Lizzie Borden, the filmmaker named after the 19th-century woman acquitted of her parents’ ax murder, has always been a self-proclaimed rebel. Appearing in the downtown New York art scene in the 1970s, she embarked on an artistic practice that embraced unpredictability, endurance and otherness. His critically acclaimed 1983 cult film, Born in flames, which boldly blurs the boundaries of fiction and documentation, is a benchmark of independent cinema that stands out completely from the Hollywood system, from the world of traditional art and from the very vocation of cinema. Borden clung to her instincts as a novice director, refusing to conform to a predominantly white and patriarchal cinema standard and inventing it as she went.
Now, finally, the unrepentant feminist imagination that she has built in collaboration with various artists, performers and friends is being canonized. His 1986 film, Working girls, about a group of sex workers working shifts at a well-run Manhattan brothel, has been released as DVD and Blu-ray criteria July 13.
Working girls amazes with its insight, portraying sex work in relation to labor exploitation, sexism, racism and homophobia, while maintaining an alternately light and melodramatic tone. The movie follows Molly (Louise smith), a white photographer trained at Yale who lives with her partner, a black woman, and their child. But we don’t have the opportunity to bask in their wonderful domesticity. Instead, Molly kisses her partner goodbye and hops on her bike to work at a brothel run by the primitive and superficial Lucy (Ellen McElduff). It’s money and an increasingly bad time, a matter that initially makes sense to Molly; How else will she be successful as an artist? Today, as sex work is gradually taken into consideration in the public sphere, Working girls reappears as an indelible work of art.
Vanity Fair spoke to Borden about the legacy of his films, the freedoms and dangers of sex work, his imprisonment in the cinema by Harvey Weinstein, and the trade-offs of working within the system.
Vanity Fair: I saw for the first time Working girls years ago, I think about college, and I was amazed at the time. But there is a special resonance in seeing it again now, as many more people are at least transiently familiar with the world of sex work. What was your experience of general culture to find out more about this very private world that you portrayed in 1986?
Lizzie Borden: The movie itself doesn’t change, but the world changes, and then our perspectives change. This aspect still fascinates me, but it is interesting to note that this change is also partly due to changes in communication between sex workers. When I first showed Working girls, we did panels with sex workers in New York and San Francisco. And I met people like Margo St. James and also Carol Leigh, who coined the term “sex worker”, even though it was not in the jargon of the time. And they were all in communication with each other.
But openly discussing sex work was not a thing in the 90s. There was a lot of shame involved, and it was very underground, even though there was worldwide knowledge about it. And then, finally, through social media, it exploded – for some reason now, there is important communication. And it feels like there’s a different kind of pride among sex workers, but not everyone, obviously. In so many countries the work is still so deep underground, and even here to some extent. But right now there is a push towards criminalization, so there is something to fight against as a community.
And I sometimes notice that in social media, in general, there’s more opportunity to connect with other sex workers, including strippers and sex workers, et cetera, and even give and to receive advice on how to do the job safely. And this shared knowledge is so important.
What about this aspect of danger? The film avoids alarmism, but the vulnerability of women is not ignored.
With Working girls, it’s a brothel, which is less dangerous than being in the street. However, when we were working on the Blu-ray for Criterion, a sex worker remarked to me, “You can see the danger out there.” These women in the movie always think, ‘Is that a cop? They should ask customers to “make themselves comfortable” [i.e. to undress] to prove they’re not cops. So there’s always this current of danger going through, and when I was doing it, I was less aware of it.
It feels like, because Molly allows her clients an extra level of privacy – kissing them on the mouth and offering them detailed life advice – she opens up to an extra level of danger. The character of Paul, with whom Molly seems to have a close relationship, ultimately turns out to be the most sinister of these men. When you were telling sex workers about their lives, how often did you come up with this idea of emotional labor?
It was just thinking about the job you choose and asking yourself, “What’s that trade-off?” And with regard to everyone I knew who worked in that particular space, at the time, “Why choose that, in terms of the options available?” Do you work in a Xerox office for eight or 10 hours a day, being so exhausted in the end, you don’t have time to do your creative work? Or do you work in a brothel like [the one in the film] a few times a week? And what do we feel [about their choice]?
I was also thinking about the idea that society poses that a woman shouldn’t give away this precious thing. What is this precious thing? Is it your body? Is it the numbing repetition? What does sex work work do to your mind? But then you bring up the very interesting point of emotional labor, and also what hurts. It is physically exhausting to work in most jobs that are just regular jobs. The workers have back problems; their bodies are broken. The emotional distress caused by working in a brothel is quite another thing.