Something is Burning: Tiana Reid on Strip Culture & The Shakedown

Published in Issue 20
Words by Tiana Reid
Art by Chelsea Culprit

Image courtesy of Chelsea Culprit and Queer Thoughts, New York.

One of the most important political stories in 2018, I think, was the stripper strike in New York City. By which I mean to suggest that strippers are often not legible as agents of politics.

By which I mean to suggest that when New York strippers were photographed by Jonathan Turton for Dazed Digital in March, alongside a feature, it could never be enough, however stunning. Red fishnets, immaculate weave, see-through platform heels, leather whips, acrylic middle fingers in the air, plastic cups with drinks half full—the accoutrements of performance (which index not actual lives but imagination and fantasy) carry stories uncapturable by the average camera, no matter how hard technologists try.

By which I mean to suggest that New York strippers had not been making the money they used to make. Led by stripper/activist Gizelle Marie, #NYCSTRIPPERSTRIKE was born from an accumulation of unfair working conditions, which had been intensified by the Instagram-famous girls who now served bottles and tended to make more money due to their follower count. They didn’t even strip or mix drinks, their critics said. Still, despite the presentism of the problem, many dancers know firsthand—including those who organized to form the SEIU Local 790: The Exotic Dancer’s Alliance in San Francisco—that there have long been labour practices worth fighting against.

Historically, black women’s labour in particular is difficult to organize. The strippers’ workers rights claim of 2018 bears a resemblance to the domestic workers of the early 20th century: no stable workplace, no set hours, extreme vulnerability to sexual assault, arbitrary stage fees, wage theft, and racism, to name just a few grievances.

The demands from these workers came at a time when stripper aesthetics—in a kind of surface play—has promulgated the North American cultural landscape. I could also cite the inheritance of Lil’ Kim or Foxy Brown—the bad bitch feminism of the 90s that has become ubiquitous, subsumed, and made complacent by liberal feminism today. In this feminine lineage, we can also place the glamorization of stripping in music videos like Rihanna’s 2013 wild and wet “Pour It Up” or Cardi B’s museumified performance in 2018’s “Money.” It’s not the nudity that’s different from earlier black women’s performances but rather the thrust of the stripper poles onto our small screens. With the image of poles come the consideration of the massively articulated skill required to dance on a pole, that is to say, we must acknowledge black women’s virtuosic work. And that’s all good, but we also can’t ignore the backgroundedness of black strippers in a film like Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers. Or the way every radical white femme-inist on my Instagram feed this year has long, fake, almond-shaped nails. While the stripper’s looks may have been in some ways domesticated, you still don’t bring her home to mom.

In her debut 2018 art-documentary The Shakedown, filmmaker, conceptual artist, and CEO and creative director of the ready-to-wear fashion brand Hood by Air, Leilah Weinraub brought the stripper to the art gallery, where she found not a seat at the table but a spotlight on the screen. In her film, which she shot from 2002 to 2015, Weinraub attempts to humanize strippers. The piece works in a mode similar to Paris is Burning, the legendary 1990 documentary about ball culture, directed by Jennie Livingston. Both films traffic in similar anthropological vibes: direct-to-camera interviews and a sex appeal quelled by a moral appeal. Sex workers on documentary film often tend to be lent an ethnographic lens. I’m thinking of Paris is Burning as the ur-text, which can be compared to Elegance Bratton’s more recent ballroom VICELAND series, My House, although the latter amps up the theatrics.

A big difference, however, is that The Shakedown is a film explicitly about labour. Because of Weinraub’s background in the fashion industry, The Shakedown is self-conscious about the relationship between workers and the profits workers produce. Weinraub knows that the club night Shakedown in Los Angeles had its influence on mainstream hip hop and thus on American culture writ large. “What I learned about fashion is that you can come up with new ideas, cool, but if you don’t have your own system, all you’re doing is publishing a new idea so that somebody can come out there and do it bigger than you can. Not only do you have to have a concept and an idea that people really respond to but you have to have the whole infrastructure there to even be able to benefit off of it,” she told The New Yorker in March 2018.

Using hundreds of hours of footage, The Shakedown follows the shaky path of an underground black lesbian strip club event in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. In the same The New Yorker piece, writer Cassie da Costa wrote that, “Shakedown is neither an experimental art film nor an anthropology of gay, black femme performance in L.A. Rather, Weinraub sought to capture a moment and turn it into cinema.” After the work of anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch, the line between ethnography and cinema (fact and fiction?) is not so easily wrenched apart. Weinraub tried to let the performances make the narrative, in the name of vérité.

I recall watching The Shakedown on a late weekday afternoon with my friend at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, an art gallery in Harlem. There were maybe three other people in the audience. I thought the film was stunning. (I mean, of course—have you ever seen a black lesbian? Don’t answer that.) Because I am easily affected, my utopic experience was effectively nulled by the two white girls sitting a row or behind me and my friend. They were drinking liquor, which is fine, but they were also laughing. What were they laughing at? It was only okay when we laughed.

In The Shakedown, it’s the strippers with all the vitality. They are performers, sure, but the camera does none of the work. This is perhaps the cruel twist of the legacy of cinema vérité: that agency cannot be given, only stolen. The world of The Shakedown stresses the thorny entanglement of aesthetics and labour, untranslatable but still able to be glimpsed on screens big or small, commercial or artistic, feminist or misogynist, and their surreptitious crossovers.

While writing this piece, I happened to be in Atlanta for an academic conference. On Friday night, after I had done my talk and a little past my friend’s bedtime, I took myself out to Magic City, a famous strip club in Atlanta. It was not a lesbian strip club—not even close—and even less an underground club (more of a tourist trap) but still, there were black lesbians there. There are always black lesbians here.