I’ve been quoted in this article from my ravings about street work and harassment.
Which is fine, whatever, except that it would’ve been nice if the author had dropped me a line in advance.
But I got a beef with this article. Boy, do I what.
Fired for her purported work as a sex worker, Fantine then sells her teeth, her hair, and finally chooses to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to pay for the living expenses of her daughter Cosette.
Now, the thing is, Fantine’s storyline in Les Mis is whorephobic as fuck. It is so for a few reasons:
1. Victor Hugo was a massive fucking misogynist
2. At the time Les Mis was written, beliefs and ideas around women’s sexual purity, virginity and chasteness were deeply entrenched and becoming a prostitute was considered the worst thing that could happen to a woman. Like, literally, it was considered to be better off dead than be a whore. Those beliefs and ideas reflect themselves in the writing
3. A lot of those beliefs and ideas are still firmly entrenched today and certainly at the time Les Mis was adapted to opretta
And all of this makes Fantine’s storyline pretty gross. Which isn’t to say I don’t love it, but from an objective political standpoint, it’s pretty exploitative, voyeuristic and gratuitous and relies pretty heavily on a woman’s suffering in order to make a point - and her suffering can only end in death of course, through which she is redeemed.
They really, really super amped up the whorephobia in the film by making every hooker look as diseased and bedraggled as possible. I mean, I know some people are going to BAW about realism and how it would’ve been like that for some hookers in those conditions at the time which, yes, true and I’m not denying that but c’mon, it was pure caricature in the film and that is offensive. And I’m certainly not arguing that many women have been forced to go into prostitution as a last resort when they’ve got nothing else left to fall back on and that when inured in heaps of misogynistic, whorephobic culture, that’s going to feel pretty shit and awful. Partly the whorephobia there lies in the fact that’s pretty much the ONLY story we EVER get of hookers though and that it’s not actually comprehensive representative. Look, I’ve known women who’ve come to the industry at the end of their rope and who are very unhappy about it, but within a couple of weeks, once they start realising pretty much everything they’ve learned about it from the outside world is total bullshit, they start to feel okay about it and change their minds. A lot of these women have gone on to become some of the best working girls out there. This easily could’ve been the direction Fantine’s story was taken in and it would’ve been just as authentic to the time, because this spectrum of experience has always existed. Which isn’t to say it’s like that for EVERYONE, of course not, there’s an equal number of women who just want to leave and who never quite settle into it (though how is this different from any other industry?). But as I said - the tales of woe are the only ones permitted in media, there is never any room for nuance or diversity. Because to present nuance and diversity would be to reinforce the unpopular and undesired idea that women’s sexuality is not a sacred, pure thing that is sullied by money and sexual congress with many different people. Misogynistic patriarchy has a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that women are ruined by promiscuity.
But you know, this story was written a couple of hundred years ago when it was basically unheardof to write a hooker’s story in any other way and Hugo wrote the story this way to teach a lesson and he meant that lesson to come from a good place but it’s still fucked up because it necessitates exploiting women from a very patriarchal and distanced perspective.
Annnnd they really really grotesquely caricaturised the whole thing in the film in order to manipulate as much horror and pity and revulsion out of the audience as possible and basically reinforce all the whorephobic ideas that are already so deeply embedded in our beliefs and understanding of sex work so the only thing left to think is “god, how awful, she had to SELL HERSELF, she really was better off dead!”
They even repositioned the point that I Dreamed A Dream takes place at - after she does her first job - to emphasise the message. In the original production, that song occurs immediately after she is fired from the workhouse.
So, Fantine’s story is whorephobic and misogynistic. No argument.
For fuck’s sake.
Can we please not pretend she made a FREE CHOICE???
I think it’s really painfully, blatantly made clear in the narrative that Fantine felt like she had nowhere left to go and nothing left to do.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: choice is not a dichotomy, choice is a spectrum.
Fantine may have ‘chosen’, but it was under duress. I mean, was there a single second of screen time when she wasn’t crying? She was not a happy camper. For her, becoming a prostitute was the lowest depth she could sink to and by that point believed it was the only thing she was “good enough” for (I’m gritting my teeth as I write this, but let’s be real here). It was just one more of many, many things that made her sick, made her miserable, made her life a living hell.
It’s true she was neither a sex slave nor was she trafficked. But Fantine’s story is EMPHATICALLY NOT ONE TO HOLD UP OF CHOICE SEX WORK or even of a nuanced and complicated depiction of sex work and the idea that an attempt would be made to present it as such makes me want to slam my face into a wall.
Fantine’s story is meant to be tragic. Her becoming a prostitute is meant to be understood as coerced, as forced by her tragic circumstances. Emphasising it as a ‘choice’ is not doing sex workers or sex worker activism any favours at all.
Particularly because it’s such a painfully easy position to debunk.
I really, really do not want my words to be used to back up anything that either glamourises or trivialises aspects of the sex industry that are complicated and difficult and negative, or depictions of aspects of the sex industry that are negative.
I stand by everything I said in that rant about street work, and it can absolutely be applied to Fantine and the hookers in Les Mis - that regardless of what outsiders think, they are still WORKING and that WORK needs to be respected (and the fact it is not is what makes the conditions difficult and even deplorable) and they deserve to be able to WORK without being harassed or assaulted. But Fantine did not make a free choice to become a prostitute and she was never happy about it.
And the decision to depict that was is absolutely because of misogyny and whorephobia, but let’s not skew the facts of the story as presented. It just doesn’t help our cause at all.