Being a stripper means that other people will never run out of questions for you. "How much money do you make?" "Can they touch you?" "Do you do that thing on the pole?" "Who tips better, Democrats or Republicans?"
Well, no. No one asks that last one, except for journalists working the presidential election beat. Every four years they converge on the national conventions, looking for something — anything — to talk about that's not poverty, climate change, or the ever-increasing income discrepancy in the U.S. Real problems make people sad, and sad people don't click on links. Titillated people do, and a quick way to capture their interest is to put "Strip Club" in a headline. Sure, strippers are service workers, and you could write this same sort of piece about bartenders, hotel staff, and cab drivers, but there wouldn't be the opportunity to make fun of the fact that someone uses the name GiGi professionally (stop making fun of stage names, writers. "Newt" isn't on anyone's birth certificate, either).
What a golden gift to journalism it was, then, when the Republicans chose Tampa, FL for their 2012 convention. It has long been one of America's Great Strip Club Cities, up there with Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, and Portland, OR for the number and scale of its strip clubs. Tampa also has a significant place in ecdysiast history as one of the first cities to popularize the lapdance. If you're going to write about strippers, it's such a good place to start. The place where the sex/service industries rub up against powers working contrary to its interests is a springboard for discussing education, health care, and labor rights. Or the hypocrisy of a party invested in legislating against sexual freedoms patronizing adult businesses. Or how a strip club is a public place where people interact across socioeconomic backgrounds more freely than almost anywhere else.
But why would you want to do all that when you can stick with the Strip Club Trend Piece Format? "Here at Bob's Hut of Honeys, dancers and management are preparing for the attendees of [party convention]. They are expected to bring [dollar amount] to [town] and Bob thinks the week will be extra-profitable. [Stripper answers question where she appears not to know the difference between Paul Ryan and Ryan Lochte.]"
Observant readers will note the "conventioneers expected at strip clubs" hype is focused almost solely on Tampa — mentions of Charlotte, NC are hard to find, which is curious, because it's not a bad strip club town. Perhaps it's not as interesting to ask about Democrats going to the clubs, or the notorious bust that the 2008 DNC was for Denver strippers has put reporters off of the trail there. But mostly it's just that Tampa is so overwhelmingly notorious as a strip club town. Pieces like these are just as common when it plays host to the Super Bowl. But take note that reports so far indicate that, whether due to delegates being warned to behave themselves or Tropical Storm Isaac, the clubs are much slower than expected. Thank goodness we can look forward to some solid follow-up reporting about the fate of the Tampa strippers — oh, of course we can't. But in their honor, let's look at the five trend pieces of 2012 that exemplify the genre.
The Trendsetting First Local Piece: "Strip clubs swivel online to entice RNC visitors," Tampa Bay Times
This early June report on how Tampa clubs — mainly 2001 Odyssey — were going online to recruit customers in advance of the RNC had real news value. For one, it was the first coverage of the Make It Rain Machine, a hybrid ATM/dollar pinata that sounds, frankly, fucking amazing: "Controlled by an ATM-like kiosk, the Make It Rain Machine allows customers online and in the club to drop as much as $2,000 in dollar bills from 2001's ceiling onto dancers. Rolling thunder accompanies the lucrative storm while the DJ announces the rainmaker's name and dedication. Performers can be tipped over the Web." Now that is how you monetize the Web. While it doesn't touch on national or local politics, it's a solid piece of reporting on marketing and technology.
The Photo Essay: "A photographer visits a strip club," Reuters
Wide shots of customers at the stage, photos of dancers talking to customers, exterior shots, only a couple of photos that show anyone's face: There's nothing interesting here. These photos are of a better quality than the mobile phone shots GOP operatives warn of being hazardous to one's reputation, but much less illuminating. You can take anything and make it boring — even photo access to a strip club. The worst part of this essay is the photographer's diary, where his giggly tone and efforts to make sure we know he doesn't usually go to that kind of place seem sheltered for a professional photojournalist. He must normally photograph garden shows and that monkey that rides a dog at the rodeo. Any strip club photo essay is pointless if it doesn't go into the dressing room, offices, or lapdance room, and to be fair, he was most likely denied access to those spaces. What is this essay supposed to tell us about Tampa and its strippers? That they wear spandex and heels? That strippers exist in a strip club? Useless.
The Times Does It: "Strip Clubs in Tampa Are Ready to Cash In on G.O.P. Convention," The New York Times
Published at the end of July, this piece was slightly ahead of the pack. Several odd contortions in this piece leap out. The strangest is its refusal to call Sarah Palin or her stripper/porn performer doppelganger Lisa Ann by name, instead saying "The headliner that week is expected to bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain ex-governor from a wilderness state, known for her strong jaw and devotion to guns and God." Its first draft, corrected after I complained to Sam Sifton on Twitter, stated that Cincinnati had more strip clubs per capita than Tampa, which is impossible. Cincinnati has exactly zero strip clubs. Strippers are negged in the second sentence with some choice scare quotes: "Déjà Vu is welcoming extra 'talent' from around the country in its V.I.P. Rooms." "Talent" is in quotes, because, you know, being a talented stripper isn't a real thing. Tampa's strip club reputation and the reluctance of the city officials to claim it as an asset are remarked on, a classic theme. Like a city official is ever going to say "Why the hell do you think we get so many conventions? Of course the clubs are a civic asset."
The Local Celebrity Profile: "Tampa Strip Club King: RNC Not Great For Business," The Associated Press
Joe Redner, the owner of Mons Venus, is such a great character that it's impossible to fault journalists for profiling him. The guy has gone through treatment for lung cancer, fought First Amendment battles with the city, and loaned out land to Occupy Tampa. He's also been a strip club owner for decades, so he's definitely acted like an asshole on occasion. He's also a realist, and told the reporter "I don't expect the RNC to be as busy as Super Bowl. I don't think those people are coming to party." This profile scores points for going contrary to the "Clubs expect windfall" theme prominent in most articles.
You Can't Expect Us To Act Like This Is A Real Story: "Strippers look to GOP to 'make it rain,'" CNN
There are at least seven instances of unnecessary scare quotes in this long CNN piece about Tampa's clubs and their employees. The "author" uses them to "indicate irony" when discussing "gentleman's clubs" (sic) and the "death lay," which is an actual pole dance move, but you wouldn't want someone to confuse it with something from legitimate dance, like an "arabesque." But then halfway through the story, its tone changes abruptly to sympathetic personality profiles of, again, Redner, and the house moms — dancer managers —at a couple of Tampa clubs. It ends with the reporter being slightly sexually assaulted by a stripper, Ya-Ya. There's very little to tie this article to the convention and its attendees, though a Baylor study about Craigslist escort ads in the 2008 convention cities is cited for some reason. That's sort of like talking about the tips cab drivers get in the middle of a conversation about bus drivers. They both drive things, but the one has little to do with the other. There is not a huge difference, in thrust, between this second half of the story and the ones run annually in college newspapers whenever the features editor decides there should be a story about the club where some students work.
Susan has more opinions about sex work and media at titsandsass.com.
Image via Vasilchenko Nikita/Shutterstock.