'P-Valley' Episode 1: Show opens up a taboo space, paying attention to the vibe and language of strip club
As soon as you hear the first bits of dialogue in 'P-Valley', you realize that you are going to see and hear something real. In the 'Dancers only' area in Pynk strip club, you are introduced to a space, a vibe, and yes, a language, which never airs on primetime TV dramas. "Strip joint" becomes "shake junt" in the "Dirty Delta", and the quips and the sass are so sharp, you could bleed just hearing them as a bystander.
We are in the Deep South, where time is slow, the air decrepit. Lives are rough and it shows up as toughness in the girls on whom the spotlight shines on every night. And it is not just mental fortitude either — needed to deal with grabby patrons and to get naked without feeling humiliated or self-conscious — it is also plain physical toughness. The girls show Olympic level stamina and grace on the pole. "Pole burn" is a real thing as the bruises and wounds show up on the girls' bodies, which they carry proudly as battle scars.
There is a heart-in-the-mouth moment when Mercedes (Brandee Evans) shimmies up a pole, hangs upside down, her feet firmly planted on the ceiling as she twerks. Then she falls, headfirst to the stage below, stopping inches before her head gets smashed. There is no safety net and all you hear is not the music but her harsh, rapid breathing as she puts her body on the line. This same toughness shows up even when she is coaching her class of kids telling them that if there is one thing they'll learn from her, it is to "go all out".
Going all out is not an empty motto — it is how Pynk survives night after night, pulling in money in a town that is broke and opportunities, especially for Blacks, are nearly non-existent. There is a sort of unapologetic ownership of the craft we see in 'P-Valley' where the girls know they are in an exploitative space, but they still want to carve their liberation and financial independence by using it.
Cash comes in bundles at the club and is part of the language the girls, Uncle Clifford, and the club's patrons communicate in. The fight that breaks out over tips shows how high the stakes are because cash is power and who brings in how much determines their value. Mercedes, whose Sunday performances brings in the most money, rules the roost because she knows she can.
However, the show also doesn't shy away from the fact that the women are shamed or beaten for their profession and are frequently put in extremely vulnerable positions within the club even with Diamond, the bouncer, protecting them. The only "fairytale" element of Pynk is Uncle Clifford (Nathaniel Nicco-Annan), the queer, non-binary owner of the club. She is an old-fashioned "madam" who acts like she is a surrogate mother to the girls.
The harsh reality is that most straight heterosexual club owners see women as a product to be served up rather than as human beings. They also take a lion's share of the earnings that strippers seduce out of their patrons by putting their bodies on the line. They are also frequently abused so that they don't step out of line and "illegals" from poor countries are little more than sex slaves.
According to Katori Hall, in Memphis Tennessee, where she grew up, strip clubs weren't taboo spaces, which is possibly why she had a vision of them as emancipatory spaces. 'P-Valley' is the first show to put a spotlight of popular culture on this space and its viability probably has a lot to do with how stripper culture has been mainstreamed in recent years.
We have had unapologetic former strippers like Cardi B and Black Chyna becoming celebrities and movies like 'Hustlers' that had J Lo shimming up a pole at the Super Bowl for the film's publicity. Bringing this culture into popular consciousness with a focus on the girls and their athleticism is a way for them to get the "respectability" long denied to them, and hopefully making them less vulnerable to predators.
'P-Valley' premiered on July 12 at 9 PM ET on Starz.