As a former stripper, I make a point of seeing every stripper movie on offer — indie, major studio, musical, drama, the handful of classics, and the trickle of new offerings. Most of them are horrible.
Magic Mike XXL is that rare stripper movie to win both critical attention and audience love, which helps explain how I found myself at a 10:45 a.m. weekday screening. The theater was nearly empty (six people besides me, including my companion), and in the last row, three older women had assembled early. A fourth walked in during the previews and started feeling her way down the row for a seat. One of her crew called out, “Is that you, Donna?”
Donna cheered and editorialized throughout the film. When the boys danced, she whooped. When they romanced women, she swooned. When the boys started talking about heading to a male-stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, she asked her friends, “Can we go there next year on vacation?”
As I listened to Donna and company get their lech on, I found myself getting annoyed. Not at them — they were hilarious. Hey, subverting the dominant paradigm and seeing some toned boyflesh in your sunset years? I’m all about it. It’s refreshing and fun. My gripe wasn’t with Magic Mike, either, but, rather, the obvious story missing as its foil.
Where, I ask you, is Magic Mindy? In a business that rakes in money sexualizing women as if it were an Olympic sport, shouldn’t there be a Hollywood gold standard for movies about women who professionally, intentionally sexualize themselves?
No one could say it wouldn’t work when so many great movies have explored the magic of dancing for a living and the darker realities that clobber your heart when you’re off the stage: All That Jazz. A Chorus Line. Cabaret. Sweet Charity. Gypsy. Hell, even Black Swan. And Magic Mike I had its moment of actual substance. So why are movies explicitly about modern female strippers such turkeys?
Maybe it’s a weird manifestation of the double standard. We’re so invested in the idea that Stripping Is Bad When Women Do It that we can only seem to make either hysterical female protagonists like Nomi Malone in Showgirls or neutered “heart of gold” leads who fall flat like Demi Moore as Erin Grant in Striptease, or strippers are deprived of their voice entirely, relegated to status as either prop (music videos) or punch line (Chris Rock).
But you know how Magic Mike’s stripper jones was awakened when he was in his workshop, and Ginuwine’s “Pony” came on and he couldn’t help but dance like he used to? Well, somewhere on the F train, there’s a woman in her late 30s looking longingly at the pole in the middle of the subway car when “I Sit on Acid” comes up on her iPhone during her evening commute. Where’s her movie, man?
The stock strippers featured in films — the lost cause, the innocent, the stayed-too-long-at-the-dance diva — have worn thin. They’re all out there in the real world, but they’re recycled so often in movies that it’s getting dull. Time to freshen things up.
In that spirit, based on my own years of research, I offer a taxonomy of common but rarely portrayed stripper types:
• The girl who hooks with customers outside the club, but pretends she doesn’t even though all her co-workers know she does, which is awkward, but the other girls like her and don’t want trouble, so ARGH.
• The girl who breaks all the rules inside the club, doing shows with more body contact and exposure and, consequently, attracting a lion’s share of the customers, thus making it hard for the other girls to make money, and the other girls don’t like her, so ARGH.
• Rock-star-wife hopeful and serial-drummer-dater girl. (JOKE: What does a stripper do to her asshole before work? She drops him off at band practice.)
• Corporate girl. She probably has a couple children and/or a graduate degree to pay off. She seems well-adjusted and like she totally has her act together, which is why she’ll never be good friends with …
• Frustrated-artist girl. She deludes herself that she’s just a wee bit above it all, like she’s an anthropologist on an expedition. Constantly on edge, yelling at the guys who misbehave. Often found updating her Tumblr on her phone in the dressing room. (Wondering which type I was? Aside from the fact that I stripped in pre-Tumblr days, ding ding ding.)
To me, the most recognizable character in Magic Mike XXL was Matt Bomer’s New Age flake, Ken. Perhaps it’s because 90 percent of my stripping work took place in San Francisco, but his prattle about karma and bad energy vis-à-vis stripping felt instantly familiar to me. Every time I eat poultry of any kind, I remember a sweet vegan girl I danced with who, one afternoon shift, lamented from her seat at the dressing-room makeup counter that she’d accidentally ingested a soup with a chicken-broth base the day before and “could taste the chicken’s pain.”
Of course, you want the sexual politics of the movie to be on point, but if you’re worried about feminist bona fides, don’t be. It’s a stretch to say that stripping is a feminist occupation — however, the range of body types and politics and sexual orientation and girly solidarity in stripping is wider than conventionally accepted. I guarantee you that 99 percent of strip-club dressing-room conversations would pass the Bechdel test.
You don’t have to make stripping noble, aspirational, or even “okay.” Humanizing isn’t the same as glamorizing (or neutralizing). We don’t need to be saved, we don’t need to be sanitized, and we don’t need to be absolved. We just need our stories told in all their glittery, gritty complexity — with an abundance of humor and fabulous costumes and choreography, please.
A great female-stripper movie could be both sexy and troubling — in fact, I’d say it’s probably a requirement in depicting a work environment where the possibilities of empowerment and exploitation are forever dancing cheek-to-cheek, and self-preservation and self-destruction can occupy the same spotlight. Such a movie could be something transcendent, a powerful statement about a culture in which female sexuality is so prized and reviled.
So, somebody out there in L.A., get a screenplay shaped up, hire a Spandex and Lucite consultant, and let’s get on with the show. There’s a great movie to be made. I have a hunch that even Donna would like it.