Tis' the Season for cultural appropriation! Concussion, a film that features a character who goes into sex work, was recently released. I had the opportunity to watch it and I wondered: Can co-opted experiences help or harm sex workers?
Article by July Westhale Published Blog Slixa Under Cover
The thoughtful advice and opinions of the author of this article are meant to be informative and entertaining and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Slixa.
The trailer for Stacie Passon’s Concussion is appealing enough: a montage of slow-moving, pulsingly sexy scenes between women in the throes of passion, sizzling power dynamics, and that mind-blowingly attractive actress who plays Mad Men’s millionaire Jewess, Rachel Menken. A caption dramatically pops onto the screen in two separate segments: “ONE WOMAN.” (beat, beat). “TWO LIVES”. You can view this titillating trailer here.
Now that we have safely exited this year’s worrisome season of cultural appropriation (with Halloween’s notorious war on the sacred dress, routines, histories, and celebrations of people of color, and inappropriate Dia de los Muertos sugar skull coopting), it only seems apt that we address issues of appropriation within a community near and dear to my heart: the lived experiences of sex workers. ‘Concussion’, a 2013 Sundance film directed and written by Stacie Passon, is a 93 minute film that features a lesbian house mom who becomes disillusioned with her domestic life, her sexless partnership, and her familiar routine after suffering a mild concussion from being struck by her son’s baseball (note: this particular detail is autobiographical and refers to Passon’s own experience that led her to write this screenplay). To spice up her life and break herself out of a rut, the protagonist, Abby, begins a life as a lesbian prostitute, working with exclusively female clients.
The film has received a lot of criticism for the lack of research and general knowledge about the sex industry (see After Ellen 's most recent article on the subject), as well as presenting a flat depiction of characters, and a generally over-romanticized idea of sex workers’ experiences. But what are the real dangers in inherent in appropriation, especially appropriation of an experience in an industry that is rife with issues of class, race, body issues, ableism, and the general stigma of working in the sex industry?
Unfortunately, there are far too many. Apart from the appalling fact that there is an obvious lack of research conducted on the part of the actors and the writer alike (the After Ellen article states “It’s hard to say how much research of real women in the sex work industry went into the film. Star Robin Weigert said she didn’t do any research into sex work, telling IndieWire, “The character doesn’t. It’s not like she’s in a line of work. She’s someone leading a fairly conventional life who takes one step out of the box and then another step out of the box. You know? I thought, ‘Let it be experiential.’ Let me have her experiences.”), sex work is promoted as a safe, easy-money, practically hobby-esque way to bring in extra cash flow. Additionally, the movie is alarmingly blasé about the very real decisions that go into becoming an adult service provider.
There appears to be a harmful trend in popular culture lately of co-opting the experiences of marginalized people in order to create commentary about society that leans horrifyingly towards fetishization, reductionism, or erasure; though this trend has been present for an extremely long time (remember the cruel depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) , the trend appears to be on the rise again. With the controversial popularity of books such as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, or the recent appalling depiction of Tonto in Lone Ranger, as played by Johnny Depp, it is no surprise that popular culture continues to out-do itself in the arena of stealing lived experiences for financial gain.
‘Concussion’ is a similar disappointment, though a disappointment felt even more by the sex worker community. The biggest let down about the film is that the idea has such potential to bring much-needed insight into the everyday lives of sex workers, and fails so dramatically due to reductionism. What is additionally difficult to swallow is the conception of the movie: based on her own experience with a concussion, Passon modeled the script around the decision-making of a woman who had experienced a head injury. The idea is mildly insulting, as well as ludicrous. Unless you’re Jorge Luis Borges, who suffered a serious head injury before writing one of his most famous and brilliant pieces of writing, it’s hard to get away with the ‘my-head-injury-made-me-do-it’ narrative. Furthermore, it suggests (very problematically) that those involved in the sex industry require some kind of debilitating impetus for making the decisions to go into sex work—which, of course, is simply not true.
Though I believe the film is well-intentioned, and I always love to support the work of artists in my own queer community, it is not enough to make a film about something radical and new if you aren’t going to do your homework. What was potentially a magnificent promise of exposure over the real lives of sex workers has turned into another show-boat movie that actually creates more harmful discourse than informational.
Maxine Doogan and The ESPLER Project are working for sex worker's demand for justice, safety and right to work in peace. Despite challenges with California's Proposition 35, she won't be giving up on the fight for sex worker rights.
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