Personal Services (1987) is a comedy-drama directed by Terry Jones.
The DVD I had begins with text that says “This film is a fiction. The author’s inspiration was a book about Cynthia Payne. However the events recorded in the film and the characters who appear in it are wholly fictitious. This is not the life story of Cynthia Payne.” This is a bit disingenuous, as Payne, a notorious UK madam, is listed in the credits as “Consultant.”
Cynthia Payne, excuse me, “Christine Painter” is introduced as a struggling single mother, working as a cafe waitress while subletting flats to sex workers. After giving a handjob to her landlord in lieu of rent, she quits her waitress job and moves into managing sex workers full time. Christine and her comrades decide to specialize in kink. “The future lies in kinky people,” says Morton, a client who becomes an assistant of sorts to Christine.
At first, Christine is not particularly good at her job. She doesn’t know the jargon, she can’t keep a straight face during fantasy scenes, and she dozes off while a client is in heavy bondage. Shirl, one of her workers, has the best grasp of playing female authority figures to submissive/masochistic men. Christine’s approach to kink is basically capitalist: she doesn’t have to understand it to make money from it. It’s a market niche.
What gets lost in this story is women as desiring subjects. “What’s sex ever done for me? Up the duff at sixteen,” says Christine. We get a few of Christine’s fantasies, which always feature signifiers of upper-class identity: luxurious rooms in penthouse suites, elegant suits and gowns. While she does date a man she finds attractive, she stands him up because she’s busy looking after her clients, including doing a counseling session for her landlord who has been breaking in and wearing her lingerie.
In one scene, over coffee, Shirl pigeonholes men by their kinks to Christine, just by looking at them.
Shirl: “Most men don’t like sex that much. Can’t wait to get it over.”
Christine: “They’re only after one thing. If they didn’t want it, we’d be out of a job.”
Shirl: “I didn’t say ‘want’, Christine, I said ‘like’. I said they didn’t like it.”
Sex, at least for hetero men, is a need that requires women to manage.
After one of her parties, Christine serves tea, poached eggs and toast to the men seated around her kitchen table. Is she doing the same job she did as a waitress, just charging a lot more?
This woman-as-caretaker gets into an uncomfortable, bordering on incestuous situation when Christine’s teenage son David has his birthday and her “present” for him is a woman in lingerie named Carol. (In the 1980s, the age of consent in the UK was 16, which makes it slightly better.) Moments later in the same scene, Christine’s father drops by and reluctantly admits that “Your father needs a woman.” Her solution is to send him to Carol too, only moments after seeing David. It’s as if being a good madam also makes her a good daughter and mother.
The climax of the film is a Christmas house party for her clients, with the house packed with sex workers. Christine has created a community space for pleasure and expression of divergent gender identities. The convivial atmosphere ends when the police (whom Christine resisted when they pressured her) raid the establishment.
In the police station, Christine monologs about her philosophy:
“If the wives were willing, I’d be out of a job, wouldn’t I? They go off sex. Rather sell Tupperware.”
“Sex soon goes out of a marriage. I’m a bit old fashioned, really. I believe in marriage. Men are animals, sexually. They don’t talk a bit of sense until you’ve got them despunked. Women are more affectionate. They like a bit of affection. Though I’ve met a few horny buggers in my time. The wife wants a three-piece suite. If she gave the man sex, he might be more inclined to come across with the three-piece suite. It may not be a fashionable thing to say, but once you’ve got him despunked, and he’s sitting there thinking he’s all wonderful, done you a good turn, given you a pair of soggy knickers, in the afterglow of his glory, he’s more likely to come across with a Dralon three-piece, don’t you think?”
“I’m responsible, not the men. You can’t expect the men to be responsible. When the balls are full, the brain is empty.”
Called before the court, Christine sees that the head judge is one of her clients. From her point of view, she sees him in his wig and robes, then in his schoolboy uniform and cap. This representative of the state is just another overgrown boy in need of nurturing, whom she can control.
In other words: maternity = sexual/emotional labor = material goods = social status and security. Women as desiring sexual subjects aren’t a part of that equation. No mention of what women are supposed to do for their sexual or emotional satisfaction.
Danielle J Lindemann’s book Dominatrix discusses the problems of the “healing” narrative of explaining and justifying pro dommes. Not only does this pathologize kinky people as in need of healing, it also puts a lot of pressure on dominatrixes to be caretakers instead of service workers trying to survive economically. Personal Services allays Christine’s mercenary, blunt and domineering qualities by presenting her core as maternal, a proper woman. I.e. an asexual caretaker of men.
One of the themes of Personal Services is the difficulty of putting a dominant woman in a romance plotline, and we will return to this point in other films.