The Big Penny Pussy Sale: White Patriarchy and the Rhetoric of the Hollywood Fancyman
I am bothered that the term pimp has crept into our common vernacular as a seemingly benign adjective that refers to a keen sense of style or one’s ability to attract and exploit women. It seems we have collectively forgotten that pimps are involved in the commodification of women, and the dark underbelly of this commodification which is physical abuse, drug addiction, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, rape, and violence. While the term has undergone transmutation in the fashion and extreme sports industries, among others, I believe a fair share of culpability lies with popular media industries, particularly the Hollywood film industry which carefully sanitizes the pimp. In the following essay, I briefly characterize the various functions of pimps and their relationship to prostitutes and contend that the images and contexts presented by Hollywood cater to the ideology of white heterosexual patriarchy, reaffirm a supposed white male sex right, and ultimately venerate the pimp.
The process of commodifying women is the most essential function of the pimp, and it is his economic gain from this act that takes precedence over all other incentives. The comic pimp Chet Pussy, played by Cheech Marin in the film From Dusk Till Dawn, provides audiences with a memorable insight into the centrality of the economic relationship between pimp and prostitute. The audience's only exposure to Chet as a pimp takes place outside of a bar named the Titty Twister. In the scene, Marin stands on the bar steps shouting:
Pussy, pussy, pussy! All pussy must go. At the Titty Twister we're slashing pussy in half! This is a pussy blow out! Make us an offer on our vast selection of pussy! We got white pussy, black pussy, Spanish pussy, yellow pussy, hot pussy, cold pussy, wet pussy, tight pussy, big pussy, bloody pussy, fat pussy, hairy pussy, smelly pussy, velvet pussy, silk pussy, Naugahyde pussy, snappin' pussy, horse pussy, dog pussy, mule pussy, fake pussy! If we don't have it, you don't want it!
A few moments later, he adds:
Take advantage of our penny pussy sale. Buy any piece of pussy at our regular price, you get another piece of pussy, of equal or lesser value, for a penny. Now try and beat pussy for a penny!Obviously, Chet Pussy makes use of common rhetorical sales devices, and could as easily be slashing the price in half on a television or selling two-for-one cell phones--underscoring both the commodification and commercial exploitation of the female body that takes place regularly in media. By reducing women to mere genitals with exchange value this scene further dehumanizes women. All the while, Marin’s recognizable face and exaggerated spanglish makes it all seem so harmless and comic.
Beyond commodification the role of the pimp is to underwrite the exchange of women. According to contract theorist Carole Pateman "The pimp stands outside of the contract between client and prostitute, just as the state stands outside, but regulates and enforces the marriage and employment contract" (209). In this scenario the pimp is reduced to a regulatory agent. Indeed, in some definitions a pimp is identified as one who serves as a protector and contract enforcer. Harvey Keitel's character in the film Taxi Driver is one such pimp. Unlike Chet Pussy, Sport, the character played by Keitel, is not laughable--though he is friendly in the way a used car salesman is friendly. The audience first sees Sport standing in the doorway of a building, his arms are bulging and he is smiling. He banters jokingly with the main character, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), and then approves Travis as valid customer. No money is exchanged directly with Sport. Instead, it is given to an old man who charges Bickle for the room.
Sport is an essential agent of the transaction; without his approval the sexual transaction would not take place. According to Irigaray, "the production of women, signs, and commodities is always referred back to men (when a man buys a girl, he ‘pays’ the father or the brother not the mother. . . ), and they always pass from one man to another, from one group of men to another" (171). Of course, some women make efforts to escape their position as commodities and seek to become possessors of their own bodies as commodities—like hourly factory workers. They do this by "reproducing, by copying, the 'phallocratic' models that have the force of law today" (Irigaray 191). That is, in order to participate in a phallocentric discourse community, women are forced to either speak as a sexualized male or as asexualized beings (148). This is the case of self-pimping prostitutes such as Julia Roberts’s character Vivian in the film Pretty Woman.
In this role, Vivian seems at first to defy our analysis of the pimp. Foremost, she does not have a pimp, nor is there a prominent character in the film that acts as a pimp (with the brief exception of a pimp/drug dealer viewers see early in the film). This is explained by Roberts's character in one early scene in the film. Her friend and roommate Kit, who is also a prostitute, suggests, "Maybe we should get a pimp. Carlos likes you and.." to which Vivian replies, "Forget it. We work for it. We keep it." As the film progresses we see that Vivian, as Irigaray suggests, appropriates the language of phallocentrism and becomes her own pimp. She clearly makes her own sexual contracts and takes initiative in soliciting her own customers. Unfortunately, as Pateman and Irigaray have pointed out, this is not the accepted patriarchal norm. As a result the lewd and antagonistic character Mr. Stucky, played by Jason Alexander, challenges Vivian.
Stucky, after discovering that Vivian is a prostitute, boldly comments to her that he would like to get together with her when she is done with Edward, the character played by Richard Gere. Uncomfortable, Vivian excuses herself from the situation. Later in the film, Stucky attacks Vivian as if it were his right because she is a prostitute--like a man trying to tame a wild woman who has no master. Because she fails to continue to be her own pimp and does not submit to the authority of Gere's character as boyfriend/pimp, she is threatened to be subsumed by another man who desires to posses her as commodity, and in essence become her pimp. Nonetheless, as both pimp and prostitute we all love Julia Roberts and ignore the (ridiculous) underlying myth that women are empowered by prostitution.
The race and ethnicity of a pimp are equally significant in filmic representations, take for example the character played by Tom Cruise in the 1983 film Risky Business. In this film, Cruise plays high school senior and member of the Future Enterprisers club, Joel Goodson—note the name. Unlike his other classmates Joel does not want to simply make money. Instead, he says that what he wants most is to, "Serve fellow mankind." No doubt, this fits well with some of the classic definitions of the pimp. Notably, this movie also places an important emphasis on the adolescent male desire to use sex as a right of passage from boyhood to manhood, and the money that can be made from the use-value of a woman's body. One night, after failing to perform sexually with a girl in his high school and feeling too guilty to masturbate, Joel decides to call a prostitute. The prostitute named Lana sees the opportunity to capitalize on the young, wealthy, and extremely horny young men that associate with Joel. She proposes to Joel that he use her prostitute friends and his parents' empty house to make some money. Lana, although enterprising enough to suggest the idea, defers the authority to solicit to Joe, as Irigaray would suggest.
In a rapid montage sequence, voiced over by Joel, the audience sees Joel and Lana purchasing mattresses, several prostitutes entering Joel's house, and Joel soliciting clients for the women. Of this operation, he says his friend Barry was the treasurer, Lana was in charge of production, and that he "went into sales." All the while in the background the Muddy Waters song Mannish Boy reverberates "I'm a man. Spelled M-A-N---". The song is aropos given the circumstances of Joel, a High School student, assuming the role of a full-fledged possessor of the phallus and claimant of the male sex right-- he is a Mannish Boy. Like the other, more established pimp in the film, Guido, Joel too dons a suit jacket, sunglasses, and smokes a cigarette. On the night of the final meeting of the clientele with the prostitutes, Joel circulates the crowd like a manager would circulate a restaurant. The movie ends with Joel giving a presentation at Future Enterprisers saying, "My Name is Joel Goodson. I deal in human fulfillment. I grossed $8,000 in one night. The time of your life huh kid?" By the end of the film Joel is a pimp that we love, in fact, most people do not even think of him as a pimp.
Because Tom Cruise is a likeable young upper middle-class entrepreneur with college aspirations, he is a non-threat, and it seems that the appearance of good intentions and a desirable socioeconomic status is significant when it comes to pimping—it makes it acceptable. Moreover, the general lack of dangerous white pimps in the media signals that there is something at stake for the white patriarchy in the body of the pimp. Perhaps society, by ignoring the white pimp, or white-washing him, is in denial of the exchange of women within its ranks and instead conferred this role to men of color, which equally indulges the prejudices of white patriarchy.
In the documentary American Pimp, one pimp comments that pimping is a “business the white man can't control." So, in a particularly fitting hegemonic fashion the minority pimp is co-opted and depicted in such a way that he is no longer a threat--after all, it is particularly uncharacteristic of a prejudiced white society to abdicate the responsibility of ensuring male sex right to minority men. The comic minority pimp is created out of white fear; often times, the minority pimp is so outrageous that he cannot be taken seriously. Many of these minority pimps are similar to the cult icons presented in blaxploitation films such as Dolemite and The Mack. These pimps are caricatured as happy, comically violent, lower class, urban, uneducated men, who wear huge hats, polyester pantsuits, and drive large late model Cadillacs. While these images are troubling, even more troubling is the sad reality that they mask. For white patriarchy, making pimps comic minorities ensures that this barbaric exchange can be safely distanced from them yet still effectively function.
Conversely, it is the non-comic minority pimps who are designed for audiences to hate, and they are killed, jailed, or one-upped in films. For example, Kietel’s character in the film Taxi Driver is white, but ethnic in both appearance and speech, which makes him a minority. The second time the audience meets Sport, Keitel’s first substantial scene in the film, he is wearing a large brimmed hat with a white band running around its base. He has long hair, a fistful of rings, and is wearing a white tank top, commonly referred to as "wife beater." When Travis's initial inclination is to clean up the city by killing a local politician running for office fails, he defaults to the next most sinful being, the pimp. Harvey Keitel's character is the embodiment of not only what Travis Bickle thinks is wrong with the city, but also that which is wrong with humanity. By killing Sport, Travis purges himself of those things that torment his own soul. Even though Sport is the sin which must be purged, this does not mean that as an audience we dislike him. In fact it is all the more reason to identify with him, to feel pity for him, and yet feel purged by his murder.
While contractarian and other feminist informed perspectives can help us better understand the role of the pimp in society, it is the rhetorical aspects of this relationship that are the most insidious. Although moviegoers likely profess to abhor prostitution and dislike pimps, it is unlikely that audiences with passive viewing habits can resist identifying with film pimps who are palatable, even likeable, characters played by actors such as Cheech Marin, Harvey Keitel, Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts. To be sure, not all pimps are portrayed as likeable upper middle class white men or comic minority men, however many are. And, at the same time these pimps entertain audiences, they also reassure men through the rhetorical nature of the representations that their sex right is guaranteed—if only in the fantasy world on the screen.
Nathan Garrelts is an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University where he actively teaches courses on composition, new media, and poetry. His research focuses on media literacy with an emphasis on digital games and film. His book Digital Gameplay was published in 2005 and his book The Culture and Meaning of Grand Theft Auto will be availble Fall/Winter 2006.