Hosting the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony, Whoopi Goldberg crackedjokes about the range of roles available to women in the films produced through the preceding year: Paul Verhoeven’s critically berated Showgirls (‘I haven’t seen that many poles mistreated since World War II’), Sharon Stone as gangster wife (and former prostitute) in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (nominated), Elisabeth Shue as a prostitute in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (nominated) and Mira Sorvino who won Best Supporting Actress for her role as a prostitute in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.1 There is no little irony in the fact that Susan Sarandon took the Best Actress award for 1996 with her role as a nun, another indicative archetype, in Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins). This was doubly ironic, perhaps, since one of Whoopi Goldberg’s biggest hits of recent years was as Deloris Van Cartier, a Las Vegas lounge singer who masquerades as a nun in her flight from mobster boyfriend, Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel), in Sister Act (1992). The enthusiasm with which popular culture recycles these limitations as comedy is evident in The First Wives Club in which Elise Eliot (Goldie Hawn) explains to her plastic surgeon that ‘there are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy’. Goldberg’s ironic barbs may serve to alert us to some immediate propositions about the status of women in contemporary American films. First, that the foregrounding of sexuality as exchange remains as central as it has ever been in the popular cinema’s representation of women, with the figure of the female prostitute (whether romanticised or situated as abject) functioning in an archetypal fashion as both symbol and symptom of a gendered, classed and raced hierarchy. Further, that the prostitute is an overdetermined space within Hollywood representations. She exceeds her various incarnations of ‘tart with a heart’, streetwalker, flapper and so on, in the process acquiring a significance that extends beyond a literal sexual/economic exchange. The prostitute’s work involves the sale of sex for cash. Across a variety of popular genres, Hollywood representation is characterised by an insistent equation between working women, women’s work and some form of sexual(ised) performance. Thus the caricature or the stereotype of the prostitute, whose physical labour is manifestly bound up with sex, signifies only one point on a continuum which extends across legal thrillers and crime movies into the paranoid scenarios of office politics. The

equation which popular cinema/popular culture has forged between women’swork and sexual display or performance functions here as a starting point for a broader analysis of gender, class and ‘race’ in the contemporary cinema.