Thanks to the master playwright Shakespeare, today’s cinema world has acquired some formulas that are sure-fire winners. In the romantic genre or what we have come to dub the ‘chick flick,’ as if there is no need for romance in a man’s life, the age-old story of the damsel in distress being rescued by a knight in shining armour is a no brainer.
But after Hollywood was done with it, it managed to replace the damsel in distress to suit the modern, independent woman who is not a doctor, an architect or a CEO but a prostitute who is rescued by a high-flier wealthy man in a white limousine. Queue tissue boxes everywhere for the movie Pretty Woman was re-released this year after twenty years of being the best-selling romantic movie to date.
Who of us hasn’t watched Pretty Woman? For me the sole reason that movie was even watchable is Julia Roberts. She is one actress that can make any character a lovable one. As for the plot, to this day I cannot for the life of me see the romance in such a world no matter how hard Tinseltown tries.
The Academy has long rewarded such roles. Julia Roberts herself was nominated for playing Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, so was Jodie Foster for playing a teenage hooker in Taxi Driver. Elizabeth Shue also received an Oscar nomination for her role as a Las Vegas prostitute in Leaving Las Vegas.
Kim Basinger won one for her role as a high-class call girl in L.A. Confidential and so did Mira Sorvino for her role as a prostitute opposite Woody Allen in Mighty Aphrodite. Names like Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Portman, and Nicole Kidman also have a place in this list.
In fact, the very first woman to win an Oscar was Janet Gaynor who played, you guessed it, a streetwalker in 1928’s Street Angel.
One other thing in common with all these movies apart from the words prostitute and Oscar, is the fact that they were all written by men. Which makes us wonder is this the man’s romantic formula?
The betterment of a tainted woman, and her redemption by the hands of a man that was caring enough to show her the way, seems to the writers and directors of Hollywood to be the new romantic story. Jane Austen’s romance no longer makes any sense or has any sensibility.
Taking cue from Hollywood, both Arabic cinema and Bollywood followed suit. Egyptian adaptations of such storylines sprouted everywhere. From the movie Khamsa Bab (The Five Doors Bar), where the lead actress Nadia El Guindy played a prostitute based on Billy Wilder’s 1963 film Irma La Douce starring Shirley McLaine, up to the movie Al Jeans (The Jeans) played by Jala Fahmi which is an exact copy of Pretty Woman. In Bollywood, Kareena Kapoor’s Chameli is one of the many movies casting the lead as a call girl.
This formula is so popular that it has seeped into television with shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl. The show, based on a high-end escort/blogger’s life, remains on air despite the huge amount of criticism it has faced. Belle lives a stable life, wears designer clothes, has a personal assistant, high-end clientele, and maintains healthy relationships. Why then won’t young girls find this a possible career choice?
This issue is no longer restricted to females either. Recently a show called Hung (yes the pun is painfully obvious) has been aired. It tells the story of a high school football coach, who finds himself struggling to make ends meet, so naturally he chooses to become a prostitute.
Seriously, why are they trying so hard to keep this so-called profession alive?
Hollywood’s stereotypical prostitute proliferates a false myth about prostitution and casts an invisibility cloak on its harm. As the world gets more cultured and aims for better education why are we still expected to sit through a two-hour long movie or follow a TV show season after season to watch a call girl’s frivolous escapades? Why is that entertaining?
Women today are making money and gaining power through all sorts of interesting professions, so why does Hollywood insist on the glamourising the flesh trade?
There is no mystery or glamour in walking seedy streets at night. The threat of physical and psychological harm to both the person and society as a whole is imminent. Just ask Jack The Ripper.
This article was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 21st Feb, 2010.