Sex Arbeit Film Fest

Sex Arbeit Film Fest

Street fables

No occupation is subject to as much controversy as sex work. The fascination it awakens has led to centuries of variously sympathetic epithets and titles that invoke disdain, pity or lust. This anthology shows that even the music video clip, one of the youngest media forms in the realm of popular culture, has recurrently been a canvas for the idealized representation of the so-called oldest profession in the world.

Promotional poster for “Street fables”
Promotional poster. Still from the music video
“Paradise circus”, courtesy of Toby Dye

Confronted with the music video directed by Sofia Coppola to promote the White Stripes’ single I just don’t know what to do with myself, it would appear that the image of fashion model Kate Moss pole-dancing is exclusively aimed at the heterosexual male. But, by 2003, when the clip was released, lap-dance aerobics had lost a lot of their stigma. Those contortions had instead morphed into routines perceived as cool, not only in the gyms and dance studios with their predominantly female clientele: fun to imitate (like the Village People’s y.m.c.a.-choreography) when not outright sexy. “Stripper chic” had exploded across the Anglo-Saxon world: “porn star”-T-shirts and exposed undergarments straight out of the peep show milieu became ubiquitous. The trend was already on its way in 2001, when director Paul Hunter’s Lady Marmalade was elected Best Music Video of the Year by mtv: the clip showed Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink styled as nineteenth-century can-can girls to advertise the film Moulin Rouge... But what does the portrayal in current pop culture of prostitutes, mesdames, wanna-be strippers and adult film performers of every gender have to do with the real experiences of sex workers and the lives they lead? Close to nothing, most of the time. Awash with the commonplace, even the music video has come to present rather one-dimensional representations of these “ladies and gentlemen of the night”. Curated by Evan Romero for the Sex Arbeit Film Fest in Hamburg, this anthology of music videos is a catalog of conservative narratives surrounding sex work and stereotypes that refuse to die. Conceived in the last three decades, the clips in this retrospective perpetuate clichés while exploiting sex work’s transgressive aura to capture an impressionable audience’s attention.