Recently I was watching a 60s era zany screwball comedy that was set in the Roaring 20s and riffing off a lot of the zany screwball of the 20s. It’s a once popular and now somewhat forgotten movie called Thoroughly Modern Millie. It stars Julie Andrews (complete with English accent) as a working class American Girl from a big family with relatives everywhere who is living in a residential hotel (room, bath down the hall, no kitchen—more dorm that apartment) in New York City with a bunch of other girls. Millie is having a fantastic time in secretarial school and adjusting to the office environment and life in the Big City (and executing her personal plan to marry her boss as her life strategy).
The only wrinkle in Millie’s rug is that various of her friends from the hotel/dorm keep checking out in the middle of the night leaving no forwarding address. Just the orphans, only children, and other way out of towners with no identifiable relatives.
It turns out the “Chinese” house mother (blue eyes, auburn hair) is one of the ring leaders of a China Town based White Slavery Syndicate that is kidnapping those who won’t be missed and keeping them drugged in opium dens for nefarious purposes. When the wrong girl goes missing, radar beeps and earnest hilarity ensues to free Millie’s friend.
Which is to say that whether you call it White Slavery, exploitation, sex work, or Human Trafficking, the organized kidnapping and abuse of women for profit is nothing new. Even an adult middle class woman (Paige Birgfield) is vulnerable, and it is not just dignity that is at risk—it is sobriety, health and life that are at risk. Stalinesque it is—when one dies it’s a tragedy, when it’s a million it’s a statistic—so many women disappear every year who have been marginalized by illegal or barely legal sex work that it’s really isn’t even notable any more.
Yeah, well, what was she thinking? She should have stayed with the boyfriend/husband. That’s what happens to women like that.
Women like what? Women who need a respectable job and can’t find one? Women who grew up in places with lousy school systems and “a man will take care of you” cultures, which is all great until an economy tanks or the guy turns out to have an alcohol problem or otherwise be a jerk. Ex-squeeze those of us whose name isn’t Rockafeller or Windsor or Buffett. Or Gates or Zuckerberg. (This Century and the last few . . . .)
So time passes but things don’t change do they? The words change: Dance Hall Girls become hookers or prostitutes or sex workers. House of Ill Repute and Bordello become Whore House. But we still laugh like it’s a joke. Easy as long as it the other side of town, and it’s no one you know, you don’t drive that way and don’t look at it.
Oh, raised in an Ideal Age, my Generation a victim of the rhetoric of those who came before, raised to believe in a better World, we accepted the Words as wisdom when I guess it was really hot air.
Back to Millie and her friend, in addition to needing a more than emotional rescue, Millie’s friend has completely enchanted Millie’s boss. Goodbye life plan—such as it is (see above), Millie, it’s back to the drawing board with the Marry-the-Boss and boy aren’t you a good friend because a lot of girls would be like, “She blew you off and you can’t find her? Come here, Honey, I’ll make you feel better.” After a good talking to from an eccentric and fabulously wealthy widow played by Carol Channing, Millie accepts the advances of a broke Consolation Boyfriend.
Miss Channing explains that once long ago, she was a happy-broke, energetic and attractive young chorus girl with a shabby older boyfriend she loved like crazy. One day he gave her a green glass pin because he loved her so much. Low and behold, the pin wasn’t green glass—it was emeralds, and her shabby boyfriend was actually a millionaire. Lesson to Millie—you have to love a man even if the pin is only green glass.
In the end, it turns out that Millie’s friend—who unwittingly steals the Boss’s heart and quashes Millie’s dreams—is actually an heiress. And she is also the sister of Millie’s seemingly broke Consolation Boyfriend. So, all the better for being a good sport and not inferring with true love and being a good friend and rescuing true love. And Millie doesn’t need to settle for green glass.
All’s Well that End’s Well. If real life were really that simple: Exploitation defeated by determined friendship and everyone winding up with a pocketful of emeralds.
Oooh, what to say to a Next Generation? That Exploitation is a Nine-headed Hydra—every time you think the Last Generation lopped all the heads off, well not quite. And, Realistically? There aren’t that many emeralds to go around, some will wind up with green glass. But keep your Eyes on the Prize, the Prize is love not emeralds.
In the end emeralds are cold hard stones and that ain’t much, really. And sometimes the people with the emeralds like to hold on to them and good deeds aren’t enough to win the hearts and the minds of the earnest young man who happens to be a hidden heir apparent. Sometimes earnest is just earnest. Sometimes earnest earns its own emeralds to replace the green glass. Sometimes emeralds aren’t worth it. And sometimes green glass is just fine, if you let it.