Rough Night is a new movie about a group of friends who go on a hen do that looks like a wacky dark comedy in the vein of The Hangover. It's got an all-star cast: comedy heavy-hitters Ilana Glazer and Kate McKinnon, Scarlett Johansson, Demi Moore, and Zoë Kravitz. It's both written and directed by a woman: Broad City alum Lucia Aniello. And yet, the trailer has given some people serious pause.
That's because one of the women accidentally kills a stripper. After the trailer was posted last night, people on Twitter went ballistic, pointing out the issues with how the movie portrays sex workers:
Clearly, this kind of premise is infuriating to sex workers, as well as advocates. And whether or not this film perpetuates harmful stereotypes, at the very least, the buzz its generating provides an opportunity to talk about the very real violence that affects sex workers every day.
First thing's first: Strippers are people, and sex workers unfortunately have to tirelessly remind people of this over and over. "Sex workers are very marginalised groups of people who don't have the same workplace safety and rights as other workers — and we get murdered a lot," says Arabelle Raphael, a porn performer and sex worker in Los Angeles. "Our lives are seen as disposable." A long-term mortality study on sex workers found that active sex workers have a mortality rate of 459 per 100,000 people — to put that into perspective, the general public mortality rate is around 1.9 per every 100,000 people.
When it comes to pop culture, there's an alarming density of jokes and inaccuracies that get weaved into the way we talk about sex work. "Just like any stereotype, these representations are usually dehumanising, and they misinform the general public about what sex workers are really like," wrote Tina Horn, a former sex worker, in a 2016 story about sex work for Refinery29. Even stripper murder movies have been done before with men doing the killing, like in 1998's Very Bad Things.
Raphael says that lighthearted films about the violent death of sex workers just mount on the themes of shame and stigmatisation surrounding sex work. "It's a really tired trope, and all it does is further endanger us and make it like we're a joke, or our bodies and deaths are a joke," Raphael says. "It's always either a story about us being murdered, or rescued, or being stupid — there's always a bad ending for sex workers." (Just watch one episode of Law & Order: SVU.)
If the movie were about a gaggle of girls who accidentally kill, say, the chef at a restaurant, would people find it as funny? Sadly, probably not. "Sex workers are the punchline to cheap jokes often made by people who have little to no experience with them," says Jacqueline Frances, a writer, comedian, illustrator, and stripper in New York City. (Frances actually earns a living making jokes about strippers.)
The dehumanisation doesn't just happen in the movies, Frances says. In fact, many sex workers are often excluded from the feminist movement's agenda entirely, because some people don't agree that it's a valid form of labour. And oftentimes, when violence against sex workers does happen, sex workers can't always go to the police to report it.
Honestly, since we haven't actually seen Rough Night, there is hope that the movie will end on a progressive note. "Maybe there is some brilliant redemptive plot twist where the stripper was actually a serial killer of other sex workers and these ladies were unknowingly doing the Lord's work," Frances says.