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Five Movies About How Prostitution Isn’t Like Pretty Woman

There are a few movies out there that are widely liked, but which I simply can’t stand. Pretty Woman is one of those movies. While part of my dislike for Pretty Woman is simply a consequence of me generally not being a fan of fairy tales, there’s something else about it that always bothered me.

I think that since the prostitution element was portrayed in the movie as so antiseptic and harmless, there was too big of a believability hurdle for me to enjoy it. (And no, I didn’t enjoy watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a kid either.) Prostitution has to be a lot worse than what we saw in Pretty Woman, right?

Monster (2003) 

There’s no prince charming coming along to rescue Aileen Wuornos. Aileen thinks she might have found love and a savior in Selby Wall, but Selby lets Aileen down just like every one else has. In fact, Selby chides Aileen back into prostitution, so that the two can have more money to live on. I can’t say that the portrayal of Wuornos is necessarily sympathetic, but it is sad. You can’t cheer for the serial killer, but you’re saddened by the situation she finds herself in.

When this movie first came out, a lot of the discussion centered around Charlize Theron’s physical transformation from super-beauty into the “monster.” I think that kind of talk downplayed how good her acting actually was. (Though she did win an Oscar, so I suppose plenty of other people were able to focus on something other than an amazing make-up job.)

Story of a Prostitute (1965) 

A prostitute can find true love, but at what cost? How does honor and duty constrain what she and her lover can do about their love? Story of a Prostitute tells the story of Harumi, who works in a remote “comfort house” at a Japanese army outpost. She becomes a favorite of the adjutant, but she’s drawn to the adjutant’s assistant. She and the assistant carry on a secret affair, but the ongoing war with China ultimately puts too many obstacles in their way.


While I can’t pretend to fully understand any message that Suzuki has about Sino-Japanese relations and conflict, the story of doomed love comes through easily enough. It’s melodramatic at times, and surprisingly sexy at others.  I wasn’t a fan of the acting style, but the tragedy in the story is honest.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) 

Before Requiem For a Dream, there was Last Exit to Brooklyn.  Both based on novels by Hubert Selby, Jr., Last Exit is broader in scope – at least as far as the size of the cast and the number of storylines go – but I didn’t find it quite as haunting or as human. There are lots of people with lots of problems in Last Exit, but the prostitute Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is perhaps the darkest. There’s no pretense of a “hooker with a heart of gold,” and the only knight in shining armor that wants to save her is a boy without the strength or means to do so.


Tralala is just plain bad.  When she isn’t working she’s robbing, almost with a sense of relish.  She might strut down a street ahead of a group of police horses, enjoying the attention she commands (and the power she thinks she has), but the attention is the wrong kind.

Tralala ultimately realizes her station in life and, perhaps deciding that there’ll be no escape from it, calls in the vultures to take her.  I’m glad I saw the movie, but I’m in no hurry to see it again.

American Gigolo (1980) 

Shiny and handsome Julian Kaye has achieved a great deal of material success by servicing wealthy women in Southern California. His wardrobe, his home, his car and his body are all top-notch. But because of his profession, he’s still at great risk.  Julian has a client who’s into rough sex, and a woman turns up dead. He becomes a suspect, but can’t convince the police of his innocence – are they really going to trust the word of a hooker?


Even when the prostitute is young and strong and male, there are still real dangers in that line of work. Whatever success a prostitute may achieve, they’re always vulnerable, even if they’re strong and male.

American Gigolo might work as a saucy, sexy date night movie, but it’s too long for the story that’s being told.

Vivre Sa Vie (1962) 

Nana (Anna Karina) leaves her husband to become an actress. When she can’t find any acting jobs, she turns to prostitution. The choice is taken lightly, dispassionately, and without exploring alternative solutions to her seemingly minor financial problems. She doesn’t view herself as exploited, or as a victim; she readily but dispassionately accepts her life as it is – without glamour but without shame. She’s mechanical and efficient. Despite living a shell of a life, she meets someone she likes and her demeanor changes. But she can’t escape the life she’s chosen.


I really liked this movie because it’s so unlike most of what’s made today. Vivre Sa Vie is presented in 12 self-contained scenes, with the very first grabbing your attention. The camera is positioned behind Anna as she breaks up with her husband in a café, so for most of the conversation we only see her as a blurred reflection in a mirror.  It made the conversation real, like I was actually there, eavesdropping on their break-up.  The film is a popular work of the French New Wave, but that classification shouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it – the story is accessible, unpretentious and sympathetic.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.