We had a great session at the Canadian Philosophical Association. One of our panelists had to cancel, but that still left Sam presenting on women and cycling, me presenting on fitness culture and exclusion, and our colleague and friend Char presenting a feminist analysis of “strippercize.”
I loved Char’s contribution and it got me thinking about just what, if anything, feminists have to be concerned about with respect to strippercize and pole dancing. While her talk is still fresh in my head, I’m going chime in a bit, summarizing some of what she said and giving my own two cents.
What is strippercize? It turns out to be a lot more stripper-like than I thought. I thought, before today, that it was really all about pole dancing. But it’s actually only partly about pole dancing and quite a bit about getting sexy.
The Carmen Elektra 5 DVD set that Char talked about included instructions to put your finger in your mouth in a seductive way, mimicking fellatio. It also had an “advanced” section that teaches women how to play the sexy librarian.
This is all packaged as a fitness video. And it’s the packaging as a fitness practice that raises this feminist’s eyebrow. Sure, lots of feminists might have criticisms of stripping or other forms of sex work in itself. I’m not as critical of it as many — it can for some be a legitimate income-earning choice and we should care about the working conditions of the women who choose it.
I also think that a simple “how to” about stripping wouldn’t be out of line. If you want to learn how to dance in an erotic manner, then you’ve got to learn somehow. A DVD seems like a good place to start. So the issue here isn’t the standard feminist objection to stripping.
Rather, it’s the mixing of activities meant to get us “in shape” with the whole idea of being sexy. We’ve posted quite a bit on the blog (links coming in a later draft–sorry!) about how refreshing it would be if there were at least one domain where women could be free from the expectation to be attractive and sexy for men.
Strippercize pretty much eliminates the possibility that the women who do it are engaging in this activity for themselves. Somewhere not too far away is the idea that if I engage in this activity and learn these moves, not only will I get an awesome body but I will be able to entice my man (with the moves? with the new body? It all gets melded together).
The fact is, much like the elusive “yoga body,” the stripper body you imagine getting from the DVD is not easy to come by just through the DVD. A lot of it is about genetics. And a lot of it is about hours in the gym. And eating in that fitness model way. And so on. So that’s misrepresentation.
It’s a misrepresentation that is not unique to stripper-themed workouts, however. That alone is not what makes them irresponsible. As I mentioned above, stripping is usually about pleasing men. And so packaging fitness pursuits in this way alienates us further from doing these things for ourselves.
Of course, sexual empowerment is a wonderful thing, and there is nothing sexier than a confident woman who is comfortable with her sexuality. But our bodies are not only sex objects.
Developing our bodies’ strength, grace, power, and endurance contributes greatly to our sense of confidence and well-being. Tying that development so closely to sex appeal strikes me as promoting the idea that our sexuality is our greatest asset.
An astute commentator on Sam’s Facebook post about this makes this excellent point:
What bugs me about the exercise fad is that it reinforces the virgin-whore dichotomy by denigrating actual dancers-for-money (wives and children are supposed to do it for a: their self-esteem/body image and b: their current or future hetero hubbies/boyfriends — but certainly never consider it the well-paying and very safe job that it can be).
I would shout out “sing it, sister,” but the commentator was a man!
Now I can already hear people saying that at least where pole dancing is concerned, it takes the strength of an athlete and the grace of a dancer to do it well. Pole dancers who do it well are truly impressive in their skills. Caitlin, from Fit and Feminist went pole dancing and amazed herself with what she learned she could do. I have the utmost respect for Caitlin and I believe that she and lots of women can discover that they are strong through pole dancing. But I also notice that (unless she’s under-reporting) Caitlin has not turned to pole dancing as a regular feature of her athletic life.
The fact is, there are other ways to empower ourselves. And as women we do well to focus on activities that (even if media and culture manages to sexualize them) do not have sexuality at their core. There are lots of other ways for women to get strong and, more importantly, for women to BE strong.
And as Sam pointed out to me when we were chatting about this later over email, there are also lots of ways to be sexy that don’t necessarily have to do with appealing to men. But these instructional DVDs and pole dancing classes aren’t usually packaged to promote alternative, non-heterosexist ideals of sexuality or sexiness. Being eye candy for men hardly presents us with a robust account of women’s sexual agency.
The most alarming thing I heard in Char’s talk was that there are pole dancing classes for little girls! And that sometimes mothers book pole dancing parties for their daughters’ sweet sixteen! And that there is even a pole dancing doll that is marketed for little girls.
Why is the targeting of little girls so much more disturbing than targeting what we think of as a more age-appropriate audience? I think it’s because it shines a spotlight on what we would like to deny, namely, that little girls are sex objects in training. But that should also help us see what is disturbing about this kind of focus for adult women, even as an account of what it means to be a sexual being, and certainly as an account of what it means to be physically strong and confident.
Sexy is good. But this trend in fitness mixes an already fraught endeavor (i.e. getting into “good shape”) with learning how to be sexy for your man (or generic men). So while it may be fun and can certainly be challenging, the cultural messaging about women’s sexuality is just not, in the scheme of things, all that empowering.
There’s a lot more to say about this topic. But right now my plane is boarding and I want to hit publish. So if there is more to say, please say it in the comments!