Live Nude Girls Unite!|
Throw Off the Yoke, but Keep the G-String
October 20, 2000
By A. O. SCOTT
Julia Query, who made "Live Nude Girls Unite!" in collaboration with
Vicky Funari, was raised by her feminist mother to believe, she
says, "in freedom, justice and equality for all." A graduate-school
dropout, stand-up comedian and aspiring writer, Ms. Query shown
in an early home-movie clip reading "Free to Be . . . You and Me"
with her mother has also worked as a stripper at a San Francisco
peep- show house called the Lusty Lady.
Her job, in addition to paying the bills and providing fodder for
her stand-up routine, landed her in the middle of an issue that has
divided feminists for years. Some women insist that exotic dancing
and other sex work is inherently degrading. Others find it a
liberating expression of free choice and sexual independence. Ms.
Query, after a while, just found it boring.
In other words, it was a job. "Live Nude Girls Unite!," which
opens today at the Quad, displays its share of exposed flesh, but
at heart it's a movie about work, part of the rich tradition of
labor documentaries that includes Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County,
U.S.A.," and "American Dream." The idea of a strippers' union may
seem farfetched, even laughable at first; the owners of the Lusty
Lady and San Francisco's municipal authorities certainly thought
so. But Ms. Query's film effectively makes the case that work,
whatever you wear or don't wear when you're doing it, is still
The dancers at the Lusty Lady have tuition to pay and children to
raise, and the claims they make hardly seem extravagant: job
security, paid sick days, a safe working environment. Before the
organizing drive began, the film asserts, dancers were routinely
fired and non- white dancers were routinely discriminated against.
(At upscale lap- dancing clubs, working conditions are shown to be
worse: the dancers must pay extortionate "stage fees" and work as
independent contractors, without the protections afforded regular
employees or the possibility of union protection.)
Ms. Query is a cheerful, smart on- camera presence on and off the
job. Without excessive political posturing, her film quietly
dismantles stereotypes about women who work in the sex industry and
makes its powerful feminist and pro-union argument with
unpretentious good humor. The women who work at the Lusty Lady are
diverse and, as their bosses (many of whom are women) soon
discover, politically savvy. The sight of them at work may be
titillating though, as filmed from the dancers' own point of
view, it's not terribly erotic but the real thrill is in their
fight to form a union and then to negotiate a contract.
Ms. Query captures the story's intrinsic suspense as the dancers,
helped by a negotiator from Local 790 of the Service Employees
International Union, agonize about whether to strike or to accept a
less-than- ideal contract offer. At the end, their struggle
inspires others in the industry, and Ms. Query and her friend
Decadence fly to Pennsylvania and Alaska to spread the word.
The movie is enriched by another, less easily resolved drama
involving Ms. Query and her mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, a physician
who is known for her extensive outreach work with prostitutes in
New York. In one of her stand-up performances, Ms. Query notes that
while it was relatively easy to tell her mother that she was a
lesbian, she hasn't been able to "come out" as an exotic dancer.
When she does, at a conference on prostitution both have been
invited to address, the scene is raw and painful, not least because
the two women seem so alike in their tough-minded dedication to
their convictions. Believe it or not, "Live Nude Girls Unite!" is a
movie that would make any mother proud.
LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!
Written and directed by Julia Query and Vicky Funari; directors of
photography, Ms. Query, John Montoya, Sarah Kennedy and Ms. Funari;
edited by Ms. Funari and Heidi Rahlmann Plumb; music by Allison
Hennessy and Kali with Alex Kort, Blaise Smith and Dale Everingham,
and Khayree Shaheed; produced by Ms. Query and Mr. Montoya;
released by First Run Features. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th
Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 70 minutes. This film is