Saturday, April 04 2015
In movies and television, a prostitute is usually depicted as a woman walking the streets, wearing a short skirt, a rabbit fur jacket, high heels, heavy makeup, and perhaps a garish wig. This depiction is known as a trope, a device or convention that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. Tropes allow a writer to focus on more important parts of the story or other characters, without spending a lot of time on minor characters and story elements. In upcoming blog posts, I will discuss five different tropes about sex workers and the real-life repercussions they create. Today, we will discuss the Disposable Sex Worker trope. Countless movies and television shows use Disposable Sex Workers to illustrate the depravity, selfishness, carelessness, or impulsive nature of a prominent (usually male) character. The Disposable Sex Worker is identified only by her profession. She rarely has a name, backstory, or connection to any other characters. Her death is usually played for laughs, as in this clip from a Family Guy DVD boxed set (not safe for work):
This clip from Archer uses the trope in a similar way:
Even well-written shows like Breaking Bad use this trope. Throughout the show, we learn little about Wendy, though she is a recurring character and part of a plot-advancing storyline. Though she is not a glamorous character, her appearance and prostitution history is addressed flippantly. Here, meth-addicted prostitute Wendy is humiliated by a DEA agent:
It’s easy to dismiss these clips as ‘just pretend’, but tropes are not just a convenient writer’s trick; they help shape our culture, social norms, and attitudes. Think about how pervasive the ‘dumb dad’ trope has become. When was the last time you saw a television father portrayed as an intelligent, competent person? How many times have you heard someone in real life imply that their husband or partner isn’t able to take care of their children or keep their home tidy? This is just one trope that carries over into real life. Most people can recognize tropes that exaggerate familiar situations and behaviors; they recognize that ‘dumb dads’ are not the norm. But when the topic turns to the unfamiliar, tropes can have a significant negative impact on our culture. Though prostitution is common, it is still taboo, and carries with it a great deal of social stigma. It is a secretive, insular activity, and many people have had few or no opportunities to learn about it from people who have been directly involved. Everything they know about prostitutes, they learn from media and pop culture. Next post, we’ll learn about how this impacts the real lives of sex workers.