Live Nude Girls Unite!. Directed by Julia Query and Vicky Funari. New York: First Run Features, 2000.
Tales of the Night Fairies. Directed by Shohini Ghosh, 2002. Available from Ghosh at email@example.com.
Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag. Directed by Jan Haaken. Canoga Park, CA: Cinema Libre, 2008.
The three documentaries reviewed here address the labor of peep show workers, prostitutes, and drag queens. All directed by feminists, the films engage activist and academic debates around sex work and gender performance.
Live Nude Girls Unite! (70 min.) follows the unionizing efforts of workers at the Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco and their negotiations to obtain their first contract. Although the workers’ grievances (e.g., safety concerns, covert videotaping by customers, racist scheduling of dancers, and need for paid sick days) often take forms distinctive to their workplace, the film might provide a starting point for broader discussions of labor relations and worker empowerment. In this respect it might be usefully paired with other material on labor issues, such as the documentary Waging a Living.1
More specifically, Live Nude Girls Unite! addresses feminist debates about sex work, most explicitly through the narration by participant and codirector Julia Query, daughter of a second-wave feminist, and herself a former graduate student in women’s studies. Query also performs stand-up comedy, and footage of her routines punctuates the film with wry observations about working as a stripper and a dominatrix, about Jewish lesbian identity, and about how much easier it was for Query to come out to her mother as a lesbian than as a stripper. Query’s disclosure to her mother occurs on camera, when both attend a conference on the sex industry, at which the filmmaker's mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, will be speaking about her health outreach work with street prostitutes. Some viewers may find Query's on-camera surprise of her mother with this revelation to be intrusive, but such a response can open discussions of the boundaries of what is considered public and private, and how these boundaries intersect with our ideas of sexuality, commerce, and identity.
The generational and political divide between mother and daughter personalizes familiar positions in the feminist debates on sex work. On the one hand, many second-wave feminists like Kathleen Barry have seen sex work as oppressive; on the other, third-wavers have tended to see it as liberating, as do those included in editor Jill Nagle’s Whores and Other Feminists or some of those interviewed in Wendy Chapkis’s Live Sex Acts.2 While Live Nude Girls Unite! does not explore the potential for understanding these political differences as being inflected as much by class as by generation, Query's suggestion that many of her coworkers share her educational background seems confirmed by the participation of, for example, dancer-activist Siobhan Brooks, who has since completed a doctorate in sociology and has written widely about class, racism, and mental illness, as well as about sex work.3
If the peep show is potentially the lighter side of sex work (the narrator's mother accepts her exotic dancing, as long as it doesn't extend to physical contact with customers), Tales of the Night Fairies (74 min.) documents the activism of those more likely to be seen as victims.4 Director and interviewer Shohini Ghosh acknowledges her middle-class upbringing in a more affluent area of Calcutta, as well as the role of Bollywood movies in piquing her interest in the lives of sex workers, while profiling activists with the Durbar Mahila Samanyay (Indomitable Women's Collaborative) Committee (DMSC), an organization of more than 60,000 prostitutes and other sex workers in West Bengal, India. Focusing on workers’ self-help, dignity, and political empowerment, Tales of the Night Fairies provides a useful counterweight to the colonialist feminism of more familiar works like Born into Brothels.5 Interviews in Tales of the Night Fairies focus on five DMSC members—four women and one man—and we also see scenes of DMSC street theater and other cultural and educational events, including debates with audience members.
DMSC grew out of sex worker involvement in HIV/AIDS interventions, and activists in the film stress the importance of the right to their own bodies, the right to refuse a client, and the right to insist on condom use. In arguing against rehabilitation and rescue approaches, and for decriminalization of sex work by consenting adults, the activists draw a sharp line between children drawn into prostitution and adult workers like themselves. In response to arguments that sex work constitutes violence against women, activists assert that many enjoy their work, enjoy being self-supporting, and are clearly better off than the unemployed. They note that much of the violence they suffer has come from police, who have not only harassed sex workers with raids on brothels and have refused to investigate workers’ charges of rape, but have also themselves abused and raped sex workers. The collective power of the DMSC, however, has improved relations with law enforcement by educating police and the public and enhancing DMSC members’ sense of their own worth and the dignity of their profession.
Another sort of erotic labor is performed in Queens of Heart, which documents the oldest continuously operating drag club in the United States: Darcelle XV in Portland, Oregon.6 This short (48 min.) film recaps the working-class background of Walter Cole (aka Darcelle), the club’s owner/proprietor/star, as well as the club's historic role as a lesbian and gay community center and Darcelle/Cole’s continuing contributions to the queer community, but also attends to the club’s mostly heterosexual, sometimes homophobic audience.7 The movie opens with a sequence on the bridal parties that now make up the club’s primary source of income. Touching on the irony of celebrating a heterosexual marriage by attending a performance by gay men in drag, the segment ends with Darcelle’s comments on the question of gay marriage, noting that while the legal double standard is unfair, the recent focus on same-sex marriage neglects other important issues, such as discrimination in employment and housing, and the need for health care for all).8 The scene-selection feature on the well-appointed DVD makes it easy for instructors to use particular clips like the one described above as discussion prompts in class.
Queens of Heart’s attention to audience reverses the sometimes voyeuristic approach of other documentaries on drag, asking not why the performers do drag, but why straight people like to watch. The movie makes playful use of psychoanalytic discourse to analyze not some purported pathology in the performers, but, for instance, the possible hysteria of the audience. This is not a complete answer to bell hooks’s critique of the voyeurism of a film like Paris is Burning, since—although the club’s performers are black, Latino, and Pacific Islander as well as white, and the audience is apparently all white—race is not explicitly addressed as an issue.9 Similarly, tensions within queer communities, such as those between transsexuals and drag queens, are only hinted at within the film. Still, the focus on audience helps emphasize that drag performance at Darcelle's is skilled and therapeutic labor.
Paid, professional performances of sexuality and gender, such as those documented in these films, can help us explore important questions. To what extent are women understood as subjects rather than objects in debates about sexuality? What are the limits of agency in the marketplace for labor? How do we understand gender as performative, and how is it constrained by assumptions about the body? How are sexual acts stigmatized, celebrated, and commodified? Varied in visual quality and DVD appurtenances, all three of the works reviewed here offer humorous as well as illuminating moments, and all stress the importance of valuing the labor of those whose work addresses social needs for sex and explorations of sexuality and gender.
1 Waging a Living, dir. Roger Weisberg (Palisades, NY: Public Policy Productions, 2006). For additional resources for this film, see http://www.pbs.org/pov/wagingaliving/.
2 Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Jill Nagle, ed., Whores and Other Feminists (New York: Routledge, 1997); Wendy Chapkis, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (New York: Routledge, 1997). Jennifer Borda also provides an extended discussion of Live Nude Girls Unite! as a third-wave document in “Negotiating Feminist Politics in the Third Wave: Labor Struggle and Solidarity in Live Nude Girls Unite!” Communication Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2009): 117-35.
3 Siobhan Brooks, “Exotic Dancing and Unionizing: The Challenges of Feminist and Antiracist Organizing at the Lusty Lady Theatre,” in Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice, ed. France Winddance Twine and Kathleen M. Blee (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 59-70. See also Siobhan Brooks, “Dancing Toward Freedom,” in Nagle, 252-55. For more on the Lusty Lady see also in Nagle the essays by Vicky Funari, “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections,” 19-35, and Tawnya Dudash, “Peepshow Feminism,” 98-118.
4 For more on Tales of the Night Fairies, see www.bayswan.org.
5 See Sarah E. Ryan’s review of Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids, Films for the Feminist Classroom 1, no. 1 (2009), http://www.signs.rutgers.edu/rev_ser2_film_1-1.html. See also Frann Michel’s, From Their Eyes to New Eyes: Suffering Victims and Cultivated Aesthetics in Born into Brothels, PostScript 26, no. 3 (2007): 53-61. For a germinal critique of problems with colonialist feminisms, see Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity; (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). For a briefer, more accessible discussion, see Lila Abu-Lughod’s, Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others, American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-90.
6 In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to note that I assisted director Jan Haaken with her commentary track for the DVD of Queens of Heart, and we have reviewed other films together for KBOO Community Radio (see Old Mole Variety Hour).
7 For more on the process of creating the film, see Jan Haaken, "What's So Funny? Video Ethnography and Drag Performance," Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 10, no.3 (2005): 319-27.
8 For paired reading, see the Beyond Marriage Statement.
9 Bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” in her Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 145-56.