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How One Movie Normalizes Prostitution for the Masses

A feminist critique of "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"

How One Movie Normalizes Prostitution for the Masses

This article contains spoilers for the movie Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022).

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, the 2022 R-rated comedy-drama directed by Sophie Hyde and starring Emma Thompson, is ostensibly about empowering older women to have the sex they want on their terms. In fact, the screenplay by 43-year-old British actress-writer Katy Brand appears to have been written with the sole purpose of normalizing the idea that “sex work” is work and prostitution is a job like any other. Its depiction is sanitized to the point of near Disneyfication - the characters even argue that prostitution should be a public service provided by local councils. Many devices are employed here to make prostitution palatable and reduce the creep factor, including the choice of characters, casting, setting, dialogue and language, displays of consent-seeking and reassurances, as well as humour.

Whereas films like Pretty Woman (1990), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and I, Daniel Blake (2016) include scenes that offer realistic depictions of prostituted people and make it clear that exiting the sex trade is desirable, Good Luck to You does the opposite, praising prostitution, rebranding it as “sex work.” It’s all very idealized and civilised: no soliciting, no STDs, no drugs, no violence, no suicides.

The film, released earlier this year, feels like a pornographic stage play and is set almost entirely in a UK hotel room. For most of its 97-minute runtime, the audience only sees two characters: retired school teacher Nancy Stokes (Thompson), who is in her early sixties, and male prostitute Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), late twenties, whom Nancy hires in the hotel room multiple times over the course of the movie. In one of the final scenes, the pair speak with a waitress (Becky Foster, played by Isabella Laughland)—one of Nancy’s former students—in the hotel restaurant. Otherwise, the story is very intimate and viewers mostly hear from Nancy and Leo.

“Nancy, an older, white, middle-class woman, is the farthest thing from the typical sex buyer.”

The first and greatest of the many devices employed here to normalize prostitution is the Nancy Stokes character, through both her portrayal and the actress who plays her (Thompson). The "john" here, the protagonist, is a woman. Nancy, an older, white, middle-class woman, is the farthest thing from the typical sex buyer. She contributes enormously to reducing the creepiness of the story—as does the role of the prostitute being played by a young man instead of a young woman.

Nancy is a widow and former religious education teacher. She is portrayed as a sensible, modest, vulnerable, dutiful, self-sacrificing mother unnoticed by her children, who grew up in the repressive 1950s. Her situation encourages our sympathy. She is incredibly sexually inexperienced, having only ever slept with her late husband, who gave her pleasureless sex. She has never had an orgasm. The display of her sexual awkwardness borders on absurd: In the hotel room she puts off sex with Leo to take calls from her adult daughter. During the second meeting with him, she puts on her reading glasses to read aloud a list of sex acts she would like to try, such as oral sex, sixty-nining, and “doggy-style.”  She says, “I want to be a woman of the world. There are nuns out there with more sexual experience than me. It’s embarrassing.” Understandably, the audience’s female viewers are cheering her on and thinking it’s high time this woman had great sex and an orgasm. We’re also on her side because it’s our beloved Emma Thompson playing Nancy. A lesser-known actress cast in this role would have had a more uphill battle.

"Good Luck to You Leo Grande" (2022) movie poster, featuring Daryl McCormack (left) and Emma Thompson (right)

Over the years Thompson has proven herself to be one of the more feminist actresses, which made her participation in this film look like a disappointing endorsement of the view that “sex work is work.”

“Leo is portrayed as an altruist who wants to help free Nancy from her inhibitions.”

Leo Grande’s character is another very effective device employed to normalize prostitution. Leo, whose real name is Connor, speaks in a lovely Irish accent and is portrayed as a “sex saint” (Nancy’s words, not mine). He is calm, polite, well-mannered, clean-cut, and smartly dressed (and unthreatening in his deep pink socks). He is introduced in pants, a white dress shirt, a jacket, and brown dress shoes and comes across as more of a gentleman than a hooker. He more closely resembles Richard Gere’s millionaire businessman Edward character in Pretty Woman than Julia Roberts and Laura San Giacomo’s hooker characters (Vivian and Kit, respectively).

Not only is Leo a gentleman, we learn that he loves his “job,” too, and finds the women he’s paid to service attractive. For instance, he calls Nancy a “very fine vintage.” Leo is portrayed as an altruist who wants to help free Nancy from her inhibitions. He asks her: “So, what is your fantasy? ... What would you most desire?” During their second meeting, he encourages her to dance like nobody's watching. He dances endearingly, making her smile.

The setting is another significant device that adds respectability to this depiction of prostitution. Nancy doesn’t pick Leo up from the street; they meet in a nice hotel (after she chooses him online). Her room is spacious—read: expensive—and soberly decorated in cool colours (beiges, greys, dark blue headboard). The gold accents in the room and bathroom and pink cushions on the grey couch are just enough to keep the room from being depressing. With its couch, two armchairs, coffee table, two nightstands, and bed made like a straitjacket, viewers can easily imagine a wealthy, conventional couple being at ease here.

Dialogue and language, especially, serve to normalize the idea that prostitution is respectable. Leo is repeatedly called a “sex worker”—not a prostitute (or hooker). The arguments against prostitution are raised one by one only to be knocked down through conversation. During the first of their four meetings Nancy and Leo talk at length about the possibility that she may be exploiting him. She worries that he is vulnerable, an orphan, possibly trafficked against his will. He assures her he is not. She accuses herself of being a “seedy old pervert” and more than once, encourages him to leave. He calms all her fears and reassures her: “I won’t leave unless I’m clearly instructed to or I feel I’m in physical danger.” When she says, “I’ve never bought anybody like this before for my own… use,” Leo replies, “Pleasure? Nancy, listen to me. I choose to do this. You know, you haven’t bought me. You’ve bought my service. I set a price, and you agreed. I’m not being exploited.” When she suggests, at the beginning of their first meeting, that it is crass to talk about the money she paid for him, Leo tells her, “There’s nothing crass about getting paid for your work, Nancy.” When she raises the issue of the illegality of selling sex, he calmly sets her straight: “No, I sell my company. I provide interesting conversation. I can dance. I can make 20 different cocktails. Whether or not we have sex is our business.”

“Nancy and Leo talk at length about the possibility that she may be exploiting him. She worries that he is vulnerable, an orphan, possibly trafficked against his will. He assures her he is not.”

Nancy eventually recommends Leo’s services to her former year-eight student, Becky, now around thirty years old and whom she unexpectedly meets working as a waitress in the hotel restaurant. Though how Becky could afford Leo’s very expensive services (Nancy’s opinion) on a waitress’ wages is a mystery. His fees are never actually stated or negotiated—as fees are in early scenes of Pretty Woman—so we can’t judge for ourselves. Perhaps the filmmakers think getting paid for prostitution is crass after all. Nancy also says she has recommended Leo to a couple of her friends, presumably women around her age. Clearly, in her estimation, Leo is the solution for all women.

The message that prostitution should be a public service is conveyed several times, the first during Nancy and Leo’s second meeting. When Leo describes how he gives his clients whatever they need—even if it’s just holding hands and watching TV—Nancy says, “You make it sound like it should be available from the local council. Like a public service.”

In one of the final scenes, where Nancy sits in the hotel restaurant with Leo, she confesses to Becky the waitress that she has been meeting Leo there for sex and adds: “It’s a powerful thing: sexual fulfilment… It made me feel invincible. I hadn’t realised. I wish I’d known sooner, when I was younger. I would have made the necessary changes… And you know, I have felt more alive and more powerful in this last month than I can ever remember. I see my friends, fading away at the edges… and I think, actually, you’re right, Leo, this should be a public service.” Nancy tells Becky, whom she once “slut shamed” in school, “Pleasure is a wonderful thing. It’s something we should all have.” Curiously, she does not encourage Becky to find a boyfriend who will give her sexual fulfilment. The only way proposed to find sexual fulfilment, in Good Luck to You, is to buy it from a prostituted person.

In Nancy and Leo’s mostly conversational meetings in the hotel room they look more like a couple in the early stages of a romance than someone about to perform sex for the person who has paid for it, which is one more way the filmmakers reduce the creep factor. Nancy and Leo have intelligent, thoughtful, mature conversations. They tease each other, sharing laughs. They discuss body shame, and he encourages her to appreciate her body (“Your body is beautiful. I wish you could see that”). The near totality of their first meeting in the hotel room is spent talking. Sex, which is after all what the film revolves around, gets little screentime and makes a late first appearance.  

“You make it sound like it should be available from the local council. Like a public service.” - Nancy Stokes

The first time Nancy and Leo have sex is 32 minutes in, and it takes place off-screen. Accustoming the audience to the idea that Nancy and Leo will have sex is done very slowly. The second time they perform a sexual act is 64 minutes in: Nancy fellates Leo. In just a few seconds this is suggested rather than shown: Nancy’s head goes down once into Leo’s lap, and his face expresses pleasure. Cut to the next scene. Parenthetically, comparing this oral sex scene to the one in Blonde - a movie about Marilyn Monroe, also released this year, is illuminating. In Blonde the fellatio is shown and it is performed by a humiliated woman who is not a prostitute but treated like one by her lover. In Good Luck to You a male prostitute is fellated, and it appears pleasurable for both parties.

Displays of consent-seeking and reassurances abound in this film and they are designed to convey the message that these are two fully consenting participants engaging in a safe activity demarcated by boundaries (no sex trafficking here). “Shall we sit?” he asks her. “Is this okay?” he asks when he takes her wrists. He seeks consent before kissing her. “Let’s get under the covers,” he eventually suggests. Nancy asks him if he feels demeaned or degraded, and he replies, “Not at all.” When she expresses anxiety over anal sex he reassures her, “Nancy, I won’t be doing anything you don’t want me to do.” During their second meeting she asks him, “Would you mind taking your shirt off? … Can I touch you for a moment? … Can I touch your shoulders? … And your arms? … And your chest?” He asks if he can unbutton her blouse, then asks if he can take it off. When she exclaims “Safe word!” during his role play—he pretends she is his sexy teacher, and he is her aroused student—he immediately stops. She tells him, “I don’t want to dominate you.” At their third meeting, when she reveals to him that she discovered his real name online, he says to her, “I have boundaries. I’ve asked you to respect them. You haven’t, so I’ll be going now. Please don’t attempt to book me again.” She apologizes, and he forgives her.

Humour is another device used throughout to normalize prostitution. For example, during Nancy and Leo’s second meeting he tells her that one of his clients, a man, has him dress up as a cat and ignore him.

The inherent dangers of prostitution for women are only briefly alluded to. Nancy says, “It’s different for women, though, in your line of work, isn’t it? More dangerous?” and Leo replies, “It can be. Well, I’ve been called some choice names and slapped about a bit.” Focus on prostituted women is very quickly redirected toward the young man.

“Sex in the film resembles lovemaking, and it is doubtful that it bears any resemblance to what prostituted women are forced to endure by the men who exploit them.”

By quoting from Wikipedia, Nancy presents as a fact that “the legalization of sex work would ultimately provide protection for sex workers and help eradicate trafficking and abuse.” Leo adds: “Just think how civilized it could be if it was just available to all—there’s no shame attached, no judgment. You want sex and you’re frustrated you can’t get it for whatever reason. You’re shy, you’re unwell, you’re grieving, you’re physically struggling… so you just hire someone, like me. It’s all regulated and safe. For you, for me, for everyone. And I help you, or I pleasure you. Even better… And it’s my actual job, so… You know, one thing I love, Nancy, is just to watch someone’s face when they feel pleasure.” During this speech the soundtrack becomes angelic. It’s enough to make one wonder if the screenwriter lives in a fairyland tower.

In the final scene, Thompson appears naked. She and Leo have sex in various positions. Sex in the film resembles lovemaking, and it is doubtful that it bears any resemblance to what prostituted women are forced to endure by the men who exploit them. Furthermore, showing a naked woman in film, regardless of her age, is hardly innovative. It is commonplace now for actresses to be hypersexualized. Depicting Thompson as a clothed British Prime Minister would have been more powerful. Even depicting her with a much younger boyfriend would have been more empowering. Older women should absolutely have the sex they want on their terms—but they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Normalizing the commodification of people, whether they are male or female, through the normalization of prostitution is not empowering. It simply plays into the hands of the likes of sex traffickers and brothel owners. The vagina, mouth, anus, and penis are not workplaces. Prostitution is sexual exploitation, not work, no matter how much you romanticize it.

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