We like to think that we’re making progress in tolerance, openness and enlightenment. But we’re currently in the middle of a vicious anti-sex backlash, which includes attacks on reproductive rights, LGBTQ people and sex ed. Sex workers, in particular, have been targeted for censure, censorship, harassment and violence. Friday’s debut of “No Hard Feelings,” a sex work romcom that doesn’t want to admit to its own subgenre, is very much of our era.
The Jennifer Lawrence vehicle from Sony Pictures revolves around a sex worker who, like the film, doesn’t want to admit what she’s doing. Maddie (Lawrence) is a 32-year-old Uber driver who starts the movie never having been paid for sex. But her hometown, the Long Island summer beach community of Montauk, New York, is gentrifying. Maddie’s car is repossessed when she’s unable to pay her taxes. Without the car, she can’t work and is likely to lose her house.
Desperate, Maddie answers a Craigslist posting from concerned parents Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti). Their 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) is neurotic, shy and very inexperienced. Laird and Allison offer Maddie a Buick Regal in return for “dating” Percy. And by “dating,” they mean having sex with him.
If you’re familiar with past sex worker romcoms like Billy Wilder’s “Irma La Douce” (1963), Ron Howard’s “Night Shift” (1982) or the blockbuster “Pretty Woman” (1990), you probably have a good sense of where the movie goes from there.
Percy is repressed, nervous and scared of women and of life. Maddie serves as his Manic Pixie “Call Girl,” drawing him out of his shell by encouraging him not just to flirt and kiss, but to drink wine, skinny dip and play piano in public. Percy, for his part, is the nice guy who teaches the worldly woman the virtues of commitment, self-respect and (at least some degree of) sexual temperance.
The formula varies somewhat — Richard Gere’s Edward isn’t exactly nice in “Pretty Woman,” and Rebecca De Mornay’s Lana isn’t fleshed out enough as a character to have much of an arc in “Risky Business” (1983). But in general, these sex worker romcoms see sex workers as sympathetic figures whose emotional and sexual labor is valuable and even transformative — even as the movies scurry to “save” sex workers from sex work by the end of the run time.
Sex worker romcoms also, as a rule, revel in the risqué, using the presence of sex workers as an excuse to ramp up the titillation beyond what you get in most boy-meets-girl screen encounters. Rows of women in revealing outfits are panned across; various levels of nudity are hinted at, or more. At the same time, there’s little of the sober moralizing and doling out of consequences you see in more dramatic treatments like “Pleasure” (2021) or “Hustlers” (2019). In sex worker romcoms, you’re supposed to be scandalized at the sordidness — but in a fun way.
The cultural space for celebrating sordidness, or for celebrating sex work, has closed down considerably in the last few years, however. Anti-sex and anti-porn advocates have put a lot of effort into (falsely) conflating sex work and sex trafficking. In 2018, bipartisan majorities in both chambers passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in a supposed effort to reduce trafficking that, in fact, prevented sex workers from advertising online.
The law has done little to reduce sex trafficking, but has succeeded in making it much more difficult for sex workers, already rejected by certain banks and payment processors, to make a living and pushes them toward the street, where they are much less safe.
The Craigslist ad Maddie answers is an anachronism; the site closed its personals section in 2018. The film doesn’t acknowledge that sex workers are under threat, though, just as Maddie explicitly denies that she’s a sex worker. Instead, she insists, she’s just someone who needs a car and is sleeping with someone to get it.
Maddie is good at self-deception. But the film doesn’t exactly call her on her rationalization. On the contrary, it is itself committed to dancing around its own subgenre. There is nudity, and a certain amount of sex, but consummation is consistently deferred. Compared to the raunchy ’80s rutting of “Risky Business” and “Night Shift,” or the swinging ’60s sensuality of “Irma La Douce” – or even to the frankness of Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face” (1933) — well, “No Hard Feelings” feels positively chaste.
There are more forthright contemporary sex worker romcoms in every sense. Last year’s intimate indie “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is explicit in both its depiction of sex and in its pro-sex worker politics. Repressed middle-aged widow Nancy (Emma Thompson) makes some gestures at wanting to “save” sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), but the movie insists that the only thing he really needs to be saved from is a society that criminalizes his profession and moralizes against pleasure in general. The film advocates for solidarity with sex workers — which makes it arguably the only really ethical film in the genre.
Every film, sex worker romcom or otherwise, doesn’t have to be enthusiastically political, or, for that matter, sexual. “No Hard Feelings” has a witty script and two very charismatic leads with wonderfully awkward comedic chemistry. It’s an entertaining movie.
But when you build your entertainment on the supposed edginess or sexiness of marginalized people, you do have some minimal responsibility to acknowledge the discrimination and danger they face. At the very least, it would have been nice if “No Hard Feelings” could have acknowledged that those marginalized people exist and that the film is, in fact, talking about them.