The goal of Lizzie Borden’s 1986 film Working Girls was to depict women sex workers on the job as a normal job — to demystify the profession and make it relatable in contrast to most popular fiction.
It’s an average Thursday for Molly (Louise Smith), who works at a brothel in Manhattan. Molly’s a college graduate with a girlfriend at home. This is just extra income. At the start of the day, Madame Lucy (Ellen McElduff) is away, and the mood in the room is light. The women go about servicing their clients, gossiping and keeping track of their income and supplies. Mostly, though, they’re sitting around, waiting for something to happen. It’s a day’s work.
Lucy tracks her girls and their income like any other money-minded small business owner, complete with percentage goals and other annoying shit that most jobs throw at their workers. Lucy’s kind of a pain in the ass for Molly and her coworkers. “You made a lot of money,” she says to Molly at the end of the shift as Molly threatens to quit after an exhausting day of nosy management, nasty clients and frustrating incidents. “I made a lot of money for you,” Molly retorts, a response everyone wishes they could deliver in their day jobs.
Working Girls is dark in the way all working lives are: doldrums punctuated by frustration, abusive clients and the bonds built with coworkers through mutual suffering. Molly’s relationship with her coworkers and their dialogue is witty and sharp. Their matter-of-fact discussions about their job are very engaging in how mundane they are. This is a film made for a shoestring budget at a time when sex work wasn’t as openly discussed as it is now. Even so, it remains relevant and compelling.
The Criterion edition features a new 4K digital transfer and uncompressed soundtrack. According to fans of the film, it’s a radical improvement over the previous DVD release. I believe it. The movie looks gorgeous.
It also features a 2007 audio commentary with Borden, director of photography Judy Irola and actress Amanda Goodwin. New features include a conversation between Borden and filmmaker Bette Gordon, and a new conversation with members of the cast and crew.