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Mamas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up To Be Strippers

December 10, 2020

Sheila Hageman
// Peter Reid

e all know the joke about not wanting your daughter to grow up to be a stripper.

So when Miley Cyrus recently reminisced about her father’s concern she was headed to professional stripper-dom when he saw her provocatively dance to Britney Spears’ I’m A Slave 4 U—when she was eight—it wasn’t a surprising reaction. That performance of sexuality is something that many parents might have wrung their hands about.

“I remember my dad was just like, for sure that I was going to be like a stripper from that and I pretty much have become a stripper which is like great, I just get to do it on a large-scale platform — just like Britney Spears.”

But as it turns out, Billy Ray Cyrus isn’t disappointed in his daughter at all.

As much as Miley may consider herself a glorified stripper, dancing in a come-hither fur and latex-laden costumes — her 2013 performance at the VMAs to We Can’t Stop is chock full of half-naked gyrations — but it isn’t exactly a garden variety stripper performance (10 million tuned in to watch). In short? I’m sure her dad would feel differently if Miley was dancing for dollars on a table in a dive bar in their hometown.

And while the majority of pop singers and movie stars are doing the same thing that your local strippers do — taking off their clothes, performing sexually charged moves and gyrating across the stage or screen — we don’t worry about our children becoming actors or pop stars.

We want that. They want that. So, what exactly is the difference?

For starters, the reality of real world strippers isn’t quite so glamorous. Or celebrated by throngs of adoring fans. Heck—we’re happy if we have half a dozen good tippers swaying drunkenly by the stage, beer bottle in one hand and a dollar in the other.

Money — which in turn fosters a gossamer thin layer of glamour — elevates singing and acting to acclaim and adoration, while strippers flounder in run-down bars and stumped-out cigarette butts for the blue-collar workers who need a beer and a babe after a hard day at work. But they’re both merely entertainment.

It seems there is an underlying, collective belief that actors and singers have more “talent” and so their willingness to get naked or be hypersexual is synonymous with Art, while women like me gyrating on smaller stages must live in the flashing-neon stigma of being, simply, “Live Nude Girls On Stage.”

Why must I, or any stripper, defend ourselves that we too are merely performers, leveraging our bodies, rhythm, art and feminism for money?

It’s capitalistic cognitive dissonance that Britney and Miley are empowered and celebrated, but strippers must hang their heads in shame.

And what about when things get a bit more meta? Like Elizabeth Berkeley playing a stripper in Show Girls. Incidentally, Elizabeth Berkeley recalls being ostracized and mocked for her role as an exotic dancer; she says the film left her feeling like a pariah, and it wasn’t just about the box office numbers. "Of course it was disappointing that it didn't do well, but there was so much cruelty around it,” she told People. "I was bullied. And I didn't understand why I was being blamed. The job as an actor is to fulfill the vision of the director. And I did everything I was supposed to do."

Berkeley was merely “playing the part”; I used to say the same thing about my stripping. I was an actress, stripping was a role and while on stage I was performing, too.

So morally, what exactly divides real strippers from fake ones? Does the associated money and stardom of fake strippers bring virtue along with it? Aren’t they both taking off their clothes for money? Aren’t they both portraying a character entertaining an audience and using their sexuality for monetary gain?

Perhaps part of the difference is the stigma that real strippers are promiscuous and desperate—in mind and body — and they’ll do anything for money. As opposed to starlets and pop stars who are doing exactly same thing … just for more money. Consider the logic there.

The old accusation I’ve gotten many times from ex-boyfriends has been, there’s no difference between stripping and prostitution. And if there’s no difference between stripping and acting like a stripper, then is there any difference between prostitution and acting?

Women involved in each of these lines of work perform sexual acts — literally and metaphysically — for money.  And if money is the only thing delineating the morality between these three performances that’s quite a blurry and troubling line.

And who gets to decide what the line is between what is sexy and provocative — Cardi B’s WAP spent more than five weeks as No. 1 on the Streaming Songs chart — and what is “morally wrong”?

What is at stake for society if it’s true that those acts are all the same?

When I first started in the local dive bar strip club scene, there was no touching allowed, so I felt comfortable not allowing the touching because it was illegal and because I could say to the customers, Oh, no…I’ll get in trouble if I do it. I don’t want to get fired.

I was just following the rules.

But once I moved to New York City and started stripping in the upscale Gentlemen’s clubs, the law allowed touching above the waist. The line got too fuzzy and just about every man tried to cross it. That was when I started planning my exit. The stripping spell was broken; I was no longer separated by the fourth wall of the acting stage.

Again, while actors and pop stars also touch strangers' bodies for money, there is something different and rarefied about that intimacy that viewers forgive. There is a layer of protection and cleanliness reserved for starlets—something sanctified about their position in the hierarchy of women’s roles.

If they see a performer who is rich, famous, and “accepted” as an ideal woman in culture, then all her hypersexuality and performing of sex is consensual, artistic, and stems from talent.

If they see a woman who they think, even for a moment that they might be able to buy her for the night, she’s just a cheap whore.

Capitalism is the thing that cleanses the palate and makes viewers feel better in the crowd.

I remember when I was still dancing, so many customers were dying to know what I would do if one day my daughter told me she wanted to be a stripper. I would laugh, and joke, and say, Well, if I have any idea about the way children and parents are, they’re usually the opposites. So, with my luck, my daughter will want to become a librarian.

Which is kind of funny because I always thought I might become a librarian and I did end up becoming an English professor. Maybe it’s like what they say about cops—that they’re only like 1 degree away from being robbers…

And all these very many years later? I do have a teenage daughter, who actually wants to be a librarian.

Should I be worried she might want to become a stripping librarian on the weekends? Or that she’ll play a librarian by day, and stripper by night, in a movie? Would I be unhappy with her stripping on the local stage, but brag to friends if she played the role in a Hollywood film?

No. I simply want her to own her sexuality, her work, and her life.

And I want the world to respect her choices, and confront the hypocrisy of judging — or adoring — all these half-naked women making money.

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