Western's Caucus on Women's Issues

Essay Awards > Essay Award Winners 2005


First Prize Winner:

Colleen Daniher

"From Green Gables to Shangri-L.A.:
Uncovering the Path of Feminism in Adolescent Literature"

Honorable Mentions:

Zahra Kara

"HiPhOP FeMiNiSm"


Tammy Johnston

"Listen to Their Stories: Foreign Exotic Dancers in Canada"

First Prize Winner:

From Green Gables to Shangri-L.A.: Uncovering the Path of Feminism in Adolescent Literature

by Colleen Daniher

L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables traces the story of the imaginative orphan Anne Shirley, who gets sent by mistake to live at Green Gables when the Cuthberts (elderly siblings Matthew and Marilla) request an orphan boy to help with their farm in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island.  While there is some talk of sending her back to the orphanage, the Cuthberts ultimately decide to keep Anne, and through the course of the novel, her adventures are recounted from the ages of 11 to 16, as she goes to school, makes friends and enemies, and finally, looks forward to adulthood.  

            In Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat, the title character is a punk princess living in Los Angeles, or “Shangri-L.A.” as she likes to call it.  At the beginning of the novel, the teenage Weetzie meets Dirk in class, “the best-looking guy in school”, who soon becomes her best friend (Block 4).  Early on, Dirk tells Weetzie that he is gay.  In a send-up of fairy-tale/myth conventions, when a magic lamp belonging to Dirk’s grandmother Fifi finds its way into Weetzie’s hands, a series of events is set into motion that ends in Weetzie and Dirk’s inheritance of Fifi’s beach cottage, as well as the addition of the respective romantic partners for Weetzie and Dirk: Duck, and My Secret Agent Lover Man.  The four form a family that eventually grows to include two daughters, Coyotee and Witch Baby.


We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high--and low

-Alice Walker (157)

            In her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, Alice Walker points out that sometimes, the hardest things to see are the very familiarities which have existed right in front of us all along.  For Walker, the oversight of the wealth of female creativity embedded in her own African-American culture calls into question not only how we define “art”, but also how we look for it.  In acknowledgment of the hegemonic discourse of “canonic” art, Walker outlines the critical need for the individual to see creativity with a different eye, and thus recognize art in the most unlikely places-- including and beginning with one’s own backyard.  It is in this spirit of revisionism and re-visitation that this essay turns to the familiar but often dismissed field of adolescent literature in order to unearth two important feminist figures: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat.  While the two historically and culturally disparate characters seem to share little in common,[1] the medium for their respective fictional existences-- adolescent literature-- links them together in a tradition that forges their connection to feminism.  For adolescent fiction shares with women a history of under-appreciation and devaluation in the artistic/academic world; an oversight that Robert Lecker points out can be traced in the genre’s lack of anthologized representation: “Did anthologists […] consider children’s literature unworthy of inclusion? […] Despite their enormous popularity in their time, recent literary histories tend to treat these writers as though they didn’t exist” (as qtd in Gammel and Epperly 4).  Furthermore, adolescent fiction and women can be linked by the sheer dominance of women writers within the genre, starting in the 19th Century with the rise of “popular fiction” in the form of the Novel.  As critics Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly explain, this type of fiction was confined to the same private sphere that women have traditionally been confined to for years: “popular literature is seen to have a low-level value of entertainment and escape, ultimately serving personal rather than public needs” (4).  And yet, close reading of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Block’s Weetzie Bat show that these texts provide a wealth of commentary on a very public issue indeed-- the politics of institutional power.  Roberta Seelinger Trites describes it like this:

In the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are.  They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class [...]  (Trites 3)

            In recognition of adolescent literature as a discourse of power, I will argue for the reconsideration of the genre as a forum for serious feminist discussion, and respectively recover and introduce the misunderstood Anne Shirley and the still relatively unknown Weetzie Bat as important feminist heroines, worthy of consideration by women of all ages.  The feminist potential of both these figures lies in their self-identification as artists, in their deconstruction of traditional ideologies of the family, and in the strong strain of activism that pervades both texts.

The issue of identity establishes itself as a primary focus of any work of adolescent fiction; as Trites points out, “YA novels evolved historically from the Bildungsroman”, a genre that, in its simplest understanding, traces the development or growth of the protagonist in its narrative.  While Trites is also quick to reject the label Bildungsroman in favour of Entwicklungsroman[2] when speaking of female protagonists, the fact remains that both of these terms underscore the critical issue of the coming-into-selfhood that any adolescent narrative concerns itself with.  In Anne of Green Gables and Weetzie Bat, identity is certainly a core issue

-- Anne struggles with both her “missing” biological identity as an orphan, and her mis-identification as a boy: “You would cry too, if you were an orphan and had come to a place you thought was going to be home and found that they didn’t want you because you weren’t a boy” (Montgomery 24).  Anne is thus defined by what she is not.  Weetzie, though not an orphan, has as much trouble defining herself at the beginning of the book as Anne-- when Dirk asks her where she got her name from, she repeats the moniker uncomprehendingly and replies: “‘How do I know? Crazy parents, I guess’” (Block 18).  For both, these identities-- “orphan”, “boy”, and even “Weetzie”-- are ones that have been arbitrarily given to Anne and Weetzie, not chosen or even understood by them.

However, both protagonists manage to transcend these confusing identity-labels by constructing their own identities through art.  In Montgomery’s text, Anne’s verbal creativity is called to attention time and time again; from her penchant for naming things, to the formation of the ‘Story Club’, to her elocutionary talents as an older teen, Anne is a master wordsmith, and it is through the art of words that Anne builds her own identity.  In her first meeting with Marilla, Anne identifies herself as “Cordelia”, and then later, as “Anne spelled with an e” (Montgomery 24-5).  Anne effectively tries to re-write her own identity just as she does the very landscapes that surround her (e.g. Barry’s pond becomes “The Lake of Shining Waters”, “The Avenue” is changed into “The White Way of Delight, etc.).  While “Cordelia” doesn’t quite catch on, a second self-naming is more successful-- “You’re only Anne of Green Gables […].  But it’s a million times nicer to be Anne of Green Gables than Anne of nowhere in particular, isn’t it?” (60), she asks her reflection, after acknowledging the impossibility of becoming Lady Cordelia.  In constructing her own identity through the art of her words, Anne espouses several ideologies closely linked to post-structural /postmodern feminism-- she subscribes to a constructivist rather than essentialist view of identity, she views identity as malleable rather than fixed, and she holds the shaping power of her own words in high esteem.  As Foster and Simon put it, “Anne […] demonstrates her sensitivity to the flexible relationship between words and their signification, and, in creating her own discourse, challenges the privileging of the male Logos” (161).  For Anne, her very survival depends on the use of her own self-identifying brand of logocentric art.

While Anne shapes herself through her words, Weetzie does so through visual art-- and more specifically, by turning herself into a canvas for this art: “She was a skinny girl with a bleach-blonde flat-top.  Under the pink Harlequin sunglasses, strawberry lipstick, earrings, dangling charms, and sugar-frosted eye shadow she was really almost beautiful” (Block 4).  From this description, we get an image of an androgynous, ageless Weetzie (in another passage, her bleached hair is referred to as being “white” (15)), painted and adorned in resistance to the status quo (femininity, youth) rather than in support of it; but her beauty is ambiguous--is she beautiful because of the lipstick, charms, and eye shadow, or despite it?  In Sandra Bartky’s article “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”, Bartky lists the practice of make-up and adornment of the body as products of the internalized gaze of patriarchy (Bartky 33), but in Weetzie’s case, I would argue that her adornment seems to have less to do with conforming to a beauty standard than getting across a political message:   

“That’s a great outfit,” Dirk said.  Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.  “Thanks, I made it,” she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum.  “I’m into Indians […].  They were here first and we treated them like shit.” (Block 5)

Like Anne, Weetzie’s creativity via her clothes is closely connected to her sense of self (and her sense of others!) and vice versa; through her self-made costumes, she blurs the lines between her art and her “self” because she is both at once.  In this way, as an artist, she literally wears the identity she has made for herself.  In Jean Dykstra’s article “Putting Herself in the Picture: Autobiographical Images of Illness and the Body”, Dykstra discusses the power exerted by the woman artist who subverts the dominant male gaze in art to include herself as both subject and artist: “Far from a wallowing in narcissistic reflection […] their use of autobiography […] is a political strategy” (Dykstra 70).  In a similar fashion, Anne and Weetzie’s self-identification in art is also empowerment through autobiography, and makes a strong feminist-friendly statement concerning the self-reflexive choice involved in formulating identity-- be it gender identity, sexual identity, cultural identity or other.  Given this existing evidence, I would disagree with Trites’ view of the impossibility of the female bildungsroman, for Anne and Weetzie’s self-identification and production as artists indicate that for them, identity is indeed something that is created self-consciously.   

            Another way that the feminism of Anne and Weetzie can be traced is in the deconstruction of the traditional institution of the nuclear family in the texts, thereby calling into question issues of “normalcy” and overthrowing narrow definitions of “the family”.  Even as the adopted daughter of Matthew and Marilla, Anne still does not belong to what one would call a “conventional” family-- both Matthew and Marilla are well past middle age, and their relationship as brother and sister sets them outside of traditional mother/father spousal roles.  Furthermore, as Frank Davey notes, towards the end of the novel, Anne herself becomes the parent-figure, for she “changes Marilla, and influences Marilla’s parenting, at least as much as Marilla changes and influences Anne” (Davey 176).  In effect, the role reversal of Anne and Marilla show how permeable and in fact, fragile, the power structure of the family is-- authority is a liminal position, and not indefinitely locked to a particular identity, such as age or gender.  

            Weetzie’s family takes familial unconventionality a step further.  Living in Grandma Fifi’s beach house, Weetzie’s family is comprised of herself, her lover My Secret Agent Lover Man, her best friend Dirk and his boyfriend Duck, her two daughters, her pets, and although absent from the house, her mother Brandy-Lynn and friends Ping Chong, Valentine Jah-Love, and their son Raphael Jah-Love complete the group.  Patrick Jones comments on the success of Weetzie’s surrogate family: “Could there be a more loving family than that of Weetzie Bat and her clique? […] The Bat family is probably the closest and warmest to appear in young-adult literature in a long time” (Jones 700).  In painting a family where genders, ages, sexual orientation, and cultures can come together, Block creates the very picture of a third wave collective seeking to resist a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.  

Apart from their similar divergence from the typical model of the family, another common structure of both Anne and Weetzie’s families is the de-privileging of the authoritative role of the Father, and the rise of the centrality of the heroine herself.  Foster and Simons identify this pattern of the “absent or inadequate father” in Montgomery’s novel as “a form of covert rebellion against patriarchal dominance, achieved by writing out a potential source of female oppression” (164).  In Anne, both Anne’s deceased paternal father and Matthew are effaced through death from the narrative as father figures.  Even alive, the role of Matthew as patriarch is one that Foster and Simons argue against: for them, Matthew “embodies maternal comfort rather than paternal authority”, and in his misunderstood shy, gentle ways “is in fact as much a victim of gender ideology, with its emphasis on male aggressiveness and self-assurance, as are women” (Foster and Simons 164).  In the end, Anne’s world is one where the authority of the father is not needed to create a happy family; rather, it is Anne herself who brings Matthew and Marilla together as a family, and who later succeeds Matthew as the breadwinner of the family.

In Weetzie Bat, the authority of the father is discarded in the events surrounding the conception of Cherokee.  When My Secret Lover Man refuses Weetzie’s request to have a baby with her, Duck comes up with an alternate plan:

I saw it on the talk show once.  These two gay guys and their best friend all slept together so no one would know for sure whose baby it was.  And then they had this really cool little girl and they all raised her, and it was so cool, and when someone in the audience said ‘What sexual preference do you hope she has?’ they all go together, they go ‘Happiness.’  Isn’t that cool?” (Block 44)

By creating a “three-dad-baby” (Block 54), Weetzie not only exercises her reproductive rights and bodily autonomy by going ahead with her plans for a baby without the cooperation of My Secret Agent Lover Man, but also irrevocably changes the status of the father from the person who defines the identity of the baby, to merely someone who himself doesn’t have to be identified.  The ambiguity and the anonymity of the three fathers establish the mother as the most important authority in the child’s life and depreciate the fathers to a secondary supportive role.  In a turn away from traditional Freudian beliefs in the law of the father, the mother thus becomes the child’s main authority and source for identity, as is evident in the transmission of Weetzie’s surname to her children (Cherokee Bat) and to the identity of the family as a whole (the Bat family).  Thus, in both books, the subversion of the “traditional” family model leads to a more inclusive consideration of the term as well as of the roles of women within this term.

            Finally, the feminism of Anne Shirley and Weetzie Bat can be found in their roles as activists who promote social change throughout the novel.  In both texts, Anne and Weetzie are imaged as rebellious figures who defy and question social norms-- Foster and Simons cite Anne’s “iconoclastic spirit” in her determination to be educated despite class and gender limitations (160), and Weetzie from the start is imaged as part of a “subculture” (Jones 700) that “no one understood” (Block 1).  Both explode constructs of femininity and the traditional female heroine in “girl’s fiction”, whose didactic role was to impart a moral lesson of good behaviour to its young readers (Foster and Simons 161); Anne’s most famous act of “mis-behaviour” is the cracking of her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head (Montgomery 12), while Weetzie goes clubbing, consumes alcohol and has sex several times over the course of the novel.  However, despite the many subversive elements of resistance found in the texts, one of the most common criticisms launched against the argument for feminist readings of Anne and Weetize is the lack of radical progress that takes place at the endings of the novels.  Davey ultimately concludes that “In the unfolding of the novel Anne has learned many times over not only to reconcile herself with social orthodoxy but on occasion to embrace enthusiastically its practices and genres” (Davey 177), while Trites charges that:

Block does not rest easy until everyone is paired off, two by two, even if gender and orientation are irrelevant to her dyads.  Students trained to read for competing dialogues intuit that in Block’s novels, ultimately, nothing all that radical really happens. (Trites 150)   

But these perspectives fail to take into account the very inconclusiveness that the novels afford their own endings: “And there was always the bend in the road!” Montgomery writes in the penultimate sentence (309), while Weetzie’s final thoughts are: “I don’t know about happily ever after…but I know about happily” (Block 88).  In the ambiguous closing of both texts, Anne and Weetzie reject the fixed “happily ever after” tradition that they come from as parodies of the bildungsroman and fairytale/romance genre, in favour of a more open conclusion that anticipates future joy and struggle, but never static complacency.  For Anne and Weetzie then, the journey towards self and societal improvement is one that never ends, a message of activism that clearly resounds for feminists.

            In the end, the figures of Anne Shirley and Weetzie Bat prove how careful reading and research of the adolescent novel yields rich rewards for the feminist scholar.  While critics may cite the idealistic conservatism of Anne or the New Age utopianism of Weetzie as reasons to reject these novels from feminist reconsideration, one must, as Walker says, acknowledge “not so much what [was] sang” but “the notion of the song” (156), and separate the particular historical limitations of both works from their overriding message of female celebration and autonomy.  Clearly, at the time of publication, the notion of the not-so-beautiful, hot-tempered, ambitious Anne Shirley as an adolescent heroine was as remarkably refreshing as the punk matriarch Weetzie Bat is today.  However, it is also critical to recognize that Weetzie Bat struggles with obstacles of censorship that Anne of Green Gables never had to face; as Patrick Jones points out, “fears about the alternative lifestyles in Block’s books have kept them out of many schools and public libraries” (700).  In the face of such political resistance, it is clear that far from being simply a “work of young adult fiction”, Weetzie Bat offers important discourses which challenge accepted ideologies-- we can only hope they reach as many young readers as possible.     

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra.  “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.”  Course Package.  Compiled by K.J. Verwaayen.  25-44.

Block, Francesca Lia.  Weetzie Bat.  New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Davey, Frank.  “The Hard-Won Power of Canadian Womanhood: Reading Anne of Green Gables Today.”  L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture.  Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly, ed.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 163-82.

Dykstra, Jean.  “Putting Herself in the Picture: Autobiographical Images of Illness and the Body.”  Reading Women’s Lives. 3rd Ed. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002. 63-87.

Foster, Shirley and Judy Simons.  What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of ‘Classic’ Stories for Girls.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.  149-71.

Gammel, Irene and Elizabeth Epperly. “L.M. Montgomery and the Shaping of Canadian Culture.”  L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture.  Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly, ed.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.  3-14.   

Jones, Patrick.  “People Are Talking About…Francesca Lia Block.”  The Horn Book Magazine. November 1992.  Proquest.  9 January 2005.  697-701.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud.  Anne of Green Gables.  Toronto: Bantam, 1987.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger.  Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000. 

Walker, Alice.  “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”  Reading Women’s Lives.  3rd Ed. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002.  151-161.


[1] Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, and takes place in the fictional town of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island.  Weetzie Bat was published in 1989, and takes place in Los Angeles, California.  In both works, the date of publication is more or less contemporaneous with the action of the narrative.

[2] Trites distinguishes between the self-conscious move of the hero towards progress that the bildungsroman connotes with the more general development implied by the entwicklungsroman (11).  She cites critic Annis Pratt’s argument that because women protagonists in narratives of development are “alienated by gender-role norms from the very outset”of the novel, the conscious choice of development is never an option for the heroine, thus eliminating the possibility of a female Bildungsroman (12).  Etymologically, the difference in the two root-words can be traced as well: “bildung” is translated as “culture, education, or literacy”, while “entwicklung” means simply “development or growth” (Webster’s Online Dictionary).


Honorable Mention:


by Zahra Kara

Oh, my god Becky, look at her butt.
It is so big. She looks like,
One of those rap guys' girlfriends.
But y'know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because,
She looks like a total prostitute, 'ay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big.
I can't believe it's just so round, it's like,
Out there, I mean- gross. Look!

She's just so Black!

--"Baby got Back!" Sir Mix-A-Lot


In 1809, a nineteen year-old South African woman, Saartjie Baartman, was abducted from South Africa and paraded, semi-naked, across Europe for six years, as a sexual freak known as the 'Hottentot Venus'. She became an icon of Black female sexuality and the "excessive size" of her buttocks, breasts, and vagina were used to promulgate the absurd myth that these mammoth features were indicative of Black women's loose and immoral sexuality. The sexual abuse and violation of Black women did not begin or end with Saartjie Baartman, considering Black women were frequently sexually abused throughout colonialization, where their physical slavery on the plantations was matched by their sexual slavery in the bedrooms of their 'massahs'. Even today, Black women continue to be objectified as untamed, hypersexual beings within mainstream North American society. The lyrics of the hit song "Baby got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot, display the link between being Black, having a large backside and being sexually promiscuous, as is connoted by the reference to a prostitute. In response to these racist and misogynist interpretations of Black women and their sexualities, female rappers are increasingly using rap music to assert their power as women and more so, to reclaim their sexualities which have been the defining feature of Black women's identities for hundreds of years. An analysis of several female rappers, including Queen Latifah, Salt N Pepa, Trina, and Da Brat will demonstrate how female rappers have successfully enlisted tools discussed within feminist discourse, such as that of mimicry, la Luce Irigaray, to deconstruct negative messages and (re)construct positive ones about Black women, and their sexualities.

Black women's sexuality has been defined by everyone but themselves for generations, and their portrayal as immoral and hypersexual beings is the result of the dually oppressive forces of racism and sexism, which places Black women in a distinct plight. bell hooks, in Ain't I A Woman, discusses the effects of both racism and sexism on Black women. She argues that Black women are portrayed as one of three main figures within popular culture: Mammy, Matriarch, or Jezebel. Although the first two categories of Black women are seen as asexual, the latter is portrayed as the pinnacle of moral corruption, the hypersexual counterpart to the prim and proper Mammy. The Jezebel is depicted as a sexually promiscuous slave who offers herself to her master in hopes of receiving better treatment (much like a prostitute trades sexual favours for material goods). Playing the role of a mistress offered potential advantages that many slave women could not resist, such as good food, good treatment, easy work, and possibly freedom (Hill Collins 78). The “slack” personality of the Jezebel was used to excuse slave owners' abuse of their slaves and gave an explanation for mulatto offspring. By sexualizing racism and racializing sexism, this view constructs Black women as the legitimate victim of White male violence, while it rewrites the history of the rape of Black women by White men to coincide with the notion that Black women were the initiators of sexual contact (Dines 37). This attitude is injurious to Black women today, because it is often used as a rationale by the media and society to justify and excuse the sexual exploitation and rape of Black women (Hill Collins 77).

The depiction of Black women as lacking sexual morality is perpetuated within hiphop culture. Although rap music, written and performed by Black men, generally ignores the existence of Black women, when it does make reference to them, it is usually in relation to their sexualities. Women are defined as commodities, objects of male pleasure, or ornaments within the majority of male rappers’ lyrics, making the portrait of Black womanhood that emerges flat and one-dimensional. A popular and reoccurring representation of Black women within male rap music is that of them as wild, sexually promiscuous and amoral (Stephens and Philips 4). Black women are referred to as “freaks”, “skanks”, or “hoes”-- all terms connoting women who love to have sex without discretion or any emotional attachment (Stephens and Philips 20). For instance, rapper Jay-Z’s hit "Give it to Me", states “with all this cash, you'll forget your man; now give it to me!”, giving Black women an identity of being desperately promiscuous, “money hungry sluts who do anything for cash”--modern day Jezebels.

The music videos of Black male rappers further proliferate the myth of Black women as a homogenous and hypersexual faction. These videos reflect how race, class and gender continue to constrain and limit the autonomy and agency of Black women (Emerson 120). Virtually all of the women who appear in Black male rappers’ music videos are cut from the same mould: thin, light-skinned, straight-haired, scantily-clad women, who fulfil Eurocentric standards of beauty. They are usually featured in videos groping male artists, serving as trophies to attest to their success, or ‘humping’ symbols of phallic power, such as cars or street poles. It is for this reason that these females are informally referred to as “video hoes”.

The sexual harassment suffered by Black women increases when they make the decision to enter the hiphop community, since the threat of sexual harassment increases when women dare to enter predominantly male fields, and the hiphop community is no exception. Male rappers attempt to deter women’s entrance and rise in the field by subjecting female rappers to attacks on their sexual reputations (Goodall 85). However, the following analysis will demonstrate that despite the misogynistic representations of Black women that saturate male rap lyrics and music videos, since the 1990s, hiphop has witnessed the emergence of Black women performers, producers, writers, and musicians who turned rap lyrics and music videos into a site for the promotion and self-expression of positive Black womanhood and sexuality.

Many Black female rappers enlist French feminist Luce Irigaray’s subversive practise of mimicry to defy male generated definitions of Black female sexuality. Irigaray suggests mimicking male philosophy and norms, arguing that a playful imitation of the place of women within the social order can help to undermine the system itself. This means women must convert their subordination into an affirmation, and reintroduce sexual difference into the cultural order, since women cannot pretend that the norms for femininity do not exist, and incorrectly assume that they can be put aside; because any new idea of what the “feminine” constitutes would be based on old phallocentric norms (Irigaray 78). The practise of mimicry is similar to a Black oral tradition of signification/signifyin’. Although significations are occasionally issued for fun, they are more frequently used to make a point, to issue a corrective, or to critique through indirection and humour. Like mimesis, signifyin’ resists oppression while working within the boundaries of the oppressive system, and enlisting its tools. As Sara Jones, a Black female artist, brilliantly articulates,

“It’s a firm structure…. [Images of women in hip hop as ‘bitches and hoes’] are not going away from the outside…. You have to play both sides…. Get in and    finagle around… play within it while you do your best to poke holes in it. The ‘structure’ that many young African American women are subjected to is specifically rooted in hip hop stereotypes and the media’s vilification of ’the    ghetto’” (Bost n.p.),

which is once again the result of stereotypes about gender, race and class. The rhetorical strategy of signifyin’ appropriately allows feminist lyricists to launch critical offensives against the sexual objectification of women practiced by many male rappers (Smitherman 14). Significations can be understood as “repetition with a difference”, since this rhetorical strategy requires that an old phenomenon be deconstructed and erected with new meaning. Without insight into the referential layers of these raps, listeners can easily be fooled into thinking they hear nothing bur a simple repetition of myths of Black otherness, which is why this method constantly runs the risk of being collapsed by those who don’t understand the doubleness of signifyin’ (Bost n.p.). However, it is the generation of multiplicity from a single reference offered by signification which makes it possible to create multiple versions of stories, thus refuting the existence of a metanarrative. As well, significations allow for the possibility of re-endowing people, places, and things with new meanings and identities.   

In “Ladies First”, Queen Latifah clearly spreads a message of Black female empowerment. Through vivid and original imagery, her lyrics challenge notions of male superiority and dominance. The song’s title is a good example of a signification, because of its ability to positively reconstruct a previously degrading phenomenon. The title refers initially to the traditional meaning of “Ladies First” which is a phrase left over from an era when men opened doors and pulled out chairs for women, a deceptive sign of respect in an age where women held little to no social and political power. However, Queen Latifah uses this term to demand actual respect and power for women, and insists that women are able to not only match, but surpass men’s talents and achievements. She turns a phrase used for decades as a way of surreptitiously placing women in a second-class position, into an empowering statement, with which to challenge the status quo. A line in the song, “there's going to be some changes in here”, also successfully employs signification, since it is an adaptation of Malcolm X's famous words “There are going to be some changes made here.” It appears that Queen Latifah “calls on Malcolm X as a part of a collective African-American historical memory and recontextualizes him…as a voice in support of the imminent changes regarding the degraded status of women and specifically Black women rappers” (Roberts 165-6).

In addition to utilizing signification to redefine Black womanhood, Queen Latifah's lyrics express sexual liberation, saying women also want to “get some,” in direct opposition to the traditional, patriarchal view that sex is mainly for the purpose of pleasuring men. Finally, Black women are empowered and given confidence and purpose in their existence when Queen Latifah assures them that it is due to their womanhood that they are able to give birth and life to a “new generation of prophets.” This statement positively references women’s reproductive power and endows womanhood with the agency it truly deserves. The lyrics to “Ladies First” are simple, yet when analyzed with the experiences and issues of Black women in mind, their complexity and rebelliousness becomes more visible.

The 1993 hit song “Shoop,” by Salt N Pepa is also an exhibition of signifyin’ on prominent male rapper Big Daddy Kane, interwoven with some sexual hyperbole and the sexual objectification of a Black male. In “Very Special,” Big Daddy Kane celebrates the sexual beauty of a woman and gives tribute to her father: “For giving me something this beautiful, have mercy, I want to kiss yo father.” Salt N Pepa respond in “Shoop” by crediting the mother for the sexual beauty of the male they rap about: “Brother wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.” By mimicking a male rapper’s song, but changing/ inverting the subjects of the lyrics, Salt N Pepa convey an altogether different message, which praises women as opposed to men, while sexually objectifying men as opposed to women. Furthermore, they use this opportunity to display the often neglected identity of Black women as mothers, as well as subjects of their sexuality, as opposed to the common depiction of them as the objects of Black male sexual desire.

Even the music video for “Shoop” turns the tables on male rappers. In it, “ladies see a bunch of bare-chested, tight-bunned brothers acting like sex objects, servicing it to us in our videos” proclaimed Salt (Keyes 261). However, this music video should not be seen as a mere role reversal, but rather an articulation of mutual pleasure and enjoyment. While men are undoubtedly the objects of Salt N Pepa’s desire in the video, the female performers are simultaneously desired by the men as well, in addition to being the object of the camera and the audience’s gaze as well. These Black women are the agents of their own pleasure, as well as the vehicle for the fulfillment of man’s desire. Thus, they are not only the objects, but they are also the subjects. In such a gaze reversal, Black female performers give sexual pleasure, while also pursuing, receiving and accepting it. In this sense, Salt N Pepa, and other female artists who perform sexuality in similar ways explode the gaze, and shatter it like glass- thus creating countless foci from which to understand sexuality, desire and pleasure. As Dana Bryant states “There’s nothing wrong with being a wild woman, but we’ve been bludgeoned to death by that image…. It’s important that [the image] be harnessed by women and redefined for what it truly is” (Bost). Bryant makes it clear that female rappers are not interested in articulating Black women’s sexualities for them, but only care that whatever images are produced are appropriated and owned by the women who produce them.

As well, in response to the almost exclusive use of thin, light-skinned, straight-haired women in hiphop music videos, which spawned a controversy in the 1980s and 1990s (Emerson 125), female rappers are reinventing what it means to be an African woman. Artists such as Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu and Sister Souljah, embrace the entire spectrum of Black women’s roles and identities in society, and make specific reference to themselves in their lyrics as “Asiatic Black women”, “Nubian Queens”, or “sistas droppin’ science to the people”, which is suggestive of their self-constructed identities and intellectual prowess (Keyes 256). They are often outfitted in royal African Kente cloth strips, African headdresses, goddess braid styles and other distinctively Black hairstyles, along with ankh-stylized jewellery, in the style of African queens before them (Keyes 257). These women, often referred to as “Queen Mothers” produce the image of strong, intelligent African women, a foil to the objectification of Black women as sexual commodities in many male rapper’s lyrics. As well, by appropriating particular signs of Blackness and Black femininity, Black women assert their confidence in their culture and their identities through song lyrics and music videos (Emerson 126).

Instead of defying the “video ho” image propagated by male rappers, other empowered female lyricists seek to redefine it, while deconstructing the dominant American mainstream ideals of beauty. For instance, Salt N Pepa “flip da script” by wearing tight clothes that accent their full breasts, rounded buttocks and thighs, markers of Black women, while simultaneously rapping about female sexual, economic, psychotically and physical empowerment. Similarly, female MC, songwriter, producer Missy Misdemeanor Elliott contests racist notions of beauty by flaunting her famous natural, finger-wave hairstyle, while carrying off the latest hiphop fashions on her dark-skinned and full-figured frame. Missy challenges Eurocentric standards of beauty, and in doing so reclaims sexuality for all Black women, regardless of their shade or size (Keyes 262). In H2DB,  Salt N Pepa reject “what I’m supposed to be”, referring to the traditional boundaries of feminine dressing-- and one could assume, femininity and sexuality as a whole-- as “dumb rules made for silly fools.” H2DB asserts a woman’s ability to define herself and her own standard of beauty in the face of male opposition and oppression (Goodall 88). By portraying Black women as beautiful, strong and independent, Black female lyricists are deconstructing notions of beauty and sexuality, which view Black women as unattractive, unintelligent, and sexually promiscuous, because of their larger and more rounded physical appearances, relative to the ideal White woman (Keyes 258). By defying racist and sexist stereotypes that assume all women in tight clothing are scandalous and unintelligent, they make it possible for Black women to be intelligent and sexy simultaneously. The juxtaposition and combination of sexuality, assertiveness and independence represent the reappropriation of Black women’s bodies in response to sexual regulation and exploitation, and affirm the multidimensionality of Black womanhood (Emerson 130). Furthermore, it attests to the ability of Black women to use the sphere of popular culture to reclaim and revise controlling images, particularly that of the Jezebel, to express sexual autonomy, independence and subjectivity (Emerson 133).

Black female rappers also resist control of their sexualities and identities by Black male rappers who commonly refer to them as bitches, which connotes inadequate, feisty or fraudulent women, by revising the standard definition of bitch from an “aggressive woman who challenges male authority” to “an aggressive or assertive female who subverts patriarchal rule”. Lyndah of the duo BWP explains, “we use ‘Bytches’ to mean a strong, positive, aggressive woman who goes after what she wants. We take that on today…and use it in a positive sense” (Keyes 263). For instance, in “Da Baddest Bitch”, Trina cleverly redefines and reclaims the term bitch, by endowing it with positive connotations, and equating it with success and attaining material goods. Similarly, in “All my Bitches,” Da Brat proudly proclaims her identity as an independent and successful bitch, “the first solo to go platt” (the first single to reach platinum sales).

Other Black female rappers, such as Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Da Brat explode the scripts written to control Black women and their sexualities by attempting to parallel and provide a female rendition of the “badman” character upheld by male rappers. These women rap about the same things that constitute the “badness” of male rappers, such as their sexual escapades, their drinking binges, and brushes with the law, symbolic of “White power”. However, many Black women criticize this attempt to empower women because as hiphop feminist Joan Morgan states “feminism is not simply about being able to do what the boys do-- get high, talk endlessly about their wee wees and what have you. At the end of the day, it’s the power women attain by making choices that increase their range of possibilities” (Keyes 263).

Critics argue that attempts at subverting and undermining the sexual objectification of Black women through mimesis are unfruitful because female rappers are not innovative and merely imitate rather than constructively deconstruct and reconstruct empowering images of females. However, “to play with mimesis for a woman”, asserts Irigaray, “is to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to simply be reduced to it”. While it may appear that these Black female artists are merely reflecting and surrendering to oppressive forces, their behaviour could be understood to reveal ambivalence about Black female sexuality, mainly the coexistence of hypersexual images and the denigration and denial of the beauty of the Black female body. In response to contradictory notions of Black womanhood, Black female lyricists frequently reappropriate explicit images of Black female sexuality and undergo a process of negotiating contradictory and conflicting notions of Black female sexuality, so as to achieve control over Black female sexuality (Emerson 128). These women are working within the structure of their oppression to demonstrate that they recognize and locate the forces of oppression, but are not limited or confined by them so much so that they cannot creatively work to unravel them. Mimesis allows female rappers to successfully dispel stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality because it simultaneously parodies and displaces hegemonic conventions. The ability of Black female rappers ‘to use the master’s tools to dismantle his house’ is surely a testament of their ability to locate the site of the oppression, while successfully struggling against it.

The abovementioned attempts to empower Black women through hiphop by various female rappers attest to the power of performance. Judith Butler elaborates upon the power of performance in her theory on performativity. She argues that “performativity has to do with repetition, very often the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms”. Further, she states that “this is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in” as a result of stereotypes. Thus, she encourages women to repeatedly perform gender and sexuality, through imitation or miming, in order to loosen the stronghold of dominant formulations of gender and sexuality, since identities are only “real only to the extent that they is performed” and are not a set of properties governed by the body and its organ configuration (Butler 169). Idealistic notions of beauty and myths which assert the natural sexual promiscuity of Black women are undermined and subverted by Black women who actively and repeatedly perform and portray alternate notions of beauty and of Black female sexuality, thus reflecting on the constructive forces which produce these hegemonic norms and disputing their claim on naturalness (Butler 131).

When Chuck D., of the male rap group Public Enemy summed up the essence of rap by indicating that “rap music is Black folks’ CNN”, he was clearly stating a fact (Smitherman 20). Rap music is an important medium within Black society, used to regulate Black women’s bodies, while articulating information about sexuality, beauty and morality. It is evident that Black women’s sexualities have been narrowly defined as a result of racist notions of beauty combined with sexist notions of womanhood. As well, historical representations of Black female bodies in contemporary popular culture still shape perceptions today. However, after analyzing Black women’s exploitation and oppression in relation to the modes of appropriation enlisted to control Black womanhood, it is evident that Black female rappers are unwilling to tolerate these notions of beauty and sexuality, which were constructed neither by them nor for their benefit. Black female lyricists are successfully dispelling stereotypes about Black womanhood, and are using their performances as platforms to refute, deconstruct and (re)construct notions of beauty from Black women’s perspectives. They are challenging racist and sexist depictions of Black women as sexually wild and free, making rap music the vehicle by which Black lyricists seek empowerment and establish positive identities for themselves and their sisters. But, the battle over control of Black female sexuality is far from over. Society will always strive to control any contagions that threaten the status quo for the overarching White patriarchal order. This is why Lauryn Hill warns her sisters in the hit song, “That Thing”, to stand strong against Eurocentrism (“Look at what you be in, hair weaves like Europeans/ Fake nails done by Koreans”), and to proceed with caution when engaging in sexual relations, since there is a fine line between enlisting one’s sexuality to empower oneself and enlisting it for male benefit. Hill states “You give it up so easy you ain’t even foolin’ him/ If you did it then, then you probably fuck again/ Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in/ Showing off your ass because you’re thinking it’s a trend”. Thus, instead of playing into gender and racial stereotypes which over-exaggerate Black female sexuality, as is indicated by the reference to Jezebels in the song, Hill urges “Baby Girl! Respect is just the minimum”. Clearly, “rap music is not only a Black expressive cultural phenomenon; it is, at the same time, a resisting discourse, a set of communicative practices that constitute a text of resistance against White America’s racism, its Eurocentric cultural dominance” (Smitherman 7), and quite evidently, misogynist male-centred definitions of Black female sexuality.


Honorable Mention:

Listen to Their Stories:

Foreign Exotic Dancers in Canada

by Tammy Johnston


“Oppressed people resist by identifying themselves as subjects,

by defining their reality, shaping their new identity,

naming their history, telling their story.”

bell hooks, Talking Back


            Canada needs to take a more active role in negating the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers. The current immigration policy monitors the impact this particular group of women will have on the Canadian labour market, and sets out to ensure guidelines are followed by the employer and employee in order for a temporary visa to be granted.  The policy does not prevent foreign exotic dancers from exploitation once they are part of our sex club industry, but instead makes Canada accountable only on paper.  Canada must take responsibility for the experiences these women face while they are here.

On December 1, 2004, former Immigration Minister Judy Sgro’s “Exotic Dancer Program” was cancelled.  This program granted special temporary visas to foreign exotic dancers to enter Canada in order to fill positions in the sex club industry known for “forced back-room prostitution work” (LifeSiteNews.com, 2004, p.1). The application process required little information to be obtained from the Canadian employer or the foreign worker, and no information was required as to medical or criminal history of the worker.   Sgro argued that the Canadian sex club industry had “a right to have their labour market needs approved” (LifeSiteNews.com, 2004, p.1), while the opposition maintained that her Exotic Dancer Program exploited women.  The former Minister also claimed that Canadian women did not want to occupy roles as lap dancers, therefore, international recruitment was necessary in order to fill these positions (Audet, 2004, p.1).  This is the point at which the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers in Canada begins.

In response to the controversy created by Sgro’s “Exotic Dancer Program,” the Canadian Government implemented new immigration procedures designed to prevent the mistreatment of these women.  Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) is now involved with the recruitment of temporary foreign exotic dancers and provides Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) with their opinion as to the impact the foreign dancer applicant would have on  the Canadian labour market.  This new process requires a signed contract letter between the employer and the foreign exotic dancer, and must include: the duration of the contract (maximum period of one year); the specific hours of work per day/week; wages per day/week; duties to be performed; health coverage; and, any other benefits and deductions.  The contract letter must show that some type of relationship has been established between the two parties (i.e., that they have had prior communication).  Employers must also provide evidence that they have first advertised the exotic dancers’ positions to permanent residents of Canada, but were unsuccessful in attracting qualified Canadian personnel.  In addition, employers must assume full responsibility for transportation costs to and from the foreign worker’s country in advance of their temporary arrival to Canada (Government of Canada, 2005).  These new changes lengthen the recruitment process for the employer, but do little to control the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers. 

Foreign women leave their home country and arrive in Canada with the belief that they will have a “new and better life;” that they will acquire “freedom;” that there is “money to be made in Canada;” and, that Canada is the “golden land of opportunity” (Status of Women Canada, 2003, p.3).  This belief is based on information received through advertising and, by word of mouth.   Unfortunately, upon their arrival, foreign women who enter into the sex club industry soon discover that life in the “golden land of opportunity,” is none other than a life of slavery. 

The Migrant Sex Workers from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The Canadian Case (2003, pp.4-5) reports that foreign exotic dancers are naive in regard to Canada’s laws and the consequences of violations.  These women are also unaware of the poor working conditions in the field and also of the expectations of clients and employers.  In fact, some of these women are of the impression that an exotic dancer’s life is quite glamorous, involving large sums of money.  Therefore, foreign women are uneducated about the sex club industry and are deceived prior to their arrival in Canada.  This lack of information makes them vulnerable in the industry, and allows them to believe that their exploitation is the norm in our Western culture.

In a recent interview with W-Five (2005), Anna, a former stripper, recounted her experiences as a foreign exotic dancer in Toronto, Ontario.  Upon her arrival from Mexico all of her documentation was confiscated, including her airline ticket home.  She was under the impression that she would earn $1,000 a month to dance, but soon learned that sexual acts (for example, lap dancing and oral sex) were mandatory.  In addition, Anna was required to pay the club and the agent a fee which left very little money for disposable income.   The cost of a lap dance was $10.00, but  once Anna had paid the appropriate people, she was left with $2.00.  Therefore, in order for her to make the $1,000 promised, she would have to perform 500 lap dances per month.  Anna also pointed out that she worked “on her feet eleven to twelve hours per day, non stop,” and believed that the agents who bring these women to Canada, exploit them and that work in the sex club industry is a form of slavery. 

A personal interview, conducted on my own, with a Canadian “dancer” at a local London establishment, further confirmed Anna’s story.  This dancer maintained that almost all foreign exotic dancers are “on-schedule.”  This means a dancer is paid approximately $35.00 - $45.00 per 8 hour shift -- not even Ontario’s minimum wage -- and must rely on additional income by performing lap dances and other sexual activities. In Anna’s case, this would mean that her additional income is $2.00 per lap dance.  Therefore, her goal would be to provide as many lap dances as possible in any given shift.  The London interview also revealed that most Canadian dancers are “free-lance.”  This means that instead of being paid an hourly rate, they pay a set amount of money to the bar ($10.00 - $20.00); perform on stage (1 song set 3 times); and retain all money they make from lap dances and other sexual activities.  Unlike on-schedule dancers, free-lance dancers set their own hours and choose when and where they work.  However, the managers of strip clubs control who works in their establishment.  Therefore, free-lance dancers may feel a sense of control over the income they make and the hours they work compared to on-schedule dancers, but they too are controlled by a male-dominated patriarchal industry.  As an aside, in order to speak with this dancer, a fee of $20.00 was required for 15 minutes of conversation (the cost of a lap dance and she was required to sit on my lap!).  Bruckert (2002, p. 63) notes that “on-schedule” dancers can lose an entire week’s earnings for calling in sick or for other reasons considered normal and legitimate for people in different occupations.

These labour conditions underscore the oppression of foreign exotic dancers in Canada, and can be linked to Enloe’s The Globetrotting Sneaker, (1995, p. 228).  Enloe describes manufacturing companies, such as Nike and Reebok, exploiting Asian women working in the manufacturing plants by paying them little money to produce a product which in turn is sold for a large profit.  This form of oppression keeps women in a life of poverty and controls the amount of money women make.  Similarly, foreign exotic dancers are financially controlled by managers and owners who make money from their cheap labour.  There is no need for us to look abroad for examples of Western society exploiting foreign workers as we can find it in our own backyard.

The report issued by the Status of Women Canada (2000, pp. 7-8), Migrant Sex Workers from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The Canadian Case, indicates that foreign dancers in the strip club industry are sex slaves whose lives are controlled by their employers.   Although these women believed that their lives in Canada would allow them financial independence and personal agency, their lived realities are determined by their employers’ authority and control.  Men normally hold the positions of managers and owners of strip clubs; this illustrates the “gender imbalance between men and women in the sex trade industry” (p.2). In the local London interview, the dancer felt she did have control of her life because she had a choice of where and when she worked, and the amount of money she made.  Her freelance status gave her the temporary means to subsidize her university tuition for her degree in Engineering. On-schedule dancers however, have no choice -- their lives are controlled not only by individual(s) but by our government, since their temporary visas will only permit them to work in the strip club industry.  This difference in status promotes a division among women in sex clubs, and allows one group better  pay and a sense of control over the choices they make.

The backlash against   the 2nd wave of the feminist movement is the beauty myth. Wolfe (The Beauty Myth) argues that “modern beauty ideology is based on a mythical perception of ‘beauty’ – a socially constructed set of ideas about how female bodies should appear and behave” (p. 27).  Beauty (tall, blond, well-endowed) is a major factor in hiring  exotic dancers (Bruckert, 2002, p.34).  A woman who exemplifies  our Western society’s ideal of “beauty” is more apt to be sought after by male clients in sex clubs than those women who represent  their own culture’s norm of beauty.  These women, as well as Canadian dancers in our Western society,  are conditioned to aspire to a form of beauty which in reality is unattainable.  Women in the sex club industry lose their true sense of self; however, foreign exotic dancers also lose their real cultural identity. Given that social and institutional conventions dictate that youth is a necessary correlate of beauty, age discrimination is another factor in the sex club industry. Aging women  in the sex club industry industry have even greater restrictions placed upon them in terms of where they can work and how much money they can make.  In sum, “beauty” is a “currency system” (Wolfe, p. 30) which keeps male dominance intact and is a form of patriarchal power.

Foreign exotic dancers, like all women, are subject to this beauty objectification.  Kathleen Barry notes in her book Female Sexual Slavery (1979) that a major “cause of sex slavery is the social-sexual objectification of women that permeates every patriarchal society in the world” (p.103).  She also adds that “male domination reduces women to a lower status, holding them in low regard, and at the same time it makes women the object of men’s personal need for love, romance, and sex” (p. 117).   Bruckert (2002) notes that women in the sex club industry  have “whore status” which renders them “objects of the male gaze” (p. 39).   This demonstrates the oppression of women in a patriarchal society whereby women are codified as submissive and as objects for men’s pleasure. Bartky’s article, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” (p. 26), illustrates the Panopticon[1] to which our Western culture subjects women in their efforts to meet men’s approval.

Women like Anna live in fear of club owners, the agents who helped get them to Canada, and other strip club staff.  The Status of Women Canada research team learned that foreign exotic dancers are “controlled and brainwashed...told that the only people they can trust…talk to is the bar, the people in the bar, the managers, the owners, the other girls” (p. 8). This would explain the cautiousness expressed by a foreign exotic dancer in the London interview, and the “muscle” that moved in to guard against conversation.  To avoid deviation from or defiance against this regulatory behaviour, owners and managers threaten the lives of these dancers, as well as the lives of their families. As a result these women conform because they are afraid of being deported back to their home country – the country they left for a better life in Canada. The effect this control has on foreign exotic dancers is evident in their very low self-esteem, their feelings of inadequacy, and their inability to make their own decisions (Status of Women Canada, 2003).  These women are subjected to mental, emotional and physical abuse.  The violence against women in the sex club industry is part of an environment which convinces them they are inferior, and which keeps them subordinate and under the control of the sex club industry.  The  threat of violence allows the owners and managers to treat these women as their personal property with little or no regard for  them as actual human beings  with the right to be treated in the same way as any other Canadian citizen.

Foreign exotic dancers, unfortunately, do not use Ontario’s health and social services to their advantage.  In fact Status of Women Canada reported (2003, pp. 9-10), that very few foreign women knew that such services were available for their use.   Many of those who did know, chose not to use these services because of language barriers and different cultural values.  This is another indication of the ways in which lack of information can be used to control foreign women once they arrive in Canada.  Limiting foreign exotic dancers’ knowledge of services which should be available to them aids in keeping them captive in a patriarchal culture which controls their access to all resources. 

In the report issued by the Status of Women Canada (2003, p. 34), an unexpected theme emerged which related to the relationships among the dancers in the sex club industry.  There appeared to be competition between ethnic groups which was fostered by the managers and owners of clubs based on the different fees charged to clients for various sexual acts.   As a result of language barriers, as well as the women’s lack of knowledge  about the sex club industry, foreign exotic dancers charged less for lap dances and other sexual activities than Canadian women.  This caused competition among women of different ethnic backgrounds.  From the managers’ and owners’ perspective, this division (between otherwise potential allies) keeps foreign workers from learning their legal rights, and prevents their adoption of the English language which could lead to forming alliances with permanent residents of Canada.  If alliances form, foreign workers might realize the depth of their exploitation and begin to form coalitions for equal opportunity, equal rights, and financial gain.  This is another example of exploitation of foreign exotic dancers and ensures that they are kept oppressed in a patriarchal society. 

In the Toronto Star (December, 2004), Audrey Macklin, University of Toronto Law Professor, said that these women “are foreign-born with marginal status, with no sure road to citizenship, and they are thought of as worthless” (p. E01).  She also claims that foreign exotic dancers are prepared to do anything for money, even if it is unsafe or demeaning where Canadian women won’t.  This is one reason that clubs prefer foreign workers (Guardian, 2004).  In his response to Sgro’s Exotic Dancer Program, Jack Layton, NDP leader, notes that, “There’s no doubt there was a real element of exploitation...no action on it because...‘oh, they are just strippers.’” Layton believes that these strippers should receive the same rights and protections as any other immigrant looking for work (Toronto Star, December, 2004).  Judy Rebick, a feminist and Professor at Ryerson University, claims that Canada has created another “class of worker with no rights,” and that these women are contract labourers – slaves (Toronto Star, 2004).  This illustration of classism in Western society reinforces the lower status of  foreign exotic dancers within our Western society.

Some of the recommendations in the Status of Women Canada’s Report (2003, pp. 44-45) to combat the exploitation of exotic dancers include the following:

1.                                          Distribution of materials in the countries of origin reporting more realistic facts about the life of exotic dancing in Canada and the realities of trafficking.

2.                                          Distribute, to all temporary workers, visitors and students at port of entry, materials regarding Canadian laws.  This information should be made available in foreign languages. 

3.                                          Offer courses in English/French as a Second Language to all women, even if they are in Canada illegally. 

4.                                          Public health inspections should be conducted of the entire premises of strip clubs and massage parlours (not just the kitchen) on a regular basis. 

5.                                          Create a neutral, regulated, governing body to oversee strip clubs and massage parlours during hours of operation to ensure that the rules remain stable. 

6.                                          Make it mandatory to have information written in various languages about health-related issues (i.e., sexually transmitted diseases, safe sex practices, etc.) and health and social service options (i.e., substance abuse treatment, shelters, medical services) centrally posted for the workers in strip clubs, massage parlours and any other establishments involved in the sex trade. 

7.                                          Promote further development and provide funding for existing social service agencies solely devoted to the sex trade.  These agencies must become an integral component of the sex industry, engaging in very active outreach in the clubs and the massage studios.  Their access to clubs and studios should be mandated by law. 

8.                                          Develop and fund interdisciplinary, joint service operations which work to combat organized prostitution.

            Joe Bissett, former Executive Director of Immigration Canada, noted in his interview with W-Five that, “the Canadian Government has aided the sexual exploitation of foreign women.  In most countries, these girls from Eastern Europe and elsewhere are smuggled into the country illicitly by false visas or cross border.” Bissett claims that because Sgro’s program provides visas legally to facilitate the exploitation of foreign women, it is not necessary to resort to illegal tactics.  Audet (2004) states that “while Canada portrays itself as a morally superior nation which respects women, showboating abortion on demand as evidence of its superiority, those fighting trafficking of women on the front lines know better” (p. 3). In the same article, Gregory Carlin, Irish Anti-Trafficking Coalition said, “We get more complaints about Canada than any other western country” (page 2).  This is clear evidence that Canada is contributing to the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers.

            Gillian Long, Director of Research for Campaign Life Coalition said, “There are women who come to this country (Canada) and are forced to work in strip clubs, and even brothels.  Why aren’t officials concerned with finding these women and helping them” (LifeSiteNews.com, 2004, p.1).  The Government should provide funding to organizations such as Streetlight, a non-profit organization, which provides assistance, both community and legal support, to help anyone who wants to leave the sex trade industry.  In addition, funding should be provided to support and aid foreign exotic dancers who are being exploited while in Canada.  We should also consider a mandatory monitoring system of each individual foreign exotic dancer to ensure that we are providing her with a safe and equitable environment.

            We need to ask ourselves, “is Canada actually aiding in the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers?”  To some it may appear that we are, to others, we are not.  Based on my findings, I argue that Canada should be held accountable for the exploitation of these women. Foreign exotic dancers become lost once they are in Canada’s sex trade industry.  The new immigration policies will not put an end to the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers in the sex club industry.  These women are required to go through a necessary system of paperwork, but are forgotten once they are here.

            In conclusion, Canada needs to take a more active role in negating the exploitation of foreign exotic dancers.  We cannot be a proud country – the “golden land of opportunity,” if women are being exploited and no one is advocating on their behalf.    We must listen to their stories, hear their voices and champion for their equal rights and fair treatment as individuals, and as human beings.


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Streetlight Support Services. (n/d). Retrieved on March 13, 2005 from:

 GOTOBUTTON BM_7_ http://stretlightsuportservices.com

Wolfe, N. (1991).  The Beauty Myth. William Morrow & Company.


[1] Self surveillance of one’s body in attempt to regulate behaviour.



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