Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Shaming Sex Work: The “Hooker With a Heart of Gold” Trope

July 24, 2016
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Over the past century, countless films have featured the character of the “hooker with a heart of gold.” How come? Kristen Cochrane looks back at film history—specifically at Pretty Woman—to show why this theme is actually degrading to sex workers.

This past winter, I was at a queer dance night at a bar in Toronto. While in line at the coat check, a guy playfully said to his friend “you’re such a whore!”

I turned around, and with a forced smile that made me feel like a 1950s housewives in an infomercial, I asked them: “What’s wrong with whores?”

They looked at me, surprised. “Well, nothing! I just meant that he’s a dirty whore!” one of them responded with a cheerful smile, unknowingly becoming more disparaging.

Whether it’s the actors in online porn, strippers at your local clubs, or escorts whose clients are part of the 1%, the emotional labor of sex workers keeps a huge portion of the population sexually satisfied—probably you included. It’s a massive economy, and yet the stigma around sex work makes this difficult to talk about, whether you’re a sex worker yourself, or a pro-sex work feminist (I fall into the latter, but sometimes I wonder how different some of my romantic relationships have been from sex work, especially when someone is insisting on paying for your dinner while trying to have sex with you).

It doesn’t help that movies and TV shows so often push stereotypes and clichés about sex work. A classic narrative is “The Hooker With A Heart of Gold” —a trope that portrays a sex worker who is sweet, and usually “too smart” or “too cultured” for her job. Sometimes, sex workers in this narrative won’t do drugs or anything else illegal, which allegedly negates the problematic nature of their livelihood. Both of these descriptions encompass the characterization of Vivian Wood in one of my favorite semi-problematic movies of all time, Pretty Woman (1990). At first glance, a “hooker with a heart of gold” sounds nice! A heart of gold is a good thing, right? But then, you have to think: what is the alternative to a hooker with a heart of gold? In fact, this trope is degrading, because it assumes that sex workers are inherently bad, but that, once in a while, you come across one who has this rare, kind soul.

Before I started thinking of myself as someone who wants to think more deeply about where the world is falling short of representing women and our rights (a.k.a. a feminist), I always thought Vivian Wood (played by Julia Roberts) was the ultimate badass in the film Pretty Woman. She was responsible—she tried to make sure the rent was paid on time, she had an array of condoms in her thigh-high patent leather boots, and she was big on flossing. She was multi-talented—she knew how to tie a tie and drive a manual 1989 Lotus Esprit SE, while Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere) couldn’t do either of these things, despite being a wealthy businessman.

Vivian was also very “cultured” in the traditional sense of the word (which I add scare quotes to because of the inherent classism of calling something or someone cultured). We know she’s cultured because we see her watching Roman Holiday and laughed during I Love Lucy; we watch her be captivated by La Traviata, the opera that Richard Gere’s character takes her to, and as the viewer, we’re intended to interpret these instances as signs that Vivian is different than other sex workers.

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Julia Roberts (left) and Richard Gere (right) in Pretty Woman (1990, dir. Garry Marshall), who is depicted as not knowing what to do in a space like a luxury hotel, leading Richard Gere to show her how to act, and putting his coat on her to cover her outfit (which would actually be a very hip outfit in 2016, tbh).

While Pretty Woman is a quintessential example of this trope, this theme originated long before the 90s. For example, the genre of Westerns relied heavily on the imagery of the Hooker With a Heart of Gold. I asked my film expert friend, Matthew Sanders, who is currently a graduate researcher in film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, to tell me his thoughts on this.

“The Hooker With a Heart of Gold is a fundamental trope in Western narratives,” he started. Sanders said that everything from the John Ford classic Stagecoach (1939), to the seminal epic Western miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989), to HBO’s critically-acclaimed TV series Deadwood (2004-2006) features a Hooker With a Heart of Gold character.

In Stagecoach, the character Dallas is the quintessential example of this trope. According to Peter A. French, a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, Stagecoach illustrates the binary of women who appear in Westerns. In his essay Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns, French writes that in the Western film genre, “there are the easterners, the crusaders for Christianity and its ‘civilized’ family values,” and then there are “the prostitutes,” or women waiting to be civilized. “In Stagecoach, the rule of women and their identification with both the Christian church and civilization itself is made manifestly clear when Dallas, the prostitute (with a heart of gold), is driven out of town by a gaggle of self-righteous females spouting Christian platitudes and marching to Christian hymns.” 

For an expert opinion, I emailed Tamara O’Doherty, a sex work researcher who has a PhD and JD from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, about the specific example of Pretty Woman. “I think you’re very much correct in the general argument that Gere’s character “civilizes”—or I would even argue “colonizes”—Roberts’ character,” O’Doherty told me. “He ‘rescues’ her from her ‘poor’ decisions, introduces her to high society, teaches her manners, clothes her appropriately. She of course adopts all of this, and then she uses his money—the sex exchange, which we are led to believe is actually OK in this context because they love each other, gag—to alter the course of her life.”

The Hooker With a Heart of Gold narrative trope works within the whorearachy, which basically illustrates how we classify sex workers from most desirable to least desirable. At the top of the whorearchy are the expensive escorts, and at the bottom are women who work from the street. It’s rooted in classism—an ism we don’t talk about enough, maybe because it’s so engrained in our thinking.

Another way in which classism persists in the Hooker With a Heart of Gold trope is if the sex worker is doing it to fund their education. Once, a sex working friend of mine told me that her male clients will often tell her something along the lines of, “It’s fine to be doing sex work if you’re just doing it to pay for your post-secondary education,” as if their work is at a higher value than sex workers who aren’t doing sex work to pay for school. The findings in Tamara O’Doherty’s PhD thesis, where she interviewed sex workers in Canada, corroborated this tendency to see it as “not as bad as” other sex workers’ reasons for choosing this line of work.

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 3.12.14 PMClaire Trevor in John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach, where she plays a prostitute with a heart of gold.

The same people who tell sex workers that they are inherently more valuable because they’re getting a post-secondary education is fundamentally what is perceived as a “return to civilization.” Jobs that fall into the physical rather than the cerebral are constantly denigrated—whether you work in hard labor, serve in a restaurant, or do sex work. And the physical versus cerebral binary doesn’t even do this justice, since both physical and cerebral faculties are used in both, yet there is a classist hierarchy that decides which kinds of knowledges are better than others.

Julia Roberts’ character’s body and speech in Pretty Woman is just using another language—so why does Richard Gere have to “correct” her “uncivilized” mannerisms when she eats, speaks, or simply talks? It’s hard to draw a line across where sex work starts and where it ends, so maybe we just… shouldn’t?

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.  

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