Bravo was especially focused on getting the visuals of sex work right: “I asked both my director of photography [Ari Wegner] and my production designer [Katie Byron], “Could you list American films in which you’ve seen sex or sex work represented, in which you’ve seen the woman being naked, and you felt comfortable in the experience? And it didn’t feel voyeuristic at all?”
In a mood echoed across many film conversations in the past few decades, Bravo thinks there’s something “inherently prudish” about American cinema, that undue shame gets attached to the idea of sex. The resulting deficit in public understanding of sexual health and freedom results in a visual culture that doesn’t know what to do when it comes time to look at women’s bodies. “Oftentimes when you’re seeing women naked, it doesn’t feel consensual. As a watcher, I don’t always feel the consent. You find this young woman naked, in a scene where she is totally exposed, and the man… maybe you get his buttocks.”
That imbalance had no place in a film adapted from a first-person telling of a woman’s own highs and lows in sex work. “Also they’re pretty bare in the film anyways, right?” Bravo says, referencing the costumes Paige and Keough wear in scenes at Hooters, at the strip club, in the hotel. So any time Zola (played by Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) have sex with men on screen, they’re endowed with a sense of control. And not just control of the motions; the images themselves are ones of agency. Their nudity is momentary and subtle; Bravo and Harris understood that, in real life, Zola and Stefani had made their bodies available to their partners and customers, but when it comes to us, the audience, all they had licensed was their words.
This isn’t to say that Zola isn’t interested in women’s bodies. Rather, the film creates a marked difference between how Zola and Stefani use their bodies when they’re engaged in public performance versus when they’re in private.
Here’s where more of that Twitter-thread-as-Bible ideology comes in. In the early stages of writing, Bravo and Harris fielded many questions about the viability of the film from people who found the narrative implausible. They didn’t understand why Zola went to Florida in the first place, or why she stayed after things got rough.