Sascha Vykos: The other day, I was listening to my favorite podcast, I Don’t Even Own a Television, riffing on Diablo Cody’s magnum opus Candy Girl, and the thing that particularly stood out to me was that: 1) I didn’t ragequit listening to a bunch of men talking about sex work and 2) they were interested in the opinions of actual sex workers about the book. While i am “academically” qualified on the subject (I’ve read every academic work on stripping), I felt somewhat unqualified to add to the conversation. So I contacted my friend, Lola, a bona fide ex-stripper, who agreed to join me in exploring the literary hell that is Candy Girl. Here are the initial thoughts she had on the work in question.
Lola: In Candy Girl, Diablo Cody goes “undercover” as the world’s most inept stripper. It’s unclear what, exactly, her mission is. There’s a vague sense that she’s sowing some wild oats; there’s a vaguer sense that she’s doing it at least partly for her creepy boyfriend (and later husband) Jonny, because he digs the idea of her stripping. She cuts a grim figure as a stripper. She does lame things that make her seem like a drag to work with, like stand sullenly off to the side while her coworkers grill chicken outside one day. Every one of her coworkers is painted as a reject from the casting call for Maury, and in every conversation that she records between herself and them, she comes out seeming impossibly charming and quick on her feet. The whole thing stinks. Around her fellow strippers, Cody behaves like nothing so much as an embarrassed child watching her parents do something totally cute and innocuous.
A year is enough time to make good money as a stripper if you don’t blow every spare dollar on wigs and nail art like Cody does. Her chief obstacle, though, is an extraordinary lack of self-awareness, topped with a generous dollop of self-consciousness. She knows she’s bad at hustling, but is unable to make even the most token improvements to her game until she’s about to quit. She spends months barely making her house fee before she has an epiphany about the secret to stripping success, and that secret is so glaringly obvious (make your customer think you like him and don’t be so surly all the time!) that one wonders how she even managed a full year.
Here are some highlights from Cody’s stripper experience, in no particular order:
- When she’s hired at her first club, she calls Creepy Jonny to give him the good news and then mopes for a second, saying that she’s sure they hire everyone. Jonny disagrees: “You’re so hot! You’re ablaze! … They wanted you because you’re gorgeous.” This is funny for two reasons: one, it is Jonny’s first (but by no means his last!) instance of being Creepy Jonny, the Ain’t Shit Stripper Boyfriend™ he becomes more and more completely as he lets his girlfriend work two jobs to support him and his daughter; and two, yes, Virginia, barring any visible and particularly obtrusive drug problems, they basically do hire everyone, especially when “everyone” is white.
- Cody notes in the first few pages how wild it is that she chose to be a stripper in Minneapolis, citing the insistence of the women she worked with that she needed to go to Vegas or LA to make real money. Either these women were lying to Diablo Cody because she was such a haughty asshole to them all the time, or she made that piece of dialogue up completely. Every good stripper knows that the Money (that unavoidable El Dorado of stripper mythos in which the customers tip in gold bars and the pole is made of solid pearl) is in the middle of the country somewhere, or else near a naval base maybe, never static, always wherever you aren’t, taunting you from its home in some secret dive whose name nobody knows for sure. Previous sites of the stripper El Dorado have included Guam, Hawaii, and Williston, North Dakota.
- Towards the end, Cody describes a restaurant that her family once owned, the door of which was adorned with a plaque that read “GUT ESSEN, GUT TRINKEN.” “Nobody in my family was able to translate this, as my clan was neither German nor intellectual,” says Diablo Cody, an actual published author and acclaimed screenwriter who has just spent north of two hundred pages whining about how much smarter she is than her fellow sex workers. Interestingly, though she is unable to transliterate this most basic piece of German into English, she is able to follow her Russian coworkers’ conversations perfectly and without a hitch, on the strength of having minored in Russian in college. This lends a Cold War creepiness to the time she spends with these Russian women in the dressing room, listening keenly as they have the exact same banal conversations that all bored employees have in all break rooms everywhere.
- There is a wholly erroneous list of the top ten stripper songs, and I do mean wholly erroneous; even the couple songs that make sense (“Back in Black,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me”) are automatically invalidated by the fact that the song “Amber” by 311 is on here and apparently not as a joke. When Sascha and I were first discussing our various feelings about this book, most of which were in all capital letters and unprintably profane, we kept getting stuck on this. Why, Diablo? Why “Amber”? Was “Friends in Low Places” not available? Did “Red Red Wine” not feel quite naff enough?
SV: Diablo has fucking TERRIBLE taste in music: her #1 song to strip to is “any hip-swiveling R&B fuckjam,” and she anoints “Ignition (Remix)” as the #1 in that category, rather than the obvious choice of “Pony” by Ginuwine, which also has a better beat. Even the dancers in the R. Kelly video are kinda swiveling laconically rather than, you know, dancing. Despite the 3-minute cutoff at every club she works at, she claims “Purple Rain” by Prince is the #2 song (which part? the talk singing intro?). The aforementioned “Amber” is #5 and is a song I have never heard in a strip club or even among the perpetually stoned. Everyone knows 311 sucks.
Lola: I wish the rest of the book was this delightfully surreal, but it’s only enraging. She’s more like the average casual club customer than she is like the other dancers: she puts strippers on the same pedestal that her customers do, and yet simultaneously disdains them in the same way. Listen, Diablo: You saw those snobby men for their ickiness, didn’t you? You disdained their foul behavior, the way they deliberately didn’t wear underwear so that they could “enjoy” lap dances, the way they always wanted more than you were willing or able or legally allowed to give. It’s easy to judge that ickiness as ickiness, because it lives so close to the surface. It’s harder to turn that gaze inward and realize that you view your coworkers more or less the same way as these sweatpants bonermen do: as majestic goddesses and, simultaneously, as trash.
Now, I don’t believe that any of the conversations with coworkers that appear in Candy Girl ever happened. They’re all too pat, and they make Cody look too smart. Still, the composites she chooses to draw are telling. It’s as though she took one of those dreadful Playmate of the Month interviews and gave it dialogue and an alcohol problem. The strippers she writes are that flat, with that little to say about anything real. The deepest things they ever talk about are turning tricks and baby daddies—you know, stripper stuff.
SV: And I think this is where the hollow core of this exercise in propping up the superiority of Diablo Cody, rather than an actual book about stripping, really comes through: Diablo doesn’t seem to talk to a single person. The conversations seem to set up that she is worlds apart from strippers, that their good looks can’t transcend the fact that she is middle-class and a white-collar worker (ignoring that one stripper literally tells Cody that her primary employment is being a realtor). And it’s not like I can draw from personal experience here, but it seems like Diablo is happy to stare at her coworkers, made up to do a job, and decide that that is the sole content of their lives. This leaves Diablo with pop culture references rather than insight.
Lola: The thing about Candy Girl as a branding exercise that truly infuriates me is that it basically couldn’t fail. I’ll grant that nobody wants to read a detailed, unsexy treatise on the quotidian aspects of stripping, any more than they want to read a thirty-chapter volume by a certified public accountant on the ins and outs of Quickbooks. Still, the fact remains that the media market is thoroughly saturated with salacious stories about sex workers that are widely read and discussed. Can you even imagine Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Administrative Assistant? At the end of the day, sex work gets read about, other jobs don’t.
Make no mistake: Diablo Cody knew exactly what she was doing. She didn’t start stripping because she needed the money; she wanted to partake in what she saw as the arcane erotic power of strippers, to claim for herself some of the glamorous mystery that attends a job in a heavily stigmatized field and then to use that glamour to make herself famous. That particular sexy, I-know-something-you-don’t-know power can be devastatingly effective in a strip club setting. Divorced from that setting, and dripping with aspiration and middle-class snobbiness, it is only ugly. At least, to me it is. To the average reader who has never worked in a strip club, there’s probably no difference.
SV: I think another aspect to this is that she has a really haphazard sense of what she is doing. She doesn’t see any of the distinct sex work jobs (phone sex, j/o show, stripping, etc.) as requiring a particular set of skills. And that is what irks me: whether $pread or Tits & Sass or any academic publication on the sex industry, there is a pretty solid idea that even within stripping there is a (classed/raced/age-sensitive) difference in the sort of sex work you perform, and Diablo reads (as you mentioned, Lola) as being more in line with the men who go to strip clubs and high five because they’re at the strip club and attractive women that they view as trash have to take their clothes off.
Even when she shows some flair for phone sex, there isn’t any real analysis of why it works. She makes the point that she could write better copy than the script she is given for phone sex and that could have been interesting. She could’ve written about how really articulate eroticism doesn’t work for people whose goal it is to masturbate on a phone in less than 7 minutes. She could’ve written about the creepy id that underlies the whole process or how she creates a persona that is as paper thin as her interpretation of the women she formerly worked with. Instead, every sex work job she has is salaciously teased, implied to be grit beneath the glitter—Diablo says some racist and classist things about her co-workers, is repulsed by the men she services but echos their viewpoint, and crusades into the abyss, thinking she has a strong analysis. Does book this have anything meaningful to say about sex work?
Lola: Yes, I think she has the occasional meaningful insight about sex work. One moment that really hit home for me was her description of a particular customer at the strip club who likes to be punched hard and repeatedly for ten minutes straight. Because this is a strip club, not a dungeon, Cody is not especially prepared for this, but she’s game anyway, and it affects her more than she thinks it will. After he leaves, and she drops the facade and tries to pull herself together, she says: “After he left the first time, I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour. Certain people give strippers so much power that they sometimes short-circuit.”
Which, yes! Yes yes yes! That is exactly correct, and needs way more unpacking: why do men do this, give strippers so much power deliberately and gleefully? What does that say about our relationship to power, our relationship to sex? But like all her other insights, it’s there and then it’s gone. It goes unexplored.
SV: It is REALLY GODDAMN FRUSTRATING how she occasionally notes something like that, and it’s something that someone wrote about really well, like G-Strings & Sympathy, where a sociologist looked at what motivated men to go to strip clubs and the weird pedestal of being a stripper. But Diablo Cody seems to only be able to see stripping as the act of legally masturbating a man through his sweatpants. Yet, she initially works at a club where that doesn’t happen and she can’t comprehend the difference between them. For Diablo Cody, all strip club regulars are cheating on their wives or bachelor party attendees or terrifying racialized Others who want to get off—yet she also somehow understands that these men hang around for longer than the time it takes them to ejaculate but she can’t seem to figure out that there may be another reason why.
Lola: Some of the fault lies with her writing style. She doesn’t seem to know herself what this book is supposed to be. Is it a straightforward, chronological narrative? Is it a treatise? She wants to seem introspective and self-exploring, but then she commits to neither introspection nor self-exploration with any real effort. Her attention is focused outward and she’s self-conscious—not a bad approximation of a fledgling stripper’s general mien, I suppose, but not terribly exciting for anyone who’s ever moved past Stripping 101. What she needs to do to make this a cohesive, meaningful read is pick one. She needs to either report on what she sees or describe how what she sees makes her feel, because as it stands, she’s choosing to half-ass both tasks and then bury the results under impenetrable layers of irony, pseudo-self-deprecation, and senselessly used pop culture references. It’s sloppy.
Also, I’m going to be straightforward here: Jonny needs to fucking go. Perhaps I’m projecting, but his whole I’m-so-supportive-of-your-work-babe attitude is masking a cuck fetish, and dropping your oblivious stripper girlfriend in the middle of your cuck fetish without any warning is a creepy thing to do. When she first starts stripping, he has a job, but either she stops talking about it or he just decides to live off her earnings by the time the book ends, making him just like any other Ain’t Shit Stripper Boyfriend™ who plies his girlfriend by bringing her dinner at work so that she never notices he’s using her cash to buy an Xbox. I’m being unfair to him, because I don’t know him and I find him supremely grating and because I feel like I dated this guy when I was a stripper and bought him way too much nice shit he didn’t deserve before I realized what was up.
SV: Interjecting, I also hated Jonny. She bends over backwards to portray him as an interesting person (he is a rockabilly and a good dad), his sexual prowess is emphasized frequently, and out of all the interactions in this book, his are supposed to showcase that he “gets” Diablo and is a capable and constant support. But honestly, the one scene that is meant to show him as supportive makes him look fucking terrible (although she did divorce him, and there is a decided tense shift when talking about Jonny midway through the book).
The chapter “Some Girls” is Cody’s shining moment of awful. It opens with her talking about how she was promoted at her white collar job, but feels like she was ill-equipped for new responsibilities, but still wanted the money. The theme of money sort of underlies this whole book (Diablo chose stripping because of the high earning ceiling) but, as Lola pointed out, Diablo spends a lot of money trying to improve her appearance for her job rather than getting better at it. Long story short, after a rapid series of needless jokes and insulting descriptions of her coworkers, Diablo nets herself a Russian man. This broadly drawn Cold War paranoia portrait pays her to go through the escalating stages of the club and seriously presses on her boundaries, i.e. basically tries to have sex with her while continually baiting her with money. Diablo tells Jonny about this and she seems concerned that he’ll be grossed out, yet he answers “I’ll probably masturbate to that image [his traumatized girlfriend having a man try to pay her for actual sex by continually pushing her boundaries] for weeks. You are one dirty bird, darling.” This is not endearing, this is a leech with a cuck fetish.
Lola: Diablo Cody’s Eat, Pray, Strip is exactly the same as a million other half-assed memoirs by sex industry tourists and giggling VICE journalists: it promises the tawdry, and then on a secondary level it hints at the real and the pragmatic, and it delivers precisely none of the above. By now we can probably all agree that the bar for being cool is set a little higher than “has been to a strip club,” right? I like to imagine Cody shopping this memoir around now, because I like to hope that there isn’t a market for it anymore. But then, there’s always a market for third-wave feminist-lite nonfiction about how Lucite heels led the author to personal empowerment, I suppose.
Art by Rilo Harris.