Review: This One’s for the Ladies Has Something to Say About America

There’s a surprising sense of communal exchange between the male strippers and their fans in Gene Graham’s documentary.

This One's for the Ladies
Photo: Neon

There’s a surprising sense of communal exchange between the male strippers and their fans in This One’s for the Ladies, Gene Graham’s documentary about the underground male exotic dance scene in New Jersey and Baltimore. The strippers all have catchy names: Young Rider, Smoove, Mr. Capable, Satan, and the brother duo of Raw Dog and Tyga. But so do the aficionados who follow them from show to show: Poundcake, Sweet Tee, and C-Pudding. There’s even a pair of young women identified as Double Trouble, whose interviews, like those given by Raw Dog and Tyga, are full of cross-talk and mutual sentence-finishing.

Then there’s Michelle, who becomes all the more memorable because she refrains from the naked exuberance of the other women. While they freely talk about the pleasures of attending the very raunchy shows, Michelle is more reserved. Showing off her Mr. Capable calendar, which sees the thickly muscled man in various states of undress, she emphasizes that she admires him because he actually is a firefighter. Michelle, the film’s only white woman, comes off as terminally repressed: Early on, she protests that, unlike some of the other women, she isn’t into being slapped in the face by a dancer’s dick, but later in the film, she cites the lack of said dick-slapping as the reason she won’t go to “white strip clubs.”

One can’t help but laugh at Michele, but she only seems ridiculous in the context of the ensemble of other subjects capable of being much more open about their sexuality. Some of them have formed a collective, Classy Nasty Ladies, whose name sums up the homegrown sex positivity of these working-class devotees of the strip club. The women don’t mask their enjoyment of these shows, and don’t see it as conflicting with their lives as wives, mothers, or churchgoers. The same goes for the strippers themselves, who take pride in their work: Raw Dog’s children have even seen their father’s show, and express the same kind of begrudging pride you might expect from a teenager whose dad runs a small business.

The shows, several of which we see at length in the documentary, reach a level of intimacy that strip clubs aimed at straight men disallow. The men begin by dancing and gyrating to music, but by the end of the show have often pulled women onto the floor with them, incorporating them into a hands-on performance that blurs the boundary between sex and its simulation. The form of dancing here is much more participatory than one would expect from a mere striptease, with only the thin sheaths the men wear over their genitalia, and the dollar bills the women toss at the men, the only tokens of separation between dancer and spectator.

Graham’s documentary gets intimate with both the dancers and the women, following them into their everyday lives. While the humanization of people we otherwise see in the orgiastic atmosphere of the club is more than welcome, the film makes a scattershot impression. While Graham discovers inimitable and memorable personalities among his subjects, there isn’t a strong thread to tie some of these sections together.

But following its subjects outside of the club does lead the film to some interesting places. Raw Dog and Tyga, the elder statesmen among the dancers, take the camera on a tour through the now-boarded-up Jersey neighborhood they grew up in during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. In shots taken on the streets of Baltimore, the camera catches murals dedicated to Freddie Gray and other victims of police violence. Although it conveys the joy women enjoy at strip clubs, This One’s for the Ladies doesn’t totally isolate those fun nights from the challenges of being black in America. Those shared experiences and challenges are another thing that unites the dancers and their adorers—well, except Michele.

Score: 
 Director: Gene Graham  Distributor: Neon  Running Time: 83 min  Rating: NC-17  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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