‘Brazen’: Netflix Feminist-Lite Thriller Reinforces Sex Worker Tropes
Halfway through the new Netflix original movie Cheeky, one character says of his recently murdered ex-wife: “The list of suspects gets long when it comes to a dead prostitute.”
This disgusting man gets punched in the face by Alyssa Milano for his lack of respect, telegraphing that we are dealing with a story that wants to be seen as nuanced in its depiction of sex workers. The film makes some softer attempts at being progressive, using language like “artists” and “customers” to refer to pornographers and their fans. But finally, Cheeky wants to win it both ways.
Based on a Nora Roberts cooking pot, the film follows Grace (Milano), a best-selling crime novelist whose sister, Kathleen (Emilie Ullerup), is killed. Kathleen was a beloved high school English teacher and mother living in a wealthy neighborhood in Washington, DC, but, in her closet, she harbored a secret. Beyond shelves of blush-colored kitten heels and a locked door lies a secret bedroom: the sleek blood-red and black realm of Kathleen’s alter ego, Desiree. Using a fictional online streaming platform called Fantasy Incorporated, Kathleen hosted a side gig airing naughty live shows. The surest sign that no one in the production cares what BDSM culture actually looks like is the tacky masquerade mask Desiree wears to protect her identity as she cracks her whip and says unconvincing things like “Is that what you want?!” We are repeatedly Recount that Désirée is a special artist. But when you see it in action, there’s nothing original, intense or powerful about it. She acts like a woman who goes through the motions of how she thinks a dominatrix is supposed to behave.
Since its release on January 13, Cheeky has been in the top two spots on Netflix – so far it’s streamed for over 73 million hours – and it’s easy to see why. It’s like a long episode of Law and Order: SVU, or a lifetime whodunit, with plenty of catnip for procedural lovers. But IIt is, in effect, a “dead prostitute” movie, just another element of exploitation of sex workers – from its premise (a killer targeting camera models) to its garish steampunk costumes and lack of understanding of how the adult online industry actually works. It wants to give you the slightest hint of being woken up without following through with any significant trope-busting. And that makes its more happily sleazy 80s psycho-thriller counterparts just as inadmissible, like Double body.
We don’t know Kathleen well enough to understand whether the illicit hidden sanctuary or the beige suburban exterior represents her true self. Désirée, like so many sex workers, is not the protagonist of her own story. Neither did the killer’s two other victims. They are fallen women, the perfect victims of a sex crime, the ones we are supposed to pity. It is Grace’s heroic quest for justice that restores order. She begins a flirtation with the literal cop next door, implausibly persuading her boss to bring her on the investigation as a consultant. In the end, she caught the killer and seems happy and safe drinking herbal tea with her detective boyfriend.
With regard to the representation of sex work, Cheeky is as bland as Kathleen’s interior design. He turns the stories of pro-domme and adult content creators into a cutting-edge metaphor for white, straight, upper-class lives.
Understanding how sex work actually works is crucial to understanding how and why it can be dangerous. Movies like this are obsessed with the thrill of the adult industry, but they don’t care about touching the real nerves of people who might actually relate. Their producers imagine an audience of ‘normal people’, that is, not sex workers, even though they portray sex work as something ‘normal people’ do in secret.
There’s nothing wrong with light, stereotypical entertainment in any genre – from romance to murder mystery to pornography. The problem with stereotypes of sex work played out in movies is that they contribute to dehumanization, criminalization and violence in real life. Cheeky Nor is it particularly realistic about the working conditions of novelists or law enforcement, but neither group is under constant threat of social marginalization.
“If you read my books, you would know that they are about exploitation, misogyny, patriarchy!” says Grace. But this is only lip service. Cheeky vaguely identifies some of the things that threaten the safety of sex workers. Digital identity monitoring and security. Fear of being exposed and losing your “respectable” job open to the public or custody of your young child. Obsessive stalkers who don’t know how to separate the person from the personality. Yes Cheeky was a feminist film, it would critique the violence that really threatens sex workers: the police, for example, or laws like FOSTA-SETSA that criminalize communities and further isolate sex workers from potentially life-saving resources. It’s not enough for your characters to say what they’re trying to do. Creators really need to To do this.
Netflix has an uneven track record with scripted content about the sex industry. 2018 Cam is a remarkable horror film written by a sex worker, Isa Mazzei. Mazzei drew on her own experience working as a cam model to infuse supernatural cyberthriller with realistic fears for sex workers, like non-consensual dating, lousy tech support, and clients with bad boundaries. Cheekyalthough seemingly based on the real world, is much less rooted in the actual workings of camera modeling: it even seems confused as to how the Internet works, with camera company Fantasy Incorporated operating more like a local public access station than an online platform with a global audience.
Pro-domme comedy Bonding (2019) was a hit on the streaming platform, but derided by sex worker critics for its blatant inauthenticity. The producers made a good faith effort to redeem themselves, bringing in BDSM expert Olivia Troy as a writer and consultant, but Netflix canceled the show after its second season.
Sex workers deserve great entertainment in our lives, and we deserve to be the ones paid to tell them. Hope the success of Cheeky will lead to more BDSM experts and sex workers getting funding and platforms to tell our stories, as they are far more interesting than just a “dead prostitute” murder mystery.
Tina Horn is a writer, teacher and media maker. She hosts and produces the long-running kink podcast Why do people like it? ! She is also the creator and writer of the sex-rebel sci-fi comic book series SfSx (Safe Sex).