Does Rough Night's Box Office Flop Indicate a Cultural Shift in How We See Sex Workers?

Photo: Sony / Columbia

Maybe Father's Day weekend wasn't the best time to release a movie driven by, and so obviously designed for, women, but much-hyped comedy Rough Night had a rough showing at the box office during its opening weekend. The Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoë Kravitz, and Jillian Bell party romp brought in just $8 million -- about half what was expected. Given that Wonder Woman simultaneously brought in $40.8 million (even though it had already been out for three weeks), the female leads are clearly not the reason for the disappointing attendance.

It's impossible not to wonder if the reason audiences stayed away in droves is the problematic nature of Rough Night's plot. A comedy revolving around the death of a sex worker is a hard sell in general, but when the target audience is female, and sex work is overwhelmingly a female profession, it becomes harder for audiences to approach flippantly. Before the film even came out, the public was expressing horror about the plot on social media.

Bloggers in some corners of the internet weren't particularly thrilled either. TheMarySue declared "killing a stripper isn’t hilarious, regardless of whatever gender they may be." Refinery29 put the movie concept in an even starker context: "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." MTV tried to suggest that audiences shouldn't be taking this movie so seriously -- "This is, at worst, an Adam Sandler movie, except with interesting women and actually good jokes and no casual racism or misogyny," -- but in the internet court of opinion, Rough Night had already taken a hit.

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Intersectional feminism has been working very hard the last few years to alter how sex workers are viewed by those who don't work in the industry. It has been remarkably effective in humanizing one of the most historically judged and marginalized groups in the world. Social media has also assisted those working in the sex industry in offering a realistic day-to-day view of what the work actually entails (Jacq the Stripper has been particularly effective at this). These developments have undoubtedly shifted the perception of the general public, especially with younger demographics. In this super-woke cultural environment, changing the usual gender of the dead sex worker just might not be enough to get a lot of women on board.

Had Rough Night come out 19 years ago, on the heels of 1998's truly hard-to-watch Very Bad Things (in which a prostitute is accidentally killed at a bachelor party), it might have made a modicum of sense as an antidote to, and revenge for, that unbearably masculine movie. Of course, it's highly unlikely that Rough Night could have even gotten a green light back then, but waiting two decades to flip this particular death-of-a-sex-worker script makes the joke too old for much of its millennial target audience to even get get the reference. (Very Bad Things is certainly very far down the list of 1990s Cameron Diaz vehicles we look back on fondly.)

It is possible too that, even without the reach and influence of intersectional feminism, we are simply tired, as a culture, of watching sex workers only represented as caricatures (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), by stereotypes -- being either hardened, drug-dependent or dead -- or by tropes, the most common being the hooker with a heart of gold. See: Pretty Woman, Trading Places, Risky Business, Leaving Las Vegas, True Romance -- a film that features a call girl who specifies that she's only ever had two clients, as a means for audiences to like her more -- and too many others to mention. For too long now, a tragic undercurrent has followed almost all on-screen representations of sex workers too.

Recent years have seen a moderate shift, as indicated by 2012's joyful, and extremely popular Magic Mike, (though even that movie ended with Channing Tatum's titular character leaving behind the world of stripping) and For a Good Time, Call..., which went out of its way to represent sex workers as Just Like You And Me. More recently, Hulu's Harlots series has been praised across the board as both feminist and sex worker-positive:

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In the end, Rough Night's disappointing weekend might push media and movies forward, and allow those who work in the sex industry a place in popular culture that doesn't involve either dehumanization or the need to be saved. After decades of reductive stereotyping, it is most definitely time for a change. Rough Night just found that out the hard way.

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