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Skyfall, or "How to Make Sure Sex Workers Know Their Lives are Worthless, in Three Easy Steps"

I have to come out about something: I love action movies. The skimpier the plot, and the more the explosions, the better. There are few things I'd rather do than sit down with the Die Hard franchise and have an all-day movie marathon (and my librarian friend, Alan, and I already have a date to see the new one on Valentine's Day). I've never been crazy about Bond movies because his hyper-heterosexual "sexiness" just isn't sexy to me. I like a little more parody with my fucking, thanks. But as the kung-fu movie I wanted to see was suffering technical difficulties, I ended up watching the latest Bond flick, Skyfall

Skyfall has its good points. LOTS OF STUFF blows up. Many people get shot, and there is at least one good stabbing. It doesn't pass the "Bechdel Test," but it does have two at least somewhat rounded women characters (though one, the only woman of colour in the film, is pretty much just there to screw things up, sleep with Bond, and put Moneypenny back to work as a secretary -- FYI: Hollywood has not gotten any less racist or sexist). I had a lovely time watching it with my friend Dan. And it has absolutely the best take on the "queer villain" I've yet seen in an action movie. 


Queer Villain, Handled Remarkably Well

In many stories, the villain is vaguely queer: a little too feminine, a little too fixated on the handsome hero, not physically strong, conniving, petty, jealous -- in short, all the worst stereotypes of faggy. (Of course femmey queens of all genders are way cooler than that in real life.) Skyfall's villain, Silva, is no exception. Except when he has Bond tied to a chair, he doesn't approach Bond's testicles with a highly symbolic laser, he straight up hits on him, with ample nuzzling, stroking and groping. I'm no expert on the Bond franchise, but I'd hazard a guess that men in general, and Bond himself, haven't often been portrayed as vulnerable to sexual violence. 

Being a hairy, angry dyke in the middle of an audience of mostly teenage boys during that scene, however, was a bit uncomfortable. For every advance from Silva, the audience's laughter got a little more uncomfortable, and a little meaner. Straight people say they're liberal and tolerant now that we can get gay married just like them, but I don't really buy it. The torches and pitchforks are hidden, not gone (just ask trans women of colour how "tolerance" is going). But the scene was handled in a truly interesting way.  

As he runs his hands up Bond's thighs, Silva murmurs: "There's a first time for everything, Bond."

And with his trademark cool, Bond replies: "What makes you think it's my first time?" 

For decades, Bond's sexuality has been misogynistic, heteronormative, hyper-masculine, upper-class, and, well, repugnant. The new Bond isn't just blonde and a little less clean cut. He's vulnerable to pain and doubt (he is injured in the movie and exhibits dependence on painkillers), vulnerable to sexual violence, and maybe even queer. With one line, the scene suggests that there are other ways for men -- and not just any men, but the shining example of a manly man -- to be masculine. Kudos, Bond. 

So why did I hate it? Because of the pointless, degrading, rapey, stigmatizing, misogynistic-beyond-misogyny inclusion of a sex worker character. 


Three Steps to Degrading Sex Workers

Normally, I love seeing whores everywhere I go: whores are smart, with great people skills, even better self-preservation skills, and on the whole, sexy as all hell. Whores make excellent femme fatales because we all know they're smarter than Bond and can probably kick his ass, too. But this is corporate capitalist culture, not a street that I'm afraid to walk down by myself at night, where I am happy to know there are women out who have my back. And stories about whores, in corporate media, only ever get told one way. 

Here's how to make sure, if you include a sex worker in your movie, you let everyone know her life is essentially worthless:

STEP ONE: Bond meets the femme fatale, Severine, in a casino, where there is some risk that he will be shot and/or eaten by lizards. They talk about an assassination he participated in, and, noticing a tattoo on her wrist, he figures she's not a femme fatale after all, but in actuality a helpless victim of sex trafficking. I don't know enough about the sector of the sex industry she's supposed to work in, but it's worth noting that she's depicted as white -- while anti-trafficking and other criminalization schemes disproportionately target women of colour, as Shawna Ferris points out in her essay "The Lone Streetwalker," visual images of sex workers almost always show white women. (Because they want the women to look vulnerable, and in a racist culture, only white women pull on the right heartstrings.)

Surmising that she works for Silva because she was desperate to get out of the sex industry and couldn't tell an abuser when he tried to buy her, Bond tells her what he's figured out and adds "how old were you? 12?" 

Because hey, who doesn't like to have their sexual trauma narrated to them, based on a set of well-trafficked assumptions, without getting so much as a word in edgewise. 

In cultural representations of sex workers, whores, even fictional ones, are not permitted to narrate their own experiences. 

STEP TWO: Bond agrees to meet Severine later on a boat, provided he doesn't get shot and/or eaten by lizards on his way out. If she leads him to her boss, he'll save her from the bad guy. He survives a decent fight scene (in which someone gets eaten by lizards, at least), and catches the boat as it is casting off. Severine, thinking he is dead, is in the shower when he arrives. So, natch, he strips down and joins her, and they fuck, without a word. 

Because hey, he's saving her from the sex industry. She owes him. And we already know she can't tell the difference between exploitation and love, so what's one more cock? 

Even when they're not doing sex work, sex workers are under their "saviours'" power, and still -- and always -- available for exploitation. There is an entire "helping" industry built around this idea. 

STEP THREE: Bond and Severine are promptly captured. Bond and Silva flirt a bit, and when Silva's advances don't scare Bond the way he'd like, they go outside to find Severine beaten and tied in a courtyard. Silva places a shot glass of whiskey on her head and tells Bond that the first of them to knock it off her head wins. Bond shoots and misses. Silva shoots Severine in the head, knocking the shot glass to the ground. What do you think of that, he asks Bond. 

"Waste of a drink."

Because hey, her life was pretty much already a waste, so why, after she fulfilled her end of the bargain, and -- bonus -- fucked him, should Bond give even half a crap if he didn't do what he said he would and help her out? 

The reason for including a sex worker character, in the end, was so that a woman could be killed on screen without the inconvenient problem of anyone in the film or in the audience giving a damn. The contrast between this scene, and the one in which six unnamed, unseen military personnel are mourned, their coffins draped in the British flag, speaks volumes (not only about how worthless sex workers' lives are to the filmmakers, but also about American militarism, projected onto England). 


But Can't you Just Enjoy the Movie?

Thing is, contrary to the media image of being women who never do anything but flaunt their safety on the streets and fuck for money, women and men sex workers can and do go to movies. If you thought being a queer in the middle of a homophobic audience trying to grapple with the queer scene sounds scary, imagine being a sex worker, in the middle of an audience who's just had it confirmed -- and has had it confirmed almost every time they've seen any film or teevee with a sex worker in it -- that your autonomy, sexual safety, and, ultimately, life are worth less than a shot of whiskey. 

In a movie that does a good job with a parodic re-presentation of the tropic queer villian, I think it's obvious that we do have a choice about how to represent sex workers as well. There is certainly nothing new or creative about Severine's characterization; it's high time we see this trope skewered, too.