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On the Bally

Susan Meiselas punctures the fantasies of the carnival striptease

Carnival Strippers Revisited by Susan Meiselas. Steidl, 304 pages.

Is there anything more American than the rural carnival, with its hype and promise, its con games and hoaxes, its easy alienation, its itinerancy, its cheap delights?

The distinctive American circus—traveling big top, sideshows, animal acts, so-called freaks—came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century, the era of rampant capitalism and robber barons, of the colonization of the west through land speculation, railroads, and get-rich-quick schemes. Coined “the Gilded Age” by Mark Twain, this first boom of American capitalism was all about the con and the come on, the glittering surface and the baser metal underneath, the money that can be made from manipulating desire.

It’s no surprise, then, that a key feature of the American circus was the girl show, a performance tradition drawing from burlesque and vaudeville, and, as the twentieth century went on, from showgirls and topless go-go dancers. The circus was once a great popular delight, combining the uncanny and the wholesome, but by the mid twentieth century couldn’t keep up with competing fantasticals of television and movies. By the 1970s, the carnival—like American fantasies of continual prosperity and growth—had been reduced to a seasonal migration through small-town fairgrounds. No longer the extravaganza of exotic animals and multi-ring acts of its heyday, the most salient feature of the carnival became the girl show: the striptease.

Sex work, like the circus itself, is a con game: it’s selling a feeling and a fantasy. In this way, the girl show reduced the American carnival to its essential function. Visit the “bally,” the stage at the front of the show where you can listen to the talker promise the delights inside the tent—watch seductive women in sparkling bikinis work the stage—if you’re a man (women often weren’t allowed in), pull some crumpled bills out of your pocket, hand them to the guy at the door in exchange for a little red ticket—and duck inside to see if the talker’s promise matches your expectations.

The most real thing, other than the money, is the women who work in these shows. What do they make of it? How do they negotiate embodying someone else’s fantasy each summer, in the season between their other jobs as secretaries, waitresses, housewives, strip club workers?

Susan Meiselas divests sex work of fantasy and shows it to be what it is: women working a job. 

This is what Susan Meiselas, as a young documentary photographer, set herself to find out. Between 1972 and 1975, she traveled the carnival circuits around New England, befriending the women who worked in the girl shows, taking photographs of them at work and at leisure, asking them to talk and write about their jobs, and allowing the women to style their own portraits and direct the conversations. The book she produced in 1976, Carnival Strippers (originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), contains both black-and-white photographs as well as interviews, overheard conversations, and accounts of the working girls. Here, Meiselas divests sex work of fantasy and shows it to be what it is: women working a job. Carnival Strippers doesn’t cater to the fantasies of the marks—the men who are enticed to pay for access to the show. Nor, perhaps more remarkably for 1976, does it cater to the fantasies of the Women’s Liberation Movement, large swathes of which were then bent on seeing strippers as dupes, victims, or traitors to the cause. As Meiselas later said: “One of the debates of the early women’s movement was whether or not to make oneself into an object to attract men—and here I saw women display their sexuality so publicly. So how could I not be curious about them?”

Instead, Carnival Strippers depicts the girl show as both a place of work and, as with other itinerant temp labor, a lifestyle. In the book, which moves from bally stage to show to after-work counting of money, bathing, and poker games—you see the arc of labor over one season and then across many seasons. Meiselas is devoted to these women, and it seems that several of them become devoted to her and to the project, which they take on as their own, writing out definitions of girl show terminology for her, sending her their poetry and yearly Christmas cards, making notes for her on why the project mattered. And so to read from cover to cover, to linger over the photographs, to identify the faces of Lena, Coffee, Shortie, Ginger, and match the faces with their voices is to travel with these women season after season.

Carnival Strippers was lovingly reissued this past summer by the German art book press Steidl, along with a rich and fascinating accompanying volume of ephemera and commentary by Meiselas, The Making of Carnival Strippers. (The first print run quickly sold out; a second one is planned for early 2023.) Together, the books disabuse the viewer of any fantasies we might have about sex work. There is no one way the girl show affects the women who work them: there is no tragic victim narrative, no empowering third-wave feminist redemption. For these are people, not political fantasies. Meiselas, as well as Lena, Shortie, and their coworkers, grant us the ability to see clearly.

Patty, a stripper-turned-manager, told Meiselas that “the girlie show says a lot about our society.” Nearly fifty years later, she’s still right. It’s patently obvious, now, that women’s bodies are the site of other people’s fantasies, desires, political beliefs, surveillance. Sex workers, smarter than the rest of us, make this their business and at least get paid for it—and they can best teach all of us how to negotiate what it is like to have your body be yours, and not yours, at the same time.

Shortie on the Bally (Barton, Vermont, 1974). | © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Lena arrived at the carnival at the age of eighteen with a suitcase and a bag of laundry, fleeing an abusive husband. Coffee, fourteen and with a baby to take care of, answered an advertisement for an exotic dancer and has “been doin’ it ever since.” Lulu broke into stripping via a burlesque chorus line and is starting to plan for her career past middle age. Shortie, who needed a job to support her deadbeat husband, got moved from selling popcorn to the strip tent. Laurie’s whole family worked the carnival; she “got into it because it was always around me.” And even though she swears every season is the last, that she’s going to get married and stay home, “it’s always one more season.”

As the older dancers attest, working the girl shows used to be a real career. But the industry, by the mid-1970s, was in the process of fragmentation, with more handlers, more ways for the take to be split. Nonetheless, stripping at the girl show paid fifteen to fifty dollars a night, much more than factory wages or most waitressing jobs. It was also, for many, a way out of small-town boredom, a way to travel, a way to leave abusive relationships. Beyond economics and survival, it was also a bid for a future. As Lisa says:

For a few years I sat and I raised babies, but back in the back of my mind [the stage] haunted me, how am I gonna get out of here without making a fight and just doing what I want to do. . . . I’m two people that live in one body, and they both want to do so many damn things, two different directions. I want to be a lawyer, but I don’t mind being a stripper too, because when I get the diploma I won’t stop.

I’m too bright to just sit around in the kitchen or just sit around and clean house. . . . I need something that belongs to me, that’s what I needed, something that was mine, something that nobody could take away.

At the heart of the book is Lena, whom Meiselas follows from new trainee to experienced worker, and whose perceptive mind and eloquence make her the unofficial narrator of Carnival Strippers. In a portrait, “Lena’s First Day, Essex Junction, Vermont, 1973,” she has a round-cheeked high school cheerleader freshness that, three years later, gives way in “Lena, Third Season, Lehighton, Pennsylvania, 1975” to a gaunt and haunted glamour. Fiercely intelligent, she is the one who seems most torn between her job’s promise of independence and her contempt for the marks as well as for what she has to do to entertain them:

Being a stripper is as close to being in a man’s world as you can be. It’s a tough life. You need strength and character. The men depend on you—to entertain them or to bring in money for them . . . They want to get up there and lap your pussy and you get a feeling of exultation because you’re looking down at a bunch of animals at your feet.

Patty, a former burlesque dancer who manages one of the shows, likens the work to the chivalrous love—her term—of caring for strangers, and caring for each other on the road. “Honest work,” she says, “is honorable.”

No one had taken photographs of women’s bodies like this before. Even close-cropped into pieces—pudenda, breasts, pelvis, ass—the body appears not in its component parts, quartered and sold to the male gaze, but part of a whole person, specific and alive. Carnival Strippers opens with “Shortie on the Bally, Barton, Vermont, 1974,” a close-up from navel to mid-thigh. Shortie leans on one hip, a lit cigarette dangling from one hand, balanced against her side. This is a woman getting ready for a workday, easing herself into a performance, her stance betraying both a practiced seduction and a tinge of contempt. Her bikini bottom is a bit tangled, fraying at the edges; her stretch marks and shaving cuts show; she makes no effort to suck in loose flesh at her stomach. Her nails are unmanicured and cut to the quick. Shortie isn’t a fantasy, not even up here on the bally; she’s just herself.

This is not to suggest that the photograph itself rejects the aesthetic. Meiselas is an artist with an unerring eye, and “Shortie on the Bally” is beautifully composed, split into a classic three-part structure, the fringe and rhinestones over the crotch centering the frame, while the dark mark of the navel and the white of the cigarette balance the image just as its subject balances her weight. Yet Meiselas is with her subjects in a way that other photographers like Diane Arbus—working in the same era, and also interested in strippers and carnival workers—is adamantly not.

Where early modernist nudes made beautiful abstractions of form—Alfred Stieglitz’s sensuous, photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, made between 1918 and 1920 before their marriage; Imogen Cunningham’s “Triangles” (1928)—Meiselas reveals how the girl show requires women to use their bodies as tools, and how they come to reinhabit them later. The book is full of images of women coming off stage and coworkers heading back out onto it, the body motion and facial expressions wholly different in each; of women backstage peeping out at the eager marks beyond the curtain, not yet performing, not yet guarded.

Lisa: So before I go on, I think, I’m gonna give them a good show because I am the greatest, I am the best—but that’s only so I’ll have enough nerve when that curtain opens. That’s the image I have to hold to myself at the time. Outside of stripping, I don’t think that at all.

Ginger: I always like to feel that I have the upper hand when I strip. I like to feel that I’m in control of the whole situation. And I am.

Lena: You put a wall between you and what’s really going on.

Coffee: But they don’t know me, they’ll never see me again, they never will know me, and I’ll go home and they may think oh, that girl, she’ll lay down for anything, but I know that I don’t.

Part of the con of sex work is the selling of a fantasy, and the skilled sex worker is able to appear to turn herself into an absence, a vessel to hold the fantasies of others. Even as she undresses, Roland Barthes writes in his essay on striptease, the woman is “an object in disguise.” This is a function of what journalist Melissa Gira Grant calls “the prostitute imaginary,” the ways sex work is understood, made visible, policed, profited from, and talked about—what produces “a prostitute where before there had only been a woman.” The central problem of the john, of the mark, is that he wants the woman’s body with only pretend-her, fantasy-her, inside; the central con of striptease is the promise of the body willingly given yet the knowledge of having paid a woman to perform. The seeming enjoyment of Shortie in “Shortie at Work, South Carolina, 1973,” naked but for a long wig, arms raised and knees bent, cunt wide open in a triumphant gesture, is evidence of Shortie’s enjoyment at her own professional skill, proved by the dark heads leaning toward her from the edge of the stage. The promise of realizing a fantasy is what gives the girl show its transgressive, seedy frisson: “You wouldn’t believe how wet and crumpled the money gets,” Patty tells Meiselas.

It takes hard work to make a fantasy seem real. Backstage, Meiselas is able to capture the intimacy of women working with each other, where bodies no longer mean what they are paid to mean on the stage. In the dressing room, in the bath, on a break together, a breast could be an elbow, an ass cheek the same roundness as an arm. The nudity as four women rest and play cards backstage in “The Dressing Room, Fryeburg, Maine, 1975” doesn’t mean anything except, simply, the easiness of not being at work and not having to make one’s body mean.

Lena waits for a break (Essex Junction, Vermont, September 1973). | © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

A remarkable aspect of Meiselas’s project is her attentive interest in the audience. Her photographs reveal the enthrallment of the marks to be as total as the self-awareness of everyone working the girl show. If the book has any political message, it is this. “Implicate audience” she writes at the top of a page of a notebook included in Making—though we hardly need to see her notes, for the imperative comes through in the photographs themselves. Two images—“Keeping the Crowd, Presque Isle, Maine, 1973” and “Tentful of Marks, Tunbridge, Vermont, 1974,”—show the men crowded around the stage in focus, while the nude woman working on the stage is left blurred, in motion. When we focus on the crowd, on the marks reaching out their hands to touch her, it’s clear that the performer could be any woman. In another, “Afternoon Tease, Tunbridge, Vermont, 1974,” a boy in a plaid vest puts his hand on the bally as if seeking reassurance, his face a study of worry and confusion, while behind him, a grown man with aviator shades and a Harley Davidson tee crouches in carnal ecstasy, goatee-ringed mouth open to heckle the woman. If Larry the talker summarizes his job as, “Can you make these people believe what you’re telling ‘em?” it seems that the answer is: you can.

The marks keep shelling out bills for show after show because by paying women to keep stripping they destroy the specificity of what it is that they’re so desperate to see.

What do these men want? What the marks seem to want most of all is the working women’s vaginas, to see inside of them and, if the county is a permissive one, the local police not too “hot,” and if the women working allow—to eat them from the edge of the stage, holding on to women’s thighs as if tasting a large slice of melon. As a man in the audience named Dave explained to Meiselas, “It’s called the lunch counter. If there’s no lunch counter she’s got to have the blanket down there with the lips spread. No one wants to watch a broad with her legs tied together, they wanna see open pussy, that’s what they wanna see.”

The lunch counter is where it is most clear that, as Barthes says, the striptease is a “reassuring ritual which negates the flesh.” As Ginger describes it, “You wouldn’t believe the way their mouths water. You get close to them and they just can’t stand it. They really want to do it, but they don’t do it for the women. They’ll try and grab you even if they know there will be no audience participation that night.” This easily turns into, as Lena recounts, sadistic behavior: “They say come on down here and they bite your clit, the blood’s running down your leg. With a few exceptions, the ones that do touch you have to hurt you in some way.”

And so the marks keep shelling out bills for show after show because by paying women to keep stripping they destroy the specificity of what it is that they’re so desperate to see. Even with his mouth on a woman’s cunt from the edge of the stage, the mark is insatiable, wants more, because he’s still not accessing what he wants, which is intimacy, freely given and thus, generous. It’s the genius of sex work as a con game or a drug: men pay for what they ultimately never get because they paid for it, and so they keep paying out more.

The companion volume to the reissue, Making of Carnival Strippers, is, in Meiselas’s words, “a partial recovery” of the process of putting together the book—color images (ultimately discarded for the final version), work prints, contact sheets, pages from working notebooks and an archive of correspondence, transcripts, ephemera. Making allows for a glimpse into Meiselas’s deeply participative process. As she says in an accompanying reflective essay, what Making reveals is “the exchanges and relationships that helped me find and shape my future path in photography to become a practice of presence. I learned to merge listening and looking, with the hope of expanding perspectives of what are often invisible worlds.”

In her later photographic and documentary film work, Meiselas would become known for this “practice of presence,” immersing herself for a year in the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua (Nicaragua: June 1978–August 1979) or spending six years curating a one-hundred-year photographic history of Kurdistan (Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History). Meiselas is often described as a “concerned photojournalist,” but, as the visual theorist Eduardo Cadava has noted at length, her work encompasses much more. It is the work of “someone who understands the relations that both constitute and deconstitute our sense of self,” he has written, and who insists that “we must still learn to remember what remains without being able to be fully recovered.”

Making of Carnival Strippers shows the formation of the kind of photographic practice Cadava describes, that of an artist-ethnographer who is thinking deeply on the politics of seeing and being seen, on voyeurism and recognition. As the extensive and somewhat tortured notebooks included make clear, Meiselas had doubts about the worth of the project as well her ability to do it properly. It was partly in response to this that she crafted a multi-genre form, to achieve the kind of “total immersion” for the viewer-reader. She also had to feel it herself—not just spending long days, as she says “waiting for the night, with nothing to do except watch the crowd gather or the tent fill”—but dancing herself, once, on the back stage, naked under a light coat. “I needed to do it,” Meiselas writes, “to feel the vulnerability.”

Carnival Strippers does not show that vulnerability as much as let the viewer feel it herself—and not just the vulnerability, but the boredom, the camaraderie, the exhaustion, the laughter, the alienation—of working the show. We are there with Ginger and Candy and Lena and Shortie, with Meiselas, dancing under a raincoat, counting money, waiting for this year’s season to end.