Working Girls (1987): Lizzie Borden’s Incisive Portrait of a Manhattan Brother

Lizzie Borden created a greater stir in 1987 with her second, Sundance-premiered Working Girls, which provided an incisive probe of a well-appointed Manhattan brothel, whose prostitutes are a far cry from Hollywood call girls.

In Hollywood movies, prostitutes are usually stalked by psychopaths and get killed in the last reel, if not before. In contrast, the women working in the film’s immaculately clean bordello are educated; none has been lured away from home, none hooked on drugs. Most are there because the pay is good and the hours flexible enough to accommodate other interests.

Co-written by Borden and Sandra Kay, Working Girls covers a day in the life of Molly (Louise Smith), a Yale art history graduate hoping to become a photographer. Molly has a stable relationship with her black female lover (who doesn’t know about her “job”) and the latter’s small daughter. The women are at ease in their work, because there’s something else going on in their lives: Dawn (Amanda Goodwin) is a beautiful woman studying for a law degree; April (Jane Peters), who’s 43 and deals cocaine on the side, seems to be there mostly to prove to herself she still has the right stuff. The place is run by a madam (Ellen McElduff) who shows appreciation for promptness, cleanliness–and the buck.

Though a work of fiction, Working Girls looks and sounds as authentic as a documentary. Photographed by Judy Irola in a self-effacing manner, the film is as straightforward as the protagonists perfunctorily go about their business. The camera attends to the girls’ duties without cuing any specific emotional responses. It observes them as they service customers–giving them their money’s worth–and occasionally attempt a camaraderie with some of them; the film ridicules rich men who come in search of pleasure.

Prostitution is seen as grubby and exhausting but also a demonstration of power. For one thing, men’s bodies are exposed and vulnerable, whereas women have the ability to conceal. Facing the risk of condoning prostitution and still be considered a feminist, Borden claimed: “sex is a natural resource for women that, as long as society remains as it is, might as well be exploited.” Contesting prevalent stereotypes, Borden’s goal was to demystify what prostitutes do. In most houses, the sexual activity lasts only minutes out of the half an hour session; the rest of the time is devoted to making men comfortable, soothing their egos. The movie is intentionally unerotic–at most, a man’s stomach is shown as he’s being jerked off.

As preparation, Borden visited a number of houses to learn the different rituals: What kind of safety measures women use, police protection, treatment of dangerous clients. For most women, prostitution is not about sex, but a means to accomplish other goals–put themselves through college, get a green card, place their kid in a private school. Some work for a short period, then stop and nobody even knows about it. Borden encountered a new breed of prostitutes from the fashion industry and Wall Street. “The more I saw, the more I realized it didn’t fit the stereotypes I’d seen in movies, where degradation or victimization tends to dominate,” said Borden.

Missing in these films was the humor which enables women to handle their daily routines. The project took its specific shape when Borden met well-educated women from Yale and Columbia, who contraste sharply with street prostitutes.

Borden opts for a non-judgmental, non-sensationalistic look. What the audience sees in the course of one very long day is insightful, banal, tedious, infuriating—everything but erotic. There’s businesslike nudity upstairs in the bedrooms and a number of sexual encounters, but it would be difficult to find anything remotely sexy in them. “If you remove the moral judgment,” Borden explained, “the movie is de-romanticized, capturing the boredom and routine of such experiences.

The romance of prostitution has to do with the ‘bad girl’–either on the lowest level, the street, or the highest call-girl-with-furs level.” What fascinated Borden was the rituals–the hygiene of the hotel-like atmosphere, the codified movements, above all, the camaraderie among the women.

Borden initially set the film in an antiseptic brothel on the Upper East Side, where she observed the life of working girls. But, later, in the name of flexibility, she turned her downtown Manhattan home into a movie set. Casting was difficult, especially for the male roles. Most of the men are played by non-professionals. Borden located one Chinese client though Screw magazine, because she could not find a Chinese male over 35 would take his clothes off.

Men in the film were treated the way men usually treat a prostitute–the more clothes they took off, the more they got paid. When the actresses first came to rehearse, they looked like street hookers, but Borden forced them go to a real ‘house’ and apply for a job. They came back amazed–the prostitutes met reminded them of their college roommates. The experience changed entirely their conception of their parts.

Though some still consider prostitution a humiliating, exploitative profession, for Borden, the film is feminist, “because it shows prostitution from a woman’s point of view.” “As long as prostitution exists, women have to take control of it and of the images,” Borden said. “We all wish prostitution didn’t exist. But as long as there is such an economic differential in this culture between what men and women earn, a woman has the right to choose. If she decides to rent her body rather than do a demeaning 40-hour-week, she should not automatically be seen as a ‘fallen woman.'”

For Borden, prostitution was less an isolated phenomenon than a mirror of other exploitative, male-dominated jobs. “Prostitution is perhaps the lowest form of selling yourself in our culture, but within capitalism, one is always selling an aspect of oneself. Who can decide whether renting your body is worse than renting your brain” In this view, prostitution is like other service-oriented job–waitress, hostess, secretary–that depend on looking good and making men feel comfortable. Working Girls is less a tract on female oppression than a matter-of-fact demystification of prostitution, which is presented as a kind of acting. Depicting prostitution as labor, the film desanctifies and objectifies sex, refusing to fulfill audience expectations of the sordidness of brothel life.

Borden’s examination of prostitution and brothels is linked thematically if not stylistically to another original exploration of what’s typically a men’s domain, the porn movie theater, in Bette Gordon’s Variety.