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"Pretty Woman is a fairy tale in which a prostitute with a heart of gold is redeemed by the love and marriage of a respectable young man. Risky Business rejects almost every word of that premise."
Risky Business opened in 1983, and it features, more or less, all of the hallmarks of an 80’s slasher flick. Ominous synthesizers, empty streets, shadowed faces, terrifying phone calls, autumn leaves skittering across the front lawn. Also, there is a preponderance of teenagers. And a confusion of sex and death and guilt.
Early in the film, when Joel (Tom Cruise) calls a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), he sits in a dark room, his face slashed by a curtain of streetlight. The phone rings. Joel sweats. He pulls over his face the mask of a baseball catcher. When Lana finally answers, Joel shares with her--beneath this guise of a sport beloved for its pastoral dreams of innocence--the true nature of his desire.
The story of Risky Business will remind one of many a cinematic romp of teenage lust. Joel’s parents have left him alone for the weekend, and one of his friends decides to order a prostitute for him. When the prostitute shows up, Joel freaks out—both due to his aforementioned terror of sex and because the prostitute turns out to be a transgender woman (or perhaps a man in drag). They give Joel the number of Lana. “This is what you want,” they say. “This is what every white boy off the lake wants.” Joel pays them for their time and for a cab home. He attempts then to imagine having sex with a neighborhood babysitter, only to be interrupted, in his own imagination, by the arrival of his parents, her parents, and a cavalcade of cops with guns trained on him, the boy who dared even dream of tarnishing with his desires the purity of a such a sweet, young girl. Joel can’t even imagine having sex with a girl! At least one with parents. At least one with feelings about the situation one way or another which you might, because you are a sensitive boy, have to care about. This is what leads Joel to call Lana. Perhaps, this can be taken care of with money. Perhaps the exchange of money will transforms sex into a business transaction. And if it’s a business, then feelings don’t enter into it.
Here’s a fun fact about me. As a teenager, I found it very difficult to fantasize about, and in particular masturbate to, any of the real girls that I actually knew in real life. Pop stars? Movie stars? Scrambled porn stars on Playboy TV? Not so much of a problem. I’m not sure if at the time I ever articulated to myself what precisely was the nature of my problem. Now, it seems obvious. if you imagine sex, or your desires to have sex, as something horrible and wrong and degrading—something difficult for many of us to avoid growing up, as we do, in a society constructed on a framework of patriarchy and misogyny and other such problematic doodads—then, if you possess any amount of empathy, you will most likely find yourself capable of imagining having sex with only such people as those whose feelings you don’t have to care about—those you consider as more or less than real. One can accomplish this trick by fantasizing, as I most often did, about girls on television. Or one can accomplish the trick, as I did most rarely and always with regret, by imagining a real girl that you really know to be, in one manner or another, made dirty enough for sex. This is the misogyny of sensitive boys.
Over the course of their time together, Lana convinces Joel that a cool thing to do would be to connect their friends and make a little cash. Joel has this big empty house and all of these horny friends with savings bonds. She has no house and all of these friends willing to have sex with all of his horny friends in exchange for their saving bonds. Joel, as a member of his school’s young entrepreneur’s club recognizes the value in this proposition. But, he can’t shake the sense that it is, in some way, wrong.
You could describe Risky Business as having a cast primarily comprised of boys and prostitutes, and you would not be wrong in this description. The thing about this thing is, though, that I don’t think the film is unaware of the ridiculousness of this situation. While it may appear on the surface to resemble the earlier Porky’s, or the later American Pie, in its depiction of horny teenagers, I don’t think Risky Business is really in the same business of those films. Where they trade, for the most part, in recognizable commodities, this film trades, for the most part, in the shadowy bonds of satire and the grotesque. It delights in the wickedness of its morals, as do we, precisely because of its honesty about them.
It is fascinating to compare this film, I think, to a very different sort film which, nonetheless, also puts prostitution at the center of its narrative. Pretty Woman stars Julia Roberts as a prostitute with a heart of gold. It is designed to be her film in a way that Risky Business is not designed to be Rebecca de Mornay’s film. For all the ways, though, in which the romance of Pretty Woman may turn on Richard Gere learning to accept Roberts for who she really is, rather than who he wants her to be, you cannot escape the fact that at the end of the film he shows up in a white limo, a knight in shining armor, to rescue her from her life. Pretty Woman is a fairy tale in which a prostitute with a heart of gold is redeemed by the love and marriage of a respectable young man. Risky Business rejects almost every word of that premise. For all its foibles, this film does not believe Lana is ever in need of rescue (well, except for those moments in which her life is in actual mortal peril). It does not imagine that there is anything in particular wrong with prostitution. Or, for that matter, with business. Like all the best satires, its main subject are those hypocrisies, and those people, which work to imagine the world as anything more, or less, than it is.