Author’s Note 1/16/2017: In hindsight, I think I should have not attempted this article. Not because it shouldn’t be discussed, but because I believe that I lack a complete understanding of this intensely complex topic for the kind of argumentation I provide below. I will leave it here so as not to “erase” what I consider mistakes in approach or writing, but I recommend reading it with an extremely skeptical eye, and researching further all topics discussed if any of it strikes your interest. Thank you!
Hey all, this is a warning that this article discusses sex work, and includes women who find themselves in situations of powerlessness and, in some cases, potential sexual assault. If this type of content is triggering or unpalatable for any reason, I would recommend skipping this article. Alternatively, if you want the gist or to discuss any part of it but don’t feel comfortable reading the article, I will gladly respond to any questions in the comments or through email.
Sex work is a tricky topic, one that requires a lot of careful thought to comment on due to its controversial nature. Whether it’s feminists or evangelists, the topic will spark conversation, and chances are decent that the conversation won’t be entirely civil. A documentary on the subject makes a lot of sense, then, because it’s a topic that draws interest. But further, it’s a subject that people don’t often like to think of, like child factory workers or human trafficking, which makes it especially important to talk about. Hot Girls Wanted (2015), directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus and produced by Rashida Jones, focuses specifically on young women in amateur pornography, and makes no attempt to hide the directors’ disgust with much of the industry.
However, for such a focused movie, the filmmakers can’t seem to decide on the narrative they wish to pursue, and as a result move between two nigh-contradictory ones. First, there’s the clearly negative figure of John, a guy who puts ads on Craigslist to manage 18- and 19- year-olds who want to work in amateur porn. He talks about the women like they’re pieces of meat, commodities that he deals with no consideration of their humanity. While he has moments of basic human decency, he clearly does not view these women as people, and that quality is shared by almost every man in this film. Whether it’s the photographer, the producers constantly referenced by the young women, or the predominantly male viewers of “abuse porn,” a lot of the problems that the young women face are propagated by people who create, abide, and consume content that fetishizes young-looking 18-year-olds and women being abused. This is a problem with us, with a society geared toward heterosexual men, with the unfortunate truth that such a society allows for the exploitation of women.
Yet, there’s also a strong sense of shame that the directors place on the women engaging in so many sexual acts for money at such a young age. To me, this is counter to the narrative they push that women get drawn into the industry, and then forced to “play the game” by dealing with poor conditions, power-abusing industry folk, and wanton disregard for the women as anything but bodies. Instead of focusing on the problems in the industry caused by a cruel and often misogynistic market, it spends the first fifteen minutes portraying the women who choose to do amateur porn as vapid and clueless. The filmmakers clearly pity the women, and seem to think that no sex worker could be an autonomous individual. Tressa, Rachel, and the other women all have arcs that are exclusively defined by whether they escaped the industry or not, regardless of whether they actually wanted to. Bauer and Gradus effectively rob these women of their agency in an attempt to demonstrate how the industry does so.
Belle Knox—famous for doing porn while being a student at Duke—seems to particularly draw the directors’ ire, as interviews with her bookend the film. The structure of the film implied to me that I should think she’s a shill, that she’s brainwashing women into the industry. Yet, it’s hard not to wonder where the line is between demanding that the market have regulations put in place to protect the women who enter it, and deciding what other women are allowed to do with their bodies. Bauer and Gradus’ tone has the condescending cadences of second-wave feminism, unwilling to consider the validity of numerous perspectives and walks of life.
I do not intend this to be a “political” article, but I discuss these issues because they reveal the flaws of Hot Girls Wanted as a film. It does not have a consistent theme or point, and the editing never feels focused enough. When it is focused, it tries to make us loathe almost everyone except the filmmakers, which is not a good quality to exhibit. Further, you’ll forgive me for criticizing a political film for not being particularly clear or consistent with its politics.
That being said, there is a stylistic uniformity: the entire movie feels almost hopeless in the face of all the obstacles, but also intelligently careful to note that we can all be a part of the solution by being aware of the problem. The cyclical nature of young women entering and being thrown out by the pornography industry is powerfully captured, and does instill a desire to help, somehow. And for all of the film’s flaws, I think that communicating such a message is important.
Hot Girls Wanted is an imperfect film, and I would suggest reading up on the topic rather than watching the film. If you’re a documentary buff, or prefer receiving information through that medium, Bauer and Gradus’s film will serve as a good introduction to the topic. However, I don’t think I can recommend it as a film that is successful beyond having a good message, as it leaves a lot to be desired in how it crafts and delivers the narrative.