In continuing my tour of films directed by women, I’ve come to what one might call the golden age of Western feminist filmmaking, which roughly spanned the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. Abroad, the work of Akerman, Duras, Chytilova, Potter, von Trotta, Armstrong, Breillat, Nair, Campion, Varda; at home, Kopple, Loden, Clarke, Dash, Seidelman, Anders, Borden. Coming out of second-wave feminism, American films like Working Girls (1986) were greatly concerned with issues of materiality, power, and collectivity. Working Girls is a strikingly intelligent film, probably the shrewdest filmic representation of prostitution I’ve seen. Not to be confused with Mike Nichols’ commercial office comedy Working Girl (1988), it’s an office comedy of a different sort, set over the course of a single day in a tastefully appointed New York apartment that serves as a high-class brothel. The independent feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (her professional name, a nod to the famous murderess, suggests her desire to shock and provoke her audience) wrote the film after conducting six months’ worth of interviews with real women working as prostitutes. A sharp antidote to Hollywood’s tales of whores with hearts of gold (a cliché to be apotheosized the following year in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman), Working Girls is, as its title suggests, not so much about the ethics of prostitution as its mechanics—about how it works. As a result, the film doesn’t waste time preaching. It is motivated by a much more basic and yet also more epistemologically sophisticated goal: to watch what prostitution is, how it operates as a system, whom it involves, and why people participate in it.
In simply pulling back the curtain to show us the mechanics of the job—from the drugstore runs and the cleaning up to the booking of clients and the divvying-up of the cash at the end of the night—it says infinitely more than it might have done if it stood on a soapbox and bemoaned the plight of its subjects. This is because Working Girls quite cannily understands prostitution to be, at bottom, an issue of economics. For the women in the film, who are intelligent, thoughtful, and highly educated, prostitution is not an ontological state of being: it is a way of using sex as capital. It is in this sense that Working Girls is as much a film about a soul-crushing workplace environment as is Office Space or Terrible Bosses; it even has a terrible boss of its own in the figure of the tyrannically calculating madam, played with saccharine menace by Ellen McElduff (Borden attends to the ways in which women prey on one another here). Taking a decidedly Marxist approach to her topic, Borden reveals prostitution to be capitalism taken to its most logical extreme, an arrangement in which workers literally sell their bodies to the highest bidder. Whether the exchange is worthwhile is a question that Borden leaves tantalizingly, and hauntingly, open.