Godless Makes An Excellent Point About Sex Work

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
In Netflix's Godless, a six-part miniseries that premiered November 23, Callie Dunn (Tess Frazer) is one of maybe 50 women who live in La Belle, a town almost entirely populated by women. The circumstances are tragic — the men of the town died in a mining accident, leaving the wives to operate the town all on their own. Callie is the resident school teacher, and a nascent love interest for Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever). She's also the richest woman in town because she used to be a sex worker.
"I'd always been a whore," she tells J.J. Valentine (Christopher Fitzgerald), a prospector who's interested in La Belle's mines. After the accident, though, her place of work closed. Lack of men will do that to brothel.
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The sex worker is a stand-by in westerns. Normally, she's an accessory to the protagonists, who are usually men. And what are all those cowboys to do with that raw manly power, besides use it to shoot up the local town? True to form, Godless gives us a sex worker, but she's not an accessory. She's retired, and, financially speaking, she's the most powerful woman in the narrative, which makes sense. In the lawless west (the show takes place in Colorado and New Mexico), there's not much a woman could do to earn her own money. Even Mary Agnes, the widow of the town's late mayor, is at a loss for funds. But Callie is sitting pretty on almost $20,000 (almost half a million in today's dollars). In Godless, the sex worker is just as powerful as J.J. Valentine. It's a sweet script-flip for the genre — Callie might have been a victim of circumstance at some point, but when the show's timeline begins, she's an agent.
When Callie Dunne is first introduced in the show, she's straightforward and aloof. Where the rest of the townswomen seem anxious, Callie is cool. See: Her response to J.J. Valentine's inquiry about her line of work. Had she always wanted to be a schoolteacher? Nah, she was a sex worker for most of her life. Now, she's a school teacher. What about it?
The show positions Mary Agnes as the obvious leader of La Belle. For starters, she's the only woman who wears pants. She's much more surly than the rest of the women characters — like Michelle Dockery's Alice Fletcher, Mary Agnes is doing everything she can to survive.
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But she's still not as powerful as Callie. Because, money.
"Let me take care of you," Callie begs Mary Agnes in the third episode. She reveals her impressive savings and offers to run away with Mary Agnes. When Mary Agnes looks surprised, Callie responds, "Don't you know? Whores are always the richest people in town."
Mary Agnes might have the political power, but Callie's got the financial prowess. And, so long as capitalism prevails, money wins! When the dust clears in Godless, you want to be on Callie Dunn's covered wagon.
Later, Callie drives the same point home with Alice Fletcher, who comes by the school looking for a primer. She tells Alice that as a sex worker, she made $200 a month. And, she's bankrolling half of the businesses in town, all of which lost of a lot of patronage with the accident. An important plot point involves Alice Fletcher selling 50 horses to the women of La Belle for $4,300; it's Callie's money that makes this exchange possible.
Callie's continuous talk about the value of sex work — "There's more words for 'whore' than there are for 'doctor' and 'lawyer,'" she tells Alice — can come across as a defense at times. She's aware of the stigma she has to surmount. So, she talks up the pros of her former profession. The other characters always look blandly surprised at the news of Callie's money. In this world, there's not a lot that can surprise a person.
Callie is one among a lot of three-dimensional sex worker characters that appeared on television in the past two years. Between The Deuce, The Girlfriend Experience, and Westworld, sex workers have enjoyed rich, textured portrayals that have been pretty rare as of yet. These shows have allowed women to take back their stories. The Deuce's Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) owns her narrative by getting behind the camera to make her own pornography. Maeve (Thandie Newton) on Westworld literally stabs her way out of her "loop," and Christine (Riley Keough) uses sex work to pay her way through law school. Sex work is increasingly a way for women to be autonomous, at least on television.
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Godless just happens to be the show that's most explicit about the connection between sex work and power. In a world where women have almost no power — welcome to Colorado, there are no laws — sex work is one of the few avenues to stability. Thanks to her past endeavor, Callie Dunn doesn't need a man; that's something she makes very clear throughout the series. She just needs Mary Agnes, a building, and a place to teach kids.
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