Netflix's pole dance therapy film "Strip Down, Rise Up" exploits trauma & is fixated on male gaze

I'm a poler & therapist and was horrified at the film's myopic and irresponsible messaging in the name of healing

Published February 15, 2021 10:00AM (EST)

Amy in "Strip Down, Rise Up" (Netflix)
Amy in "Strip Down, Rise Up" (Netflix)

Netflix's new pole dancing film "Strip Down, Rise Up" begins with some promise. Finally, a documentary that could chronicle all of the beautiful things that pole can be: sport, artistry, performance, self-expression, eroticism.

But it quickly becomes something that pole is not: a trauma therapy group led by an unqualified layperson with an eerie bone to pick. 

Sheila Kelley, the founder of S Factor, a chain of pole dance studios, is the main character in "Strip Down, Rise Up" and is often credited with bringing pole to the mainstream, as the documentary shows with clips of Kelley's appearances on every talk show from "Oprah" to "Conan." The film, written and directed by Michèle Ohayon, follows Kelley as she leads a group of hesitant women with no prior pole experience through a six-month program at her Los Angeles-based S Factor studio. 

My trepidation kicked in early. As a practicing psychotherapist, I was wary when even the trailer presented women sitting around in a circle, many of them sobbing while telling horrific stories about trauma and abuse in an environment that did not seem appropriate for that kind of process. The image was troubling to me not only as a therapist, but also as someone with her own pole experience that looked very different from whatever it was that was being presented here. 

Out of curiosity, I had tried pole on a whim with a Groupon. In my first five years of classes, I worked through being unathletic, awkward, and uncoordinated to having four Pole Sport Organization competitions, three showcase performances, and two silver medals under my belt. I understand the transformational journey that pole can provide. I wanted a documentary about that kind of journey: the falls and self-doubt, elbow pains and calluses, the applause and pole family.

But Ohayon chooses to view pole through a different lens, focusing not even on S Factor itself, which is a popular boutique fitness trend in its own right, but on Kelley's personal driving tenet that women do not have ownership over their own bodies. Kelley repeats the terms "male gaze" and "patriarchy," referring to the ways women are judged on their appearances and made to compare their bodies to others'. This, she explains, was part of the impetus for creating S Factor, a pole dance method characterized apparently by a lot of hair-throwing and named for the S-like curves in a woman's body (incidentally also for the owner's first name). Kelley, an actress before she was a fitness mogul, found pole while researching for a role and was so impacted by it that she wanted to bring it to women. She asserts that pole dance is "overtly feminine," forgetting history: the world's first polers were in fact Asian men. 

The intention of the film is in conflict with itself. On the one hand, it makes efforts to illuminate an often misunderstood industry by telling some of the stories of women in it besides Kelley. But on the other, the narrative revolving around sexual trauma and Kelley's group-commiseration about it veers from that arc in an almost opportunistic way. The women selected were not existing S Factor students — they were seemingly cherry-picked for their compelling stories for this odd therapy experiment. 

The underlying motivation seems to stem from deep feelings of resentment toward men that Kelley expresses. Early in the film, she says, "I am in a war to help women reclaim themselves." It sounds like a noble pursuit, but the notion of this being at "war" brings hostility and animosity, pitting one side against another in a process she claims to be female-centric. There are many times her passion for female empowerment has more to do with dangling a female body in front of men . . . just to stick it to them. She and her husband ("The West Wing" and "The Good Doctor" actor Richard Schiff) in separate interviews cheekily argue about her bringing a pole into his gym/office to get his eyes off the Yankee game. In the film's most bizarre scene, Kelley brings three men into the studio and essentially tells the women to do what they want with them, as if they're male props to unload on. Any attempt to subvert the male gaze feels like lip service as the story keeps diverting back to men.

At one point, Ohayon presents the stories of survivors. But the stories are served fragmented in a cut-up montage of several women saying they were raped. It is jarring because previously, one or two women were being followed in depth. But here the women themselves are minimized in favor of highlighting a dark societal pattern and strengthening Ohayon and Kelley's argument about men as enemy, rather than giving voice to the survivors. The montage is a fetishization of sexual trauma, as it passes over women's identities and lumps their struggles together into what felt like a tasteless infomercial.

Ohayon's framing of the narrative in this way is a manipulation of women's stories. "Trauma porn," was a term being used by social media commenters in response to the film. It is an apt criticism. The voracity with which Kelley digs into her students' issues makes her come off as a kind of cult leader, an exploiter of trauma and intense displays of emotion for at best self-promotion and at worst sadistic pleasure. 

The goals of Kelley's six-month program are vague. The arbitrary timeframe made me wonder what exactly people were promised. The documentary begins with Kelley saying: "This is going to provoke you, and it's going to make you surrender." She goes on to make several more claims, like "this movement will bring you into such an incredible state of peace," and that it "can bring you into a better place in life." Before we know it, women are baring their souls and are then taught to swing their hips in an oozy "S walk."

S Factor is hardly the only pole style in the mainstream. I spoke to Ashley Fox, the owner and founder of Foxy Fitness and Pole, the pole sport studio I attended that has locations in New York and New Jersey.  "The thing about pole is that it is very limitless. Every take on pole is not going to be resonating with everybody," she said. 

According to Fox, there have been many who deserve recognition for their own unique contributions to the wide spectrum of pole iterations. Fox's colleague, choreographer and studio manager Yumiko Harris, who has a BFA in Dance from the University of North Carolina, sees the differences that cause rifts in the industry as being similar to different styles of dance — all are valid and important. 

"Strip Down, Rise Up" takes a few side roads to feature other polers well known in the industry in segments that are a welcome respite from Kelley's navel-gazing. San Francisco Pole and Dance owner Amy Bond is introduced as an example of a competitive poler who trains her students in performance and technique. But after showcasing Bond's strength and athleticism, the film pivots to her revelation of her own traumatic past and career in the porn industry. Bond is meant to represent a significant slice of the pole pie, but her story only serves to reinforce the film's thesis about female shame. 

If one were juding by Ohayon's film, the prerequisite for polers is to have ties to the sex industry or a history of abuse. But this is a contradiction of the initial thrust of the documentary in which a woman laments the association between poling and the sex industry: "We like to talk about how forward thinking we are, but the truth of the matter is, the second you see pole dancing, they (sic) immediately think where men go, smoke cigars, drink, and women do lap dances for money."

Not only does Ohayon's contradiction present a myopic view of the multifaceted pole community, it also perpetuates stigmas about sex work being shameful and always derived from trauma and abuse. The film, however, does not take the opportunity to actually feature any sex workers as part of its survey on the pole industry. Therefore the voices of those most stigmatized are left out, a choice inconsistent with the film's so-called feminist pursuit.

Evelyn in "Strip Down, Rise Up" (Netflix)

Unlike much of the messaging in the film, my pole practice has had nothing to do with my relationship to men or my sex life.

"It is way more fulfilling to do something that is for you and about you," said Fox. She and Harris train women at Foxy Fitness and Pole to dance in several styles including exotic, but both were concerned by the "doing it for your man" narrative seen in the film.

"Men have nothing to do with what we're doing at our studio," says Harris. As with Bond's studio, Foxy Fitness and Pole holds co-ed and private classes in which men are welcome, as there is a large contingent of men in the sport, with some of the biggest polebrities being men. But their focus is on training women to perform or compete. Instructors teach students to orient themselves not to a male voyeur but to an imaginary "audience" when learning moves, as though on stage, whether that stage is a theater, a bedroom, or a strip club. Never was I instructed to go home and give my husband a lap dance, as Kelley does with one of her students. 

Harris said, "I definitely would not feel fit to say, 'All you have to do is writhe on the floor and let it out.' It's going to take a lot more than pole dancing to heal trauma." 

Managing her students' expectations should have been the first thing Kelley did. This activity is not a substitute for psychotherapy. This is not clinical treatment (what's shown is barely even pole dancing). It is unclear what precautions the filmmakers took with participants in advance, but at one point in the film, Kelley warns the women that they will feel like quitting because it's "too intimate." Rather than strong-arming and shaming them for wanting to quit — as when she strangely proclaims, "This is not for sissies,"—she should have followed her warning with, "quitting is your decision and your right."

To cover her bases, Kelley brings in a consulting psychologist who tells the S Factor instructors that reclamation of one's body after trauma must happen at that individual's pace – a therapeutic doctrine that Kelley ignores. 

When a woman named Evelyn who had recently lost her husband begins to sob in class, the camera cuts to Kelley, catching her in a deer-in-headlights stare, as she seems clearly at a loss for how to contain Evelyn. Then, she says, "Put your hand where he is right now on your body." Evelyn, rightfully confused, says, "I'm sorry?" Kelley then has Evelyn caress herself in front of the other women, and soon she is writhing on the floor doing a sexy cat crawl in Sheila's direction. It is an intervention I can't say I've ever used. We discover later that Evelyn has conflicted feelings about her late husband. Maybe she really didn't want him on or in her body in that moment that she was trying to work through complex emotions. 

Whatever Kelley was selling, it doesn't seem to work. Not even midway through the program, one participant walks out because this was not what she had signed up for. Another woman expresses feeling bad about herself because all the other women seemed to have unlocked themselves within 13 weeks, while she still felt unchanged. The camera focuses on her shrinking to the side at a home pole party, on the outskirts of the action. 

This woman also happened to be one of the only two Black women in the group. Furthermore, I counted one Latinx woman and one Asian woman. The rest of Kelley's room is white, as are the majority of other polers and studio owners Ohayon features. This is not reflective of my pole experience at a Black-owned studio with a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body. The strategic placement of the few women of color in the film smacks of tokenism.

For self-proclaimed anti-patriarchy feminism, so much of what Kelley does is still based on a male gaze. She is still telling women how they're supposed to be. She tells them where and how to touch themselves. Rather than the changes being self-directed by the women themselves, they are directed by Kelley, which brings up issues of consent and coercion indicative of an abusive relationship. Even Kelley's discussion about naming her studio after the S curves in a woman's body excludes women who have straighter bodies and don't identify as an "S." In one scene, Kelley pushes a woman to remove her glasses and change her hairstyle from natural and curly to smooth and blown out. In another, she encourages an employee to lose 100 pounds so that she can "get on top" of her husband during sex. It is all antithetical to what female empowerment through pole is about.

Both the poler and therapist in me felt uncomfortable and misrepresented when watching "Strip Down, Rise Up." It has been disappointing to see the therapy profession undermined by various snake-oil salesmen who still seem to think mental health work can be like the Wild West

It has been equally disappointing to see the media and filmmakers like Ohayon fail time after time to create both a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of polers in their respective worlds. A better expression is Katori Hall's acclaimed Starz series "P-Valley" set in a fictional Mississippi strip club, in which the depth of the characters and the artistry, athleticism, and struggle inherent to poling are not glossed over in favor of the smut. But it's still only one show, one kind of story. Responsible representation can be done, but it will take many more truly inclusive feminists to do it.

By Pallavi Yetur

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Commentary Mental Health Netflix Pole Dancing Strip Down Rise Up Stripping