In mid-December, Anne Hathaway appeared on the Today Show on NBC with Matt Lauer. Anne Hathaway has played a variety of roles in her career, including Princess Mia in The Princess Diaries, Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and most recently Fantine in Les Misérables. Appearing with Matt Lauer in order to promote her role as Fantine, Lauer opened with this comment: “We’ve seen a lot of you lately.”
Of course we’ve seen her a lot, she’s had many roles this year. However, Lauer was not referring to her accomplishments. He was referring to an incident that happened during the premiere of Les Misérables.
On December 10th, Anne Hathaway appeared in a dress with a thigh-high slit at the film’s New York premiere. As she exited the vehicle, she accidentally flashed her lower genitals to the paparazzi. Not missing a beat, photos were snapped and made the rounds on the Internet.
“Well, it was obviously an unfortunate incident … It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment, and rather than delete it and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis, because that’s what the character [Fantine] is. She is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child because she has nothing and there’s no social safety net so yeah—let’s get back to Les Mis.”
Some of Hathaway’s comments were positive. For one, I agree with part of her statement. I think that living in a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants is negative.
Recently, we have seen an increasing amount of sex-negative sites distributing pictures of people without their permission. Feminspire covered the Creepshots of Reddit earlier this year. Creepshots was a subreddit where people shared secretly taken photos of women without their consent, posted them on the forum, and commented about their appearances. High school hallways often appeared as the backdrop of these photos. Students and even teachers took pictures of underage girls, causing an uproar until Reddit finally stepped in and shut down the subreddit. Although they did finally close the forum (albeit waiting until underage photos were confirmed), other subreddits such as r/candidfashionpolice still exist, posting many of the same images that appeared on Creepshots.
Another unfortunate instance of the commodification of unwilling participants takes place with “revengeporn.” Earlier this year, the website “Is Anyone Up?” was shut down by its creator, Hunter Moore. Is Anyone Up? posted nude images of people, linking to their social media pages in order to shame them further. Reportedly, Hunter Moore is starting a new site to promote revenge porn, the nickname given for submitting nude photos from failed relationships.
These sites are terrible, and Hathaway is right to speak against this culture. However, there are some problems with other comments she has made.
In this statement with Matt Lauer, she says, “[Fantine] is forced to sell sex.” She also comments on sex workers when she speaks about her role for Fantine in another interview:
“So I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world. And to do that, I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery.”
Throughout this interview, she continues to reference sexual slavery and how she became familiar with the stories of people in sexual slavery and human trafficking. There are a few problems with her statements. First, for anyone who has not read or seen Les Misérables, let me explain Fantine’s character.
In the book by Victor Hugo, Fantine is one of four women who are the girlfriends of four male students in France. One day, while they are at a cafe, the four students drive away and leave a note for the four girls, explaining that they are leaving forever. While the other three take it in stride, Fantine is devastated because she is pregnant.
The origin of Fantine is very important to the story as well. She is described as elegant, beautiful, ravishing, and able to captivate a room with her looks and her laughter. However, there are no qualities that describe her intelligence or personality. Later, the reader finds out that she is illiterate, further perpetuating her physical qualities over her intelligence. Even her name is not real. Fantine is a nickname, which is derived from “enfantine,” which means “babes” or “little ones.”
In the book, the female foreman of a factory discovers that Fantine is the mother of an illegitimate child. The foreman looks down on her and fires her. In the musical, they changed it to female factory workers assuming she is a prostitute (because she can’t earn enough money at the factory to care for her daughter). The male foreman (changed) fires her because he agrees that she must be a prostitute, and is angry because Fantine rejected him earlier in the play. If she is a prostitute, he believes that she must owe him sex.
Fired for her purported work as a sex worker, Fantine then sells her teeth, her hair, and finally chooses to become a prostitute in order to make enough money to pay for the living expenses of her daughter Cosette.
Although she cannot obtain another job after being fired, she still chooses (albeit as seemingly a last resort) to become a prostitute. She was not kidnapped and sold into slavery; she is not being trafficked; she is not being forced into prostitution. Anne Hathaway ignorantly lumped sexual slavery, sex trafficking, and sex workers into one group.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as “an act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained l8 years of age (Tiefenbrun, 2004.)” Elements that are usually present to constitute either sexual slavery or human trafficking include, but are not limited to, the following: utilizing coercion, abduction, fraud or deception to gain new people into the trade; physically, emotionally, and/or psychologically abusing the victim. [x]
Sex workers who choose their profession are in no way comparable to people who are trafficked across borders, forced into sexual acts, or forced into rape camps. Yes, Fantine felt that she had no other options, but she was not forced, coerced, bought, or sold into slavery. Also, in all of the interviews I have read, Hathaway only mentions women, specifically younger women and female children, who are victims of sex slavery.
There are many kinds of sex trafficking and human trafficking, including labor trafficking and organ trafficking. Just like there is not one type of trafficking, there is more than one face of it as well. One of the largest populations to suffer from sex trafficking is LGBT youth, particularly LGBT youth of color.
“The National Runaway switchboard estimates that ‘…many [gay identifying homeless teens] get involved with prostitution and other abusive behaviors as a way of surviving.’ Just like young girls who are exploited by pimps and traffickers, gay youth face the paradoxical classification of ‘teen prostitutes’ despite often being under the legal age of consent. Unfortunately, the mentality that they choose to be prostitutes is even more prevalent with gay youth because some groups view their orientation as taboo or perverse.”
By confusing sex workers with sexual slavery, and by erasing entire groups from the picture, Hathaway calls attention to only part of an issue and connects it incorrectly to her film character.
It should be noted that all of us are not perfect. Hathaway is also not perfect. However, it is important to understand the differences between taking a stance against the commodification of unwilling participants in the sexual arena, educating yourself with misconstrued information, and applying it to all people who engage in that lifestyle. A tumblr post by everythingbutharleyquinn says it best:
“No one views street workers as active professionals in a work place. Only as victims, or as scum, or as both – but never whilst offering reasonable substitutions for street work. Which is not to say street workers are out there having a grand old time living the dream, but the fact we nonetheless ARE working and KNOW our business and how to perform it is NEVER respected or acknowledged.”
Fantine is fired because she is suspected to be a prostitute. Being punished for being a sex worker is a message that has transcended generations. Sex workers should be respected. They voluntarily choose to work in these positions. Respecting these choices and fighting against people who are exploited or involuntarily thrust into the sexual arena is of the utmost importance in today’s discourse about sexuality.
Written by Nicole Del Casale
Editor’s Note: As many commenters have pointed out, Fantine’s choice was not free but was at best a last resort (as Nicole depicted it in this article) and at worst coercive and the result of harassment. There was no intent to downplay the seriousness of her circumstances or women in those circumstances, then or today, and we apologize.