The (naked) girls next door
In April this year I had the pleasure of being on a panel at a feminist conference with Elena Jeffreys, the President of Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association.
Elena is a compelling and articulate advocate for sex workers and their rights. She spoke passionately about the damage that some sections of the feminist movement were doing to sex workers’ struggle to ensure their voices were being taken seriously by politicians and policy makers. She made it very clear that sex workers were sick of being labelled as universal victims of patriarchy by feminist activists who had little appreciation of the diversity of the people who work in her industry and the discrimination they face.
She received rousing applause from hundreds of feminists of all generations. The idea that any woman who chooses to trade her body for sex - or dance naked for that matter - is a dupe of the patriarchy is now a middle class norm. And indeed class is the real elephant in the corner of much debate about porn, sex work and ‘raunch culture’.
Nice girls don pretty short tutus and show off their toned legs twirling in pink tights. Trashy girls swing around poles and bare their butts. Decent girls marry merchant bankers and give them good looking babies in exchange for houses in upmarket suburbs. Bad girls put a cash value on their bodies.
Best Undressed is a documentary that explores these nascent political issues in an understated and affectionate manner. It follows the young women competing for the title of Miss Nude Australia. Thankfully, the filmmakers resist the urge to truck in pro and con feminist ‘experts’ to put the girls under a microscope. As this documentary shows, the girls are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves.
An early interview features two of them chatting and giggling when one explains she’s interested in forensic science. She pauses a beat, looks her interviewer in the eye and says: “Strippers can read”.
Pageant organiser John Monaghan briefs the girls on the judging criteria. He doesn't guild the lilly. “We are not judging for the biggest breasts, the longest legs nor are we judging for the tightest ass”. Apparently a natural look and healthy hair are also important. The bottom line, as he aptly puts it, is a $20,000 prize. For most of the contestants, that's a deposit on a house.
The girls are under no illusions about what they need to do to win. You start off with a carefully costumed dance sequence, teasingly remove your gear and end by giving the punters a few flashes of what they really came to see. In between the choreographed disrobing they give spectacular displays of gymnastics involving poles and hoops. It's top drawer athletics.
Some of them started very young. The delightfully frank Miss Nude Sydney, Trinity, takes the doco crew back to her small suburban home and shows them the verandah pole she began swinging around as a small child. Her mother confirms that the family always joked she'd be a pole dancer. While honest about her concerns for her daughter, she is loving and supportive.
Trinity is an incredible gymnast and delightfully straightforward about her exhibitionism. Funny, free-spirited and clearly tough-minded, she is excited about going to Adelaide for the contest. She's never been there. Suzie Q, Miss Nude NSW, is the most compelling of all the interviewees. She gives her interviews sans makeup and looks like the girl next door who's training for the state swimming carnival. Fit body, broad shoulders, sweet face and no bullshit. Of her colleagues she says: "[They] are just regular women...it doesnt mean they're not intelligent. It doesn't mean they don't have other options in their lives. The majority of them choose to do it ... it doesn't mean you can grab their ass, it doesn't mean they're going to have sex with you".
Miss Nude Tasmania is pragmatic about her talents : "Anyone can take their clothes off. But can you do it with a bit of style - a bit of class". She is sick to death of guys "who want to speak down to exotic dancers." She loves dancing but worries that her father will blame himself for getting a divorce if he knew she was a stripper. She tells a moving story about being asked to perform a dance for a dying 18-year-old boy in an intensive care unit. "I don't know if you've ever seen a mother who knows she's going to lose her son. I don't know if he'd ever seen a naked girl ... I took my glove off and I gave it to him ... I did the show and I lost it. It gutted me".
She got a message from the family thanking her.
I won't tell you who won the contest. Watch and see for yourself. For my money - and I'd definitely put dollar bills in the garter belts of all these girls - it's one of the best modestly budgeted documentaries SBS has to put air this year. Perhaps I'm biased - the girls remind me a lot of my grandmother. She worked as a barmaid in a very rough dockyard pub and there's something in these girls that reminds me of her - a knowingness about men, an ability to keep crowd control and a strong cheeky earthy sense of self.