‘Zola,’ ‘Showgirls’ and the fraught history of sex work-centered media

movie still from Zola

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Perhaps the most insidious dimension of social media activism is the way it fosters the contraction of complex discourse into easily digestible binaries. It’s a rather lazy form of activism that — beyond being annoying — has tangible material consequences for those at its center. 

At its worst moments, A24-helmed thriller “Zola” reads like a film version of a Canva infographic, its gratingly vapid interior doused in a lurid veneer of substance. In its better moments, it sizzles with biting wit and absurdist Harmony Korine-esque social satire. The frazzled messaging of “Zola” severely kneecaps the film’s ability to say something meaningful about sex work in the digital age, though it occasionally is able to escape its own doltish Twitter-brainedness long enough to briefly contemplate notions of victimhood, racial and class dynamics and exploitation.

The eponymous Zola narrates the film’s trenchant whiplash-y screenplay, infamously adapted from a Twitter thread written by stripper Aziah “Zola” Wells. Zola meets Stefani, a fellow stripper with a heavy “blaccent” and peculiar roommate, at the diner she works at. The two immediately strike up a sort of parasocial friendship predicated on superficial commonalities — “Follow for follow, bitch!” The ensuing saga takes place over the course of a single weekend “hoes trip” to Tampa. It begins as a seemingly innocuous way to make a little extra cash stripping, and ends with someone getting shot, a poorly executed suicide attempt, and endless “Florida Man”-caliber antics. 

An equally off-the-rails film with more potent and well-executed sex work commentary is the 1995 film “Showgirls” — 131 minutes of grade-A camp replete with monkeys, insane dialogue (“Man, everybody got AIDS and shit!”) and full-frontal nudity. What distinguishes “Showgirls” from sex work-centered movies of the past is the ability it has to distill all of these elements into a film full of heart that understands sex work as part of a broader system of labor exploitation, the only difference being that the industry is highly gendered.

Through director Paul Verhoeven’s lens, the copious amounts of nudity become de-eroticized in the face of the gritty reality of showgirl life. The film’s protagonist, Nomi, spends much of the film clawing her way to Las Vegas dancer stardom, eventually coming to realize her fate lies entirely in the hands of wealthy men, and the only way to “make it” is to cater to them. It presents an interesting and perverse dynamic of spending your entire livelihood appeasing men on a mundane level (stripping) and appeasing men on an economic level (having your labor exploited).

The 21st century has seen the relinquishing of sex-negative feminist rhetoric from the mainstream, with modern feminism opting to view sex and sex work as liberating. While the latter point of view has taken root more broadly over the past decade with the hegemony of “choice feminism,” (i.e. feminism that prizes female autonomy as inherently empowering), some have begun to reevaluate this position. “Empowerment” has become a key tenet of feminist rhetoric during the past decade, but how it is defined and why it is important remains elusive. Much like the dude in your political science lecture, discussions of “empowerment” say so much while really saying very little — they’re purely optical and only serve to distract from more productive discourse. 

The myth that empowerment can be outsourced through labor, whether in the sex work industry or outside it, has retained its stronghold within the culture. Capitalism largely prevents labor from being a source of empowerment, and body capitalism — (wherein the body is made commodifiable and a source of capital) — does this to an even further extent. Sex work, and by proxy media centering sex work, must be viewed as a part of capitalism, not separate from it. This is why the tension between sex work-affirming and sex work-critical feminism is a false dichotomy: sex work is, for many people, entirely detached from “empowerment.” It’s just their job. 

Films depicting sex work have historically taken on a moralizing tone, with sex workers often occupying the center of tragedy — presumably because of the nature of their employment. All too often, sex workers depicted in film and television are severely brutalized for the sake of advancing the plot. In “The Sopranos,” the scene in which Ralph Cifaretto murders his pregnant stripper girlfriend, Tracy, is incredibly graphic and drawn out. Later, her fatal beating assumes the status of a plot device, as a cause of Tony’s deteriorating mental state. 

There has increasingly been pushback from sex workers over the way they have been portrayed in media. Sex work is an industry that has largely been forced underground, or at the very least, into the shadows, making working conditions even more exploitative and unsafe. Because the taboo nature of sex work often precludes its discussion, it is imperative that media portrayals are nuanced and empathetic.

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].