“LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!”
It has been some seventeen years since filmmakers and strippers Julia Query and Vicky Funari made their documentary about unionizing strippers and it has taken a very long time for us to have the chance to see it digitally. The film is centered around Julia Query, a stripper at a club called the Lusty Lady. She puts in long hours on stage and in the peep booth along with fellow exotic dancers Decadence, Lolita, and Octopussy. However when the women realize that they have with no sick leave and face unfair demotions, safely and privacy concerns, and racial discrimination, they decide to organize and unionize the exotic dancers of the Lusty Lady.
Of course the management of the Lusty Lady opposed this and argued that taking off one’s clothes in a peep show is not real labor but rather an enjoyable part-time job. The women who do this in 10-hour shifts didn’t see it that way but their customers did. There is the curious idea that strippers and prostitutes do what they do because they enjoy it (which they probably do in many cases) but this is an untruth that is good for business. Like anything else, doing the same thing over and over can be quite a bore.
Strippers at the Lusty Lady work in a small mirrored room and their clients enter little booths surrounding the room, and put a quarter in a slot; a panel slides up and they can see the girls for 15 seconds. The veteran girls make $20 an hour, and there are always two to four on duty, which shows us that the hardest job at the Lusty Lady belongs to the guy who collects the quarters.
The film follows some 80 strippers as they hire a lawyer, demand a contract, and threaten to strike. Query, Funari and two other filmmakers simply took the camera along with them and shot whatever happened.
Query dropped out of graduate school, has worked as a dominatrix, and has a mother who is a famous public health advocate. Her mother drives a van around Manhattan handing out free condoms to hookers. When Julia turns up as a speaker and stand-up comic at the same conference where her mother is delivering a paper, the result is one of the more unusual mother-daughter arguments we will ever see. Julia was reared to “do the right thing,” and expects her mother to be proud of her as a union organizer, but her mother somehow cannot get around the stripping.
Julia is our candid narrator who tells us that when she decided to earn money by stripping, she was terrified by the thought of going on the stage because “I can’t dance.” The mirrored room at the Lusty Lady, which reminded her of an aquarium, seemed less of a challenge, especially since it has silver poles in it. The other girls use these for posing, but we gather Julia may need to grab one to keep from falling down. Julia and her sister organizers make labor history. This is an insider’s view of stripping in which we meet women who feel that feminism and sex-industry work are compatible.
The strippers’ demands fall on deaf ears as they agitate for the Lusty Lady to become the nation’s first unionized strip club. Management digs in its heels and negotiations drag on for months. When one woman is fired in retaliation, they all go on strike, engaging loyal customers’ support with the memorable picket-line chant “2-4-6-8, don’t go in to masturbate!”
At road’s end, labor emerges triumphant (with a few contractual compromises), and there’s an immediate ripple effect with strippers from all over calling and begging help for their own unionizing efforts.
This primary conflict is engrossing enough, and the documentary pulls us in further by paralleling the union efforts with co-director (and stand-up comic) Julia Query’s more personal struggle with her mother. Both women are articulate, personable and headstrong and this subplot adds considerable drama. As with the unionizing effort, it ends in reconciliation with some issues still unresolved.