At the end of Daniel Goldhaber’s 2018 thriller Cam, cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer) has retrieved her identity from a mysterious digital twin who is using a shiny new look and a new persona to take over her career—and her life. After her encounter with her dangerous alter ego, Alice goes from the down-to-earth, seemingly accessible Lola to the remote and glamorous EveBot. A platinum blond wig and a full face of expertly applied makeup allow Alice to create a chilly distance between EveBot and her customers. Onscreen, sex workers like Alice routinely use glamour as a form of armor, and few movies capture this defense mechanism better than Pretty Woman (1990).
In Pretty Woman, playboy Edward (Richard Gere) disarms sex worker Vivian (Julia Roberts) by instructing her to alter her entire personal style. With the help of a kind hotel manager and Edward’s checkbook, she reappears transformed—no wig, modest makeup, and lots of high-end fashion. Vivian becomes a “pretty woman” by lowering her defenses and laying herself bare for the world to see. The way she dresses is connected to her perceived emotional availability; once her “armor” is off, she becomes attainable to Edward.
Closer, a 2004 film that tells the story of four volatile people falling in and out of love with each other, mirrors this way of thinking. Alice (Natalie Portman) is the only main character in her 20s and the only character who makes a living through sex work. After their respective partners run off together, Larry (Clive Owen) and Alice are left to pick up the pieces of their lives. Larry is dissatisfied with Alice’s decision to continue stripping, so he confronts her during a private dance at the strip club where she works. When Alice rejects him, he responds combatively, referring to her hot-pink wig and playful lingerie as armor. Alice disagrees, replying that she’s not wearing any. Larry feels compelled to “unmask” Alice because he’s jealous of her ability to detach sex from emotion, jealous of her beauty, and jealous of her ability to remain cool as he openly falls apart.
He believes he can find the “real woman” inside—underneath her makeup and formfitting clothing. He’s wrong; Alice feels nothing after sleeping with Larry, and their sexual encounter is the last time they see each other. Despite their charm and sexual prowess, characters like Larry know deep down they could never do what these women do. They tie sex to their emotions, masculinity, and self-worth. Sex workers have loftier goals: They’re trying to turn a profit and can’t afford to fall apart every time an encounter doesn’t go their way, so they’ve learned to use clothing to separate the personal from the professional. Still, men continue to look for cracks—the weakness they themselves possess and are less skilled at hiding.
They project their fear of intimacy onto sex workers, insinuating that the sex work is an escape from lasting relationships. Though these men are skilled at framing their actions as noble, they are actually agents of chaos who tend to have one objective: break down a sex worker emotionally to meet some twisted understanding of love—or to fulfill a more sinister purpose. Similar scenarios play out in the 1984 erotic thriller, Crimes of Passion, in which a sex worker named China Blue (Kathleen Turner) is pursued by two men: the idealistic Bobby (John Laughlin), who wants to “liberate” China from her sex work, and Reverend Shayne (Anthony Perkins), who stalks China to “save” her from a life he views as sinful. China, like Vivian and Alice, wears a platinum blond wig while on the clock.
These wigs are purposely inauthentic, signifying to customers that the women are only there to provide a fantasy. Bobby chases China in the daylight, hungrily seeking out a dressed-down version of her with her natural hair, forcefully blurring the lines between worker and client. The outcome narrowly escapes tragedy. China surrenders to Bobby’s love after a near-death run-in with the reverend. She is worn down by Bobby’s advances, and though the film tries to frame their relationship as romantic, there’s a tinge of sadness and defeat in her choice. Though men are attempting to derail these women from doing their jobs, cinema still frames sex workers as troublesome sirens whose sole purpose is to disarm men and leave them broken. For these women, glamour is their power, and as long as they have it, men will try and often fail to take it away.