Live Better, Strip Union!
Last April, Live Nude Girls Unite!, an edgy documentary about labor issues in the strip-tease industry, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival and won a Bay Area Golden Gate Award and the Audience Award. Since its theatrical release last October, it has been on the radar screen of independent film programmers, and has become a must-see for workers looking to organize.
Over the course of an ID interview with Julia Query and Vicky Funari, the film’s co-directors, it became evident that, as Query attested, the success of the film is due to its “sexy and serious” nature—that a documentary can be titillating and yet not be derisive of its own subject matter.
A handful of documentaries focus on the sex industry and the world of adult entertainment. How does Live Nude Girls Unite! strike a different chord than some of the other films, like Rated X: A Journey Through Porn, or The Other Hollywood?
Julia Query: The difference between these movies and ours is an insider position. Vicky and I were workers in the sex industry, and we wanted to tell a story that had a plot, had action and was about empowerment. It’s not just a look at the industry, or one filmmaker’s journey of discovery through the industry. Most of those movies are guilt-free porn. And the problem, of course, is that they’re not sexy enough to be porn. It’s not their fault. But society is not at a point where they can have complicated movies about the sex industry.
Or at least it’s difficult to make a complicated movie about the industry. It took us many years to make this film—partially, because we were trying to express ideas that were so distant from mainstream thinking. We were trying to break through stereotypes that were so concrete and constraining. Those films deal with the idea somewhat simplistically because the subject matter is so over-determined by today’s society. And to get out of that, we had a lot of very complicated decisions to make. Specifically, the decision of why I entered the industry. Because to have that question is to interpolate me into a structure that already shames me.
Vicky Funari: We spent a lot of time discussing how much to tell of Julia’s story, as well as those of the other women, of how they became sex workers. And we actually crafted an introductory scene that did tell a little bit about how they each got started.
It all ended up being an apology. The viewer would feel like, “What happened to this person to make her make this choice?” People expect a certain sort of pathology about sex work. They expect that sex workers are doing it because something bad happened to them. And that wasn’t the case with any of our characters. But in a certain sense, anything that you say about how you got into this work begins to feel like an excuse. So that’s why we didn’t even focus on it at all in the film. We kept the film very specifically on the financial reasons.
JQ: I always felt this specter haunting me as we made this film— the image that I assumed people would assume about me, the history that they would impart to me. And that history was that I had to have been a drug addict, or molested as a child, or a sex addict, or as Terry Gross (the host of NPR’s Fresh Air) put it, an “exhibitionist.”
But I don’t want to have to sit here and defend who I am against who I’m assumed to be because of the label “stripper.” Because as soon as I start doing that, it becomes, “Well if she wasn’t molested as a child, could there still have been some problem?”
VF: And it’s not that it’s not interesting to explore questions of why someone would be a sex worker. That’s what most films about sex work had to do. But for us, this was a film about workers’ rights, and we had to establish that we’re talking about work. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t sexy, but it’s not what the film’s about.
In an earlier interview, you used the word “essentializing” for how women feel in this business.
JQ: There’s also a psychological effect of stripping—if you do it long enough —where you start to feel like there is some essential difference between you and women who don’t strip. And I hear this from women in the industry, that they have an “Us vs. Them” sort of feeling. It’s the feeling of, “Maybe, I’ve always been…” When I use the term “essentializing,” I mean it in a sort of Foucaultian sense, like when you’re gay in this culture, it’s considered essentially who you are, what you are, that you’ve always been this way. And you get this feeling as a sex worker of “I’m really different from women who wouldn’t do this work.” And that’s not true.
VF: Yeah, but I think that once you have been a stripper, it does change your attitude, and you do feel like, “Oh, I’m a stripper.” Like now and forever, even though I only worked for a short period of time, I am a stripper. Because there is a line that you cross, even if mentally you crossed the line a long time ago. Nevertheless, once you face all the stigma and all the craziness that comes with having crossed that boundary, it does change you. You know, sex work is so much about putting on a particular persona and performing a particular set of very predetermined acts. I actually think it’s something that women should try if they can ever get the courage to do it because it sort of disproves a lot of stupid theories really quickly.
Do you think that documentary films have traditionally been devoid of sex, unlike Hollywood films that have strands of sex and sexy content throughout?
VF: Historically, documentaries have been “serious.” And because they are serious, they don’t deal with sex. The more recent trend has a lot to do with reality programming and cable TV and the Internet, all sort of pushing the envelope towards shallower and shallower stuff. But I think that a documentary that deals with sex intelligently and with depth is something rare. In the independent documentary world, a lot of people are doing those kinds of films because they have progressive values, and they’re trying to make particular kinds of change in the world, or tell particular stories that haven’t been told, or they’re passionate about history. Sex has not been a particularly easy topic to deal with.
What about marketing of the film? What’s the impact on the sex industry?
JQ: We got a grant from the Paul Robeson Foundation for distribution. We will be distributing the film to strippers who want to organize, along with a manual that Jane in the movie wrote about how to organize your strip club. So as we bring the movie to places, I generally try to find the strip clubs in the area and let women there know about the film. I’ve been building a base of people through grass-roots organizing to promote the film and promote the idea of unionizing.
We’ve had more luck helping people other than strippers unionize. So far, the film has been utilized by the striking workers of the New York Museum of Modern Art. They won a contract and reported back that the use of the film was a turnaround in their strike...
VF: …as a morale booster. That’s how the film functioned for the MOMA folks.
JQ: It’s an organizing tool. It helps people understand what organizing is about, and that when you’re in negotiations, and you feel like you’re losing, you can fight. A lot of other workers identify with us in different ways.
VF: I’ve been asked repeatedly, “So, how many unions of sex workers are there now?” Well, one. But to me, that doesn’t mean that there’s some sort of horrible failure. It just means that it’s really hard to unionize. And unionizing also isn’t the only form of organizing. Suppose somebody stands up for herself when something bad happens and manages not to get fired over it; if that was a result of the person having seen our film, that’s a small gain right there.
Lily Ng lives in San Francisco. She hasn’t contemplated stripping, but you never know…