“Love is illegal – but not hate. That you can do anywhere, anytime, to anybody. But if you want a little warmth, a little tenderness, a shoulder to cry on, a smile to cuddle up with, you have to hide in dark corners, like a criminal.” – Moustache
Back in December, my partner suggested that we watch Irma La Douce (1963), starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, before it was scheduled to be removed from Amazon Prime. After I watched it, I knew I wanted to write about it! Luckily, the removal of it from Amazon did not last oh so very long and I was able to re-watch it recently with a notebook and pen in hand. It again is up for removal on Prime, with its last day being today, but we will see how long it lasts this time – no pun intended.
The film is about Irma La Douce, played by Shirley MacLaine, who is a prostitute in Paris, France and her pimp, Nestor Patour, played by Jack Lemmon. While all of my knowledge of prostitution is of 19th-century prostitution in the United States. I saw a vast amount of similarities in the film to my historical interest – which is the lens I will use to analyze the gender roles within this film.
Here it goes…
Many people believe women became prostitutes because they were seduced and abandoned, and their “ruined” state led them into prostitution. Although this narrative was true for some women, prostitution offered women financial support during a time in which women had little job opportunities and were paid incredibly poorly for long hours worked. Reasons to why women worked as prostitutes was something that interested many – which was also evident in the film. The film begins with Irma wrapping up three different sessions. The first two men ask how she became a prostitute, and she freely tells the third her “story” on her own. Naturally all three stories are different, each a lie, and sadder than the next to generate more money from her customers. Her strategy works and she even manages to get a traveler’s check from the third guy after he gave her all his cash. Prostitutes lying about their past as a tool to help their work was common – making their customers feel either empowered or sympathetic was beneficial for their work and would help them collect a higher income. (1)
Women played a precise role within society in 19th-century America, in which they were expected to be beacons of virtue and ensuring that their husbands and children lived upright lives. Reform organizations such as the Magdalen Society and the Rosine Association sought to reform prostitutes – teaching them skills that they could use to attain “moral” work and be upstanding women. In the movie, Irma tells Nestor that 9 out of 10 men try to reform her, (I imagine after hiring her). Her sad story and sweet personality caused the men to see her “potential” as a virtuous woman who had fallen on tough times and themselves as the ones who could save her. (2)
Traditionally, men are the breadwinners and the women are the caretakers – this is flipped upside down in the world of prostitution. Women are the breadwinners – earning money for their men or supporting themselves independently. (The terminology as we know today as “pimp” began to be used in the 1830’s – when men were hired as body guards for prostitutes and brothels.) The flipped economic gender roles are also in the film. Nestor Patou, becomes Irma’s pimp. After a night together, while she is bathing, Nestor is trying on clothes and mentions he is going to go look for a job which causes Irma to cry. She asks him “Are you trying to make me feel cheap? What would the other girls think if I can’t support my man?” Irma affirms that she is going to work the hardest she ever has for him and dress him better than anyone else and ensure that his pockets are always filled with cash. Nestor having to work, was an insult to Irma and her performance at work – similar to 19th-century men, her success was linked to her ability to support her partner. (3)
The main issue throughout the film stems from Nestor’s jealousy. Many young men who visited brothels and certain prostitutes, tended to share their experience and encourage friends to visit women who they had enjoyed. In some circumstances, depending on the relationship women expected certain customers to be semi-faithful to them. For example, in 1836 a prostitute known as Helen Jewett had a customer who attempted to visit another prostitute – ultimately, he was rejected and Jewett was notified of his attempt. This is similar to Irma who expected faithfulness from Nestor, while she slept with other men. Irma defends her work by constantly reiterating that sleeping with men is her occupation and that it is strictly professional. To Irma, her profession, did not affect her fidelity with Nestor, but allowed her to support Nestor and herself. (4)
Ultimately, prostitutes were viewed as outliers within society. They rejected the ideas and characteristics of what it meant to be a woman by selling sex. Women left prostitution for a variety of reasons – reform, become madams, married and started families, etc. Earlier in the film, Irma judged her mother for leaving prostitution for a man, by the end she did the exact same thing. In the beginning, Irma is proud of her work and corrects Nestor – calling her occupation a career. By the end Nestor tells Irma: “When I first met you, you were a street walker, and now you’re going to be a wife and a mother. Isn’t that a miracle?” While I personally think this line is incredibly insulting – it is a telling line of the belief that women ultimately want one thing – a family. Occupations and careers are just place holders until the man comes in and whisks her away. (We all remember what would have happened to Mary if it wasn’t for George Bailey – *shudder* – a librarian.) In the beginning, Irma rejected any reform efforts – all it took was her falling in love, becoming pregnant, and being proposed to that caused her to reject her life of prostitution and accept the role of respectable womanhood. (5)
Irma La Douce was well received when it first came out in 1963 and is still entertaining today. As I previously stated, the presentation of prostitution and gender throughout the film called to me to write about it. Obviously, the discussion of prostitution is way more complicated than I could touch on in a blog post and the aspirations and desires of women are, as well. I hope you ultimately enjoyed this little analysis and you can catch the film before it leaves Amazon, but I am sure it will be back – shortly!
(1) Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York, (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).
(2) The Rosine Association, Reports and Realities From the Sketch-Book of a Manager of the Rosine Association December 1855, (Philadelphia: John Duross, Printer, Black Horse Alley, 1855).; Lori D. Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States, (Connecticut: Yale University, 1990).
(3) Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992).; Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformation in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era, (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
(4) Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York, (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).
(5) Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).