Letters from a Writer: Live Girls

Jean Sramek has mixed feelings about the beloved NorShor Theater's new incarnation.

Jean Sramek

Kick me out of the feminists club. Go ahead, here’s my membership card, printed with soy ink and bearing that seizure-inducing “When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple” poem on the back. Burn it.

A Duluth landmark just went naked. The historic NorShor Theater, a beloved old downtown movie theatre turned failed arts venue, has just been rented out to a local entrepreneur, I mean pornographer, I mean strip club owner, I mean, instead of the NorShor being closed for months at a time, then open again, then closed again, it will be open all the time and it will be a titty bar. Apparently they’ll also host mainstream concerts and show pay-per-view sports events. Are these appropriate uses for the beloved yet dilapidated NorShor Theater? Of course it’s not. It’s a travesty. On the other hand, heavy metal cover bands and professional wrestling can’t be any worse than unrehearsed ensemble performance art.

People are upset about this. They are very, very upset. They say that it will ruin business for nearby downtown merchants, that it will increase crime, that it will contribute to moral decay, that it is degrading to women and how can we stand by and let women be treated this way when we have daughters and what not. They have dug up city ordinances preventing women from showing the coochie within a prescribed distance from churches, schools, residential zones, and pedestrian plazas. Their efforts failed. All existing rules have been bent, and the NorShor is now featuring strippers.

I’m kicked out of the feminists club, so I am free to say that I just don’t think it’s that bad. The neon sign at the entrance to the NorShor Experience (the name of the strip club) proclaiming “LIVE GIRLS” indicates simply that women take their clothes off while dancing, and men give them cash money for doing so. A lot of cash money. Let’s just say, more cash money than a freelance writer makes writing a column for an online arts magazine. In most strip clubs, the customers aren’t allowed to touch the dancers and are swiftly booted out should they attempt to fondle or grope. Most strippers aren’t locals, but hard-working, athletic women who have agents, PDA’s, frequent flyer miles. They’re not circus freaks kept in cages and fed pellets. They’re professionals.

The NorShor Experience isn’t Duluth’s first strip club. The Saratoga has operated, discreetly, in the Canal Park district for decades. Back when Canal Park was a seedy little industrial strip of sand, the ‘Toga served a nice lunch to its gentlemen patrons. In subsequent years, it has hosted a weekend jazz jam and open stage. The kajillions of tourist families licking ice cream cones and watching the lift bridge don’t seem one bit frightened by the windowless Saratoga building. Most of them probably don’t even know what it is. Dozens of new businesses, modern and pretty, have sprung up in Canal Park over the years, and none of them suffered from having LIVE GIRLS germs. Crime? There have been startlingly few incidents of men robbing tourists at gunpoint for dollar bills within leering distance of the Saratoga. And at least they’re spending it on live girls instead of on drugs.

The NorShor Experience is a product of the times, of sexism in general. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Preventing its opening will not advance the causes of feminism or equality, not one space on the game board. In a perfect world, those strippers would be employed elsewhere, if there were more “elsewheres” to be employed. But I don’t presume to give them career advice. Should they get crappy degrading office jobs which net them less in 40 hours than in a single night of letting men drape sweaty dollars in their G-strings? Should they go to work for the do-gooder nonprofit across the street from the NorShor, where the female employees likely make a whopping $7.25 per hour, Duluth’s laughable “living wage”? Perhaps they could work for $5.15 per hour at two or more retail shops in the old downtown area, the same shops who are complaining about the strip club undermining the decency of the downtown area. Hey, I know—the strippers could open feminist bookstores and coffee shops and make zero dollars per hour and file for bankruptcy when a Borders and a Starbucks open up across the street. Yeah, that’ll show the patriarchy.

What message are we sending to our daughters by allowing a former arts venue to be home to a strip club? Pretty much the same message we’re sending to them by not enforcing child support collections, refusing to implement a national health care plan, and by keeping the inflation-indexed minimum wage the lowest it’s been in fifty fucking years. We can’t blame LIVE GIRLS for society’s ills. Even if we did live in a Scandinavian utopia where women were equal to men and the minimum wage was $30 per hour, there would probably still be strip clubs. And I would still think it was not that big a deal, and still be barred from re-admission to the feminists club, but at least I wouldn’t have to see that When I Am Old Woman poem, so everything would be great.

The weather is hot, and school’s out for summer. High school cheerleading squads and dance teams raise money for uniforms, equipment and … I don’t know, training or field trips or something. They hold car washes at local convenience stores. Teenaged girls in short-shorts and bikini tops stand at busy intersections, bouncing and waving signs that proclaim, “CAR WASH!!!” and “SUPPORT EAST DANCE TEAM J ” and “HONK IF YOU LOVE CHEERLEADERS.” The cars honk. Some stop. The squealing girls soap up the men’s cars and rinse them off. The men give the girls sweaty dollar bills. The girls learn a valuable lesson.