In response to a reader who asked me to compare my novel, Trixie, to Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, I looked it up. This is what I found.
There is a long tradition of confessional “novels” about stripping by Harvard grads, clever journalists, med students, and, as Cody calls herself, otherwise “unlikely strippers.” In addition to these confessional, somewhat fictionalized memoirs–for they cannot be called novels–there is also a slew of scholarly works on the topic (for example Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers by Bernadette Barton), also undertaken by bright, clever, and adventurous women who probably didn’t mind the “research” work. Apparently, Cody’s smart-girl type is more likely to try stripping than she wants us to think. The publisher of my first two novels, The Permanent Press, had also published books in this confessional genre and found the niche fairly well saturated, and so they were reluctant to take on Trixie. However, when saturation is reached, that’s the perfect time for parody. Trixie is a novel that parodies the confessional genre, and unlike a memoir, it has a strong plot, which I borrowed from an alliterative newspaper headline, “$7 Mil Lottery Winner Takes 7 Strippers to the Seaside.” I thought a tabloid story version would provide a nice foil to a literary version of events.
Most books about strippers either show how they are treated as sex objects and abused by their customers or reveal how strip clubs are empowering for women and it’s the men who are abused. Either way, the strippers reportedly hate the work, are in it for the money, and occasionally reveal a kinky side that helps explain why they keep at it. In short sexually expressive women in strip clubs (or any where for that matter?) are either sadists or masochists. I noticed a funny line in a street ad recently: “A stripper will not tolerate disrespect.” Then in smaller type, “Just kidding.” In the hands of a capable, witty ad copy writer or journalist, these stripper stereotypes can be funny and entertaining, as they are in Candy Girl. Like Cody, I could have included some disgusting, off-color jokes in my book, such as one about the stripper who, bored and anxious to get away from a talkative customer, might whisper in his ear before leaving his table, “Excuse me, I have to go change my tampon.” But I resisted that temptation (until now) and I leave it to others to tell this superficially funny but ultimately depressing tale of strippers.
Writing Trixie I was not interested in either of the stripper stereotypes. I was more interested in exploring feminine sexual expression in general, with the case of strip clubs as an extreme example. Technically Trixie is a parody of the pastoral convention which usually features an urbane poet who, leaving the city behind with its conventions and rules, finds “natural” society where there are no rules for proper sexual behavior. In some sense he’s “slumming,” but everything is good.
In Trixie at first the customers don’t pay the dancers directly; they earn salaries from the club. I did this because I wanted to consider the sexy dancing free from economics. I don’t think strangers should be permitted to invade someone else’s personal space, and the fact that some may give up this right for money is truly tragic. But this is an economic issue, one that feminists may be interested in (but not me), and should be treated as such. I’m not a very good -ist about most things. To illustrate: I was asked years ago to testify at legal proceedings on the “18-inch rule” that says customers cannot come within less than 18 inches of topless female performers (the rule did not apply to male performers, incidentally). The actual legal question came down to this: are women really “topless” if they are wearing painted-on latex on their nipples that fully “covers” them but looks identical to uncovered nipples? The club owner’s attorney referred to this, to my bewilderment, as a “latex bra.” He wasn’t laughed out of court, however, because court is a place where language regularly is tortured into doing unnatural things.
The club owner was excited to get me, an “intellectual” and “professional academic,” on the stand on his side, but the only thing they could get out of me was that I thought latex-covered nipples were yucky and not worth discussing. Personally, I expect the government to protect everyone against any one who tries to cross into his or her space without permission. So in that sense I thought it was a good law. But I thought it should be up to the individuals to give or deny permission. So in that sense I thought it was only a good rule, to be broken. Moreover, although I think its tragic when anyone gives up of part of themselves in order to make money, everyone does this, some more, some less. I was so gray on these issues whose opposing sides took only the most extreme courses, that, in the end, neither side wanted anything to do with me!
As the story progresses in Trixie, these kinds of laws end up perverting the pastoral order of things, to tragic consequences, but not those you would expect, not at all. People who want to use Trixie to argue one side or the other of any feminist issue may be disappointed.
A good “real life” confession like Candy Girl, on the other hand, tends to confirm stereotypes rather than question them, and a good feminist can go to town, so can misogynists, or chauvinists, or any other -ist with a fight to pick. Successful confessional genres tend to “ring true” with common assumptions and say what people generally think but can’t express as well. Candy Girl is undeniably entertaining and cleverly-written.
All that said, I’d like to think that the comic parts of my novel may bear some comparison to Candy Girl — let’s face it, being naked in public is funny.