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The Portrayal of Prostitution in the films “Poor Things” and “Suck Up to the Bone”

By Kyoka Tabei

I watched Poor Things in theatres recently. Based on a novel, Poor Things follows the story of Bella who comes to exist through a fantastical surgery, created with the brain of an infant and the body of an adult woman. As the film progresses, we watch her mature and develop mentally and socially from the mind of a baby to that of a young woman. It was interesting to see how the men in the film were obsessed with Bella. I grew up in Japan, and it reminded me of some men in Japan who have wedding ceremonies with cartoon characters, or become obsessed with animated female characters who can’t think, speak, or act for themselves.

Partway through the film Bella decided to work at the brothel in Paris. While I don’t know much about the history of the prostitution system in Paris at that time in particular, I know that there are similarities anywhere in the world for women who are being prostituted.

So when the Madam said that she was only going to charge Bella a small fraction of the earnings from each customer as a room rental fee, I thought that was definitely a lie. A brothel would be more likely to take fees for Bella’s meals, clothes, makeup, STD tests, days of absence, the charge when the customer did not pay, and so on with fake calculations. The debt would never reduce and be impossible to pay off. Bella wouldn’t be able to leave, she would face violence.

Poor Things didn’t portray any of that. Instead, Bella instantly found a friend, had an opportunity to join socialist meetings, and eventually easily left the brothel and moved away to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

However, there was one brothel scene in the film that felt truthful. Bella suggests that the women should be able to choose only the customers that they want, and the Madam responds explaining how that would be bad for business since men enjoy things more when the woman doesn’t want it. That portrayed a very real and crucial aspect of the sex trade and male violence.

While I understand that Poor Things is a fantasy film based on a novel, I can’t help but question why such a serious topic is treated so casually.

In contrast, I watched a film last month titled Suck Up to the Bone (Hone made Shaburu original title), released in 1966. It’s a Japanese film centered on the licensed prostitution system in 1900. An 18-year-old woman named Okinu is sold by her parents to a brothel due to their family’s poverty. Initially, she finds happiness in being able to eat well, sleep in a beautiful room, and wear gorgeous clothes in this glamorous world. However, Okinu gradually begins to comprehend the workings of the brothel.

The story depicts the violence and social structure upon which the system was built, illustrating the debts that never decrease regardless of how many clients she has. The movie portrays the humiliating sexually transmitted disease testings, the brutal lynching of a woman who attempted to escape, a woman sold abroad because she couldn’t earn money, those who returned to the brothel after successful escapes but couldn’t make a living, and the tragic fate of her co-worker friend killed by a customer because she wasn’t “nice”. Eventually, Okinu discovers that she has already earned enough money to pay off her debt and decides to escape.

Of course, this movie can’t fully convey the cruel reality of the licensed prostitution system in Japan back then. Researchers in Japan are trying to amplify the voices of these women by exposing old documents and diaries of the women, including records of how poorly they were treated and how they were forced to go for days without eating. There are diaries and letters from women who resisted through arson and their sincere pleas to change brothels or “end the business” which allow us to grasp the harsh conditions these women faced.

The situation regarding prostitution in Japan is not much different today. Although there is no licensed prostitution system anymore, the sex trade and pornography industries have grown.  Pimps and entire companies continue exploiting women, particularly those facing systemic inequality on the basis of sex, race, immigration status, poverty, age, and disability. Women who are interested in music or theatre are targeted and exploited. Women are sold an idea of choice, control, and empowerment.

People want to believe that women enter prostitution because they choose to, and can choose between becoming doctors and working at a brothel because “Sex work is work”. In Poor Things, Bella says she goes to work in the brothel because she simply wants sex and money. Hollywood has immense influence and the depiction of prostitution in this film is irresponsible and as fantastical as the film itself.

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