Don't look for the union label
Live Nude Girls Unite! documents labor union struggles in the sex industry
Who would have thought a documentary about sex workers could be as weirdly charming as Julie Query's Live Nude Girls Unite!?
A Norma Rae-style stripper, Query is an opinionated, outspoken, gay, aspiring comic/writer, riot grrrl type who spearheads the efforts to unionize the San Francisco avant-garde peep show, the Lusty Lady. Live Nude Girls is a liberating, inspirational portrait of women who refuse to let the sexual nature of their work cloud their certainty that they are being exploited by management.
Over the years, the Bay Area Lusty Lady (and its sister club in Seattle) has become legendary amongst alterna-types, known for its progressive pro-woman politics, sassy left-of-center dancers and consequently as an antidote to the exploitation and disrespect of traditional strip clubs.
An ad for the Seattle club promises the Lusty Lady is "a safe, clean, supportive environment for women to express themselves erotically." But a business that bills itself as a compassionate workplace turns out to be as dictated by the economic bottom line as any of the sex clubs that dot San Francisco's cityscape. Dancers of color are given fewer opportunities, senior dancers are discouraged from sticking around as their salaries rise, and inadequate safety measures are taken to protect those Lusty Ladies who writhe and pose behind glass.
Query is a feisty tour guide of the ins and outs of the peep show business. Her fellow dancers are pierced and tattooed punks, Bettie Page-coiffed vixens, artists, women's studies graduate students and single mothers who view stripping in terms from "sacred" to "empowering" to "boring." Query's own tenure at the Lusty Lady, to supplement her meager wages as a stand-up comic, is influenced by her divorced mother's strong feminist example.
But even though Dr. Joyce Walker suckled her daughter on the Free to Be ... You & Me, open-minded, progressive parent vibe of the 1970s, and is herself an outspoken advocate of health care for New York's lowliest street prostitutes, Query can't bring herself to admit exactly what she does for a living. Query spends the entire film stewing about how hard it is to "come out" to her mother about her work in the sex industry.
As much a story about mother-daughter conflict as labor union activism, Live Nude Girls Unite! uses the relationship between Julie and Joyce to show some of the contradictions involved in sex work, especially for feminists, who remain bitterly divided on the issue of whether the sex industry is demeaning or empowering to women.
Query's bare-bones, often silly strategies (including illustrating certain points with cartoons), combined with a shaggy, punk rock sensibility, give Live Nude Girls Unite! a refreshingly unpolished, low-tech feel that enhances the spirited, scrappy, fight-the-power nature of the project. Query may not be the most accomplished documentarian out there, but her passion for her subject matter proves infectious enough to make Live Nude Girls Unite! undeniably fun to watch. For students of labor union struggle, sex work politics, feminist debate and the equally spirited clashes that define parent-child relationships, Live Nude Girls Unite! is almost guaranteed to challenge and entertain.