men, masculinities and gender politics

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Of princesses and prostitutes. Some fantasy women prove too much even for Disney.

Late last month it was revealed that U.S. Olympic middle distance runner Suzy Favor Hamilton had also been supporting herself through an entirely different sort of physical activity. It turns out that this elite athlete was working as highly-paid “escort” in Las Vegas and in other U.S. cities. She charged johns $600 an hour.   
 
When this news came to light, Favor Hamilton was immediately dumped by Disney. She was a featured speaker and participant in Disney’s annual “Disney Princess Half Marathon” last year, but she suddenly found herself disinvited from participating again next month – or from competing in any other Disney-sponsored sporting events. (See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2252139/US-Olympian-Suzy-Favor-Hamilton-BANNED-competing-Disneyland-half-marathon.html )

Although I do not support prostitution (more on why that is later), I also do not support penalizing women who do that sort of work. So I was disappointed – but not really surprised – to hear that Disney had terminated its relationship with Favor Hamilton. What I was surprised by, however, was how quickly it all happened – just one day after the news went public.

(To be fully accurate, Disney also denied there had ever been any ongoing business relationship with Favor Hamilton. I imagine that right now there are a whole lot of other people who are also lining up to deny ever having had an ongoing “business relationship” with her, as well!)

But I do think the question bears asking: just why did Disney feel the need to publicly – immediately – sever any connection with Favor Hamilton? Regardless of whatever other activities she has been engaging in, she is an amazing runner. Certainly she belongs in a half marathon.

Princesstitution? But it seems that perhaps Favor Hamilton’s extracurricular (and extramarital, and extralegal) activities were just a little too impure for the squeaky clean Disney Princess image. After all, prostitution isn’t the sort of fantasy that Disney sells. No, they far prefer helpless, childlike “princesses.”

And off of those princesses they own, they make a mint. According to the New York Times, the Disney Princess franchise makes billions of dollars each year. There are currently over 25,000 items with the Disney Princess motif on them, and it will soon be the largest girls’ franchise on the planet. (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 )

Even Disney’s half marathon for women is marketed as a Disney Princess event! (Do the participants have to run in glass slippers?)

But all this has got me thinking – just what exactly are the differences between Disney selling princesses (and princess paraphernalia) and a woman who engages in selling her body for money? It turns out that this is a question that Stephen Holden, also writing in the Times, asked in the summer of 2011. He wrote:

What’s the difference between a Disney princess and a prostitute? Not much if you are Lea Salonga, the Filipino diva who joked last week about having played both types, as she opened her new cabaret show, “New York in June,” at the Cafe Carlyle.

Ms. Salonga seemed fully aware that psychologically the line between one and the other isn’t all that clear anymore; nowadays little girls are exploited and commodified from the time they’re toddlers. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/arts/music/lea-salonga-at-cafe-carlyle-review.html?_r=2&)

Salonga is a Tony Award-winning singer who has worked all over Broadway. In addition to other roles, she played the Saigon bar girl “Kim” in the musical Miss Saigon. Later, she provided the singing voices of two Disney Princesses, Mu Lan and Jasmine. So she seems uniquely qualified to comment that there is little difference between these two roles (at least when it is an actor who is playing them).

 
And it’s quite a statement coming from a woman who in 2011 was inducted into Disney’s Hall of Fame as a “Disney Legend” for her work in helping to create two of their princesses!

Similarities. So just what are the similarities and differences between being a Princess (à la Disney) and someone who sells her body for men’s sexual gratification?

Most Disney Princesses trade both on their attractiveness and on their sexuality for material gain (see Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora – aka Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine…).

A woman in prostitution does the same.

Many Disney Princesses are also at the mercy of the men in their lives – their fathers, their betrothed, their male “rescuers”, etc. (see Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine…). A woman in prostitution is often also at the mercy of men – her manager/bodyguard/pimp if she has one, and even if she doesn’t have one, she must always rely on the good intentions of any john who purchases her bodily services.

Interestingly, the Disney Princesses of late are stronger, more rebellious, more opinionated than their earlier counterparts. But the Disney marketing empire is still pushing the older, more submissive, more fragile young women just as hard as they ever have.

Significant differences. But there are some significant differences between Disney Princesses and women in prostitution.

A Disney Princess, typically disempowered, often needs male rescue. But after she is saved, she is always well taken care of. A woman in prostitution is also often quite disempowered. But for her, achieving a happy ending is all too rare.

Secondly, regardless of how strong they are, none of the Disney Princesses engage in any sexual activity beyond kissing. All Disney Princesses are remarkably chaste. When it comes to the pretty women in pastel, Disney allows no shades of grey. Where Disney Princesses are only allowed to hint at sexuality, women in prostitution deliver it – over and over and over again.

Third, most Disney Princess movies encourage girls to give themselves over to a man. Women in prostitution do it for a fee. In Disney’s world, receiving financial compensation for such a transaction crosses the line.

Finally, for those Disney Princesses who wind up betrothed or married (and nearly all of them do), they are one-man women. Like the female protagonists in romance novels aimed at older readers, Princesses become the property of just one man. A woman involved in prostitution, on the other hand, becomes (many would argue) the property of many, many, many men.

Too “adult” for Disney? Maybe adding to Disney’s quick disavowal of any connection with Suzy Favor Hamilton was the corporation not wanting its brand to be associated with anything so “adult.” After all, Disney is a “family” place.

(Research in the United States indicates that between 15% and 30% of men have paid a sex worker for sex. But these activities typically occur quite outside of the family context. In fact, Mom probably has no clue just what Dad has been up to!)

Disney actually does create and disseminate a good deal of more mature content. But it hides this more adult material under the names of the other companies it owns (or has owned in the past). These entities include Miramax, which, while owned by Disney, distributed the hyper-violent film Pulp Fiction, and was also behind the horror franchises Children of the Corn, Scream, and Hellraiser.

Disney also owns Touchstone, which produced the films It’s Pat (about a totally androgynous character whose biological sex is never revealed to the audience), Ed Wood (a biography of a movie director who was also a transvestite), The War At Home (a film about a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who pulls a gun on his family during Thanksgiving dinner), A Thousand Acres (a film about family strife and incest), The Ice Storm (a film that explores the sexual revolution and includes scenes of a 1970s suburban “key party”), and Summer of Sam (a film about New York City during the time that the “Son of Sam” serial killer prowled the streets – and which includes gay prostitution and a sex orgy).

Clearly Disney has no problem making money off of adult-themed films. But perhaps the real-life adult things that Suzy Favor Hamilton was up to came just a little too close for comfort.

Disney’s take on prostitution. Prostitution -- fictionalized prostitution -- has actually been the main theme of Disney’s (aka Touchstone’s) adult-focused fare as well. Touchstone’s 1990 film Pretty Woman is one of the largest money makers ever in the “romantic comedy” genre. In that film, a businessman (played by Richard Gere) picks up a street walker (played by Julia Roberts) and hires her for a week to escort him to various business and social functions. They also have sex numerous times.

Apparently the original screenplay presented a grim exploration of social class and prostitution in Los Angeles. But then it fell into the hands of Hollywood script doctors who transformed it into a light, romantic comedy. And the film itself does not glorify the life of sex workers. The movie opens with a crime scene where a woman working as a prostitute has been murdered. And the Julia Roberts character and her roommate are shown having to deal with issues of drug addiction and predatory pimps.

But the film quickly takes on a fairy tale approach, becoming equal parts Cinderella, My Fair Lady, and Beauty and the Beast.

In case this fairy tale theme was not already abundantly clear, at one point Vivian, the character Julia Roberts plays, says:

When I was a little girl, my mama used to lock me in the attic when I was bad, which was pretty often. And I would- I would pretend I was a princess... trapped in a tower by a wicked queen. And then suddenly this knight... on a white horse with these colors flying would come charging up and draw his sword. And I would wave. And he would climb up the tower and rescue me.

And at the end of the film, the Richard Gere character does just that… he comes riding up in a white limousine, waving an umbrella like a sword. He climbs up the fire escape and rescues her from life as a fallen woman.

Favor Hamilton told the wrong story. According to the website advertising the Disney running event that Favor Hamilton was so unceremoniously dumped from:

Fairytales do come true. One mile at a time. Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend brings women of all ages together to participate in a magical event designed just for them. The Disney Princesses are the inspiration for the weekend's events and will focus on the attributes every princess possesses: commitment, courage, determination, fantasy, perseverance, and strength.

So what exactly is the problem with what Suzy Favor Hamilton was doing? Being an escort cannot be easy work. Did Favor Hamilton not also show commitment, courage, determination, fantasy, perseverance, and strength?

What Favor Hamilton was doing was in some ways no different than what the Julia Roberts character was doing. Except for one critical issue: Favor Hamilton seems to have freely chosen the lifestyle of a sex worker. She is reportedly already a relatively wealthy woman. She wasn’t engaging in prostitution because she had no other choices. She was no lost waif just awaiting rescue from some businessman in a shiny limo – a 21st century knight. It seems that she was making informed choices, that she did not need the money, and that she was not being controlled by any man. In being this empowered, she simply veered too far from the acceptable Disney script for either a princess or a prostitute.

But still selling a fantasy. Even though it was not one Disney would support, Favor Hamilton was still selling a fantasy. And this is one of my many grave hesitations about prostitution. Because all too often the buying and selling of sex is simply not a reality-based interaction.

At its best, prostitution is about a man buying what he thinks is his fantasy woman. Someone with whom he can do as he pleases. Someone who is not a real human being but rather an insatiable nymphomaniac who absolutely adores what she is doing with every fiber of her wanton being and who would never, ever want to be anywhere else.

And, at its worst, prostitution involves the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of women and girls.

Why do I not support prostitution? Because it’s pretty tough to get behind something that generally ranges in scale only from dehumanizing fantasy at the top end to inhuman brutality at the bottom.

But what about “the happy hooker”? In the 1970 Xaviera Hollander wrote a book describing her exploits as a prostitute and madam. It was called The Happy Hooker. And over 40 years later Favor Hamilton’s situation comes just about as close as anyone ever does to fitting this image of an empowered sex worker who is doing exactly as she pleases. She is the archetypal “highly paid escort” who has no pimp, who seems to thoroughly enjoy what she does, who makes good money for her efforts, and who chooses this line of work even though she has plenty of other options to choose from. It is a model that prostitution apologists love to bring up as a counterargument whenever anyone floats the notion that “prostitution is exploitation.” They will continually bring up this nearly-mythical creature even though this form of “empowered” prostitution represents only a tiny sliver of the immense sex trade that ensnares tens of millions of very real women and girls around the globe.

Sex workers like Favor Hamilton are scarcely more plentiful than the endangered snow leopard. But to hear the prostitution apologists talk, you’d think they were as common as housecats.

And once her dual life was exposed, Favor Hamilton herself published apologetic statements about how her choice to work as an escort was related to mental health issues stemming from personal problems and extreme depression. Which kind of disqualifies her from the “happy hooker” model of sex work.

Favor Hamilton also happens to be married, and she is also the mother of a seven year-old girl, which again does not really fit the fantasy model of the unencumbered – and untroubled – free agent escort. One common fantasy that society has about women who engage in sex work is that they are not mommies. But in fact huge numbers of women who engage in this work do so in order to support their children.

And while it seems that Favor Hamilton herself wasn’t doing it for the money, the thought of her baking chocolate chip cookies with her kid kind of clashes with the website images that she posted of herself as a hypersexual vixen. I’m not saying that women can’t be multitalented and multifaceted – most often they are! – I’m just saying that what was being sold on the website was just one small piece of a person who is a much more complex human being than that. It was a fantasy that simply wasn’t real. And the men who purchased her services were merely buying an image. A charade that they thought was real.

Still pissed off at Disney. But I am still pissed off at Disney for dumping Suzy Favor Hamilton. Although the whole issue of sex work troubles me greatly, I have nothing against the sex workers themselves.

Maybe part of Disney's problem is that society tends to treat sex workers as if they were nothing more than just whores. That our society actually tends to treat all women who are sexual with multiple partners (whether paid or not) as if they are whores. In fact, a large segment of our society still tends to treat women who embrace any kind of overt, empowered sexuality as if they are whores.

Maybe if we didn’t draw that line between pretty princess and wanton whore quite so starkly, maybe if instead we celebrated women in all of their complexity and didn’t require them to stand on one side or the other of the line that theoretically separates saint from sinner, virgin from whore, then maybe we would all be better off. And maybe Disney wouldn’t have felt the need to punish Favor Hamilton for her social transgressions.

Why can’t Favor Hamilton be allowed to run that Disney Princess Half Marathon? Why can’t she continue as a motivational speaker? Because her tiara is now “tarnished”? Because she misused her feminine wiles?

I think that Disney should reconsider. I think Favor Hamilton should be allowed to participate. Let her run. Let her speak. Let her show that the labels of prostitute and princess are both equally artificial – and that each term embodies a myth that prevents us all from seeing the real woman behind the façade.

Let her run. After all, it was Walt Disney himself who once said:

Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it they will want to come back and see you do it again and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.

And certainly Suzy Favor Hamilton was doing that.