The Return of the Pro with the Heart of Gold

Perhaps it's a sign of the economic times, or the return of the same fantasy for men and women (for different reasons), but the Lifetime Channel's expanding their movie The Client List into an ongoing series in April is the latest foray of the prostitute with the heart of gold. It's also the latest example of the glamourization of selling sex.

In the original The Client List, Samantha Horton (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is a loving wife and mother. But when she loses her job and her husband gets injured and can't work, it's up to her to prevent foreclosure on their house -- by working at the Kind Touch Health Spa, where the clients expect a lot more than just a massage. (This movie is not loved by licensed massage therapists hoping to shake the reputation that "massage therapy" is a euphemism for prostitution.) The series will continue Samantha's storyline, where the biggest threats aren't STDs, adultery, or sex with strangers, but rather an economy where her family might lose its home, law officials who could arrest her (and cost her her source of income), and the intersection between her life as a wife and mother -- and her life as someone with a client list.

This type of character is hardly new. The film Belle de Jour (1967) featured Catherine Deneuve as a housewife who became a daytime prostitute out of boredom. Julia Roberts really became famous with 1990's Pretty Woman, in which we're led to believe rich, handsome men who pick up call girls on the street give them unlimited shopping and emotional attachments. And Billie Piper followed her beloved role of Rose on Doctor Who with Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Belle is a smart, attractive, fully likeable woman balancing her life as a prostitute with her "normal" life and friends.

Without pre-judging the series The Client List, it does seem to be idealizing trading sex for money. In the current issue of Maxim, Jennifer Love Hewitt comments, ""We have a lot of really fun things in the series eye-candy wise for our audience... It's a lingerie-heavy show every episode, for my character in particular. It's not going to be your mother's Lifetime." This may be a step up from the old "woman in danger, and a system that only helps men" formula, it also seems to be sanitizing the world's oldest profession (besides farming).

While I don't have a problem with prostitution per se (as George Carlin beautifully put it, "Selling is legal, fucking is legal, how is selling fucking illegal? Why is it illegal to sell something it's perfectly legal to give away for free?"), it seems like a lot of these shows portray the encounters as with great-looking, basically nice guys instead of potentially dangerous or pretty creepy individuals. (On Secret Diary of a Call Girl Belle did have a system where the she could let her pimp know if a client was trouble at the start -- but how many pimps are really less concerned with money than with keeping their prostitutes in good shape?) And since some of these have the prostitute as a married woman, that adds in the adultery aspect as well: Is providing for the family worth cheating on the husband?

(Incidentally, some shows have madams/female pimps (like Lady Heather, to the left, from C.S.I.) that are always well educated, polite, sophisticated, and concerned first and foremost with the treatment of their women. I suspect that's idealized as well, as I'm not sure sisterhood trumps profit.)

Perhaps the return of this trend is a reflection of the economy, as women who can't find jobs can still provide for their family by selling themselves. (On Secret Diary of a Call Girl Belle didn't have a family; but that show was paired on Showtime with Weeds, about a mother turning to crime (selling pot) to support her family.) Perhaps it's a re-affirmation of the woman who's damn sexy, not just a wife and mother. And perhaps men are happily tuning in just for the "damn sexy" part of the shows -- or the famtasy that the beautiful woman isn't just after their money.

With the current concerns about the economy and controversy over contraception, turning The Client List may be a reflection of concerns -- or sensationalizing the selling of sex. It should prove interesting to see what directions the series takes.

Written by James Lynch

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