Cops and robbers may never get old, but robbers and robbers are just more fun. In Boardwalk Empire’s prohibition-era Atlantic City our robbers against robbers come in all forms: politicians, bootleggers, showgirls, mafiosos, and murderers. And perhaps the mightiest robber of them all, the whore.
Whore is defined as:
- “A prostitute”
- “A person considered sexually promiscuous.”
- “To associate or have sexual relations with prostitutes or a prostitute.”
- And my personal favorite, “To compromise one’s principles for personal gain.”
Any of the characters could fall within these confines. Why were only the women on the show branded with such a title?
Without devolving into my own series of jaded feminist clichés, I turned to a dear friend who, as luck would have it, starred as a show girl in none other than Boardwalk Empire.
1) Do you consider your character a whore? And why?
Not necessarily: When I was playing my character, I never felt like a prostitute. In my mind, the role of a showgirl was more of a performance art than a sex act. Showgirls represented idealized beauty – not just sex objects. In our first episode, the showgirls’ presentation was partly inspired by Renaissance paintings—I remember being shown a picture of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. In fact, because we were wearing so little, we were told to not move during our ‘performance’ because that would be considered vulgar to our 1920s audience; instead we pretended to be Roman statues.
Showgirls were expected to have a degree of class and self-respect on the job. They may even represent an idealized sexual fantasy of sorts, but that is where their job ends. Additionally, the costumes and headdresses were so elaborate, with wigs and heavy makeup, that it made it easy to keep the showgirl persona separate from who the character was off-duty. I feel that my character could keep her job as a showgirl and her principles – as long as she left her performance on the stage. Some showgirls did, some did not.
2) Historically the show is set at a pivotal moment in the first wave of the women’s movement, do you see a connection between this moment in time and the presentation of women in the show?
Yes, clearly the show is trying to make a point of this. If you look at Margaret Schroeder – she allowed herself to be used to a certain degree by Nucky Thompson in order provide for her and her family. Her case seems to represent the scenario of a lot of women at that time: unable to financially support themselves (or their children), they were dependent on their male counterparts for survival (or luxury), and were thus forced to “whore” themselves out to varying degrees.
At the end of the season, Margaret has a moral crisis regarding her relationship with Nucky. Among other things, she no longer wants to be the “dependent whore.” After leaving for a time, she realizes her own political power and social value to Nucky. Because of this, she decides to join (and use) him in his own game.
You defined earlier, to whore is “to compromise one’s principles for personal gain.” This would make both the whore and the pimp, whores. It also makes me wonder – is Margaret still compromising her values, just at a higher level in the whore-ladder? Or did her principles simply change?
3) Do you view all the women featured in the show as sex workers?
The show definitely portrays them all as sex workers – but what does this really mean? In the 1920s, women had very few options as far as self-sustaining work. Women were not expected to be much more than housewives. In this sense, even a housewife could be considered a sex-worker– but does being a sex-worker make her a whore? If being a complacent wife was considered the norm, then I doubt these women would think they were compromising their values.
4) Anything else you feel is important to viewing the women featured on the show?
This leads me to wonder again – how our financial options and our personal principles are related. As our social and financial options increase, we have the luxury of being more “moral” in the way we act. Can we really call the homeless mother of two a whore, if her only option for shelter is to hook up with another man?