I’m so tired of watching films about sex workers that half sexualise them and half victimise them. There have been plenty of whores in fiction throughout history, because the truth is that people love to fetishise sex work- it excites them.  Out of all of the existing content out there, hardly any of these stories have allowed real sex workers to tell the truth about their experiences. Hence all the misrepresentation and lack of understanding amongst the wider public about the reality of the job.

Whether or not you think SW is right, I’m sure we can all agree that it’s important to see it represented realistically on screen. After the infamous Hustlers in 2019 featuring Cardi B, came the underrated Zola in 2021. Based on a hilariously insane Twitter thread about a Detroit stripper’s rollercoaster of a ‘hoe trip’ to Florida with a girl she just met, Zola is a film not just about sex workers but a film for sex workers. Here’s what makes it special.

A True Sex Worker’s Story

The Real Life ‘Zola’s OG Tweet

The real Zola, A’ziah ‘Zola’ Wells, told her story through an insanely shocking 2015 Twitter thread that quickly went viral. It’s seriously worth a read, not only because of its shock factor but because it will have you laughing out loud, despite how scary it gets. To sum it up, A’ziah explains how she was working at a diner in Detroit when she met a fellow stripper called Jessica (renamed Stefani in the film) who impulsively invited her to come and dance with her Florida the following day. When A’ziah joined her she found that Jessica’s wet wipe boyfriend as well as her so called ‘roommate’ were also in the car and coming along for the trip. The night gets increasingly weird and it becomes clear that Jessica’s ‘roommate’ is in fact her pimp, she’s pretty much being trafficked and she’s expecting A’ziah to join in. The thread becomes more and more unbelievable 

So often filmmakers (who are usually middle class) will discover a story from somebody less privileged and use it for profit. In the case of Zola, A’ziah worked closely with director Janicza Bravo throughout the entire process and for the most part the film stuck faithfully to A’ziah’s truth. This meant that the little details about sex work that make the film resonate with people who actually work in the industry were included. A’ziah was even present in many of the press interviews meaning that her voice within the project was always heard. For so long sex workers haven’t had a platform to tell their own stories. Zola is a rare case of a sex worker being given control over her own narrative. 

A Sex Work Comedy

We’re in serious need of some more light heartedness in this industry. Twitter is one space that allows sex workers to vent about annoying clients and share hilarious stories, plus the trusty old Instagram meme pages. Humour is a great comfort to us all. Being able to relate to someone’s experience can make you feel so much less alone, which is really important in an industry that has potential to be very isolating. Instead of turning A’ziah’s story into something harrowing  and devoid of humour like most films about sex work, Janicza Bravo perfectly captured the ‘all you can do is laugh about it’ attitude that comes across in A’ziah’s thread. Non sex workers want to sensationalise a story like this. Actual sex workers honestly just need some relief. Moments like a POV penis montage or the strippers praying together before their shift begins had me laughing out loud in the cinema like a madman, purely because it was so refreshing to see some unfiltered representation of sex work life on screen.

The 70s trashy glam aesthetic is on point, and the very ‘Gen Z’ way that the characters interact and behave makes it super relatable to the newest generation of sex workers. The experimental style kind of removes the viewer from feeling too sad about the shitty things that happen. It doesn’t feel as though Janicza Bravo is trying to push her particular viewpoint on sex work forward, instead, she is just letting Zola tell the story.

Acknowledging the Important Stuff

Zola may well be a comedy. But it’s still a comedy about the dangers of sex work. Without being patronising to sex workers it shows how things can very quickly spin out of control and you can get into serious danger if you’re not hypervigilant. As someone who has been lucky enough to never get into serious trouble doing sex work, the film really made me think more carefully before I put myself in risque situations. 

Then there’s the race thing. Zola is black, and Stefani is a white hood girl who has grown up around black girls and appropriated their style and language. It was super cool to see the film’s acknowledgment of this white girl trope; a character we’re all too familiar with in real life, but one  that we rarely see on our screens. Zola is constantly worried about Stefani and trying to help her and watch out for her throughout the story, but as she asks at one point, who is watching out for her? Zola as a black woman, is expected to be the strong one, despite the fact that she as a black sex worker, is subject to being fetishised for her skin colour or receiving racist comments from clients as one guy states when Zola greets him at the hotel room door: ‘I ordered a white chick.’ To acknowledge these things and see Zola at the forefront of the story and for once, the white girl as the ‘best friend’ character was really cool.

Then there’s the class thing. Although sex work has become way less stigmatised, the stories that are more accepted in society today are the stories of middle class sex workers, who are primarily doing it because it’s empowering or exciting rather than because they really need the money. In reality the middle class sex workers represent a small minority of the sex work community.  Zola and Stefani as more seemingly working class characters are way more similar to the majority of sex workers out there. As a working class gal, I can’t express how happy I was to see these characters on screen.

From sex worker to sex worker, if you didn’t catch Zola in the cinemas, go watch that shit. You won’t regret it!

 

Culture
Films
sex worker
Iso

Iso

Author

Iso is a writer and filmmaker based in East London. She is passionate about all things erotic and leads a sexy, shame-free life in hope that she can inspire others to do the same. Originally from a Northern seaside town, she is naturally drawn to the best things in life: candyfloss, trashy karaoke bars and heart-shaped sunglasses.


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