As a labor-movement rallying cry, it’s pretty hard to beat “No Contracts, No Pussy!” Clearly, the strippers who fought to unionize San Francisco‘s Lusty Lady Theater in 1996 figured out early on that winning the right to collective bargaining would involve not just guts and patience, but some calculated street theater too. Hence such picket-line exhortations as “Two, Four, Six, Eight — Don’t Go in To Masturbate!” and actions like “No Pink Day,” during which the women refused to spread their legs while shimmying in the round. There was lots more to the struggle to form one of the country‘s first unions for strippers, and all of it — or at least some of the funnier and more heartbreaking moments — is the subject of the new documentary Live Nude Girls Unite!, a muddle of good intentions and bad filmmaking that sneaks into your affections despite its artlessness and, more deleterious still, the narcissism of its co-director Julia Query.
Born in 1968, Query was working as a dancer at the Lusty Lady when she began shooting her documentary (shot on a Hi-8 video camera, then transferred to 16mm), later bringing in former dancer turned filmmaker Vicky Funari as collaborator. Subjected to unfair and, in some cases, illegal employer demands that ranged from dangerous working conditions to racial (and cup-size) discrimination, the women had begun to organize, articulating their hopes for better treatment and security and signing up with the Service Employees International Union, Local 790. Query, an out lesbian raised by a single mother, had begun working at the Lusty Lady to underwrite her self-avowed addiction to performing standup comedy. (Considering the snatches of her routine woven throughout the film, it’s understandable why she needed the day job; considering how shoddy the film looks, it‘s also obvious why she kept it.)
Query had been attracted to the Lusty Lady because she’d heard it was a hip feminist joint where most of the managers were women. It was and it wasn‘t. The dancers were groovy — tattooed and buzz-cut and self-aware (one woman speaks of “sex work as a sacred act”); these were not your father’s grind-house girls but women, some avowedly feminist, who claimed to enjoy taking their clothes off in front of strangers and, perhaps as important, one another. But despite its veneer, the theater still attracted (predictably enough) creeps with clandestine video cameras and, in one instance, a brandished gun. So the strippers — Coco, Decadence, Lolita, Sapphire and the rest — began to organize, a struggle that, also predictably, soon captured the interest of the media, becoming fodder for late-night TV.
It may have sounded like a joke to the Ivy League types who churn out zingers for the likes of Jay Leno, but the strippers‘ effort to unionize wasn’t funny — it was moving and revolutionary. Query gets the pathos of the struggle, but her grasp on the political implications of the effort, much less the implications of self-determination for sex workers, is more tenuous — or at least not as strong as her desire to put her personal stuff front and center. It turns out Query is an exhibitionist whether stripping or shooting. Afraid to tell her mother how she earns her living, she turns the camera on herself and tries to sell us a parallel between the strippers-union fight and her own mother-daughter conflict. The kicker is that her mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, is a heroic lifelong champion of prostitutes‘ rights. Here, though, she’s mostly a straw woman — and her daughter‘s dupe.
In one unpleasant, exploitative scene, Query tapes herself confessing to her mother face to face that she strips. Her mom cries. I bet mine would, too, but Query is trying to turn her mother’s private disappointment (“It‘s better to make a living with your mind than your body,” Mom says tearily) into an example of how uptight and wrong-headed some feminists are. Yeah, some are, and not just the older ones, either. The thing is, her mom isn’t Andrea Dworkin, she‘s Dr. Wallace, provider of health care and condoms for whores, and, crucially, a woman who raised a daughter to believe in the truth of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Query learned some of her lessons, but not all of them, well. Her biggest mistake is forgetting that when it comes to the classic formulation “The personal is the political,” you can’t have one without the other. Like too many feminists her age, Query enjoys a sense of personal entitlement that is more developed than her grasp of dialectics.
There‘s a larger argument at stake here — one voiced by the strippers’ lawyer, but lamentably underdeveloped by the filmmakers — between feminists who look on the sex industry with suspicion, and sex-radical feminists who don‘t just embrace the industry, but work in it. Too caught up in her own drama, Query never even gets around to explaining where her mother really stands in this debate; she’s too busy trying to get the woman‘s approval. That doesn’t make Live Nude Girls Unite! a bad film, only a film of maddening intellectual laziness. At their best, Query and Funari give voice to women and a political battle too often ignored outside gender-studies courses. At their worst, they transform a fascinating chapter in feminist history into the stuff of an encounter session, winning and whiny in equal measure.