Frisky Rant: “Walk Of Shame”‘s Problematic Plot Shames Sex Workers & Drug Addicts For Cheap Laughs
Oh, I wanted to like “Walk Of Shame.” I wanted to love it. What’s not to love about a movie starring Elizabeth Banks, Gillian Jacobs and Tig Notaro? I was ready for a hilarious rom-com starring several of my favorite funny ladies.
Instead, in the screening room, I sat next to my friend who runs IndieWire’s Women And Hollywood blog and we spent the entire moving grabbing each other’s arm in the dark and incredulously whispering, “This is so fucking offensive.” And not edgy-funny-offensive. Like, ew-offensive.
Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, where do I start? (Spoilers ahead, obviously…)
Meghan Miles (Elizabeth Banks) is an uptight local news reader with bouncy hair and sparkling white teeth in the manner of Kelly Ripa. She’s up for a prestigious anchor position with a national news network, which is a job she really wants. But suddenly our heroine comes home from work one day to learn her fiance has abruptly moved out — and while she’s sobbing on the couch, she gets a phone call from her producer saying the national news network is leaning towards a different candidate. That’s when Meghan’s girl friends shove her into a slutty dress and take her out to da clurb to Lemondrop-shot away these white girl problems.
At da clurb, Meghan gets promptly schwasted and has a meet-cute with an adorable bartender, Gordon (
Jason James Marsden). He drives her car to his apartment and they bump uglies. A groggy Meghan wakes up early the next morning and can’t find her cell phone in Gordon’s apartment (and is also terrified of his pet cat, for some reason). When she dials her voicemail from Gordon’s landline, Meghan learns that the national news network may have changed their minds within a span of, like, nine hours and are in fact coming to the studio that day to check her out. Meghan rushes out of Gordon’s apartment, accidentally leaving her cell phone behind, only to learn that her car has been towed. And her purse is in her car. Now she can’t get back inside the building because Gordon lives in a huge complex and she doesn’t remember his last name. So, Meghan decides she has to obtain her car from the impound lot and head straight to work.
Thus begins Meghan Miles’ trek across greater Los Angeles — still wearing her slutty dress from the night before, without her wallet or cell phone — to an impound lot. It’s a funny, if convoluted, premise but I was willing to give a female-starring screwball comedy the benefit of the doubt.
Instead, I found myself repeatedly disgusted by the movie’s treatment of sex workers, Black people, and its racist conflation of both groups as drug addicts. And I’m genuinely disappointed by all of this.
Much of the comedic premise of the “Walk Of Shame” hinges on everyone mistaking Meghan Miles, who is running around town in a hot little yellow bodycon dress, for a sex worker. (“Whore” and “prostitute” and “crackhead whore” are the actual words they use in the movie.) She gets picked up by a gross taxi driver, who misunderstands her directions and takes her to a strip club, where he assumes she works. When he demands that Meghan give him four lap dances in exchange for the free ride (she doesn’t have her purse, remember), I got a sinking feeling in my stomach that this was heading into Sexual Assault Territory. Meghan tricks him into thinking she’ll give him two lap danes, then bolts from the car. I wasn’t sure what to think of that scene. I wouldn’t give lap dances to a gross taxi driver either, but not because I think they’re are degrading: a taxi driver driving a customer to the wrong location and then insisting he get paid in sex work instead of money is illegal.
In “Walk Of Shame”‘s most probably-true-to-life scene, Meghan runs into a bunch of actual sex workers who are soliciting clients under a bridge. Somewhat cluelessly, Meghan runs up to the cars, insisting she’s not a sex worker and asking the men to give her a ride —which of course, gets her rebuffed and the men drive away. The actual sex workers are getting pissy at her. Unbeknownst to Meghan, two police officers (both male) are watching this entire thing. After a minor debate about whether to stop the woman in the yellow dress from causing a scene — one of the cops is happy to leave the sex workers alone, as long as they stay under a bridge — they decide to hassle Meghan and scare her off. When the cops approach Meghan, she is grateful that someone can finally help her get to the impound lot. She starts to try to tell them about her horrific taxi cab situation. Instead, the police scream in her face about how she’s degrading herself and threaten her with arrest. Despite being set up for comedic effect, I imagine this scene is not much different from what happens to sex workers — or women/trans folks perceived to be sex workers by the police — in real life EVERY DAMN DAY. And also probably-true-to-life, Meghan spends the rest of the movie hiding from these two cops.
Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to the crackhouse scene yet.
Meghan runs from the cops straight to a Black man on the street corner, whom she assumes to be a drug dealer. They talk, but when they hear police sirens in the distance, she follows him into a crackhouse where a bunch of other Black men are holed up. These aren’t just any Black dudes, though; they are stereotypes. Scary Black Men Who Are Drug Dealers, to be more specific. These guys also think Meghan is a “crack whore” because of how she’s dressed and she spends a good deal of time explaining that she’s not a sex worker . She ends up calling her ex-fiance and begging him to pick her up from the “crackhouse,” which he rather coldly refuses to do. Instead, she is trapped with these drug dealers/addicts, but it’s all well and good in the end because she finds out they’re actually really nice guys. (She even gets a gift of vial of crack for the road.)
There are other squicky, uncomfortable moments in “Walk Of Shame” — Meghan is accused by a lustful Hasidic Jew of being a “temptress,” a tween boy agrees to give her his bike if Meghan shows him her boobs — but after the sex worker and crack den scenes, I had pretty much sent my funny bone home for the night. It was truly hard to parse apart what was actually humorous and what was offensive, stereotypical and stupid . To the movie’s credit, there is a righteous, feminist speech at the end of the movie when Meghan declares she won’t feel ashamed about her walk of shame and, of course, realizes that she doesn’t need to be a national news anchor to be happy. Yet it’s not enough to counter the deeply anti-sex work, and deeply racist, parts of the movie — which took up most of it.
I’m not denying that there aren’t problems associated with sex work or that Los Angeles doesn’t have a drug/crack addict problem. I just don’t happen to think that jokes about a privileged, fish-out-of-water white woman rubbing elbows with these undesirables are funny. “Walk Of Shame”‘s angle on sex positivity is also really, really weird: Meghan is proud to have a one night stand, but spends the whole goddamned movie insisting she’s not an actual “whore.” (Which is actually pretty realistic — I’ve had plenty of personal experience, in fact, with men assuming that because I am unabashedly sexual that I must be a “slut” or a “whore” who is down for anything, all the time.) Throughout the film, Meghan repeatedly refers to herself as a “good girl” — mostly in reference to employer background checks on her, which she promises won’t turn up any nudie pics from her past. Meghan is extremely attractive and definitely owns her sexuality: she wears a hot dress and sexy heels, dances at the club, and goes home with an attractive guy. Yet she keeps having to insist that background checks won’t dig up any dirt on her and it is implied that the dirt they’re looking for is explicitly sexual. While I understand that Meghan calls herself a “good girl” because, by the end of the movie, she is going to learn there is no such thing as a “good girl” (character development!), I still found the use of that phrase really annoying. The “good girl” sub-plot was, to me, a reminder that our society much prefers women who look sexual than women who actually are sexual. Insulting and other-ing women who are “whores” by saying we are not like them, we are acceptably sexual, is perpetuating “whore stigma.” That’s not a sex positive or feminist thing to do at all.
In conclusion, this movie is pretty terrible. Elizabeth Banks, I love you, but I was so, so disappointed in “Walk Of Shame.”