by Alexis Wilkinson
This piece is an installment in Alexis’ bi-weekly column on feminism and the entertainment industry.
On October 19th, actress and Harvard alum Rashida Jones took to the Twittersphere to discuss what she sees as a concerning trend amongst female celebrities. “This week’s celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores,” she wrote, sparking both applause and outrage from many fans and news outlets.
In a world where a former Disney Channel starlet “twerks” and stripping has become almost passé, Jones’s tweet struck a nerve with those who think that pop culture, particularly entertainment, has taken a turn for the vulgar. While a Clutch Magazine article highlighted that fact that Ms. Jones’ herself has taken her clothes off for money, the comments on that same article were full of people maintaining that doing a spread for GQ in your underwear was somehow different from, say, posting an Instagram selfie of yourself with your nipples only obscured by star-shaped pasties à la Nicki Minaj. From Kim Kardashian’s post-baby body reveal (also via Instagram) to Miley Cyrus’s nearly naked photo shoot with Terry Richardson, these past couple weeks have been full of prominent female entertainers making the decision to pose in various states of undress, much to the ire of Jones, musician Sinead O’Connor, fashion commentator Simon Doonan, and millions of concerned parents the world over.
I believe that too often women who choose to pose nude or strip or engage in other types of “whorish” behavior are spoken about instead of spoken to. With that in mind, earlier this month I caught up with Sarah Tressler, the journalist formerly known as “The Angry Stripper,” to discuss stripper stereotypes, her media saga, and Rihanna’s new video for “Pour It Up.”
Back in winter of 2012, Sarah Tressler was a journalist for the Houston Chronicle who also worked as a stripper to make extra cash, detailing her run-ins with creeps, weirdos, and “Entourage” star Jeremy Piven in her blog entitled “Diary of an Angry Stripper.” Soon, she had more reasons to be angry when the Chronicle fired her after their rival the Houston Press revealed Tressler’s side gig. Tressler took to Good Morning America to set the record straight, which quickly devolved into interviewer Bianna Golodryga haughtily asking Tressler, “Are you proud of yourself?”
“That Good Morning America interview is sort of a perfect example of how not fair it was, or at least not really objective,” says Tressler, now a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News. “That question had a lot of implications, you know what I mean?” I know exactly what she means. The question encapsulates so much of the scolding and disdainful attitude many people take when dealing with adult women who are essentially making a business decision, and, depending on who you ask, a wise one at that. Tressler, who holds a Master’s degree in journalism and was previously an adjunct professor at the University of Houston, could rake in up to $2000 a night doing something she really enjoyed. “I’m a journalist,” she reminds us. “Journalists don’t make a lot of money.”
At first, Tressler was baffled by all the negativity she received and the way she was portrayed as both a naive little girl and a conniving gold digger. She calls her story’s coverage “very revealing in terms of the attitudes that people have about what they think a stripper is.” In the months after the story broke, she was flooded with interview requests, a book deal, and an offer by Gloria Allred to represent her in an Equal Employment Opportunity suit. It was overwhelming and had significant effects on her personal life. “I wasn’t prepared for this at all,” says Tressler. “I wasn’t prepared for what people would try to do.”
Unfortunate run-ins with the American media machine are a dime a dozen. But in the wake of what many fear is the “stripperfication” of the mainstream, her story sheds light on our society’s contradictory views on sexuality as commodity. The crazy thing about American capitalism is that it can encourage the pursuit of money over all else, encourage viewing people as the sum of their assets, and simultaneously shame people for using those assets to make money. Billboards with half-naked women line the streets and men pine over Victoria Secret models, but a woman who chooses to dance in a club is somehow harboring a dark shameful secret.
“It was never something that I was ashamed of or something I was trying to hide,” says Tressler. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with strippers. There are girls in industry who give the industry a bad name, but they’re not all like that. There are people in every industry that if you focus on them, they’re going to give the industry a bad name.”
On the increasing raunchiness of pop culture, particularly Rihanna’s strip club anthem “Pour It Up” and it’s twerktastic video, Tressler laughs a bit saying, “I’m wondering why all these girls want to act and dress like strippers! It’s sort of funny, isn’t it? People probably have different opinions on that…I don’t think that Rihanna executed her dances very well. Can I say that? She needs a little more practice.”
She describes the growing popularity of stripping as “both a good thing and a bad thing.” “For me, it was a good thing. I miss doing it. It’s really fun sometimes…It does kind give you some power over people you’d never meet in real life. It’s a great workout. I like dancing. I took ballet, tap, and jazz and all that. People forget. There’s a big part of dancing in dancing. Stripping is dancing. I don’t know what people think it is. It’s hard work.”
Tressler credits her work in the clubs with increasing her confidence and her ability to read people, skills that help her now that she’s returned full-time to journalism. “I’m really glad that I got to dance. That’s part of my career set. People think that they have just one career, but I feel like I have a career set. I was a career dancer for a while. I’m definitely a professional at that. And I’m a professional journalist now.”
“Dancing is a great way to connect with people. If you do it right and do it well, it makes you a better person. I know that sounds weird but it does. It makes you take better care of yourself. It makes you understand how you act in relationships, how you act when you meet strangers, what your boundaries are even. There are so many things it can teach you if you’re paying attention.”
Perhaps the most important message Ms. Tressler imparted was that when talking about a stripper, “You’re not talking about a thing. You’re talking about a person with experiences who is part of a group of people who have similar experiences.” I can’t help but think that applies to our tendency to poo-poo female celebrities who shake, grind, and twerk their way to the top as well. These women aren’t things. They are people that have every right make their money and shake their moneymakers any way they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone. To make an argument about the sexualization of minors or unsafe sexual practices is one thing. But to argue that women should keep their clothes on just ‘cause? To #stopactinglikewhores because it’s not “classy”? I say try harder, Rashida Jones. Who died and made you whore king?