Friday, July 12, 2013

Femme-spiration Friday: On the Unexpected Multilayered Politics and Outfits of Flashdance

Friends, I wound down my Pride in Seattle a couple of weekends ago by sprawling on the couch with a ton of friends, all of us dehydrated and overly gay-fied, to watch Flashdance for the first time. I am still thinking about it. I don't know how I managed to go so very long without ever seeing Flashdance, but 27 years in was TOO LONG. Let me tell you a little something about Jennifer Beals' character, Alexendra “Alex” Owens, I.E. my new butch/femme idol.
What a feeling, INDEED.

Amazing thing about Alex No. 1: Alex works as a welder by day and exotic dancer by night. Take a look at this helmet hair. Flawless.

Via Hotlead.
Alex is a working class lady, a sex worker, and empowered by both. Especially the sex work.  Flashdance came out in 1983, and I think it's safe to say that even today, few movies feature a female lead with a similar story, played by a biracial actress. On top of that, her gender expression is wildly complex, going from a Talking Heads esque business suit, to beaded flapper dress, to grunge jeans, to leotard throughout the course of the film. My favorite outfit starts out in some amazing genderfuck tuxedo drag, only to end up as a backless dickey that screams “I am the hardest femme in here, so don't fuck with me while I eat this shrimp cocktail.”

Meat, side-boob, cuffs. Say no more, Beals.
 Of course, Flashdance is not without its problematic moments. Alex gets hit on relentlessly by her much older boss, who apparently doesn't understand her response of “I just don't think dating the boss is a good idea,” and figures that rescuing Alex from getting assaulted in the parking lot after work basically means he can follow her home (stalker much?) and be invited in. For now, set aside your feelings of creepy manipulation, (don't worry, it continues through the movie! You can always come back to it!) and enjoy Alex taking control of her life and enjoying sex without suffering the consequences the way most women in film do.

Which brings us to point 2: Alex knows how to work her sexuality and derive pleasure from it.
Mawby's, her night job, is the most avant garde strip club EVER, and she feels truly alive dancing there. The sexual politics between Mawby's and the other strip club in town, the Zanzibar, are fascinating. The women working at Mawby's are portrayed as having great camaraderie, and a lot of autonomy over how they create their dances, which all the off duty steel workers LOVE, even though a lot of them include no stripping, and such likely unusual in a Pittsburgh bar qualities as: social commentary on the role of television; kabuki face paint; and drag.

Meanwhile, Zanzibar is all nude, all writhing on the floor, all the time. The women who work there are portrayed as having fallen so low that Alex even has to go rescue her buddy Jeannie at one point, and bring her back to Mawby's, the gentler, kinder, family strip club. I'm not too thrilled by this rescue scenario or the politics behind it, but performance artists gotta stick together, amIrightladies?

Alex is secretly saving up for her ultimate dream, which is to become a much less interesting dancer at the Pittsburgh Repertory Ballet, where through years of rigorous schooling in how to “make a line” and stand on your toes in painful shoes, she will eventually become the dancer of her dreams, and someone will give her flowers, because the leading lady “always gets flowers.”

Sometimes the leading lady gets herself a beer instead.
 But here's the deal. Alex isn't like these formally educated bourgeois queens! She's a tough dancer with a tough pitbull, and a lot of thoughts about sex that she can only tell her priest. She's never been to dance school. She has to fight every step of the way.
In doing that, she throws off so many stereotypes about women in film, and reinforces so many others. She's committed to making real art, and the women stripping at the Zanzibar aren't. She's committed to finding love, but her main love interest treats her like a child. She doesn't take bullshit from her boyfriend, unless its getting her somewhere. But ultimately, she gets what she wants, she does it while looking fierce, and she doesn't let anyone tell her who she can be. Not the fuckers at the Pittsburgh Ballet, not her boss/boyfriend, not even her own crippling self doubt. As femmes, we often struggle with being invisibilized, not only by straight folks, but by our own queer brethren. We can be dismissed as not femme enough if we're rocking jeans one day, and dismissed as too straight seeming on the days we wear skirts. Queer policing is a real and douchey sprinkler of douchery, threatening to soak all our silk dresses (and denim jumpsuits!) if we walk into the wrong party dressed the wrong way. But Alex doesn't give a fuck if anyone believes she's gay, or a slut, or a terrible ballerina (well, maybe that last one.) She wears all the legwarmers, AND all the bowties. She will eye-fuck your ex-husband while eating prosciutto. And she'll make that blowtorch look elegant. Dance on, Alex. Flashdance on.


  1. sara, you are brilliant, and my strong feelings for this movie make so much sense in light of your delightful commentary!! xoxo

    1. Thanks Ellie. I hope it illuminates things for a generation of gays after us!

  2. I have just installed iStripper, and now I enjoy having the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.