Not every movie needs to be for me specifically and that is fine. But sometimes I have a morbid curiosity for movies that are not for me but could somehow affect me. Hulu recommended the Lifetime original Her Deadly Sugar Daddy recently and against my better judgment I decided to see just how backwards they got it.
Reader, it was much worse than I imagined.
I have vague memories of Lifetime movies that aired when I was a teenager. Overdramatized scenarios that had been sanitized enough for television broadcast. Dangers lurking in every corner but never actually happening. Some people thrive on jump scares and supernatural thrills, but others find their fright in the seemingly every day. An affair gone wrong. A teacher who grows too fond of a student. A mother who just wants her children to be safe.
HDSD looks at all the things that can go wrong for a newly minted sugar baby. At least, it tries to. There are many things about sex work, especially sugaring that can go wrong. Sugaring itself occupies a grey area where many people don’t consider it sex work. It’s a real relationship… that just happens to be transactional. This argument is laid out both by sugar daddies and some sugar babies, with the former attempting to gain sex without paying, and the latter hoping to get paid without having sex. Nevermind that if you ask most escorts (or at least this one) they’ll tell you that sucking dick is far easier work than coaching some guy through his midlife crisis.
But the relationship in HDSD is only sugaring in that Bridget Caprice is paid by Anthony Glonz for being young and pretty. He hires her as an executive assistant after stalking her, manipulating her through a staged bad date turned assault, and murdering someone. All he wants her to do is dazzle his clients at meetings, so they let their guard down and Glonz can overpower them business-wise. Bridget constantly assures people around her, the readers of her blog (note: the word ‘blog’ appears in this movie quite a bit for something released in 2020), and Glonz himself that she is not having sex with these clients ever. And the script assures the audience she won’t either, with close-ups of her pulling her hand away when a client touches it, or excusing herself to go to the bathroom if a hand is placed on her knee.
Somehow this is enough to launch Bridget’s name into ‘the blogosphere’ and eventually land her her dream job. I thought this was already dated but then I remembered the target audience for Lifetime isn’t me (a coastal city sex worker) but people removed from everything the movie tries to represent. Not just how sugaring works but also how business works and how life in LA works. A woman in her early 20s showing up from Arizona and lecturing every person she meets about how to treat a woman while also having zero life experience to write about isn’t going to be a huge hit. Especially when she also thinks she’s too good to wait tables or teach driving courses. I could respect this movie if it were about Bridget auditioning at Cheetah’s and having one customer of many get too attached and her navigating that while still being able to pay rent. But that’s not what it is. This is a movie that tries so hard to have a story that it winds up being less dramatic than the ‘my kids were almost trafficked in IKEA’ Facebook post. At least that story didn’t take 90 minutes to tell. Though to be fair, Glonz’s scheme is even more needlessly complex than even the classic trafficking legends. He goes through a lot of money and energy to hook these guys when he could just be hiring escorts.
There’s an angle that almost happens. During the climax, he preaches to Bridget about ‘total and absolute control’ and she eventually tells him that’s what he wants. He’s not looking for a willing accomplice, he’s looking for ‘girls with daddy issues’ who ‘are so much easier to mold’.
While there have been more nuanced tales about sex work coming out recently (shout out to @Zola and Cam), anything that doesn’t have a sex worker on the team is still lacking. Movies about sex work typically play off fears of what proximity to sex work will do to a person rather than delving into the very real fears about what stigma can do to sex workers. How children are taken away. How cops are more likely to assault you than clients. How the internet is growing increasingly censored, making it more difficult to work safely. Oh, and all The. Serial. Killers.
Let’s not forget that who gets to be a victim and who gets labeled a criminal varies based on marginalized identities. Cyntoia Brown was a trafficked minor, but since she is black, law enforcement still saw her killing in self defense as murder. It was sex workers who rallied around her, not anti-trafficking groups who largely focus on Asian migrant workers due to the stereotype of Asian women being meek and submissive as well as good ol’ American xenophobia. Surprise, surprise, the women “rescued” in stings are often deported.
Which brings me back to Bridget. A perfect victim. She has morals, dreams, two-dimensional spunk, and never ever has sex with clients. She is untouched and worthy of sympathy, whether it’s from Glonz’s schemes or random attacks. At the end of the movie she stops striving for money and salacious stories and gets back together with a man who also stalked her…but it led to her being saved from the other stalker so it’s all good, right? Bridget knows her place after her little adventure and her reward is getting to continue writing about her ‘extraordinarily ordinary’ life.
Sex workers still rarely get to tell our own stories. And yet, Bridget has a voice throughout her entire arc, even when she’s incorrectly defining what a sugar baby is and does. She is the ideal mouthpiece for trafficking fears and stigma against sex work to spread because she is the sort of voice people who have already made up their minds will listen to. And in many parts of the country she is the only sort of voice that people are exposed to at all.
Her Deadly Sugar Daddy isn’t scary to me because of the content. It’s scary because it reminds me of all the ways society hates me and my community. It’s scary because I know there’s people out there, deciding to take Hulu’s recommendation, and having this influence on how they treat us.
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