We at Lady Geek Girl and Friends are ardent supporters of sex workers’ rights and sex positivity. Because of this, we find the portrayal of sex workers in musicals, well, troubling at best. As with many other forms of media, prostitution is shown as pretty much the lowest possible rung a woman can reach. Sometimes it’s used as a code word that means ‘she has a tragic backstory'; sometimes it’s used to show just how low she has been brought. Either way, if you’re a sex worker in a musical, odds are you’re gonna have a bad time.
Fantine from Les Miserables probably comes to mind first. Fantine, left with no other way, is forced to turn to prostitution. Her compatriots, who all seem to be hookers with hearts of gold sing raucously about their trade at first and seem to be pretty content with their lot, but as Fantine’s situation worsens, their lyrics as well as her lyrics get more and more tragic:
[Ensemble] Lovely ladies, going for a song
Got a lot of callers but they never stay for long
[Fantine] Come on, captain, you can wear your shoes
Don’t it make a change to have a girl who can’t refuse
Easy money, lying on a bed,
just as well they never see the hate that’s in your head
don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?
I think this song actually sums up both the positives and negatives of sex work in the time period it was written to reflect. Prostitution was one of the only ways women could really be their own masters, but it was rarely a career choice as much as it was a last resort. Consent? Who cared? It was a way for women who had nothing to make money quickly, but it wasn’t like they got to pick their clientele. Fantine’s situation is really less about consensual sex work and more about forced sex trafficking, in fact, as Fantine doesn’t ever readily consent to sleep with her customers until she’s experienced significant mental and psychological trauma.
Either way, the life is not for Fantine, who dies tragically of tuberculosis. In the end, though, I think this musical definitely stigmatizes sex work—not only is it a plot device to further Fantine’s pain, sex itself is implicitly portrayed as dirty. Fantine, the pure prostitute heroine, is in some sense paying for the societal sin of having sex before marriage (that is, getting pregnant with Cosette), and is never shown consenting to sex with her customers in a healthy way.
Jekyll and Hyde is a little different. It also features an ensemble number with its group of prostitutes, “Bring on the Men”, but that song is unapologetically sex-positive, and the women don’t switch to a sadder, more introspective, “got a lot of suitors but they never stay for long” tune until later in the musical. Lucy, the prostitute with whom Jekyll falls in love, doesn’t seem as angelically, virginally pure as Fantine either, but she’s still shown as a kind and caring person. She is only treated as a fellow human being by Jekyll, though, and is looked down on by most everyone else as the lowest sort of scum because of her profession. Jekyll wants to save Lucy from sex work, but his help/interference comes to naught, as Lucy doesn’t make it to the end of the musical; rather, she’s killed by Hyde because she’s too trusting.
Kim from Miss Saigon is a really tragic figure, and like Fantine, is more a trafficked woman than a sex worker. Sold into sexual slavery during the Vietnam War, Kim falls in love with the American soldier to whom her virginity is sold and becomes pregnant with his child. Later he returns to Vietnam; she is excited to see him but he has married an American woman and had no idea she was still carrying a torch for him. Eventually, she kills herself so that he and his wife will have to take her son back to America and give him a better life. Despite being set long after the other ‘period piece’ musicals I’ve mentioned, this musical still is rife with the issue of prostitution being more sex trafficking than consensually agreed-on work. The women at the Dreamland club where Kim works sing about the way they escape the work mentally in “Movie in my Mind”:
So is there any good news?
There are definitely a few musicals with positively portrayed prostitutes, such as Sweet Charity. The titular Charity is a sex worker—to be specific, a dancer/paid hostess at a club. Charity may be a dancer, but it’s just her job, and the problems she faces because of it—concerns about sharing her profession with her love interest, being considered ‘used goods’ by said love interest, and wondering about the possibility of finding different work—are all realistic issues that face modern sex workers.
Although Moulin Rouge ends with yet another tragic sex worker death by tuberculosis, I’d argue that Satine is a good example of a three-dimensional prostitute in a musical. She has a clearly separate personal and professional sex life, and her problems occur because the men in her life can’t fathom the difference. Granted, there are major problems, including threats of rape, but they don’t come as a result of some societal punishment for her so-called promiscuity but rather because of the jealousy of her clients and lover.
Mimi from RENT is a sex worker as well—she works as a stripper at an S&M club in New York. I’d argue that within the show it’s shown as another way the character is troubled—a young Latina girl with a drug problem and AIDS, who’s unclear about her age when pressed—but I think Mimi herself takes pride in and power from her job. Mimi almost does die from a drug overdose and exposure at the end of the musical, but she survives via the power of love or something.
I think to some extent the tragedy of the sad sex worker story is tied to their being period pieces, but I also think that prostitution remains an easy writer shorthand to show how low a woman has fallen. And certainly even today there are sex workers whose situations are hard and who are in the profession because of a lack of other options—but I think it’s also important that we focus on showing stories about women who are not bowed under the weight of their job. Sex work is a profession just like any other, and although it comes with its risks and downsides, it’s not fair to portray it as a purely tragic and negative experience.