The Duality of Sex Work as Shown in ‘Shiva Baby’

(Spoiler warning for major plot points)

Shiva Baby (2021) follows college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) as she traverses intense interactions between her family, her sugar daddy, and her ex-girlfriend. To make things more awkward, this all happens during a Shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual.

While not everyone may relate to the very specific circumstances Danielle finds herself in, they’re sure to empathize with her character on at least one angle. Throughout the film, varying facets of Danielle‘s identity are dissected and chastised. Predominantly, her being a woman, a college student, an LGBT person, and a sugar baby are picked apart. Sometimes these facets of herself overlap and go hand-in-hand with each other. For example, she as a college student is in need of extra money. And so, Danielle turns to sex work as a job. While deemed unconventional, it can pay decently and is relatively accessible for a woman to make income.

A promotional poster for ‘Shiva Baby’.
A promotional poster for ‘Shiva Baby’.

Although in recent times sex work has been glamorized, Shiva Baby displays the unsavory underbelly that may come with the field. It’s great that sex work is becoming less scrutinized, however that doesn’t necessarily mean we should romanticize it. For some, a component of sex work is empowerment. Danielle even admits that’s partially why she started while explaining it to her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon). However, continually she is patronized and taunted both by Maya and her sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari). They take up a condescending tone whilst speaking to Danielle. Maya specifically uses very harsh, slut shaming language towards her ex after she learns what she does. There’s an extra level of venom in her insults as Maya in ways is the antithesis of all of Danielle’s shortcomings (or at least perceived shortcomings by those around her). She has a clearer structured future than Danielle and comes off more charismatic to the interrogating Shiva goers. She is living her life as what’s seen as “correct” way. Maya sets the bar so high that she casts a shadow in which Danielle finds herself ensnared.

Maya and Max’s wife Kim (Dianna Agron) are put on a pedestal by the elders of the group for their ambition and the stability they have. With Danielle, it isn’t as cut and dry, especially with her work. In the film, she uses the guise of “babysitting” as a cover for the money she receives from Max. Whether Danielle fully processes it or not, she knows what would happen if she was honest about where the income comes from. Admitting to being a sugar baby would open her to scorn, further judgement, and violence in the worst cases.

In the sense of liberation, sex work is a double-edged sword. In certain lights it can allow a woman to feel free and have power, but at the same time set her up for harassment and patronization.

Maya (pictured to the left) helping Danielle (pictured to the right) carry trays of food to an elderly attendant’s car. It’s within this scene Danielle opens up to Maya on her reasons for being a sugar baby.
Maya (pictured to the left) helping Danielle (pictured to the right) carry trays of food to an elderly attendant’s car. It’s within this scene Danielle opens up to Maya on her reasons for being a sugar baby.

During its hour and eighteen minute run time, Shiva Baby tackles so much at once outside escorting. It touches on infidelity, anxiety about the future, familial expectations; it’s a lot to absorb. The film juggles all these topics gracefully, capturing them realistically and in-depth. Something intriguing the movie alluded to was the homophobia Debbie (Polly Draper) holds. While making more of an effort than some parents do to be supportive of their child’s sexuallity, she’s far from what healthy support looks like. (Take for example, Lila at the end of her arc in Better Than Chocolate) Debbie might not be outwardly confrontational and upset about her daughter’s queerness, but does take on a passive aggressive tone toward it. She clearly doesn’t take Danielle’s bisexuality seriously and makes a plethora of insensitive comments. Her dismissiveness is even present in the pep talk she gives Danielle while the girl has a mental breakdown. Besides affirming to her that she’ll have a promising job in the future, Debbie also mentions how Danielle will “meet a great man and fall in love,” showing disregard for her daughter’s identity. In that way, the dynamic is true to life, presenting a more nuanced take on modern reactions to queerness than black and white homophobia or utmost acceptance. As a matter of fact, all aspects the film speaks of are presented without clear answers. Just as in real life, there are rarely any concrete rights or wrongs. Instead, there’s various grey amongst a sea of differing opinions and choices people make, so vastly different from person to person. That’s a major reason I appreciate the movie’s take on sex workers. It doesn’t try to moralize the matter, rather represent grittier factors.

Debbie condescendingly dismissing Danielle‘s bisexual orientation, saying she thought her daughter was done “experimenting”.
Debbie condescendingly dismissing Danielle‘s bisexual orientation, saying she thought her daughter was done “experimenting”.

Shiva Baby is a well-made film, but I don’t understand the character’s motivations. Obviously, Danielle is mortified by the revelation Max has a wife and daughter. So why then does she send a topless picture to him (an action that in the film’s pinnacle scene is her undoing) and later attempt to go down on him? Conceivably it was a grasp at power, to still feel in control of the situation? It’s not conveyed clearly enough. This may be the film showing her acting irrationally out of desperation, but I find it unbelievable that someone would genuinely think those actions would end well. It’s not the choices I would personally make in that scenario, so perhaps my take is clouded. It could make more sense than I’m giving it credit for in the eyes of a different viewer.

I rate Shiva Baby an Incluvie score of 5/5! The storyline is woman centered (specifically a Jewish woman), and the main character is bisexual or pansexual. Sex work is also a major theme, which is often automatically demonized in narrative. The film manages to treat the topic respectfully.

As a general movie score, I rate Shiva Baby a 4/5! The atmosphere is so intense, one can’t help but look away! The acting and dialogue flow so fluidly; it feels as if you’re viewing real events being played back to you. The score is phenomenal and aids many scenes! I was nonetheless perplexed at character rationales, which took me out of the moment when such scenes arose.


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