prostitutes I've seen who isn't constantly harping about how she wants to get out of the business; in fact, she seems to like the business pretty well, and seems to be genuinely happy in it. And she obviously gives a damn about people in general and about Harry in particular; the fact that he's paying for her time doesn't make her not care about him, not want the best for him, not do what she can to do right by him. (That part of the prostitution myth has always baffled me. I mean, nobody would think that doctors or masseurs or therapists don't care about their clients just because their time is being paid for. Why do people assume that prostitutes only feel coldness and contempt for their customers just because it's fundamentally a business relationship?) Anyway, Cookie is really great, and while there's certainly some cliched aspects to the way she's written, ultimately she's a real character in the best sense of the word.

But there's this other side to the way Deconstructing Harry looks at prostitution, and that side shows up in Harry himself. See, Harry is not so nice a guy. That's a lot of the point of the movie, in fact; the movie is a smart and interesting exploration of an ordinary, everyday, garden variety bad person, someone who's not a big scary evil Darth Vader-like villain running around killing and torturing people and going "Ha ha!" but who's clearly a bad guy anyway. Harry is basically a selfish bastard, a self-involved, self-indulgent, unethical user of people, who doesn't really care about other people except insofar as they relate to him and do or don't make his life more pleasant. He knows that he's not so nice, and agonizes about it in traditional Allen style, but he doesn't ever try to do anything about it.

And the fact that he regularly and frequently patronizes prostitutes is repeatedly used as an example of what a bad guy he is. It's seen as a sign of emotional immaturity at best, an inability or unwillingness to have real intimate relationships. More to the point, it's given as an example of how Harry is a user, how he basically only relates with other people to please himself, how even his desire for intimacy and connection is ultimately a self-centered one.

That dichotomy, the "whores are okay but their customers aren't, the workers are fine but the work is fucked-up" split, is unfortunately an all-too-common one. It actually reminds me of Striptease, or Moll Flanders, or a zillion other sex work movies I could mention where the sex workers themselves are seen as grand and great but the work is seen as degrading and demoralizing and the customers are seen as lowlife shits. And that shows a judgement about sex work that goes beyond judgements about the sex workers themselves. If you have a respect for a profession, you don't go around saying that the suppliers can be decent people but the customers are pathetic jerks who ought to be ashamed of themselves. And what does it say about Allen's image of sex work that he sees the inclination to supply it as businesslike-but-still-caring, but sees the inclination to purchase it as self-centered and cold?

I suppose you could say that just because Harry believes he's a bad person for patronizing prostitutes doesn't mean the movie's director believes that as well. A writer or director can easily disagree with their characters. But I don't think that's the case here. The assumption just seems so deeply ingrained and unquestioned; it's tossed off with the casualness of conventional wisdoms and obvious truths. The grass is always greener; the sun comes up in the East; seeing prostitutes shows that you're a bad person.

Even the very fact that Cookie is so much saner than Harry is in itself used as a sort of mockery, not of Cookie, but of Harry -- and in a sense, of the profession itself. "See how messed up he is?" the movie seems to say. "Even a prostitute has her life more together and her head screwed on straighter than he does." That doesn't say much for Harry -- but frankly, it doesn't say much for Allen, either. To spend a solid chunk of screen time showing what a great person this hooker is, and then to use her to show how low Harry has sunk, doesn't exactly display the "prostitutes are people, too" acceptance that he seems to want to prove.

Moving backwards in time, we come to Mighty Aphrodite (1995). More precisely, we come to Linda (Mira Sorvino), the female lead of Mighty Aphrodite. A middle-range call girl and sometime porn actress, Linda is sweet, funny, good-natured and affectionate, and she begins the movie with a breezy, light-hearted, pragmatic approach to her work. But it doesn't take very long for the movie to reveal that she's really a mess. She's anxious, insecure, not very bright, and out of touch with reality, with low self-esteem and no real plans for the future. The very fact that she doesn't see anything wrong with her job is presented as evidence of just how out-of-touch she is, and when she starts to want to get out of it and start a different life, it's given as a sign that her life and mental health are on the upswing.

And naturally, the happy ending that saves her from misery and despair is -- you guessed it -- leaving the business, for a normal suburban life with marriage and kids and a job as a hairdresser. Linda thinks her work is okay at first; but her salvation, her happy ending, comes when she recognizes just how dehumanizing and degrading the business is and gets the hell out of it. To be fair, she finds a husband who accepts her as she is and laughs at the wild stories of her promiscuous past. But presumably, he wouldn't accept her if wanted to keep on turning tricks and making dirty movies. And more to the point, she can't accept herself as long as she keeps on turning tricks and making dirty movies. It's another all-too-common cliche of hookers in movies; they can be cool good people as long as they don't like the work and want to get out. The fact that they despise what they do for a living is the proof that they have the proverbial "heart of gold."

Then for good measure, I'm throwing in Bullets over Broadway (1994). Technically, I suppose the character of Violet (Jennifer Tilly) isn't a prostitute per se, but gangster's moll/kept woman is close enough for me. (As her housemaid points out when Violet tells her gangster lover that she isn't in the mood for sex: "You better get in the mood, honey, 'cuz he's payin' the bills.") There isn't much to say about Violet, really; she's an almost completely appalling woman, shrill, greedy, grasping, shallow, sullen, dishonest, selfish, dumb, and -- sin of sins in a Woody Allen movie -- talentless. To be fair, Bullets over Broadway is a pretty light movie, not one of Allen's more philosophical endeavors, and pretty much all the characters in it are two-dimensional, one-note caricatures. But I do find it telling that the one-note distillation he picked for his sex-worker character is a dumb, obnoxious, heartless floozy who (warning, ending spoiler imminent) just about everyone is happy to see bumped off.

Finally we come to Shadows and Fog (1992), Allen's earliest movie dealing with prostitution. (Or the first one I've seen, anyway -- I suppose this is as good a time as any to confess that I haven't actually seen every single one of the almost thirty movies that Woody Allen has directed. So sue me.) In a lot of ways, Shadows and Fog is the most sex-work-positive of Allen's sex-work movies. The movie is a shadowy, gloomy, expressionistic endeavor (a fairly lame and dull one, too, but that's rather beside the point), full of Symbolism about Life and Death and Meaning, and the brothel in the movie is consistently shown as a haven, a refuge of warmth and laughter and pleasure and light away from the dark, cold, grim, gloomy, scary, dangerous, unkind, depressing outside world that is Life. The prostitutes in the brothel (Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Anne Lange, and Lily Tomlin) are happy (well, fairly happy, anyway, but compared to everyone else in the movie they're downright ecstatic), full of jokes and advice and obvious affection for one another. (Apropos of not much -- kudos to Allen for casting Kathy Bates as a prostitute. Not too many directors have the ability to see a big woman, not only as a sexual being, but as a sexual being who is desirable enough to get paid for sex. It does show a particular kind of perceptiveness about sex work that isn't too common.)

And for once, the customers aren't seen as creeps. In fact, the main customer-character that we get to know, Jack (John Cusack), is a thoughtful and contemplative student, a reasonably nice guy and a good lover, who treats the women at the brothel well and with a fair degree of respect.

But oddly, even though Shadows and Fog may be Allen's most sex-work-positive movie, it's also in some ways his most cliched. The hookers are certainly full of laughter and pleasure and fondness for one another, but they also have a strong streak of hardness, mistrust, and disillusionment. They're full of contempt and cynicism, towards men in general and their customers in particular, and they're jaded and hopeless to the extreme about life and, most especially, about love. And when one woman, Irmy (Mia Farrow) is given refuge in the brothel and decides to turn the first trick of her life, it's seen as a fall of sorts, a loss of innocence. When Jack is bargaining with her, one of the other hookers (Lily Tomlin -- interestingly, none of the hookers are given names) tells him, "Some people can't be bought, not for any amount of money," and it's kind of a sad moment when she's proven wrong. And even the reasonably nice customer, Jack, comments afterwards about how most prostitutes have a "used, jaded quality." The clear impression is that the brothel is a refuge from the harshness of life -- but this refuge is an illusion, created by people who have become hardened and jaded, and whose job it is to convince you that they feel affection and pleasure for you when what they really feel is dismissal and contempt.

Like I said, it's a really odd mix, and the mix has changed in some interesting ways over the years. From the prostitute as jovial but jaded provider of illusory pleasure, to the prostitute as sweet-natured but screwed-up mess needing to be saved by a knight in shining armor, to the prostitute as wise and with-it supplier to self-centered and screwed-up customers, with a detour through dumb, greedy, selfish floozy along the way... well, now that I think of it, the development isn't just in the way Allen sees sex work. It looks an awful lot like the development in the way a lot of people see sex work. I guess this shouldn't be too surprising: even the most original artist is a product of their culture, and while artists (especially mass-media artists) certainly can influence and affect and even radically change the attitudes of the world around them, they sometimes just act as mirrors of those attitudes. Maybe -- hopefully -- the mirror can, in the long run, be an agent of influence and change as well.

Copyright 1998 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.


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