Film & TV

Sexual Exploitation Goes Both Ways

Support the Girls (Magnolia Pictures)
Feminist comedy movie Support the Girls lacks structure but makes up for it with substance.

A feminist comedy about Hooters seems to promise the special kind of excruciation that one can normally expect to find only in an extra huffy Jezebel post. Yet Support the Girls, a film that briefly appeared in theaters last August and is now streaming on Hulu, manages to be endearing and sweet. It’s a film about sexual exploitation that understands how taking advantage goes both ways.

Support the Girls, which stars an impressive Regina Hall as the manager of a sports bar called Double Whammies, drolly considers the plight of women playing highly sexualized roles. Lisa, played by Hall, gets to work fully clothed, but her barmaids and waitresses wear half shirts, short shorts, and tall boots as they serve up suds and smiles to a crowd of sports-loving men.

Lisa is one of those born problem-solvers who calmly handles a series of mini-crises over the course of a single hectic but not atypical day, building up to what is expected to be a busy evening at the bar, when a boxing match is due to air. That’s if the TVs are working, but at the moment they aren’t. Someone tried to rob the place overnight but in the process got stuck in a shaft overhead and dislodged the cable TV wires. He remains trapped there, moaning meekly, while Lisa interviews new applicants and awaits the police.

She walks them (and us) through the basic rules: be responsible, be friendly, be sexy. If anyone gropes you, the matter tends to get dealt with instantly: A lot of the customers are cops, and they’re protective. “We are mainstream,” Lisa keeps insisting, pointing out that there’s a big difference between this joint and strip clubs. Implied but not stated is that the women of Double Whammies are in a predicament not so different from workplaces that aren’t named after breasts: Being cute and flirty (but carefully policing boundaries) is part of the game you play if you want to get ahead.

That game can be a bit tiring, but also a bit fun: When one of her waitresses goes slightly mad and runs over her boyfriend’s leg with a car (this incident also seems like the kind of thing that happens all the time), Lisa decides to repurpose a common practice at the tavern — a car wash in which girls cavort in the spray — to raise money for the girl’s anticipated legal bills. The establishment’s surly owner (James LeGros), who frets about incipient competition from an about-to-open rival establishment called “Man Cave,” is to be kept in the dark about this guy-manipulation disguised as girl-exploitation.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, who for 15 years has been getting a great deal of attention from critics but not so much from audiences. Bujalski’s films (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Computer Chess) tend to be loose, talky, ultra-low-budget quasi-documentaries about small groups of friends or colleagues. Support the Girls has a characteristic lack of structure but makes up for it with more substance than usual: an amusingly balanced take on what our friends on the left call sexual politics. The guys of Double Whammies want ego gratification; the girls want big tips. Both sides are willing participants. Lisa reproaches a girl who rubs herself all over the windshield of a car during the car wash. “She’s making sick money, though,” notes another girl. If anything, given the presence of those cops, it’s the guys in the bar who are playthings, victims. They’re in the throes of a hopeless, hormonal lust — to watch other men playing sports. The girls are just eye snacks to be consumed during the commercial breaks. The main value they offer the men is to make them feel like men. As Lisa devastatingly puts it when talking to her depressed husband, “Sad dudes is my business.”

The film is fond rather than outraged, suggesting that the oft-told story of male oppressors and innocent female victims is far more nuanced, even at an establishment that is overt about sexual attractiveness being part of the business plan. (The girls are employed as entertainers, which is why it’s okay not to hire fat ones, the owner explains.) It’s my somber duty to inform you (full disclosure!) that this film was on Barack Obama’s best-of-2018 list, but don’t let that put you off; only in the last few minutes does it preach a bit, with a strained “Yasss Queen” message. For the most part it’s a canny, sophisticated, well-observed workplace comedy.

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