Imagine this: you’ve come home from uni, you’re ready to start your kickass, girl power-fuelled career – #LeanIn #GirlBoss – and you suddenly discover that your mother is the proprietor of an international chain of brothels – and she started at the bottom before working her way up.
Sex work put you through private schools and paid for your privileged lifestyle, but you’re a (white) #feminist with some dubious ideas about the world’s oldest profession. Quelle horreur. The shame.
Such is the revelation that awaits Vivie, the successful, accomplished daughter of Mrs Warren (international madam of mystery) in Auckland Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Mrs Warren’s Profession. The play, written in the late 1800s by George Bernard Shaw, has had a contemporary overhaul with ground breaking theatre maker Eleanor Bishop in the director’s chair.
The play was so controversial when it was written that it was swiftly banned by the powers that be. In 2018, under Bishop’s guidance, it has retained its bite. “It’s funny and it packs a punch,” its star Jennifer Ward-Lealand says. “It’s a really good feminist debate. It’s intellectually challenging.”
Against the backdrop of #MeToo, Mrs Warren’s Profession feels oddly timely. Sex work has been legalised for well over a decade in New Zealand, yet sex workers are still stigmatised. The sexuality of women has been, and continues to be, policed, demonised and judged – whether women are having sex for money, pleasure or a sense of duty – and Mrs Warren’s Profession gets straight to the heart of the issue.
“It’s all tied up with a woman’s virtue,” Ward-Lealand, who plays the infamous Mrs Warren, says. Mrs Warren’s choice of profession is one often sneered and/or leered at even today, but, Ward-Lealand is quick to point out, it was a choice willingly made, albeit with few enticing alternatives.
“Mrs Warren was working in a bar 14 hours a day – serving drinks, washing dishes, and avoiding handsy men, and her sister said, ‘why are you wasting your good looks for someone else’s profit?’ It was a much better place to work, frankly, than the factory or the bar. So, it wasn’t a hard choice. And she likes it. She’s not working as a sex worker herself now – she’s running things – but she’s good at it and she’s proud of it.”
Pride and sex work don’t often go in the same sentence, a state of affairs that interests Bishop.
“I think lots of people would say that they’re okay with [sex work], but then, anecdotally, I’ve had lots of people say, ‘I wouldn’t want my daughter to do that,’ and it’s like, well, what’s that? What’s that thing that’s happening there? I’m interested in that,” she says.
“Good sex work is built around consent in ways that maybe sex outside of sex work isn’t, or harassment in another kind of workplace isn’t. Vivie’s biggest problem with sex work is that she thinks it isn’t consensual. Vivie draws an argument between sex work and general hyper-sexualisation and objectification in our culture.”
When confronted with the truth about her mother’s success, Vivie is shaken. “She’s very much the ‘lean in’, Ivanka Trump type woman. She’s liberal, white feminism – monied feminism,” Bishop says. “Her kind of feminism is blind to complexity, to economics, to race… What Vivie finds in the course of the production is that you can’t escape from the patriarchy.”
Ward-Lealand agrees. “If you did a follow up on this play in 20 years, I think she would’ve got a rude shock out there in the workplace.”
Because really, in the early stages of the #MeToo era, are women ever guaranteed safety in the workplace? “Where are you safe?” Ward-Lealand asks. “Somehow we’re blaming [sex workers] for putting themselves in a dangerous situation, but actually, you could not be a sex worker and be in a dangerous situation.”
“The patriarchy is thousands of years old. It takes something as big as this #MeToo movement to make even a dent. It’s a tiny dent though. Sometimes you think, ‘yay, the world… it’s all changing!’ Well, it’s not. Not significantly.”
The idea that there’s still a long way to go will be unsurprising to most women, but sex work is a significant part of the discussion around women’s sexuality.
“I think prostitution or sex work is something that is integral to the feminist movement and is often sidelined and talked about as being too difficult or not feminist,” Bishop says. “I think heaps of the prejudices around women generally are crystallised in the stigmatisation of sex workers.”
Treating sex workers with respect and dignity, “will in turn give respect and dignity to all women.”
This content was sponsored by Auckland Theatre Company.
The MINDFOOD season of Mrs Warren’s Profession opens on May 3 and runs until May 16. For more information, click here.Support Villainesse