Pretty Baby: What to do with Labor, Muses, and Sex?

 

Pretty Baby opens on New Orleans’ infamous turn of the century red light district: Storyville. The year is 1917 and wistful ragtime suffuses the scene with an uneasy sense of nostalgia as the audience is introduced to Hattie, a young sex worker employed by a local Madame. Hattie, played by Susan Sarandon, is undergoing a difficult, violent labor in the attic of her home. The only witnesses to the birth are Hattie’s daughter Violet, played by Brooke Shields, and an unnamed midwife. After several agonizing minutes of Hattie gnashing her teeth and screaming, a baby is born.

Excited, Violet runs downstairs and the audience sees the beginnings of the house’s nightly work; glamorous women entertaining a variety of male clientele with clinking champagne glasses, dancing, and music. Several other children, ranging from infants to adolescents, hang back on the staircase both annoyed by and curious of the adults intruding on their space. Violet is the only child who ventures into the sitting area to cheerfully inform the piano player that she now has a baby brother.

Produced and directed by Louis Malle, written by Polly Platt, 1978’s Pretty Baby tells the story of Violet (the titular pretty baby) and her entanglement with EJ Bellocq a turn of the century photographer, played by Keith Carradine. While Violet and Bellocq’s relationship is akin to artist and muse, Platt and Malle wisely align the viewer with Violet and her perspective. This alignment allows Violet an uncomfortable, but deserved, agency over her early induction into survival sex and rightfully emphasizes the toxicity of Bellocq’s emotional demands. Examining how labor and artistic inspiration intersect under the latticed veins of class, gender, and age, Platt and Malle create a sensitive dark fable of power, sex, and the myth of the muse, through the eyes of a young girl. By outlining how Violet’s emotional inexperience disallows her full and willing participation in Bellocq’s conjoined fantasies of caregiver and lover the film effectively presents a nuanced understanding of consent, desire, and labor.

Such nuance allows for one to argue for consent to exist and be understood as an evolving construct, an assertion Melissa Gira Grant defines in their work Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Decades prior to Grant’s work Platt and Malle’s telling of Violet’s story with Bellocq presents the case that “presence of money does not remove one’s ability to consent. Consent, in and out of sex work, is not just given but constructed, and from multiple factors: setting, time, emotional state, trust, and desire.”[1] Such conversations were decried at the time of Pretty Baby’s release as critics levied the film’s creators with accusations of exploitation and predation against Brooke Shields. In addition to Shields speaking on record, numerous times, of her positive and affirming experience on the film’s set, asserting that stories centering on women, girls, and sex, are inescapably violent is inherently regressive. Studies of power, sex, and art, bring forth fundamental and prescient questions of agency and ownership pertinent to all folks living and creating.

To better affirm Violet’s story it would be beneficial to first situate Bellocq’s historic counterpart in order to understand what brought his character to Violet and her mother. The real EJ Bellocq was born around 1873 to a wealthy New Orleans family. Though colloquially known as an amateur photographer, his work gained notoriety when he began to visit and photograph Storyville’s opium dens and brothels. Bellocq’s photographs of Storyville’s sex workers are naturalistic and intimate when compared to the formal aesthetics and material technological constraints (subjects sitting and posing for hours) of the time.  The photos showcase their subjects’ individualities; Bellocq allowing the women choice in idiosyncratic poses, dress, settings, etc. Susan Sontag even noted Bellocq’s photographs as presenting “an anti-salacious sympathy for the fallen women, though in his case we can only speculate on the origin of that sympathy.”[2]

The concept of speculation is key when attempting to tease out Bellocq’s likely relationships with his muses as some of his most famous photos are intentionally damaged; the faces and identities of his subjects are scratched and marred. While the scratches could be evidence of a finicky, precise aesthetic, or a mix of anger and frustration, the damage could also be an attempt to protect the identity of subjects not keen on the circulation of the images to a wider audience. Though it is easy not to trust Bellocq, the historical figure and film character, Carradine utilizes the nebulous nature of the artist’s motives in order to create a conflicted character – a man driven by his desire to create and possess unconventional beauty, while unaware of the lasting damage of his power.

In the film Bellocq is both guest and interloper in the brothels he frequents, a dynamic echoed in relations with his models. For models like Hattie, who Bellocq compensates for their time, he is accepted as an unusual client. They also derive pleasure from the novelty of their photographs. Bellocq’s pleasure in engaging his adult female models borders upon milquetoast. Carradine plays these interactions akin to a squirrely, nebbish neighbor stumbling upon the half nude garden party of the century. However, when relating to Violet, the precarity of the power differential between the two leads to a predatory dynamic. Bellocq wants to be caregiver, lover, protector, and a sexual and artistic father to the girl. He attempts to mold Violet as his muse, a changeling who lives only for him. Pretty Baby’s show of Bellocq’s actions as emotionally and, sometimes, physically violent, emphasize the destructive tendency of idealization. While Violet’s image ends up enshrined in Bellocq’s body of work, the film’s final scene leaves Violet with little image of her own – her face reads as a swirling, shifting miasma of pain, adolescent longing, and confusion.

When compared to the tempestuousness of her time with Bellocq, Violet’s induction to sex work is relatively straightforward. For Violet sex work begins as a method of individual and collective survival – once she reaches puberty, clients begin to show interest in the availability of her sexual labor. Her material circumstances thus require her to join her mother in earning money for themselves and the house. While Violet’s sessions with clients are difficult and uncomfortable to watch, the audience sees that Violet’s experiences do not lessen or negate her selfhood. Platte and Malle subtly play with the expectations surrounding exploitation through the auction of Violet’s virginity and the morning after her first night of work.

The auction begins with Violet clad in all white, holding sparklers, laying atop a silver serving platter. Though Violet first enjoys the admiring attention, the mood of the room shifts to a disquieting mix of lust and discomfort as the bidding begins. Keeping with Violet’s removed gaze, the viewer gets the worried sense she may not be aware of the physical mechanics of sex. When the winning bid is placed, Violet is escorted to meet the client who purchased her services and, visibly uncomfortable, begins to enact the flirtatious overtures of a sexually mature person. As Violet and her client enter their room for the night their size difference is alarming and when he runs out of the house early in the morning, his violence and predation seems solidified. However, when Violet’s mother, caregivers, friends, and coworkers, run to the room to check on her wellbeing the audience is surprised to find her laughing and well. While this is in no way arguing that Violet’s first client’s motivation for their sexual encounter was not violent or predatory it is to assert that the “experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible.” [3] To deny such would be to deny Violet of her agency and commit a similar erasure to Bellocq’s idealization of her as child, sex nymph, muse.

Platte and Malle’s film remains eerily prescient on questions of questions of power, gender, and sex in today’s political climate as scholars, writers, and activists navigate the craggy terrain of agency and ownership in the art world. In keeping with the overarching themes of Violet’s story we would do well to learn from and listen to all folks; ensuring all Violets have a seat at the table.

 

REFERENCES:

[1]  Melissa Gira Grant, Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Verso, 2014, 92.

[2]  Susan Sontag, “Sinful Flesh,” The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/sinful-flesh-1334956.html, June 1st 1996.

[3]  Grant, Playing the Whore, 104.

 

By Annette LePique

Annette LePique is a writer and critic based in Chicago. She has a MA in Art History from SAIC and is currently working towards her PhD. Her favorite films include Daisies, Night of the Hunter, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and Wanda.

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