I've been previewing upcoming TV shows, and I've noticed one place where viewers will be spending plenty of time in the months ahead.
Straight male strip clubs.
Strip clubs factor into four shows I've watched in just the last two days: Drop Dead Diva, Wilfred, Necessary Roughness, and (a show currently airing) Love Bites.
One upcoming show, The Playboy Club, is even set in a Playboy Club - not a strip club exactly, but close enough.
Then again, this isn't anything new. It's all part of America's weird, schizophrenic approach to sex: Puritan by day, sex club troll at night (especially during prime time). Recent episodes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Royal Pains, Entourage, and True Blood have all featured strip clubs.
You might think that strip clubs are more common on cable than on broadcast television (and you're probably right). But last season, Desperate Housewives made Susan, one of their main characters, actually become a stripper. But before that she was actually part owner in a strip club, which naturally meant she had to go there several times to check things out. (Most of the housewives have stripped in past seasons, but usually only for their husbands.)
Strip clubs have popped up on the "teen" shows Greek, Smallville, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Gossip Girl -– Chuck Bass even opened one. Sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, Cougar Town, and Raising Hope have seen their characters visit strip clubs recently. And I hope it goes without saying that "crime" shows like Law & Order frequently visit strip clubs.
Plenty of shows even manage the impressive feat of having their straight female characters get lap dances from female dancers – thereby combining the requisite strip club visit with the feeding of straight male lesbian fantasies.
Not surprisingly, there have been at least three strip club reality series, including King of Clubs (on Playboy).
In fact, strip clubs are so ubiquitous on TV that all I pretty much have to do is think of a show that might have featured one, search for the title of the show and the words "strip club," and what do you know? Up pops an episode where the characters visited a strip club.
Even Fringe. No seriously, in a dream, Olivia visits a strip club and kisses the female stripper.
The Walking Dead hasn't had its characters visit a strip club – yet. Let's face it: world-wide apocalypse probably isn't necessarily enough to prevent the writers from figuring out some way to get their characters into a striptease.
People used to tease Charlie's Angels for the ridiculous lengths it went to get its female characters into bikinis or undercover in some profession where women are objectified. But honestly, is television really so different now?
I hope it goes without saying that movie characters go to strip clubs too. Recent examples include X-Men: First Class, Get Him to the Greek, The Hangover 1 & 2, and Date Night.
And yes, I'm deliberately not mentioning the mother of all strip club movies, Showgirls, but only because if I include movies from more than just the last year, we'd literally be here all day.
It's when I write articles like this that I think, "You know, maybe the Parents Television Council has a point." Is this what the artistic freedom of cable television has wrought – the freedom to finally have the stripper take her top all the way off?
All this said, you can make a pretty good case that, to some degree, all these TV and movie strip clubs are accurately reflecting reality: strip clubs are important to many straight men. I don't think real-life men go nearly as often as characters on TV and in movies do, but still.
In fact, it drives me crazy whenever religious leaders accuse the gay community of "promiscuity" by pointing to the existence of gay bathhouses. In the Seattle area, where I live, there are two gay bathhouses – and more than twenty heterosexual strip clubs.
What is a gay bathhouse anyway but an all-volunteer strip club? So how come all these straight strip clubs say nothing about heterosexuals, but gay bathhouses are somehow an indication of deep moral flaws in the gay and bi male community?
You could also make the case that TV and movie writers are just being smart. Most American entertainment is about romance and fantasy. The writers and producers of these shows and movies are exploring their own fantasies.
The problem is that most of these writers, even now, are straight men. And the people who make the decisions – the ones who decide what TV shows and movies actually get produced? Even more of them are straight men.
They're not giving the audience what "it" wants –- they're giving it what they want.
Yes, sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – characters visit male strip clubs. That happened in the recent movie Bridesmaids, but I'm not sure that counts, since the whole point of that movie was to subvert the clichés of the modern bromance comedy.
And Laura Linney and some friends visited a male strip club on a recent episode of The Big C. There was also a male strip show sequence on 90210, but it was as brief and tame as they come.
But there will never be exact parity – nor should there be, since I suspect straight women will never be interested in male strippers the way straight men are in female strippers.
I know I'm wading into the dangerous waters of "gender differences when it comes to sex," but it seems to me that for many women, the counterweight to straight male strip clubs isn't women's-only strip clubs, but rather … the absence of straight male strip clubs.
Or at least a little sensitivity regarding the portrayal of the strippers – making it less about naked women to be leered at by the male characters (and straight male viewers).
Then again … "sensitivity"? What's the point of having your characters go to a strip club if the strippers aren't being objectified?
(Speaking of which, can we please not start with the canard that it's the women who have all the power in a strip club? There may be a grain of truth to that idea in an actual strip club – especially those few strippers who work in woman-owned strip clubs. But on TV, the stripper is never the lead, or the second lead, or anything other than that episode's lust object.)
The truth is I find all these straight strip clubs off-putting – not so much offensive as just plain boring. They're not working for me on the "sex" level, so I guess I'm more likely to see the seams.
And so they mostly seem cliché and interchangeable: doofus male characters leer at sex kitten dancers who always turn out to be either the stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold or the ball-busting dominatrix (or the "surprise" transgender character meant to humiliate someone – another trusty stand-by).
Would I feel differently if these were gay strip clubs? Well, duh. But, um, they're not.
The point is, straight men love them some straight strip clubs – and that's cool. I'm willing to put up with it from time to time in the pursuit of shows I otherwise love. Viva la g-string! I suspect most women feel the same way.
But I'd challenge these writers to ask themselves: if you weren't a straight guy, how might this scene make you feel? How about if you were female and you'd seen that same scene 50,000 times already? What about if you lived in a society where men still call most of the shots, and where a woman's power is often directly related to exactly how hot straight men find her?
Hollywood writers, producers, and network executives? Sometimes your latest script really is the place for you to explore your sexual fantasies.
Then again, sometimes it's not.
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