Not for little sister

Laurie Penny finds only middle-class male fantasy in Billie Piper's call girl

October 25, 2007
5 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.

The idea of an objective review of any programme which involves Billie Piper’s tremendous behind in an array of black satin shifts is daunting indeed. However, fortunately or unfortunately, ITV2’s The Secret Diary Of A Call Girl is, from its outset, deeply problematic.

The series is an adaptation of the blog and accompanying book by \’Belle De Jour\’, who writes a compelling and frank account of her supposed exploits as a high-class hooker. These are generally positive ones: Belle is a prostitute by her own choice, has no dependencies or addictions, and enjoys sex a great deal. That Belle De Jour’s writing, and ITV’s tie-in programme, do not reflect the experiences of 98 per cent of sex workers is self-evident in a society in which two thirds of sex workers have experienced ‘client violence’, including rape and battery.

Instead, we’re presented with a ‘naughty’ peep into the world of that middle-class male fantasy: the happy hooker. As Billie Piper tells us in the opening episode with a chirpy air-hostess helpfulness, the important thing is to ‘work out what the client wants as fast as you can and give it to him’.

Piper, for all her apparent Jessica Rabbit vacuousness, is an extremely fine actress. However, the former teenage popstrel cannot quite divest herself of the chips-and-peroxide, bubblegum sexuality with which both her music career and her most iconic roles to date, such as Alison in The Miller’s Tale, have been invested. Not even a pantomimic, faux-goth Bettie Page bob and an assortment of exciting black lingerie are enough to shake the spectral cockney tones of chavtastic, pneumatic Rose Tyler (of Doctor Who fame) from Piper’s every sashay.

Every feature that lifted Belle De Jour’s writing from the merely sordid and sensational has been edited out of Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Neither the show itself nor the ubiquitous advertising campaign manage to convey the brooding, self-assured, intelligent sexuality that infuses the blog and tie-in book with a compelling and challenging energy.

I could do that

On billboards and bus-stops across the country, an eight feet-high Piper in, alternately, a rubber mini-dress or a matching thong and push-up bra, is draped across the frame, lazy as a Playboy-bunny: the apotheosis of unchallenging, accommodating sexuality. The caption declares: ‘My body is a big deal.’ What is that even supposed to mean? Clearly, that Belle’s body is important because it is on sale. Hardly a mantra to inspire the teenage girls who will be watching this show in their droves and thinking, ‘I could do that’.

Both Piper and the show’s producers are adamant that they are not trying to represent an industry – merely ‘telling one woman’s story.’ I’m sorry, but that simply doesn’t cut it: as any fule kno, a show with a publicity campaign of this magnitude, with prostitution as its main theme and a sex worker as its eponymous central character, does represent the sex industry – period – whether or not its producers acknowledge the fact.

Significant points of contention from the book have also been smoothed over for television, such as the fact that Belle has a boyfriend who’s privy to her secrets. In Secret Diary of a Call Girl there is an ex who has no idea of her profession – implying that the idea of a sex worker with a fucntional romantic partnership would be just too unorthodox for the popular imagination to handle.

Similarly, the opening plot-arc of The Secret Diary of A Call Girl could hardly be more disheartening. Belle falls for a client, good grief! While it is conceivable that ITV may indeed have the balls to opt out of the inevitable, popularist, cliched Cinderella-story that follows, the seeds of anticipation have already been sown for the handsome prince (in the guise of a city banker paying for sex) rescuing the girl with the mysterious and sinful double life from her wicked ways.

Uncomplicatedly irresponsible

The Secret Diary of a Call Girl is, in fact, uncomplicatedly irresponsible. Producers and commentators who make claims for it as cutting-edge have clearly never watched such genuinely groundbreaking works of cinema as Narizzano’s Georgy Girl (1966) or Lucas Moodysson’s harrowing Lilya 4 Ever (2002). Belle De Jour is a blogger and, ultimately, an autobiographer: she is not writing popular entertainment. ITV2 is, and it does not have the luxury of evading the responsibility that comes with its programming decisions.

The show is over-hyped, plays into worn-out misogynist cliches and unequivocally glamourises and misrepresents the dangerous world of prostitution. That it is ‘one girl’s story’ will probably have little effect on the many vulnerable young women – young women without Belle’s maturity, university education, support network, self-posession and financial safety net – who will, however briefly, watch the show and consider prostitution as a viable career prospect.

I’m not a prude, I’m a liberal, selectively pro-porn feminist, but one thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t like to see my little sister watching it.


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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