12/9/2013 update: Yesterday, several commenters pointed out that speculating on the author’s trauma history was inappropriate of us. Upon reflection, we agree that this was specious and unnecessary, and apologize deeply for doing so.
Red: I love stripper memoirs; I buy them all indiscriminately and hope for the best. Strippers are like my family, people I love and hate and get driven crazy by but keep returning to. So you know I read Girl, Undressed when I found a copy at Powell’s. And I hated it. When Caty asked if I wanted to co-review it, I got giddy at the idea of sharing my outrage. Is there anything more fun that being righteously furious with a friend?
For those of you who haven’t read it, Girl, Undressed follows Fowler on a dank and seamy voyage, to places only “the ruined” (her term) can sink. She stumbles around early 2000s Manhattan, a weary traveler promising a glimpse at a New York not “vacuum-packed and delivered to your tastefully decorated abodes via HBO… there’ll be a sad lack of shopping expeditions to Bergdorf’s to punctuate each chapter’s end.” In other words, Fowler is not Carrie Bradshaw (but then who is) and I’m also gathering that she’s not writing this for me or her sisters-in-degradation/fellow strippers.
Unlikely Stripper Ruth Fowler began life as a hardworking middle class Welsh girl: well and good. She even had me with her scholarship to Cambridge: the sink or swim knowledge that no one’s there to catch you if you fall, the hunger and the rage and the determination to get more out of life than what you’ve been allotted? Totally. I’m with her on that, as I think most strippers from a poor to lower middle class background would be. I mean isn’t that a huge reason for stripping, wanting more and wanting the more that stripper money provides?
From here Fowler veers around chronologically, moving from New York back to her post-collegiate travels around the world, (something, I thought sniffily, that most poor scholarships kids don’t have the chance to do, but ok, very nice for her). She gets work on a boat/she can’t find a job in Manhattan/she has numerous affairs with her fellow seamen as well as some questionable encounters that I would term assaults but that she leaves unlabeled/she still can’t find a job in Manhattan/a shipmate gives her the nickname Mimi because (get it? get it?) all she talks about is me me me.
I mean, that’s a sign, Fowler. That’s a definite sign about brushing up on your empathy. It goes unheeded. She begins stripping. “Because by the time we get to that [strip club] stage we are already beyond redemption.”
She jumps back and forth between her youthful travels and her time in New York, having disastrous love affairs and self-centered mishaps in both eras. She hates herself, a lot. Nothing much else happens. There’s a lot of casual racism, callous cruelty and misogyny about the women she works with, and the occasional bit of humor and cleverness. (Don’t think it doesn’t cause me pain to admit she has them).
On stripper names and ho specific multiple personality disorder:
Caty: What is with “Mimi,” her stripper alter ego? Does she really want to confirm the idea that all sex workers have dissociative identity disorder because they use noms de whore? (She seems really not to understand the purpose of the fake name convention. They are not some tragic metaphor about stripping as the ultimate pose—they’re a utility to preserve privacy while working in an extremely stigmatized and victimized profession. Duh.) From the very first mention of her, her work persona, Mimi, feeds off Ruth’s life force the way strippers are supposed to heartlessly drain guy’s wallets. Nice job confirming harmful stereotypes there, Ms. Fowler: “I imagine Mimi as a parasitical spirit, a placenta feeding off my experience, siphoning from my awakening to life…”
Red: I know, I hated that so much! Compartmentalization is not a bad thing and everyone does it to different extents—not just sex workers.
Caty: Compartmentalization is one thing, but inventing a whole other personality to avoid accountability for what one does while stripping is ludicrous. (It wasn’t me! It was my morality free, scuzzy, slutty sex worker self!) Fowler’s problem is her personality, not a sex worker problem. And that’s basically the problem throughout the memoir. Because she has no ability to connect outside her narcissism, all her observations of others are suspect, because she’s not capable of interpreting other people’s behavior, just projecting—therefore, she assumes all other strippers have the same problems she does.
Red: I think there’s nothing wrong with playing dress up with personas, although this kind of delight in the conviction of its frivolity seems like the provenance of the young and confidently well (over?)educated. I feel like she’s already convinced that both Mimi and stripping are frothily, decoratively worthless and haha, isn’t it funny, soon I will have to drink to obliterate the well-educated, well-bred girl who is better than this so that Mimi can take over.
On the book’s bigotry:
Caty: The sheer depth and breadth of the SCORN in this text…
Red: Her scorn is limitless and epic! Even the rich get a taste.
“-Homosexuals filling in the crow’s-feet of disappointment and age with thick, poisonous makeup and repulsively cheery song.”
Within a page, she waxes even more spiteful about the man breasts of fat Midwestern tourists before peaking with a slur-filled description of a woman (Stripper? Waitress? Bartender? It doesn’t matter, the only real person in Fowler’s world is Fowler herself; everyone else exists only as a prop for her contempt.)
Fowler is loathsome and she knows it; her disdain, racism, misogyny, her casual cruelty toward absolutely everyone? It’s real, but it’s just misdirection. As superior as she knows herself to be to everyone around her, she loathes herself most of all.
[New York strippers] love dogs. If you ask about their chihuahuas, their pugs, their runty little lapdogs, you will slot in like you belong.
How does she get so much bitchiness into an observation about beloved pets?
Caty: Hey, homophobia! She indulges in every other form of bias—she might as well complete the set. I just really can’t take the ratio of racism and misogyny per page here. Did you notice how neatly she includes transphobia among her parade of petty bigotries when she sabotages that other stripper by implying to the customer that she just had bottom surgery?
Red: I want to protect everyone from her gaze. It’s as if she took to heart all the applause for Hubert Selby, Jr. and his ilk and decided great literature must of necessity include large dollops of misogyny and gratuitous “gritty realism.” Re: body grossness: mouths like slit throats, asses wobbling like custard, and most of it is targeted at women she works with, although “the Hasids and Hispanics” get a lot too. Maybe her publisher read too much Selby, too.
Caty: Yes, she hates everyone for having a body, especially the marginalized, and indeed, cannot write about homeless people without extensive description of their bodily fluids. For instance, she’s eager to describe a “comatose bum,” his “obscene and swollen” penis sticking out of his fly, “a long trail of urine streaking down the sidewalk.” I feel like the only thing that’s obscene there is her demeaning observation of a vulnerable, unconscious man.
At one point, she’s classist, racist, and anti-Semitic all in one short sentence, and I just had to admire that sort of sick economy of language. At another point, her taxi “narrowly avoid[s] a shuffling bum.” Why was that clause even included? She really just wanted to use the phrase “shuffling bum”?
Red: YES SHE DID! YOU KNOW SHE THOUGHT IT ADDED A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOIS!
Caty: For a whole stretch I just highlighted every time her prose featured cheap body horror: “OMG, that stripper burped, obviously she is subhuman.”
And then there’s stuff like this:”Six ripped black motherfuckers…staring at you..with an air of pugilism.” There are just no words for this level of careless racism. Then she keeps ON calling these people “black motherfuckers” whenever she refers to them throughout the passage. Also, “I call my black bitch in Harlem.” That is an actual sentence from the book.
Red: The way she talks about the men she knows slapping and assaulting her, it’s like it’s so normal it doesn’t deserve any commentary or description of her reaction, it just is. That contrasts so hard with the way she talks about the HISPANICS AND HASIDICS HISSING AT HER ON THE STREET.
Caty: Right, white men assaulting her is just part and parcel of day to day life, but how dare Jewish men and men of color address her on the street? Later she actually just collectively calls them “The Men Who Hiss At You On The Street,” even when she records one of them (how does she know he’s one of them? I’m sure she doesn’t actually differentiate between different Latino men’s faces) saying “God bless you!” to her.
More on unlikely strippers:
Caty: Ah, ye olde Unlikely Stripper Syndrome, as in What’s A Nice Girl Like Me Doing In A Place Like This:
I wasn’t born to this…I have a good degree. I am training to be a yoga teacher. I have ambitions to write journalism and screenplays and fiction. I care about global warming and the crisis in the Middle East. I am a kind person, the kind of person who stops when an old lady falls in the street, who likes animals and babies, who still believes in love…I am the last person you would ever expect to be a stripper, to live this life, to anesthetize myself every night so my bowels drip out of my body rather than press unbearably on the nerve…
This sort of thinking is insufferable. I wish all these erudite, intellectual, UNLIKELY strippers would get together and see how many of them there are and dispense with this insulting and elitist notion of their uniqueness.This might be the most objectionable example of this phenomenon I’ve read since it contrasts the stripper identity with being a “kind person” and “believ[ing] in love.” Right, since sex workers are the avowed enemies of love and all that is good.
Red: And as if yoga teachers are all kind, helpful, and not at all judgmental or sleazy. AND AS IF STRIPPERS AREN’T ALSO YOGA TEACHERS AND MASSAGE THERAPISTS AND JOURNALISTS. Sorry, do I need to cut the caps lock? I’m pumped from walking my runty little stripper dog and ready to fight.
Oh, and this adventures of an accidental stripper theme. They’re all accidental strippers. I cannot be the only girl who found out about stripping and thought, “That sounds ideal,” and not in a “So sexy deviance!” way but “Free time and money for things that already happen for free!”
On Fowler’s sad lack of socioeconomic analysis:
Red: I took umbrage at the multiple classifications of the book under “case studies” according to the ISBN. Excuse me? Her self-loathing memoir is NOT a case study. And for a case study, she doesn’t even touch on the things that make it impossible to get out, does she? Later, does she talk about how an under the table job affects résumés and job history, bank accounts and taxes and rentability? I understand that it works out for her, since she needs to work under the table because of her immigration status. But the difficulty of getting out is complicated and something way more stripper memoirs SHOULD address. Although, they’re all by white middle class college girls. Maybe that’s why they don’t get it.
Caty: POINT. After all that supposed economic realism around her illegal immigrant status, she doesn’t have much socioeconomic insight beyond that, does she? She prefers to focus on bad pop psychological interpretations of other workers’ motivations.
Her general attitude seems to be, “HOW CAN I NOT SUCCEED? I DESERVE TO SUCCEED; I AM A WHITE, WELL-EDUCATED BRITISH WOMAN. WORLD, FEEL MY WRATH.”
“I deserve to succeed” is actually verbatim a sentence in the book, written in all seriousness.
“When your world falls apart, you rely on what you know. When our twin towers fell, Eton and I, it’s what we went back to, sex.”
SHE JUST COMPARED HER BAD RELATIONSHIP TO 9/11 WITHOUT A HINT OF IRONY.
Red: The 2005 setting doesn’t make it better, but it explains a little. At this juncture, I think we all know better than to think we’ll succeed—I mean those of us who aren’t rich—just because it’s so DIFFERENT and bleak now. But her lack of perspective even for ‘05—um, TWIN TOWERS?—is still astounding. I mean, she casually refers to her woes as “the Third Intifada”—THE THIRD INTIFADA, HOW DARE YOU.
Caty: I feel like at this point in my rereading I’m numb to her flippant disregard for the historical struggles of people of color, illegal immigrants, et al. She even writes about arguing the crisis in the Gaza Strip with her boyfriend in this book, so she’s not unaware of the significance of the term “intifada,” she just doesn’t CARE.
On Fowler’s attitude towards her co-workers:
Red: The other strippers at the club: “I can’t remember their names, even though I’ve worked with them four times a week for seven months.” Maybe if you didn’t despise them!
Caty: I really don’t understand how she thought constant reference to her co-workers as “bitches,” “hos” and—in one memorable passage, (referring to Black strippers, of course) as “vaginas on legs”—was going to go down.
Red: The whole paragraph about “what hot is” when she first starts dancing and her coworkers take her to the stripper store?!!? What a special snowflake she is, being so unhot, especially since hot is “breasts bulging like bursting carbuncles,” (nice alliteration there, you heinous bitch) “hair so long you could wipe your ass with it… Hot is plastic-fantastic, hair free holes, feminine excretions exuding a Victoria’s Secret stench.”
Even when I’m almost on her side about the way stripper attractiveness is constructed (and it doesn’t even need to be constructed this way to make a profit, this is about the way people CONCEIVE of stripper attractiveness, which she’s clearly bought into) she blows it by taking it from a critique of artificial exaggerated femininity to, “Ugh, gross, feminine excretions, cooties!”
It reminds me of the bit at the beginning where she takes joy in imagining that this is where all the cool slutty girls in her school ended up. I have that part bookmarked because it made me so angry.
Caty: I highlighted that paragraph about what “hot” is as well. Note that every aspect of femininity is made repugnant, associated with her disgust with people she classes as white trash—it’s not hair “down to one’s ass,” it’s hair “so long you could WIPE your ass with it”—hair that long is now associated with being literally shitty. And she doesn’t miss the chance to drug-shame all strippers in that passage, either, assuming all of them use “thick black kohl liner to whiten the yellow of bloodshot, coked-up eyes.”
And nobody ever “flaunts” their breasts in this book, or has them overflowing out of their shirt. Their “boobs ooze.” Female anatomy as ectoplasm.
Red: Boob jobs have really evolved. Mine is awesome. Obviously it depends on where you go but there’s no need to be so disparaging! “Carbuncles,” really? Saying someone has silicon is not the insult you think, Madam.
Does stripping change you?
“‘No, it doesn’t change us,’ I’ll say, and then stop, wondering whether to go further. Because by the time we get on that stage we are already beyond redemption.” Emphasis hers.
Caty: Yes, that whole repeated theme (she doesn’t want us to miss it!) that women go into stripping because they’re already literally fucked beyond repair. She pretends to disbelieve it the first time she mentions it, seems to realize it’s a pat theory men have concocted to explain why women strip, but then she keeps on averring it over and over throughout the book, like an article of faith.
“..And in that moment hovering between rape and transaction, maybe you’ll entertain the notion that you could save her, this little foreign girl, so far from home and stinking of abuse.” So, not only is the universal “you” of the stripper an abused, “rag doll body,” the universal you of the customer is a cross between a perpetrator and Captain Save-a-Ho.
Oh, and sex for money is nothing but “some guy get[ting] lucky, some girl get[ting] dumb.” Whatever position on extras one takes, let’s not call our coworkers stupid while simultaneously implying that they’ve been exploited, shall we?
Here’s another point she makes repeatedly (I’m starting to believe this manuscript never HAD an editor, given how clogged it is with the extraneous and the repetitive): You can’t have pride as a stripper unless you possess no shame. Obviously, no other option—like not subscribing to a value system in which stripping is shameful—exists.
She can’t even talk about her coworkers doing something as blandly inoffensive as knitting without insulting them repeatedly.
Red: Only dumb bitches knit, though. Only dumb bitches exist, apparently.
She’s so blinded by the light of her own self-loathing, she’s unable to take in any details of how the club actually WORKS and how the other girls do their jobs. She’s too dismissive of the other women to see how they make the club work for them. There are different ways to hustle and dress and little outfit/conversation tweaks that can change or broaden your customer base—it’s SALES, for god’s sake. For example, her thing about the Lolita costuming is dumb for so many reasons. It displays a stupid lack of familiarity with the book, and a weird unfamiliarity with what customers who are into little girls are actually like. I know she thinks of herself as childlike, but there’s been no sign that anyone else thinks that, and if she had actually had an interaction with guys like that…well, it’s hard to miss. She would have included it in her narrative just because it’s so foul (they talk a lot about how you look like their daughter/granddaughter/neighbour’s child, etc. It doesn’t happen to me since I got implants but, in general, it’s the same basic creepy conversation.) I’m off topic now, but it’s just that there’s so many different ways to interact with customers and hers is really wearying: just get drunk and let them do whatever. It’s as if she decided she’s a shameful piece of shit (who is still better than anyone else) and just takes what customers give her. We’re allowed to have boundaries!
Caty: Yes, she never tries to change the pattern of her interactions with customers because she thinks they’re all evil perpetrators and she’s doomed to be a victim as long as she’s doing the job.
Oh, hey, and: “The tears arrive suddenly like amyl nitrate, brain cells popping.”
Red: Some of this is just pure comedy. Like that.
Caty: “I knew I’d been a bad girl when I woke up wearing an unfamiliar G-string with a thousand dollars in twenties scattered around me.”
Fowler clings obstinately to the binarism that either one believes that sex work is sexy and empowering—that’s a delusion—OR one believes that sex work is degrading and objectifying and all women who participate in it are inherently broken—that’s realism. A more nuanced labor analysis doesn’t exist.
Red: Even when I violate my own boundaries I don’t feel like that. I let a guy touch my boobs last night, and it really viscerally grosses me out when customers play with my nipples, but I’m not confusing my nausea with my integrity.
Caty: “I feel like I’m tainted and wrong…like I will never fall in love, or have children, or get married…or lead a life that isn’t twisted with desire and sex and bitterness and filth.”
I was reading about ex-porn star/current anti porn activist Vanessa Belmond denouncing the porn industry, and she was quoted saying, “[n]obody really wants to date a porn star, stripper or escort. Also the whole family thing and having kids, I’m like ‘who’s gonna have kids with an ex-porn star.’ ” It’s wearying to have that reaffirmed by the world around us over and over again, but it’s devastating having to hear that prophecy of doom from another sex worker. But that’s basically all Fowler’s memoir is—that prophecy of doom. I shudder at the idea of an unpoliticized, nineteen-year-old nascent stripper getting a hold of this book and having her worst fears confirmed by someone who claims to be an insider.
Because whatever crap we tell ourselves, whatever clever marketing ploys lie out there justifying and legitimizing the groping and the sex and the abuse, whatever those in power will tell you and our clients will lead you to believe, however strong Mimi is…the soul within is corrupt and rotting, because this job is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Can she stop using that universal we for a second? All Girl, Undressed conveys to me is that stripping was the wrong job for her. Also, that writing about stripping is the wrong job for her.
Speculation on Fowler’s coping mechanisms and her psychological health (since she certainly doesn’t skimp on pondering other people’s):
Red: Have you noticed how many times she’s been sexually assaulted in the pre-stripping parts? It’s hard to tell because she doesn’t frame it like that but that’s what it seems like. Jon Jon, and his friend, and the cook, and at least one more, and then Raoul hits her.
I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming her, because I’m not. But she gives this emphasis to the damage that stripping does to her integrity (or soul or morals or whatever it is she thinks it’s damaging) without really acknowledging the fucked up things that have happened to her in the past pre-stripping, that seem to be feeding into her unhappiness and her inability to draw firm sanity saving boundaries with herself, her customers, and men outside of work, without her admitting it. She gives these assaults a pass, not calling them rape even though that’s what they are, while placing this tremendous negative value on lap dances, of all things. She talks about all strippers as ruined without going into the ways that a history of abuse can make it difficult to negotiate/maintain boundaries or to react to stressors because you already feel contaminated. It’s misleading to say that strippers are these damaged goods that end up where they are because they are ruined by life when the instance of women in general who have experienced assault or abuse is already so high.
Caty: And her trauma is no cause for her to conflate her experience with every other stripper’s.
Red: It’s no cause for anything. It’s just sad, and also, to me, counterintuitive because at its worst, the club is still a place where I get to walk away, and even sometimes have guys thrown out. It feels like a step UP to me, not a place I inevitably ended up because of sexual abuse.
Caty: “I don’t know what makes me different, what makes it easier for me to have my head forced down on someone’s cock than for the next person…(did I enjoy it? did I ask for it? I didn’t hit him, I didn’t say no, I didn’t walk away.)”
Right, because sex workers are obviously hardwired to take abuse. I think she honestly thinks enduring date rape from the manager is part of the job…? Just because sex workers are vulnerable to violence doesn’t mean that sex workers are weirdly sexualized and inherently damaged sluts. She’s confusing the stigma around the job with the job, which I expect from bigots in the outside world, but again, it’s dispiriting in the extreme coming from another worker.
Also, hasn’t anyone ever told Fowler that it’s possible to write in an affecting manner without hyperbole? Not only is stripping heresy, the consequences of doing the job are likened to NUCLEAR FALLOUT: “Just that we did a job because we felt we could cope with the consequences, the sheer weight of our apostasy, the nuclear fallout, not realizing that the half life would be for all eternity, and that the job would be what we were known for whenever we entered a room, someone whispered our name, looked over and glanced into our face, closed and guarded.”
Red: They don’t teach that shit at Cambridge, apparently. One of her Gawker posts ends with the note, “Untainted by a later edit.” That, right there. Problem number two after her heinous personality: Doesn’t believe in editing!
Caty: Throughout the memoir, she tries to convince the reader that she cares about people, she cares about the strippers that plan to get out, and she cares for those who will never try, and the fact that she creates a hierarchy out of those two categories convinces me that she doesn’t care well enough.
Red: Her attempts to convince us she cares are so offensive. It harkens back to what she said about her fellow illegal immigrant and club coworker Lily in the beginning, about how she owed it to her since she hadn’t helped her—although honestly, Lily was in the same situation and she couldn’t have helped her, but maybe she just means she could have been less of a judgmental and self-absorbed asshole.
Caty: I think she could have helped Lily by writing her as a human being rather than as a caricature whose breasts are always referred to as “puppies.”
Red: But that option obviously never occurred to her.
I’m having this complicated mixture of rage-hate and sadness about the book in general. She offends me on every level. I feel contaminated by reading her narrative; I want to pull my hems back from the mud of her awful body gross-out hate-filled prose before it stains me. But it also makes me so sad. It is tragic, not in a way she’s aware of apparently, but it makes me sad to think about what her mental/emotional landscape must be like.
On the pains of briefly empathizing with this author:
Caty: I have to admit I love the part when her customer asks if she had him alone in a room and could do anything she wanted, what would she do, and she responds that she’d make him jack off while she left to make tea and have a cigarette. A very brief respite from the general awfulness of her prose.
Red: There was a part where I thought, “Ugh, don’t make me agree with you,” where she writes, “If you’re doing this job for fun you’re a fucking jerkoff hoochy-ass bitch who needs to get a life.” I wouldn’t use those words, but let’s be real, I worked with girls with trust funds who were doing it for, I don’t know, their own sense of gritty realism and I think they needed to get lives.
And the following is actually pretty true and funny if the rest weren’t so offensive, and she didn’t bury it:
She’ll call me up later, the journalist, tell me she thought about my response. I wonder sometimes if I could do it. Dancing,” she’ll say.
‘Because I’ve had that, you know, flawed past kind of thing. I’ve slept with a lot of guys, done some kinky shit. I think it’d be kind of… sexy.
My smile will be twisted. Just because you like anal doesn’t mean you’re a stripper. But I’ll do the verbal equivalent of noncommittal mumblings, assent, soothing, letting her take what she wants from the situation without taking anything from me—and all the while she fails to realize that this is what makes you good at the job. Not the other thing.
WHAT OTHER THING RUTH, LIKING ANAL? NOT THAT YOU’RE WRONG, BUT WHY THE SUDDEN RETICENCE?
On representation and memoir writing:
Red: I have to comment on her choice to give her rich British ex-boyfriend Eton (of ALL PEOPLE) a voice through his reading the manuscript and expressing his feelings in the text about his portrayal. We don’t need to give those “slit mouthed sluts” a voice, eh? Not like they’re fully human anyway.
Caty: She’d so lulled me into her way of thinking I didn’t even consider that—but yes, ETON is quoted talking about his reaction to reading the book, yet she never allows any of her coworkers to read what she writes about them, so of course she can’t record their reactions to how she depicts them. I mean, Eton is affluent and Anglo-Saxon and male, so the way she badmouths him is mild in comparison to the sheer filth she spews about her fellow strippers.
Red: One would think, would think, right, that another way of helping Lily, besides dehumanizing her and her breasts, fake or not, could have been to include her and her narrative and her visa/ID struggle in her own words—what a way to give it range and human interest! But no. Instead we get Eton, who is uncomfortable with his portrayal.
Caty: “I do wonder sometimes if they could be defamatory, my words. An invitation to former clients and workers, friends and fucks, to behave tortiously, to embroil me in the vicious vocabulary of law suits, the grandiose performance of legal battle? Yet the privacy invaded, the horrendous disclosures, have been mine, and mine alone—or Mimi’s, depending on how you look at it.”
Yes, because you’re too pathologically self-absorbed to focus on anyone else long enough to do justice to their story. Also, THAT’S her concern re: her portrayal of the people in her life? Her liability?
Well, hopefully, Fowler has learned some things since 2008 about intersectionality and compassion. These days, she’s an Occupy L.A. activist and she writes for a wide variety of sites, including covering her recovery from alcoholism at The Fix.