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Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gained traction in 2017, the entertainment industry has gradually worked not only to tackle its sexualized internal culture and historical exclusion of women, but also to reframe how sex and sexual power are depicted throughout film and television. The post-Harvey Weinstein landscape has thus seen revolutions in how women’s bodies and bodily functions are portrayed onscreen and the means by which we evaluate and elevate female talent. Four years later, these shifts have led to a boom in nuanced representations of the so-called “world’s oldest profession.”
Hollywood has always been obsessed with the business of sex — one reason why “the hooker with a heart of gold” remains an awards-magnet archetype to this day — but in 2021, it appears that the progressive cultural transformations of the past few years have begun chipping away at some of these long-held pop cultural tropes about sex work. Recent films such as A24’s Red Rocket and Zola, Focus Features’ Last Night in Soho, Utopia’s Shiva Baby and Neon’s Titane have a hyperfocus on sex-worker characters across the spectrum of victimhood and villainy.
Although each film peddles in heart-pounding tension, it is ironically the lightest and funniest of the bunch — bonkers Texas porn dramedy Red Rocket and dreamy black comedy thriller Zola — that actually showcase the insidious terrors of sex trafficking. Conversely, the more intentionally scary or anxiety-producing movies — ghostly psychological horror flick Last Night in Soho, French body horror film Titane and panic-attack-inducing cringe comedy Shiva Baby — rather seem to make a joke of sex work with their grandiloquent visual and aural filmic styles. The latter point isn’t necessarily meant as a critique of those movies’ storytelling choices, but to underscore that gregarious and captivating people, like the ones seen in Red Rocket and Zola, can oftentimes be more threatening than the more obviously telegraphed baddies highlighted in the other three films.
Charm disarms. In Sean Baker’s superlative Red Rocket, the third film in his trilogy on the lives of marginalized sex workers, following 2017’s The Florida Project and 2015’s Tangerine, a middle-aged motormouth adult film star returns to his Texas hometown broke as a joke after some shady dealings go awry in California. With his cheeky boyishness and vulnerable wheedling, Mikey Saber (a masterful Simon Rex, who himself appeared in solo porn videos in his early acting career) worms his way back into the household of his resistant ex-wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss). In the midst of long-conning his ex into returning to porn, he meets redheaded teenage cashier Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and dollar signs immediately bloom in his eyes. Mikey works slowly with smiles, jokes and goofy romanticism until she thinks she’s the one seducing him. Before long, his methodical grooming has convinced Strawberry of her undying love for him, and she agrees to go back to L.A. with him to jump-start her own adult film career.
Mikey’s sweetsy aw-shucks narcissism has a kinship with the beguiling insta-BFF charisma exuded by Stefani (Riley Keough), the subordinate but ruthless femme fatale of Janicza Bravo’s darkly funny Zola. Based on A’Ziah “Zola” King’s real-life Twitter account of a road trip that descended into mayhem, the film tells the story of Zola, a young part-time stripper (Taylour Paige) who becomes fast friends with smooth-talking Stefani after a night dancing together. White Stefani, who imitates the vernaculars of Black English to ingratiate herself with others, soon persuades Zola to join her on an excursion to make some cash dancing at a Florida club. The outing, though, is a ruse: The real money is made using internet personal ads to coordinate countless sexual encounters with random men throughout the night. Zola’s refusal to prostitute herself enrages her companions, including Stefani’s “friend” (aka pimp), played by Colman Domingo with frightening autocracy. Throughout the film, you never quite know if Stefani, who talks of a young daughter, is a callous human trafficker herself or a mere victim of systematic abuse and degradation.
Like Red Rocket‘s Mikey, Stefani’s desperation makes her dangerous. These characters’ mutual manipulativeness may be born from survival instincts, but the impact of their actions — transporting women across state lines to get them to sell their bodies — matters more than their self-delusions.
These treacherous flirts stand in contrast to the fuming antiheroines of Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, who all flout the conventions of sex work onscreen. Each is a villain in her own right: Soho‘s blond songstress Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Titane‘s pregnant objectophile Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) are both driven to bloodthirstiness due to unwanted sexual contact. (Sandy is lured into hustling by a conniving manager; Alexia is an auto show erotic dancer who would rather have sex with cars than people.) In Shiva Baby, Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a meandering arts student and secret “sugar baby” who freezes at a family funerary gathering when her married benefactor (Danny Deferrari) shows up with his wife and child. Burbling with guilt and fear of being found out, Danielle uses her sex appeal to cruelly lash out at those around her.
Last Night in Soho, Shiva Baby and Titane were all written or co-written by female screenwriters, and it’s easy to appreciate the transgressiveness of these women portraying their leads as vengeful hellions rather than wilting pushovers. But nothing scared me more this year than watching Simon Rex and Riley Keough beam lovingly at their respective marks, each buying a little bit into their own lies.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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