Five’s new sitcom is about prostitution. You know the funniest part?
The women all love their work
Thursday August 17, 2006
When it comes to sitcoms, some situations are inherently funnier than others. Snobbish radio shrink lives with feisty working-class father and difficult dog? Comedy gold. Manic hotelier with clumsy Spanish sidekick enrages everyone in his path? A no-brainer. How about this one, then? In an age of soaring sex tourism, amid reports that one in 10 British men has visited a prostitute and stories of sex worker “slave auctions” in the arrival lounges of British airports, how about creating a sitcom set in a suburban British brothel?
It’s the new comedy show from Channel Five, it begins in a couple of weeks, and it’s surely comedy genius! Four female characters, all prostitutes, and all – naturally, this being a comedy – happy hookers, hoofing it up and uttering deathless quips about blowjobs. There’s Maureen, the ageing madame, who offers such comedy lines as “less gabble, more gobble” and whose catchphrase – hilariously – is, “But I’m only 27!” There’s Kate, the brainy one, who is working in the sex trade to pay off her student loans, and Hayley, the extremely thick one (played by lads’ mag favourite Jodi Albert) who is working as a prostitute to pay for … heroin? No. Crack? No. You guessed it: her shoe collection!
Then, because in this day and age you gotta have an eastern European prostitute too, there’s Yelena, the haughty, though permanently willing Serbian, who struts around like Ivana Humpalot in the Austin Powers films, throwing out immortal lines such as “Men are like cashpoints with cocks. I milk them and then I buy beautiful things.” And all of them, including Maureen, walk around almost constantly in their scanties!
And then, in case your sides haven’t ruptured yet, why not make the central character a sweet, shy, middle-class man called Michael who’s driven into Hayley’s arms by his whining, whingeing wife, who’s more concerned with walnut worktops than with servicing her beloved? The least sexually predatory character in TV – possibly fiction – history, Michael professes his love for Hayley by the end of the first episode, but, even by the end of the third episode, hasn’t slept with her. This is because, you understand, he’s extremely caring and loving, and just really misunderstood by his appalling bitch of a wife.
Sounds appealing? Yes? Well, you’ll soon be able to decide for yourself when Five screens the sitcom, called Respectable. Having watched the first three episodes, and emerged thoroughly depressed (and not just for political reasons; this is one of the direst pieces of comedy writing in history), there’s a part of me that just wants to ignore the show entirely. It surely can’t last more than a few weeks.
Its arrival on our screens, however, coincides almost exactly with the publication of the Belle de Jour sequel – a book based on the supposed blog of a Bridget Jones-esque high-class British prostitute. In this instalment, Belle is looking to find a new profession. Not because she’s desperate, you understand, but because she just wants to try something new. “There’s no denying I’ll miss it,” she writes. “Lunchtime trips to swank hotels; dinners out with the sort of men you usually only read about in the business papers; the underwear; the sex.”
Because, if you hadn’t got the message by now: life as a prostitute is brilliant! Respectable and Belle de Jour are the latest additions to a long, non-illustrious list, including the films Pretty Woman and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, all of which depict prostitution primarily as a great lark, offering fun, flexible hours, and the chance to meet interesting, caring, fascinating men.
And these stories are dangerous. Because, although it’s tempting just to ignore them, the image that they promote – that the sex industry is entirely benign and enjoyable – offers the ultimate in flattery to men who pay for sex. These stories obscure any sense that prostituted women might not be acting entirely out of free choice, instead suggesting that they’re driven by a huge love of sex and an entirely indiscriminate attraction to men (however ugly, hairy or smelly they might be).
And in shows like Respectable, nobody mentions sex slavery, or the fact that rape is more a likely outcome of prostitution than romance, or that an estimated 95% of prostitutes are addicted to drugs or alcohol. In Respectable, the character Kate might be selling sex to pay off student debts, but because all students have debts now and not many become prostitutes, this message still allows for a large dollop of free choice. Her motivations are far from the hopeless desperation of long-term heroin addiction, because – well, that wouldn’t be sexy. The real story of prostitution is occasionally brought to our attention through stories of serial killers or serial rapists. These women, staring out from newspaper pages, their pictures arranged in a tableau around a photograph of their accused killer, are clearly not happy hookers. And it’s accepted that we will do no more to engage with their individual stories than to list their names. When it comes to these prostitutes – surely much more representative of the industry than their all-singing, all-dancing fictional peers – we don’t want to explore what their lives are really like, because it would bring the whole structure that supports and fuels prostitution crashing down. To engage with these women would be to accept that one half of the human population being bought and sold by the other isn’t entirely acceptable or, you know, actually all that amusing.
With an estimated 80,000 prostitutes in Britain and millions more worldwide, I’m willing to accept that women engaged in prostitution have a wide range of experiences and opinions, and that some will even enjoy aspects of their work. I’m just not willing to accept that prostitution is a whole heap of fun.
One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year is In My Skin, by Kate Holden, a brilliant account of the years she spent as a prostitute in Australia. It’s a subtle book, in which Holden admits that she sometimes enjoyed the sex she had, but in which the overriding narrative is shaped by her heroin addiction. Because, despite her occasional enjoyment of her job, Holden only became a prostitute when she fell into addiction, and she gave up as soon as the heroin left her system. All of which tells its own story.
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