Infected Kat, played by Jenna Jameson. She is actually a better dancer once zombified.
Zombie Strippers is a movie that I watched. Had I not been compelled recently by another piece of writing to critically engage with this film, believe you me, I never would have. Not because I am a prude, in either the sex way or the gore way, nor because I have forgotten how to write, or am trapped under a heavy object, or unable to access the internet. Also not, truly, because I fear either Jenna Jameson or real zombies, sex workers or not. Only because this is a “film” notable only for its zeitgeisty title and surprising, subsequent, boringness.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking what I was thinking a few months ago: Zombie strippers! What can go wrong! The person who is saying this movie is boring has no sense of humor, and is clearly stupid, to boot! I will watch it, and laugh heartily, and possibly also become scared. Well dear reader, let me tell you something: I wish I were you. You know why? Because after this little scenario unfolded in my own life, I petulantly went ahead and watched Zombie Strippers, although I had been warned not to, convinced that the world was wrong and that the sheer hilarity could not help but come through given the title and all and now I am sad that I did it, but you are happy because I am going to save you the ten minutes you might otherwise devote to realizing I am right by explaining to you exactly what happens in this movie: a stripper is infected with a zombie virus. She refuses to give up her job and, uninterestingly, the clientele of her strip club is thrilled by her new stiff and awkward moves, which are a little bit janky but mostly regular “sexy”, which probably says more about the clientele of strip clubs being desperate for interesting entertainment than it does about this film’s ability to make social commentary about same. Other strippers are infected with the zombie virus. Jokes are made, and fall flat. Some are notable only for extremely offensive racism. Literary allusions are sprinkled about as if by someone who had never heard of books. Clients get eaten. The army is involved. Shootout, resolution, end credits. Cue your bitter disappointment.
(I hesitate to mention this, but of our small viewing party, one of us was so filled with resentment after watching that this person took to Twitter-stalking Jenna Jameson, who had recently endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Explanation for a shitty film? Just deserts? Further evidence of psychosis? Who can say.)
But a piece I came across recently on The Good Men Project website has me thinking about Zombie Strippers again. Not because it was an interesting film, but because of my firm belief that anyone who claims it was an interesting film is not only wrong, but not very bright. I won’t here launch a critique of The Good Men Project on the whole, the self-proclaimed “glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like,” that wants to be a website, a media empire, and a social movement. That’s for folks more engaged in defending a particular notion of feminism than I. I will say that I think it’s a good idea, a website that is also a social movement about gender inequity grounded in male participation, although I have never read anything on this one that wasn’t deeply misogynist and sex essentialist. This was no exception.
My rule of thumb is, don’t link to it unless you genuinely want people to read it, which is one reason the short essay makes such a good companion essay to Zombie Strippers: If you are a good person, there’s not a reason on earth you should experience it for yourself. More or less, the piece aims to present eight lessons about men gleaned from horror movies. These are wholly predictable and one could easily pull the exact opposite lessons from the exact same films if one wanted: “Trust your buddies,” for example, “Look after your mum,” and “Looks ain’t everything.” The lessons are excuses to name horror movies the author, one Ally Fogg who apparently also writes for the Guardian, thinks are cool, and indeed the piece was a Halloween tie-in from earlier this year.
Yet Fogg’s introductory paragraphs are more disturbing than any of the flesh-crumbling ooze-dripping images that accompany his flick pics: he calls forth Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, first explaining what he picked up from it—gender is performative—and then segueing quickly into a joke about how Butler is boring. “Her books would be so much more engaging with a gratuitous shower scene and a couple of spectacular decapitations,” Fogg writes. From then on (and this is in the second paragraph) the piece becomes his excuse for jokes of the Take My Wife Please, Zombie Overlord variety, so it is difficult to discern whether or not much thought was put into its writing at all. So I say with some sense of barking up the wrong tree that if you are going to be so thoroughly dismissive of the notion of gender performativity, that you might not “get” gender. And, indeed, Fogg goes on to claim that everything he knows “about gender” he “learned from trashy horror movies.” By omission, he is also implying he knows a lot “about gender” but that assumption quickly dissipates. He notes an apparent cannon of “feminist horror movies: Alien, Cat People, Ginger Snaps,” (these are good movies that do have fascinating themes related to gender, but as we’ll see below, that’s a pretty far cry from “feminist”), claiming that feminists have learned much from them. This, he charges, is unfair: “Much less has been written on what the genre tells us about men and masculinities,” he concludes. It’s laughable, but only if you’ve ever read feminist critiques of the genre. To respond to this perceived omission, that men have been left out of horror, Fogg suggests: “You might conclude that men have got better things to be doing with their lives,”—than the mass of outspoken feminists, who sit around watching slasher movies all day, sucking up all the available space for horror film theory?—“but I’m living proof that at least one of us does not.”
Having trouble keeping up? Allow me to recap: Judith Butler is considered important, but is actually boring. Feminists have gleaned much from horror movies, and it’s high time men had their chance. Also, there are essential characteristics about feminists that I, the author, can note and dismiss, but men are interesting and unique individuals. These feminists—all they do is sit around watching horror movies! Most men are probably above that, but I will sink to the feminists’ level. Some squirrel somewhere will eventually climb even the wrong tree, and a dog’s bark is then justified: There is something really wrong with the way this guy thinks about gender—and about horror films.
Robert Englund and Roxy Saint, in Zombie Strippers. Why yes, that’s a woman holding a boom mic in the back there.
In proof: the penultimate life lesson Fogg shares with us is: “Sex workers are people too. Even when they are zombies. Key text: Zombie Strippers.”
“The most ball-bustingly feminist trashy sexploitation flick ever made, “ he calls it, explaining: “in order to become better at their work, they [strippers as yet uninfected with the zombie virus] quite literally dehumanize themselves, by choice. Whether or not it looks like a smart choice to you or me is irrelevant. Should you be so bold as to try to ‘save’ them from themselves, you’re likely to end up as a zombie stripper supper.”
It’s cute, the way he tries to incorporate pro-sex-worker rhetoric into his enjoyment of Jenna Jameson’s pole-dancing scenes, and perhaps a tad defensive. The problem is that he’s totally blind to the two structures that are actually enforcing the dehumanization of the strippers: the management of the club where the strippers dance, and the film in which it is depicted.
The club—mismanaged by desperate-seeming overseer Robert Englund—quickly notes the increase in profits that comes from employing strippers that are zombies, and fosters a situation in which more employees can infect themselves, even going so far as to hiding the corpses of their clients’ meals from outside detection, ensuring continued profits from the club’s secret zombie-friendly labor practices. (I didn’t entirely go for this NYT piece “A Zombie is a Slave Forever”, but the way zombies operate in labor history really shouldn’t be overlooked here.) The strippers, in fact, feared for their jobs even before the zombie virus struck: when it became clear zombiness was condoned, both by clients and by management, of course some chose to keep their jobs and infect themselves.
This is partially because the sex industry does not adhere to the standard notions of supply and demand that we pretend upholds the price system. Portland-based writer Emi Koyama has noted on her blog that:
[T]he supply side of prostitution market (people in the sex trade) are often there in the first place because they lack other viable or comparable economic options, and the reduction of the demand (and hence the price of sex) does not change that circumstance. If many sellers of sex do not have comparable alternatives to selling sex, they will be stuck trading sex for money even if the demand (and hence the price) goes down. That is, supply in prostitution market is downwardly inelastic.
Now, we’re switching metaphors a bit here: Koyama’s arguing about the problematic End Demand movement, which supposedly targets the customers of commercial sex but instead primarily harms laborers by driving down the price, and increasing health and safety risks. See here:
[These] policies will have two other consequences for the sellers beyond the loss of income, both of which are harmful to the people who either consensually or unconsensually engage in the sex trade. First, they lower the seller’s bargaining power, which is the ability of each side of the transaction to “take the business elsewhere.” When the number of buyers decreases, it leaves sellers with a smaller number of potential buyers to negotiate with, and buyers with a larger number of potential sellers. In a market environment like this, buyers can easily find other potential sellers who might agree to a more beneficial (to the buyer) deal, they have a greater bargaining power that they can take advantage of. Sellers on the other hand cannot afford to lose the business by insisting on a favorable deal, and are pushed into arrangements that are less safe or comfortable, such as engaging in unprotected sex or performing acts they consider degrading.
The metaphor holds: End Demand legislation forces sex workers to take increasing risks with their own health and safety in order to continue working in the industry. As if, in a fictional environment, they had agreed to infect themselves with the zombie virus for same.
Still, as I recall the film, Fogg’s dead wrong: No one attempts to “save” the strippers from zombification; nor does anyone attempt to “save” them from stripping. (Although one sweet young Midwestern thing does reconsider her options a few times, and I may just not remember a minor plot point or two, because the film really was that boring.) But the strippers are also presented as hateful, unkind, and dehumanized—even before the first one goes zombie. No one seems to care about them at all, and customers and management alike aim to take advantage of the women, both before and after infection, and both sexually and economically. It’s trashy, true. But feminist?
There’s just no case for reading Zombie Strippers as an empowered narrative of sex worker’s rights, especially when actual organizing in the industry faces bigger hurdles than whether or not you can convince a rabid co-worker to bite you between pole-dances. “In most cases, at the first sign of dancers getting organized, a club will just make working there impossible for them,” Melissa Gira Grant writes at the Atlantic. “Legally speaking, it’s retaliation, sure—but who is going to enforce the National Labor Relations Act at the tip rail? (And if you do know who, spread the word. So far only one union represents a strip club in the United States.)”
The Good Men Project is not concerned with sex workers’ rights—that’s clear. And the site/movement would be wholly uninvested in a notion of “feminist” that not only represented, but was represented by, women in the industry. The film industry is not unlike a strip club: individual workers may be feminist, but the club itself is not unless the female workforce shares in profits and management decisions.
Having Jenna Jameson involved is an OK way to start. Whatever. But having a woman in something isn’t enough to call it feminist, whether or not that woman is a porn star. True, there are other women in it (and other porn actors). The film even passes the Bechdel test—barely. (The women do talk to each other about something other than a man, even if it is only the rules of the club and the man they are set by, and the way the customers, who are men, react to the zombified dancers.) But let’s give it to ‘em: the film’s trying for some kind of women-led narrative.
Still, of the 68 actors in the film, only 19 are women; Jay Lee directed, wrote, and produced the thing; the rest of the production team includes five men and two women—none of whom are Jenna Jameson. I could go through the rest of the crew, but you get the picture: the women here are called upon mostly to take their clothes off. (A few play awkwardly sexualized agents from a bio-military force I won’t go into.) The behind-the-camera labor force is 80% male; the actors they control are 70% male. Onscreen, female characters talk to each other about the things that men do, if not men exactly, before agreeing to grave concessions in health and well-being in order to stay employed in a job in which there are no safety nets. Offscreen, profits from their exposure—of skin, at first, then of rotting skin—benefit mostly (and at the top levels, all) men.
If this is feminist, I’d prefer to go zombie, any day.