BY Esther Buss in Profiles | 20 APR 14
Featured in
Issue 14

Paying the Price

Sex work in the service age: Tatjana Turanskyj’s new film Top Girl

BY Esther Buss in Profiles | 20 APR 14

Top Girl or la déformation professionelle, 2014 (courtesy: Turanskyj / Ahlrichs)

In her Catwoman outfit, she is no longer Jacky, but not yet fully Helena. Breathing heavily, both hands pressed against a window, she looks out, tired, her eyes glazed. A naked man lies bundled up on a sofa, asleep. Finally, Helena (Julia Hummer) pulls off her mask: exhaustion and weariness reveal the emotional scars of working in one of today’s intensive service industries.

Helena is a ‘working girl’. Under the moniker ‘Jacky’, the single mother and failed actress earns a living in Berlin as a sex worker for an escort service. Top Girl (2014) is the second in Tatjana Turanskyj’s trilogy about women and work. Like her previous, Eine flexible Frau (The Drifters, 2010), the film presents a female biography shaped by the contradictions of a neoliberal society regulated by the mechanisms of the market (the third and final part will be about women soldiers).

With her explicit focus on women’s work and emancipation – despite the differences in look and language – Turanskyj is one of the few to follow in the tradition of directors like Claudia von Alemann, Ulrike Ottinger and Helke Sander who introduced feminism into German auteur cinema of the 1970s. An engagement with cultural theory sometimes gives Turanskyj’s work a discursive air. Her latest film, for example, references Angela McRobbie’s 2008 book The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (the German title is Top Girls. Feminismus und der Aufstieg des neoliberalen Geschlechterregimes, 2010). Moreover, Top Girl or: la déformation professionelle, can be linked to a number of films that paint a destigmatizing picture of prostitution, especially Working Girls (1986), Lizzie Borden’s pioneering portrait of brothel life – a film that portrayed prostitution straightforwardly as an ordinary autonomous economic decision. The difference between these two films only serves to underline the historical remove between a then still circumscribable occupation (before the ‘biopolitical turn’) and today’s all encompassing flexible service culture work model.

Top Girl or la déformation professionelle, 2014 (courtesy: Turanskyj / Ahlrichs)

This culture also impacts the lives of Helena’s clients from the permanently stressed-out creative class. While advertising men must present themselves as forceful executives in the workplace, with Helena what they tend to seek is their own sexual submission. In Turanskyj’s take on the genre, the standard figures of the authoritarian misogynist – or his kitschy counterpart the good john who saves the sex worker, helping her into a ‘conventional’ life – are replaced by far more ambiguous types: despite their coldly callous bearing, these men, who appear somewhat delicate and waifish, are in fact whiny. And their greatest transgression is the way they not only buy sex from Helena but tap her emotional resources: one client moans to Helena about his hard day at work, another orders ‘intercourse and then cuddling afterwards.’ But this blurring of the lines between solicitude, sex and role play, between the contrived and the authentic, takes its toll. When one customer reminds her that their ‘relationship’ is a game, she responds with irritation: ‘But I hate you for real … I fuck you for real.’

Exaggerated characterization runs throughout Top Girl. Though Helena has been given an individual biography (she is mother to a young daughter and has an overbearing hippie mother), she functions mainly as a cipher for an analysis of society and sexual politics. Portrayals of the body also move between naturalness and masquerade in the film: the men are often naked, the women look positively armoured. Turanskyj devotes great care to textures: the protective plastic under-sheet on the bed, black leather costumes, Helena’s bronze-coloured quilted coat, her hoof-like platform shoes that look more menacing than alluring andwhich force her to adopt a rather grotesque, horse-like gait. The location, too, is not your typical seedy brothel: the sex agency where Helena works is located at L40-Haus on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a spacious loft with floor-to-ceiling windows that often becomes a stage-like arrangement when the sex workers line up facing the camera: adopting stylized poses they deliver cryptic lines to the viewer.

As the film makes clear, sex work is theatre work. Again and again, conventional gender roles are switched: the clients slip on silk coats, squeeze into high heels, or slide around on their knees wearing kitchen aprons mopping the floor. Helena gives orders, straps on a dildo and penetrates her ‘favourite customer’ David.

Turanskyj leaves the viewer in no doubt that self-determined sex work is a far cry from emancipation. At the end of the film a sexploitation fantasy of David’s – ‘bizarre, in the forest’ – takes place, with naked women being chased by men playing hunters. The author and director of this enactment is Helena, who earns her elevation to managerial status in a depressing betrayal of her own sex.

Top Girl or la déformation professionelle, 2014 (courtesy: Turanskyj / Ahlrichs)

The principles of global compe­tition are on show everywhere in Top Girl – including its rhetorical and visual conventions (entrepreneurial jargon, flipcharts) – and what the manager of the escort service brazenly sells as autonomy and self-empow­erment for women once again follows the neo-liberal model of individual responsibility and self-optimization. One scene (that explicitly echoes a kind of dry didactic theatre) even features a business-like cosmetic surgeon who vulgarly appropriates feminist language in her attempt to sell vaginal surgery to her ‘sisters’. This use of heavy-handed propaganda feels like a foreign body within the film, however, as well as destroying the ambivalences so carefully es­tablished up until this point. Here, Turanskyj seems to forget that the imperatives of neo-liberalism are enacted not by tangible examples of discipline or violence (embodied by the body standardization fascism of the cosmetic surgeon), but with subtly functioning forms of address that cause ideals to be internalized.

In Top Girl, the free spaces that were present in Eine flexible Frau – funny dance moves, verbal outbursts, neurotic excess, Hölderlin poems, orgies of drinking – have given way to complete surrender. Turanskyj’s visuals and dramaturgy only rein­forces the feeling of a restricted scope of action. Instead of the wandering, sidetracking narrative approach of her debut, Top Girl is marked by a strictly coherent visual world, but one that feels hermetic. The only expression of resistance is to be found in Julia Hummer’s body language: detectable in her appealing slouchiness are signs of rebellion.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Esther Buss works as a freelance film and art critic in Berlin.