Strip Till You Drop

By Alison Pollet and Page Hurwitz, The Nation
January 6, 2004

Dear Santa,

All I want for Xmas this year is a new bicycle, my very own pony and a stripper pole for the rec room. Thanks, Santa!

Luv,

Amber Anykid U.S.A.

P.S. Strawberry Shortcake thongs make rad stocking stuffers!

Postal workers should not have been shocked this year to receive scores of Christmas wish lists just like little Amber's. Why? Well, in case you haven't tuned in to teen or tween media lately, stripping has gone mainstream. Teenagers of the new millennium have grown up watching college students give lap dances on MTV's The Real World ; they've listened to Christina Aguilera's album Stripped ; they've taken cardio strip class at the gym, perused the mall for thongs and flavored body glitter, played video games that feature strippers on their Xboxes and GameCubes, and watched endless music videos for which strip clubs and the denizens thereof provide the mise en scène.

TV shows and movies from Stripperella to Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle regularly feature voluptuous heroines flashing the flesh. Indeed, a questionnaire for college-age participants in The Real Cancun , the 2003 "reality movie" depicting spring-break mayhem, posed the question: "What's the wildest thing you've ever done?" Responses included: "Stripped at a bar," "Gone on top of a bar and flashed" and "Stripped in a club." Somebody ought to break it to these co-eds: Stripping isn't so wild anymore - it's kid stuff.

Of course, for many girls who buy it, stripper-inspired fare isn't actually about disrobing in public or even having sex but about cultivating what writer and sexpert Susie Bright calls "the essence of titillation," a coy yet brazen, look-but-don't-touch sexual persona. "This is very appealing to the young crowd, the virgins, the pre-orgasmic, who want to flaunt and test their sexuality without actually having to do the deed," says Bright. Along with marketing executives promoting their goods, many adolescents embrace these products as a harmless and fun way to wield sexual power, defending their right to express themselves through "Porn Star" T-shirts and "Hot Buns" hot pants, and dismissing those who object as dour, repressed.

Still, critics like Jean Kilbourne, best known for her documentary series Killing Us Softly , about gender representation in advertising, warn that the trend is more constraining than liberating, invoking a "very narrow, clichéd version of what's sexy as opposed to any kind of authentic sexuality." It's a debate whose terms are familiar, from the feminist sex wars of the 1980s to the 1990s rise of "girl power" in pop culture to the explosion of feminist cultural criticism that snubbed the old-school women's movement for its perceived lack of an ironic sensibility.

But the discussion has acquired a new dimension now that a mass-marketed ideal of female sexiness derived from stripper culture is being sold to an ever younger set. The stripper-infused products aimed at young girls are a creepy synthesis of cute and tawdry - seemingly designed to appeal to a 12-year-old's tastes while gently easing her into the adult arena.

The most ubiquitous stripper-inspired purchase a girl can make is a thong, a product with a heritage in exotic dancing - in 1939 New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decreed that the city's nude dancers cover their private parts for the World's Fair. Thongs marketed directly to kids and teens often don't resemble standard lingerie - they're usually cotton, not silk or satin, they've got a colored elastic band, and they're not overloaded with lace or frills. Designwise, they tend toward the self-consciously cute, bearing the visage of a recognizable cartoon character, adorned with a saucy saying and/or cheekily girlish iconography - cherries, gingham checks, teddy bears. The thong's ostensible purpose is to hide panty lines, but what ultimately drives the sale is the nice but naughty message its design implies - and sometimes not so subtly.

"Feeling lucky?" begs the Smarty thong by David & Goliath. It's white with a green four-leaf clover stamped on the front, and available at teen-girl fashion emporium Delia's. According to market research firm NPD Group, from August 2002 to July 2003 thong sales in the United States climbed to $610 million - up from the previous year's $570 million. Time reported that last year girls between the ages of 13 and 17 spent $152 million on them. Thongs average about $6 apiece, and you pay more for a brand name. (A Simpsons thong goes for $8, a simple glitter one for half that.) It's no wonder, then, that licensers are eager to dole out their characters' likenesses for front-and-center crotch placement; in the age of branding, it's all the better if your Hello Kitty thong matches your Hello Kitty lunch box.

Click the About Us/Investor Relations link on the home page for mall-based teenage chain store Hot Topic, which in fiscal year 2002 produced earnings of $34.6 million, and you'll learn that, founded in 1989, "the Company believes teenagers throughout the U.S. have similar fashion preferences, largely as a result of the nationwide influence of MTV, music distribution, movies and television programs." Under Intimate Apparel/Panties, recent purchase items included: a Dr. Seuss Cat in the Hat thong, a Cookie Monster bikini panty, a Hello Kitty Goth Girl thong. Borrowing from underwear for little kids, some of these products - retro Mighty Mouse lingerie by Nick and Nora, for one - no doubt appeal to the older consumer who's consciously infantilizing herself to look sexy. But they also seem calculated to attract younger girls who might still harbor some genuine affection for cartoon cuddlies. The Muppet thong is the adolescent equivalent of a toddler's pull-up: somewhere between Underoos and lingerie.

The film Thirteen depicts the hypersexualized teen-girl consumer marketplace as inextricably linked to its central character's accelerated downward spiral. It's naïve junior high schooler Tracy's demand for a hipper new wardrobe that sets the plot in motion; Tracy first steals to shop at a risqué boutique and clashes with her mother over a puppy-dog thong emblazoned with the words "Wanna Bone?"

The film clearly resonated with many girls' experiences. Emily and Caroline, 13-year-olds at a Los Angeles private school, use "sexy" to describe the eighth grade's most popular girl, who buys her school uniform in diminutive kiddy sizes so as to reveal more skin. Emily says lots of girls at her theater camp wore thongs and that the kids in her class think thongs are cool, though she bristles: "Who would want to see a 13-year-old's butt?" She and Caroline recently attended a bar-mitzvah where a tattoo artist was hired to airbrush designs onto partygoers' body parts. A popular request, the girls reveal, was Playboy's bunny-head emblem, the allure of which leaves the two momentarily divided. "Kids want it because it's a cute little bunny," says Emily. Caroline begs to differ: "It's Playboy, which makes them sexy or something."

Either way, the Playboy bunny has hopped back into fashion, swishing its cottontail into the teen market. At Hot Topic you can buy bunny trucker hats, pajamas, blankets and pillows. Dr. Jay's carries Playboy bunny rhinestone thongs and camis, sporty shorts and sexy briefs. If for children of the 1970s and '80s the bunny's image is tarnished by connotations of dirty centerfolds and exploitation, Playboy Enterprises is making sure that's not the case for girls of the next millennium. The bunny's getting an extreme makeover; the company's amping up its playful, mildly risqué qualities and de-emphasizing its pornographic ones. Playboy Enterprises still produces X-rated fare, but it relegates it to its adult-only outfit, Spice. "It's rather like Viacom having Nickelodeon [for children] and Showtime [for adults]," company CEO Christie Hefner told Business Week Online this past August. Playboy's licensing department targets 18-25-year-olds; they say a crossover into a younger market is unintentional. Yet founder Hugh Hefner - when asked by the Washington Post about kids donning Playboy togs - proclaimed, "I don't care if a baby holds up a Playboy bunny rattle."

Retail sales for the Playboy brand's licensed fashion and consumer products have been estimated at more than $350 million for 2003, and the company celebrated its fifty-year anniversary with a November retail launch of limited-edition specialty products. They are in cahoots with rapper P. Diddy's clothing label, Sean John, which is producing bunny-adorned velour tracksuits. There is a Playboy skateboard, a Playboy snowboard and, from M.A.C. Cosmetics, "Playmate Pink" glitter cream and "Bunny Pink" lipstick with a "laser-embossed bunny on the tip." According to the press release, M.A.C. Cosmetics - a company whose progressive advertising tactics have included using openly gay celebrities Elton John and Rupaul as spokesmodels - was inspired by the "sheer fabulousness of the original Playboy Bunnies."

Revamped as cuddly and camp, the bunny is poised to enter the world of family-friendly entertainment with Hef's Superbunnies , a cartoon series about Playboy playmates who fight the enemies of democracy. Playboy's entertainment division, Alta Loma, is developing the series with Stan Lee's POW! Entertainment, and the press announcement mentions they're aiming for a mainstream audience, so the superbunnies won't bare it all. Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, already has an animated series about strippers on the air. It's the adult cartoon series Stripperella ; Pamela Anderson lends her voice and image to the superhero Erotica Jones, "a stripper by night and superhero by later night," whose power source resides in her enhanced breasts. On TNN's website you can play Strip-pole-rella, the point of which is to avoid falling objects and pole grease and collect as many dollar bills as you can.

Few have surfed the stripper wave with more success than Joe Francis, whose brainchild, Girls Gone Wild , is a four-year-old, $100 million entertainment empire solely based on amateur videotapes of college students flashing their breasts. On Amazon.com you can purchase (at about $17 a pop) DVD titles that include Girls Gone Wild Extreme, Black Girls Gone Wild: Funkin' at Freaknik, and Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style , Francis's creation with Calvin Broadus (aka rap star Snoop Doggy Dogg). Unless Francis goes to jail - charges of filming underage girls for a spring break tape are pending in Panama City, Florida - his next venture, Newsweek reports, is a chain of Hooters-style restaurants. Francis, who once compared girls' flashing Mardi Gras-style for his videos to feminists burning bras, doesn't hide the fact that he is taking advantage of the opportunity to offer titillation in the guise of liberation. The fact that there are so many willing participants one can attribute partially to the desire for a quick fix of fame and the culture of reality television that engenders that desire, and partially to Jell-O shots. But perhaps this is, to some degree, what 1990s pop culture wrought.

The spring breakers Joe Francis convinces to "go wild," at least the ones of appropriate age, would have also been the target audience when, in 1996, the Spice Girls shimmied onto the pop landscape, singing about how girls should tell guys "what I want, what I really really want," and pumping up their fans with "girl power," a philosophy that ran as deep as "You're a girl, therefore you're powerful," and that could be easily construed as "Look sexy like this and you will be powerful."

On MTV there were more lessons to be learned about girls and power. The 1995 Aerosmith video for the song "Crazy" features actresses Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone playing high school students who break out of school one afternoon and hit the road; they fund their joy ride with a trip to a strip club, where Tyler performs a mocking pole dance and Silverstone, dressed in a man's suit, watches gleefully from below. Thanks in part to the video's homoerotic overtones, the striptease seemed rebellious, transformative and empowering, a paradigm replicated in many a girl-centric coming-of-age flick in its wake, among them Coyote Ugly (2000), a movie about bartending table dancers (the film's tagline: "Tonight, they're calling the shots").

This generation also grew up concurrently with hip-hop, a genre whose videos have always pushed the envelope in terms of stripper content. Videos are limited in their storytelling capabilities, certainly, and popular early 1990s videos like WreckX'N'Effect's "Rumpshaker" conceded to this limitation, opting for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style locales and high-heeled bikini-clad babes, visual cues that would inform hip-hop videos for the decade to come. Female rappers of the early 1990s adapted what Alondra Nelson, assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Yale, calls "masculinist models of rap virtuosity and power as a way to gain respect in hip hop." But eventually, when hip-hop "embraced the pimp archetype," female rappers were forced to "fight back on the same terms, taking up hyper-feminine personas." That means trading the showmanship that comes with skill for the kind of empowerment that comes with stripping. Today's female hip-hop stars, like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, are taking their fashion cues from the table-dancing backup dancers and extras who populate male hip-hop stars' videos.

Of course, Madonna's influence on the stripper trend cannot be discounted. While college kids and professors populating cultural studies departments in the early 1990s were eager to endow her pornography-inspired videos and Sex book with layered ironic sensibilities, it's possible that irony wasn't translating to those who were children at the time. For example, in the opening to the film Crossroads , starring Britney Spears, the character she plays, an uptight good girl on the eve of high school graduation, wears men's underwear and writhes around on her bed to Madonna, who - we're meant to understand - was the soundtrack of the character's early youth. By Act II, Spears's character is on the road both to Los Angeles and girl power, stopping in at a bar for a liberating and lucrative stint of karaoke and pole dancing.

The "Porn Star" tee is this generation's answer to the "I'm With Stupid" shirt; the words were stamped on baby tees, tanks and camisoles and sold at malls across the country. When asked about the shirt, Michelle, 22, a recent graduate of Barnard College, is quick to renounce it as "so five years ago." But she recalls that back in high school, its intention was obvious: to be a calling card, one that says insta-sex. This is helpful for a girl whose look doesn't automatically conjure up sexiness. Wear a Porn Star shirt and, as Michelle says, "you're telling people to see you as sexy, as feminine." Talk to girls about stripper culture, and you notice an interesting phenomenon: Stripping equals sexy and sexy equals feminine. Coupled with the adolescent's age-old desires to look good and be looked at, you've got an odd mix of feminine/sexy bravado.

As Susie Bright observes, a stripper's costume says "Long for me, try to win me, throw money at me, but you will never really get very far," a message that holds obvious appeal for the junior high school girl who "want[s] to be mirrored, told [she's] beautiful and desirable and sought-after." A girl can easily meet these competing needs with an outfit that features a body-hugging Porn Star shirt and a thong embossed with a padlock design (made by David and Goliath, available at Delia's). These garments may be a far cry from the confining pinafores and protective bloomers of yesterday, but they introduce a new set of problems. Some, like Jean Kilbourne, argue that they promote a brand of sexuality that "has to do with attracting men, and has nothing to do with a girl being the agent of her own sexual desire." If adolescent girls of the 1950s had only two options, virgin and whore, these clothes seem to blur the line between the two. It's a strange day when Hot Topic's "Pay up, sucker!" thong (the words, in bubble letters, encircle a dollar sign) seems a better option for girls than the padlock one, because it smacks less of sexual puritanism. What's most ironic, Kilbourne argues, is that "this is happening in a culture that's not allowing sex ed in class."

Raising these issues with teens without alienating them is a tricky business. Says Michelle: "We all want to be the girl who's comfortable going with her boyfriend to a strip club, who's all 'What up?' with the stripper. You want to be the girl who isn't fazed by going to Hooters. Boys like big boobs, big deal. No one wants to look repressed." No doubt, that's music to the makers of Girls Gone Wild , a moniker that itself seems to proclaim innocence, as in: "Hey, don't blame me! I happened upon these girls, and, dang, they gone wild!" It's a sure thing, in this climate, that lectures about the hazards of thongs will, if anything, make them more appealing. Look what happened at a Long Island high school when, last spring, teachers chaperoning a senior-class field trip to Florida confiscated string bikinis from students' luggage. The girls argued that they'd been violated, and the community found itself polarized. The melee was even written up in the New York Times, which quoted a letter from Catherine Pearce, 18, sent to her local paper, the Suffolk Times: "I'm not such a naïve little girl that I'm unaware of my own body, my own sexuality.... What exactly was it that they were protecting me from?"

It's a fair question - one that critics of stripper chic have to be prepared to answer in a way that meets girls where they are. Jean Kilbourne advocates educating teenagers in media literacy and fighting for progressive sex ed in schools. But there may be a more expedient way to deflate the trend. This past November Oprah Winfrey devoted an hour to "releasing your inner sexpot"; overworked moms got stripper makeovers complete with pole-dancing lessons and new lingerie. Moms Gone Wild? Now it's really over.

Alison Pollet writes fiction for middle-grade readers. Her novel 'Nobody Was Here' is forthcoming from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

Page Hurwitz is a stand-up comedian and screenwriter.

 

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