We’re not infamous no more. We’re more famous now.
— Jeanette Maier
When Jeanette Maier drives down the street in New Orleans, her neighbors know her. They wave, she smiles. She compliments someone’s shop display, one featuring a bright orange pimp outfit on a dummy in the doorway. “Oh that’s great,” Jeanette laughs, “I like your balls!” Energetic, upbeat, and self-aware, Jeanette likes her life, when she can live it. Lately, that’s been harder than before — before she and her mother and daughter were busted by the FBI for prostitution. Now she’s got to run a different sort of business.
One aspect of Jeanette’s new life might be understood as the documentary, Canal Street Madam. Screening on 19 October as part of Stranger Than Fiction — and followed by a Q&A with director Cameron Yates and producer Mridu Chandra — the film presents Jeanette as she sees herself, mostly. Her daughter Monica and her mother Tommie weigh in occasionally, as does Yates, most plainly in the form of questions asked from off-screen and the selection of images that appear under Jeanette’s self-descriptions. In snapshots and home movies, she’s a girl and a young woman, looking directly into the lens, her gaze steady and her performance deliberate. In a recurring shot, she’s blowing cigarette smoke at the camera, at once sultry and studied.
While the film is something of a portrait, it is also an extended performance, almost like a novel in its gradual revelations of Jeanette’s complicated background. It follows her to public appearances, where the Canal Street Madam means to state her piece, most insistently, that “I don’t feel as though sex between two consensual adults should be a crime.” Some crowds are inclined to hear her or pose polite if vexing questions. Others, as at a Hard Rock Café in New York, are filled with the sorts of loudmouths and bullies who expect her to behave like a cliché of a madam: “Show us your tits!” the young men yell, pumping fists and looking sideways to see how they’re received by their peers: “Tits! Tits! Tits!” As that assembly breaks down and Jeanette is ushered from the room by a bodyguard, you’re impressed by her faith and resilience — and might even wonder why she’s bothering.
For it’s clear that Jeanette is fighting an uphill battle, living inside a culture that insists she’s simultaneously deviant and available, desirable and audacious. While the business she’s in may not be comprised entirely of adults or individuals who can consent, in the version of sex for sale that she promotes, whores are safe and clients are respectful. Of the other sort of business, she says, “I think that’s so unsafe, they all have pimps and there’s usually a drug thing going on.” In brothels, however, “At least at our house, they were safe and they had a clean environment and they didn’t have to be beaten up. There’s a lot of girls out there who are very comfortable in their skin doing what they’re doing, you know?”
Jeanette advocates for those girls. And she argues against the current legal system that regularly punishes whores but lets clients off. Her clients, back in the day, were wealthy and privileged, politicians and celebrities, executives and cops. “I’ve seen ’em all naked,” she says. And that only makes them more determined to keep their secrets. “They’re economically and socially and politically connected and they feel invincible,” she explains. “The girls go to jail and the men go free.” That it’s a gendered hierarchy is not lost on Jeanette. Neither does she ignore the class, race and age dimensions of the business (“business” here a more pervasive structure and persistent concern than sexual prostitution).
Admirable as Jeanette’s efforts to educate may be, the documentary offers other ways of parsing her experience, including interviews with Monica (who looks back on her own difficulties as she concludes, “I love my mother: it took me a long time to say that, because for a long time I did blame her”) as well as observed interactions with Jeanette’s two sons, Sammy (an addict) and Alex (just released from prison). If the tensions between mother and children are manifest (one scene shows Jeanette and Sammy at complete odds, the camera lurching as she batters him with questions about the needle on the table and he, incoherent, insists he doesn’t know what she’s talking about), so too is their mutual affection. Mom is hardly acceptable by outside social and cultural standards, but those same standards have also produced her.
It’s this discrepancy and hypocrisy that Jeanette targets repeatedly. As the Canal Street Madam, she was well rewarded. But her sensational story is not nearly so fascinating as her other stories, the one that has her delivering food and water to neighbors left alone after Katrina, or the one that has her sorting through her responsibility for her children’s troubles, as well as their remarkable strength and emotional health. “You think you know what I know but you don’t,” Jeanette tells Monica. “There’s a lot of things I won’t let you know.” At last, the film shows, it is important to know, most of all, that it’s all performance — sex and survival, parenting and self-promoting.