I recently re-watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a particular favorite of mine in college, so I’d seen it many times before. But I had never really noticed how many lessons about economic opportunity there were to find in Holly Golightly’s life experiences.
[Spoiler alert, in case you’ve been busy for the past 60 years.]
In the iconic opening scene of the film, Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn) is out on an early morning walk, still fully dressed from the night before. She is wearing the outfit that is not only the most memorable of the film, but perhaps of Hepburn’s entire career. Her hair is swept up to show off a multi-strand of pearls and the low-cut back of her black Givenchy dress. With coffee and pastry in hand, she stops for some quality time with the jewelry in the windows of the Tiffany & Co. flagship store.
Some think Holly Golightly was a prostitute, but writer and director Truman Capote says he saw her not as a “callgirl” but as an “American geisha.” She doesn’t have sex for money, as far as we know. She charms. She attends parties, lights up a room, works hard to make people feel good about themselves (and about her). There’s not an invoice for her time but she often gets “fifty dollars for the powder room” from her dates, money to tide her over until she can marry a husband rich enough that she’ll never have to worry about money again. This comes to a head in a tense exchange with the film’s main love interest, the down-on-his-luck writer Paul Varjak, in the New York Public Library. Paul declares his love and Holly responds by telling him about the rich bachelor she has her eye on. When he responds with anger, Holly fires off,
“Holly: What, do you think you own me?
Paul: That’s exactly what I think.
Holly: I know, that’s what they all think. That’s what everybody always thinks, but everybody happens to be wrong!
Paul: Well I am not everybody! … Or am I? Is that what you really think? Am I no different from all your other rats and super-rats? Wait a minute. That’s it. If that’s what you think, if that’s what you really think, there’s something I want to give you.
Holly: What’s that?
Paul: Fifty dollars for the powder room.”
In addition to the disturbing conflation of love with ownership, this scene is where Paul’s disgust for Holly’s willingness to prioritize financial security over romance becomes painfully clear. Economist Victoria Bateman notes the divide between those who make their money with their brains and those who make their money with their bodies, and the particular contempt reserved for women who use their bodies to procure financial gain. Until this moment, Paul is absolutely enchanted with Holly. They have been tearing up New York City, having a fabulous time, staying up late talking, taking care of each other. But once Holly makes it clear that her priorities are different from his, he becomes furious.
I won’t spoil the rest of the film by telling you why Holly makes the choices she does. And it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point is that the world Holly lives in—like it or not—is one in which her choice of how to support herself works. She’s supplying something in demand, and making the most of the opportunities available to her. Life is hard, and people sometimes choose paths that don’t quite gel with other’s sensibilities. Would it be trite of me to point out in 2020 that women who engage in sex work (or even just work with a sexy presentation) have just as much right to freely choose that path as anybody else?
And, for those who are aware of the ways in which women have historically been denied economic opportunity, there’s a sinister side to the Paul Varjaks of the world finding even more ways to shut doors. Of course, Paul is just one person, and a fictional one at that. But to the extent that his attitude gets used to push through legislation that systematically denies women opportunity under the guise of protecting them and their morality, it’s downright dangerous for women and detrimental to economic growth. The economy is constituted of billions of small opportunities pursued daily that, if not interfered with, add up to the mutual satisfaction of wants that keep people fed, healthy, and able to pursue meaningful lives. This is true even when those opportunities are pursued by people whose choices we may not always agree with or understand. We still benefit from their contributions to the market, and learn from watching to see if their actions are getting them somewhere we might like to go, or somewhere we might like to avoid.
It’s easy to see the many analogies that can be drawn between Holly’s experiences and the many other forms of entrepreneurship that are looked down upon by one group or another. And, for those who wish to maximize opportunity and well-being, the response is the same. You don’t have to like what Holly does. Just stay out of her way.