Playing at Prostitution

Awhile ago (like back in December, I think), I was reading an article in some glossy magazine about actresses who had played prostitutes and how they felt about their roles. Almost everyone said that playing a prostitute had been one of the best roles of her life.

On one level, that totally makes sense–I mean, one would guess that Elisabeth Shue found her role in Leaving Las Vegas a lot more fascinating than, say, her role in Adventures in Babysitting. On the other hand, though, there’s at least one other level on which this is really, really disturbing–because I’ve never, ever heard of anyone who went into prostitution by choice. If all the world really is a stage, it’s not a role anyone wants to play.

Currently, I’m taking this class which I have to take to get a teaching certificate called Human Relations for the Classroom Teacher. I had thought this was probably a newspeak way of saying How Not to Get Sued, but it turns out it’s a way of saying Multiculturalism for the Classroom Teacher without using any of those icky words like diversity or liberal or feminist or affirmative action. Anyway, every week we all go to a big lecture, and twice a week I show up for a discussion section which is made up of about fifteen terribly earnest young women, a couple guys who never talk, one guy who relates practically everything to WWII, and me. (It’s a barrel full of laughs at 9:30 am, let me tell you).

The other day, we were talking about Asian Americans and Stereotypes. Pretty blah. Then someone asked the rather intelligent question of why it was that gender had been such a big issue when we were discussing other groups, but not this one. A respectful pause for consideration follows (this is called wait time). Then some other people repeat the question, with slight rephrasings (this is called discussion). The WWII guy tells us that there’s only ever been one Asian model in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and only four Playboy centerfolds have been Asian. (The other guys, hearing “swimsuit issue” and “Playboy”, perk up slightly).

“Great,” says one of the women. “That’s really the field that I want women to be advancing in.” Others are quick to assent. I even nod in with an affirmative, because this is how I have been trained. Playboy=bad. Swimsuit isssue=exploitation. Advertising=killing us softly. Objectification of women, blah blah blah.

A bit later, though, I was thinking about it again, and I think there’s a valid argument to be made that if Playboy is a part of our culture (which it totally is–I mean, who could live without the articles?), and if you want to be represented fully in the culture, then, hell yes, you’d want to be represented in Playboy centerfolds.

I don’t know that anyone’s career goal has ever been to be a Playboy centerfold (though I would guess they get paid fairly well–like that commercial with the swimsuit model and the sportswriter, when she says to him, “Yeah, well, who sells more issues–scintillating sportswriting or fishnet bikinis?”), just as I don’t think anybody starts life thinking, “Wow, when I grow up I really want to be a prostitute!” On the other hand, who am I to say, Sorry, only white women can be pin-up girls; no others need apply. The idea of a sex symbol is, I think, much too culturally entrenched to go away (nor would I want it to; I love Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren–and James Dean, for that matter). That being the case, it ought to be open to all races.

So how does this all tie back to my origial question–why would anyone want to play a prostitute, when in real life the role is not one you’d choose? Well, the key word there is play. If you’re playing a prostitute, or modeling a swimsuit, or posing nude for Playboy, at the end of the day you get to put your clothes back on and go back to your normal life, and for your next role, you can play a district attorney or the vice-president (Glenn Close has broken in that far; Hollywood still hasn’t given a woman the top office in the country, damn them). A real hooker, I think, doesn’t have those options–but she should.

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