“These n - - - - - s lucky I likes to do a good job.”
There’s something to be said for taking pride in your work. For the women of The Pynk — the strip club at the center of Starz’s new drama P-Valley —pride is very nearly all they can hold on to. Set in the Mississippi Delta and characterized by its distinctive Southern-Gothic feel, P-Valley examines the social and economic lives of the club’s dancers, using its characters to examine the vagaries of sex work from different labor perspectives. With a keen understanding of stigma and the limits of race, class, and colorism, showrunner Katori Hall has fashioned a story that distills the microcosm of a specific kind of sex work into an avenue for empathy.
For many of the women, their primary emotional conflict is the knowledge that they excel at the work they do inside the club, and that it is that same excellence that makes them so disposable outside of it. The Pynk itself exists as a kind of queer haven that is forced into binary conceptions of morality and temporality by the light of day. Inside the club, the women are in charge and call the shots, the men are to be used and taken advantage of, and the entire fiefdom is led by their nonbinary Madam — when the sun goes down, the “natural order” is reversed. But for these women, there is no upward mobility. They may be queens by night, but the magic and fantasy they cultivate for their clients dissipate as the sun rises.
This binary exists for nearly all the show’s characters, from queen bee Mercedes (Brandee Evans), to the social-media-savvy Keyshawn (a.k.a. Miss Mississippi, played by Shannon Thornton), to the self-styled Mayor of Pussy Valley, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), to newcomer Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson). Hemmed in by the stigma of “liquor and titties” — and saddled with the same community and familial responsibilities as everyone else — it’s little wonder they’ve found meaning and value in their work. No one will let them do anything else without reminding them that they’ll never be considered anything more than strippers.
With Mercedes especially, that distinction is clear. While her mother, Patrice Woodbine, shames and berates her for her line of work, she also depends on her income and “tithes” as a means of maintaining her status in her church community. Patrice plays on her daughter’s shame to bolster her own ambitions and sees it as a fair price for having endured the stigma of having a fallen daughter. Without a second thought, Patrice replicates the patriarchal mores she’s fighting against in the church and weaponizes them against her own child.
So what’s a girl to do? For the women of The Pynk, their response is to be the best damn strippers around. Hall takes great pains to illuminate the skill and strength that go into working the pole. The cameras follow the women as they climb it, spin around it, and very nearly ascend to the ceiling. The women’s bodies are framed to showcase their muscles, pumping and stretching to support their weight and defy gravity. The music amplifies every thud, every heel clack, every time they drop to the floor in a deep and heavy split. Their thighs strain as they maintain their momentum, endlessly spinning around the only thing keeping them from severe injury. Their hair thrashes as they embody the energy of their patrons, which transports the women to an invented, and feed on the approval demonstrated by dollar bills raining from the sky. Their tricks are triumphs — demonstrations of their hard-won dexterity and prowess.
But even within the club, there are conflicts. Autumn’s arrival on the cusp of Mercedes’s planned exit sets the stage for a rivalry when Mercedes sees how quickly clients favor Autumn because of her light skin. Many of the girls ice Mercedes out when they realize she did not inform them of the fate of the club and Uncle Clifford’s money troubles. The Pynk maintains a hierarchy of its own, guided by seniority and prestige that the women fight and claw for. They earn their places through hard work and practice. They contribute to the wellbeing of the club.
And within the club, everything has a price. There are tip-outs and stage fees, and there is little in the way of financial security. A twisted wrist might be a day off work for some people, but for the girls of The Pynk, it means performing through the pain because a day without work might be the difference between paying rent and becoming homeless. There is no safety net to catch them when they fall.
Despite the tenuous community they build with each other, the women of The Pynk are constantly open to outside threats. Autumn, having survived a hurricane and the loss of her daughter, is on the run from what seems to be an abusive spouse. Keyshawn is actively being beaten by her boyfriend and regularly comes to work with bruises she covers with makeup. Mercedes is working hard to save her tips so she can set up a gym, claw her way out of the club, and regain custody of her teenage daughter, all while navigating her religious mother’s moral extortion. And Uncle Clifford is locked in a battle to save the club from the nefarious Mayor Tydell Ruffin (Isiah Washington) and his plans to bring a casino to the fictional Chucalissa. The Pynk is a haven, but it can only protect them from so much for so long.
Over the past few years, we have seen increasingly nuanced representations of sex workers in media. From Netflix’s CAM and Jezebel to 2019’s Hustlers to the forthcoming Zola, each iteration of this story gets more specific in its intentions and therefore more searing in its indictment of the way we have forced sex workers into untenable binaries they did not create or endorse. As we move away from the glamour and glitz into the mundane, we’re reminded first and foremost that strippers are workers and they have worker concerns. Thankfully, in P-Valley, the strippers are the stars and they are more than capable of telling their own stories.