I’m watching The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas right now. Have you seen this movie? If you haven’t, then I’m not really sure how to explain it to you. Here’s the basics: Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, whorehouse, musical. However, it’s way, way more badass and hilarious than the sum of its parts. Trust me on this.

The other thing I’m not sure about is how to explain my response to it. Part of me – the part that loves Dolly and weird movies and has been watching this movie forever – would sum up my response as: AWESOME. 100% PURE AWESOME.

The logical, analytical, feminist part of me has some reservations.

On the one hand, prostitution is portrayed in a fairly straightforward manner. The heroine, Miss Mona,  is a madam and former prostitute; she’s not an anti-hero, but a genuinely sympathetic character. As I’m typing this, she’s educating the sheriff on the Bible. She’s funny and tough and self-deprecating and earthy as hell. She donates money to the little league and other civic causes. At one point, she says “people are always confusing crime with sin,” a comment I think sums up the culture wars better than I ever could. She’s the best hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold you’ll ever see. The movie does not judge Miss Mona or her “girls” for their profession.

On the other hand, prostitution is presented in a fairly paternalistic light. There is no insight as to why these women ended up as prostitutes; they all seem happy; there’s no sense that some of them came to this as a last resort. There’s no indication of the physical intimidation and violence that often accompanies sex work. Various characters comment on the role of these women in their community as a service both for men and the good women of the community. There’s a sense that good women don’t like sex, but men need it, and if they don’t get it somewhere – namely, prostitutes – they’ll get it where they can – namely, rape – and that their wives will be grateful for the “time off” (“you mean to tell me the cows aren’t appreciative when the bull goes over to another pasture?”).

The movie ends with a comfortable return to the status quo. The whorehouse is shut down, and Mona rides off into the sunset with her man (who she had revealed was the only man she’d been with in years).

What am I to make of this? The movie came out in 1982, and was based on an earlier play. Can we simply not expect more from that time? And yet I’m reminded that the 70s were a dynamic time, especially for feminism. Couldn’t we – shouldn’t we – expect more? Or is a sympathetic portrayal of prostitutes enough of an improvement? Miss Mona is certainly more sexual than Miss Kitty, the earlier archetypal Western prostitute.*

I love this movie for so many reasons. Yes, I love Dolly Parton. Yes, I love cheesy musicals. But beyond that, I connect this movie to one of the first truly significant conversations I can remember. When I was a child, my mother bizarrely allowed me to watch this movie (MTV, of course, was strictly verboten). When I was around 10 or 11, I watched it and then talked to my mom about the role of prostitutes in society. To my young mind, the idea that men needed to have sex with someone, anyone, lest they engage in rape, made sense. And my mother explained to me that, actually, rape is about power, not about sex, and that women enjoy sex just as much as men do.

In retrospect, I pick up on undercurrents I didn’t at the time. I can understand how an adult might be thrown by hearing these things from a child. I can understand how it would be difficult to find the right words to explain such an adult topic. But the older I get, the more I appreciate that my mother didn’t shy away from it. Odd as it may seem, this movie provided a teachable moment for me, an opportunity for discussion that stayed with me, that unintentionally contributed to my understanding of the world and the role women play in it, to my understanding of feminism.

Ultimately, I don’t have any answers to the questions I posed above. What I do have is a sense that my formerly perfect enjoyment of this movie is now marred by little jarring “eek!” moments. It’s like watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I love it, but every time Mickey Rooney enters the frame, I physically cringe. But The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas also provides me enough enjoyment in other ways that I can overlook its sins. Watch it sometime and let me know if you agree.

And, in case you don’t know, this movie features the original version of “I Will Always Love You”:

Incidentally, the answer to the question in the subject line is “a flame about three feet high.”

*My car is named Miss Kitty; my iPod is named Miss Mona. Someday, I shall write a book on prostitution in American popular culture and call it Westward Ho! (I’m only kind of kidding.)