P-Valley’s Black Feminist Reclamations: African American Women Taking Back Ownership of their Bodies on the Pole

Antoinette M. Coward-Gilmore


In this article, I join together key theories in Black, African American feminist thought to demonstrate how Black, African American women erotic pole dancers prioritize and celebrate the rebellion of Black, African American women against objectifying tropes and disrupt Westernized ideals of femininity. By engaging with disrespectability politics through flesh dance, erotic names and tattoos, erotic pole dancers enact a badass feminism that is a method of body image liberation. 

As Mercedes approaches the stage from the dressing room, she enters hyped, bouncing, and pumping arms, wrists, and fingers into the air with confidence and self-assurance. She runs her fingers through her long, weaved, wavy hair in her red, thigh-high platform boots. Gyrating, she entices the audience, inviting them to bathe in her lusciousness. She connects with and collects money from the crowd, wiggles while caressing the pole, thrusts into a half-circle swing, and – BAM! – splits her legs like scissors. She manhandles the pole to somersault off and drops into a hard-hitting split. Her slithering walk leads her to circle the pole like a vulture circles the sun. She is compelled to perform a handstand to mount the pole. Interlocking her ankles, squeezing the pole in between her thighs, she wraps her legs around the pole like a snake wraps around its prey, stopping long enough to place her hands on her hips and shake like a saltshaker to the beat of the music. Climbing further up the pole, she appears plastered on the ceiling, swinging her torso rapidly with no hands visibly connected to the pole. She then grabs the pole like a car’s gear shift, places her feet on the ceiling, and twerks upside down with a vengeance and freely swaying head and hair that accentuates the music. She finally dazzles the crowd by wrapping her legs around the pole, releasing her hands, and sliding what seems uncontrollably fast down the pole with an unexpected pause midway like a frozen statue, flawlessly executing what they call the monkey drop.

            P-Valley, created initially by Katori Hall as a play called Pussy Valley in 2015, is now a STARZ Network television drama series that premiered July 12, 2020. P-Valley is an unapologetic reclaiming of the Black, African American woman’s1  body by executing athletically and erotically charged dance demonstrating heightened physical complexities utilizing the pole. With a sense of agency intertwined with robust sexuality and sensuality, the women/dancers of P-Valley perform provocative and death-defying acrobatic movements to disrupt hypersexual stereotypes defined by slavery and colonial times unfairly placed upon the Black/African American women’s bodies. The aesthetic and energy of erotic pole dance encompass power, precision, agility, and strength – stabilizing forces used to reclaim the body and the dance.

            Mercedes, P-Valley’s lead character portrayed by dancer/actress Brandee Evans, boldly demonstrates body reclamation by wearing the dancer’s provocative gear, “floss.” Floss is a revealing garment that exposes and accentuates the breasts, hips, thighs, and buttocks. Wearing “floss” demonstrates the uninhibited nature that comes with taking back ownership of the body and symbolizing control over who she is and what she wears. This type of control derives from body image liberation.  Body image liberation is a term used to break free from stereotypes that silence the presence and sexuality of Black, African American women through emboldened presence, behaviors, dress, speech, and dance.

            The women/dancers of P-Valley are erotic pole dancers who are not ashamed of who they are and what they do. Like in real life, the motivating factors in the storyline to engage in this type of dance form are hugely connected to quick access to financial gain. In doing so, preempted social stereotypes are placed on women based on their performance of erotic pole dance. To combat societal stereotypical judgment, I argue that the women/dancers of P-Valley celebrate body image liberation by using athletic, acrobatic, erotic dance movements on the pole to dismantle hypersexual stereotypes derived from Western society. With unapologetic pride and liberation in the dance, Black, African American women/erotic dancers find their agency and autonomy, taking control to navigate the world unashamedly, confidently, and on their terms.

            P-Valley is located on exits 2-9, in fictional Chucalissa, Mississippi, in the dirty Delta, described as being as fertile as the Nile. P-Valley is home to The Pynk, the finest shake joint owned by Uncle Clifford, grandson of Ernestine, who owned the famous juke joint/brothel “Ernestine’s” in Chucalissa that saw the likes of famed entertainers James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner. The place-making of P-Valley creates an environment that liberates the Black, African American woman from the bondage of body image. The women/dancers of P-Valley are manifestations of body image liberation and embrace the philosophy as their living mantra. Through wearing floss and executing uninhibited erotic pole dance, P-Valley offers a platform where symbols of body image liberation live. The Pynk employs strippers and exotic pole dancers with names like Mercedes, affectionately referred to as a “Bottom Bitch,” Keyshawn aka Miss Mississippi, Gidget, Brazil, Peanut Butter, Extra, Toy, and Jupiter. I suggest Hortense J. Spillers’s concept of markers is a form of body image liberation in the way in which the women/dancers identify themselves through self-given stage names and how they describe parts of their bodies as food and other vivid descriptors that suggest the body is massive and powerful.  In this paper, I show how exotic pole dancers employs markers and other key concepts in Black feminist scholarship toward body image liberation.

            Imani Kai Johnson’s concept of badass femininity relates to the undeniable power used to manipulate the acrobatic movements on the pole effortlessly executed by the women/dancers of P-Valley. Badass femininity gives validity to women being assertive and challenging Westernized norms regarding how women should dance or how they should be. In conjunction with body image liberation, badass femininity uses the dance and its aesthetic to dismantle Westernized, traditional assumptions about the female dancing body.  The music in P-Valley heavily influences the assertive dance power and channels erotic movements, bringing Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson’s concept of flesh dance to the forefront as a lens to examine the effect of music and lyrics on the Black, African American woman’s erotic dancing body with the desire to demonstrate body image liberation with the dance. Alesondra Christmas and Takiyah Nur Amin provide definitions and examples of respectability and disrespectability politics to explain how respectability politics limits the Black, African American woman’s movement and lifestyle while disrespectability politics liberates and frees it. Amin’s investigation of twerking (a movement that is the rhythmic and syncopated pumping isolation of the pelvis) reveals its positive and negative implications in Western society compared to its connection and positionality with dances from West Africa.

            Black, African American women erotic pole dancers enter the scholarly conversation from a place of newness and untapped investigation and join together the theories named above to prioritize and celebrate the rebellion of Black, African American women against objectifying tropes. The conversation builds to support existing philosophies that reclaim Black, African American women’s bodies while disrupting Westernized ideals of femininity through body image liberation. Through the Black feminism framework, erotic pole dance is a method of reclaiming and redemption. 

In her articleGirls Run the …What?: Michelle Obama, Beyonce, and Black Women’s Dis/Respectability Politics,” Takiyah Nur Amin traces the historical lineage of the birth of the disrespect of Black, African American women deriving from slavery and colonial times when “black women were essentially unable to enact femininity because their physical strength (a byproduct of forced labor, to be sure) did not fall in line with notions of the Victorian feminine ideal; real women were not only white but small, soft, and unsuitable for manual labor or work because of their enviable frailty” (Amin 2014, 9). Amin offers Michelle Obama and Beyonce as examples of disrespectability politics that manifest through visual images, media, television, film, and the internet. Michelle Obama and Beyonce represent two different variations of Black, African American women through their mannerisms, dress, and how they publicly present themselves. However, both are deemed inappropriate through the lens of white American depictions of what defines an acceptable woman.

            According to Alesondra Christmas (2022),disrespectability politics includes aspects of disrespectfulness and respectability to provide new theoretical and practical pathways of presenting complex Black womanhood that does not lead to the disrespect of Black women.”  In conversation with famed author and black feminist bell hooks, Christmas demonstrates, through the example of hip hop choreographer Fatima Robinson, how Black, African American women understand the body language and sexual subjectivity they possess. At the core, they own their sexuality and sensuality as a badge of honor and use it to navigate their place in the world. They push through what society deems as respectable and create social rules for themselves. According to hooks:

When black women relate to our bodies and sexuality in ways that place erotic recognition, desire, pleasure, and fulfillment at the center of our efforts to create radical black female subjectivity, we can make new and different representations of ourselves as sexual subjects. To do so, we must be willing to transgress traditional boundaries. We must no longer shy away from the critical project of openly interrogating and exploring representations of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.
— hooks 1992, 76, quoted in Christmas 2022

According to Christmas (2022), "Respectability politics required cleanliness, polite manners, sexual purity, and Christian morality to create an elevated social class within the Black community in which Blacks claimed equality with Whites. Respectability politics sought to function as self-help for Black people to uplift themselves into American society.” Thus, any actions, behaviors, or mannerisms that derail proper etiquette are deemed unacceptable and against the progression of the people. Respectability politics kept freedom and agency away from Black, African American women and forced them into behaviors that Western society dictates as acceptable and the norm. It is respectability politics that sparks P-Valley creator Katori Hall to state that to be a Black woman is to be in a constant state of struggle: “trying to find your freedom and define yourself within a world that puts a lot of pressures on you – whether it’s the pressure of trying to be perfect, or trying to be the best Black person that you can be” (in Kraft 2022).

            I suggest the women/dancers of P-Valley thrive off disrespectability politics while shunning any aspect of respectability politics. Disrespectability politics liberates them and frees them from the cage of respectability politics. Sexualized names as markers, badass femininity, flesh dance, and disrespectability politics are tools used to dismantle stereotypes that have plagued Black, African American women since colonialism and slavery, and to bring body image liberation.

            Amin offers the history of the pelvic-centered dance movement known as twerking as an example of liberation and autonomy for Black, African American women. Black respectability politics holds that “ladies do not twerk.” In fact, Hampton University showed a presentation slide at a student orientation that stated, “Hampton men do not take twerkers home to their mothers” (Amin 2020). Yet Amin, in conversation with feminist scholar Brittany Cooper, acknowledges that moving hips, gyrating, and social overtones in dance are a part of the Black, African American culture and experience. It is not the entire story of who we are, but it leads to the origins of where we come from, the diasporic movement from Africa. The twerk “demonstrates kinship with West African movement aesthetics” and resembles Mapouka. “Known in Côte d’Ivoire as “la dance fussier” or the dance of the behind, Mapouka is executed in both traditional and ceremonial contexts and, more recently, as a popular dance among Ivoirian youth” (Amin 2020, 10). Twerking, like the pelvic-centered movement found in traditional West African dance, offers agency within the dance. I offer that the women/dancers of P-Valley connect with movements like twerking to exercise their agency while continuing to dismantle hypersexual stereotypes placed upon Black, African American women in this society.

            Hortense J. Spillers, in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” observes that Black, African American women are marked by names like “Peaches” and “Brown Sugar,” “Sapphire” and “Earth Mother,” “Aunty,” “Granny,” God’s “Holy Fool,” a “Miss Ebony First,” or “Black Woman at the Podium” (Spillers 1987, 65). These names predetermine their identities and place labels on their character and value systems. Spillers writes, “they are markers so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean” (Spillers 1987, 65). Likewise, the names exotic dancers give themselves are markers that define their identity and morals. Their self-given names resemble the hypersexual stereotypes conjured by slavery and colonization, suggesting that Black women were fundamentally immoral and sexually loose. However, I offer that the exotic dancers take pride and own the markers or stage names as badges of honor and that the marker speaks to their self-definition and presence on the stage and the pole. The exotic dancers name themselves and, therefore, feel a sense of freedom and body image liberation from the names placed on them by others.

            Names, identities, and markers are essential to maintain high self-esteem and self-worth. Many elder women of the Black, African American community have shared as an affirmation to younger women and girls: it is not what they call you but what you answer to. When naming their child, parents thoughtfully choose names with specific meanings, defining characteristics, and names that will position their child into a specific destiny. This ritual is taken to heart because, after all, a person’s name means something. The dancers of P-Valley have taken their names into heavy reflection because the name defines who they are and the magic and power they can bring to the stage and the pole. The names they have given themselves are meant to be memorable and plant a firm impression on the minds of their audience. Based on respectability politics, names of that sort could be considered degrading. However, the women/dancers of P-Valley accept the names with pride. Accepting names or markers of these types is their way of revolting against the norm of Western society. Taking pride in one’s name tells the world that I know who I am, like who I am, and the rules of Western society will not change that.    

            For many, tattoos are another marker and badge of honor and a way to visually represent what they love and hold dear to their value system.  The women/dancers of P-Valley are adorned with tattoos on their bodies’ erogenous zones.  In a respectability politics, tattoos on a woman’s body are taboo. However, when seen through the lens of disrespectability politics, tattoos give one status in the community and belonging to a group. It is an acceptable part of the costume, just like their floss, and another way to push against society and manifest body image liberation. 

            In her article “From blues women to b-girls: performing badass femininity,” Imani Kai Johnson (2014) draws attention to non-normative femininities born out of the margins of society and enacted in the public sphere through performance. Johnson brings to light the physical energy and aesthetic needed for women to perform the male-dominated, hip-hop dance style “breaking,” dismantling how b-girls should look and perform conventional notions of masculinity. Johnson interviews famed b-Girls Chyna, Aruna, Peppa, and B-Girl Lee to learn how b-girls dismantle the Westernized notion of femininity. Due to genocide, slavery, colonization, and exploitation, marginalized femininities operate on the rule of survival. Black, African American women navigate the world based on the status given by society as second-class citizens. The sentiment shared by the original b-girls runs parallel to exotic pole dancers in that they, too, dismantle objectifying and hypersexual stigmas from Westernized society. They disrupt the given labels to define their role and choose how they want to shift in this world.    

Like b-girls who have redefined Western society’s notion of women in hip-hop dance forms, I suggest that exotic pole dancers challenge and redefine the aesthetics of pole dance to not just involve eroticism but also athletics and acrobatics as well as body image liberation.   Katori Hall states that “the athleticism that is on display at Southern strip clubs is something that I think most people wouldn’t even imagine was possible” (Kraft 2022). This statement gives validity to badass femininity, also known as marginalized femininity, which comes from historical conditions wherein the capacity to take control of one’s subjectivity and to claim the body are acts of rebellion against the literal constraints historically placed on Black and Brown people (Johnson 2014). The women/dancers of P-Valley use their power and athleticism to manipulate the pole to counter stereotypes about their body and character limitations. 

            Patricia Scott Hobbs, choreographer and dance educator in Philadelphia, states that except for the intent, she does not see the difference between exotic pole dancing and what the dancers from Cirque du Soleil do. Additionally, as a professional sport, organizations like the US Pole Sports Federation honor and see pole dancing as athletic, physically demanding, and powerful. The upper body strength needed to execute the dance is as strenuous as a gymnast who masterfully commands the uneven barres. Katori Hall shares that the show’s mission is to “center the dance and the skill it takes to do these dances” (Kraft 2022).

            Badass femininity gives weight to the physical negotiation needed to execute dance and acrobatics on the pole. The dancers of P-Valley often mention the monkey drop as a base movement that delineates between an acceptable pole dancer and an imposter. Because the dancer must approach the pole with drive, Badass femininity gives credence to the characteristics with which the women/dancers of P-Valley perform. The exotic pole dance exhibits qualities not typically associated with conventional notions of femininity as performed by a female-bodied person. Embracing the concept of body image liberation, the dance can quite literally move us to recognize that which is beyond the familiar and expected (Johnson 2014, 16)

            Mercedes, Miss Mississippi, and Gidget perform a pole routine called the “The Trilogy.” “The Trilogy” is a three-person mount on the pole where one dancer is hanging upside down on the pole with their feet directed toward the ceiling, the second dancer is lying horizontal across the pole, and their back and pelvis lying on the feet of the first dancer. The last dancer is standing on the torso of the second dancer and fiercely twerking, holding on to the pole, and balancing on the body of the second dancer. “The Trilogy” is another quintessential example of badass femininity the women/dancers of P-Valley participate in to buck the norms of Western society and give power to body image liberation.       

            Badass femininity supports the claim that Black, African American exotic dancers disassemble the Westernized standard of femininity by performing demanding, athletically, and erotically charged pole dance. Like b-Girls, exotic pole dancers must have tremendous upper body strength to facilitate their performance. They must display power, flexibility, and balance. Comparable to b-Girls, who command the piece of cardboard used to dance during the early days of hip-hop, exotic dancers must command the pole.  However, the difference is owning the erotic movements and presence that must accompany the aesthetic of exotic pole dance.  

            In “Flesh Dance: Black Women from Behind,” Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson notes that sexualized, misogynistic lyrics are indeed within the music that accompanies the performance of exotic pole dancers. Flesh dance is a choreographic/sonic coupling through which hip-hop lyrics direct Black, African American women to move in sexually mimetic ways (Johnson 2020, 155). Like Imani Johnson, Jasmine Johnson is in conversation with Spillers, who writes, “Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but everybody knows my name” (Spillers 1987, 443). The institution of chattel slavery depended on a Black woman’s kinlessness through the impermissibility of her exercising unbound and self-possessed familial care (Johnson 2020, 154). This treatment of Black, African American women during slavery, Johnson argues, has left markers on our bodies, consciousness, and psyches. 

            Johnson questions Western audiences’ ability to see Black, African American bodies in motion without seeing the stigma of the markers – the objectification and hyper-sexualization (Johnson 2020, 155). Therefore, markers remind us of the history of violence, objectification, and hypersexuality placed on the bodies of Black, African American women. I propose that the women/dancers of P-Valley use their bodies in motion to dismantle the markers and history of violence and objectify stereotypes through athletically charged exotic pole dance using flesh dance as their medium and body image liberation as the guide. Flesh dance acknowledges the type of misogynistic lyrics that inform exotic pole dancing. However, the dancers’ agency interprets the lyrics as sexual liberation, directly connecting to the liberation of badass femininity. Flesh dance recognizes a woman standing true to her sexuality as she moves to lyrics that suggest sexual actions that are deemed inappropriate. Nevertheless, the women/dancers of P-Valley are empowered by the music, which drives them to dance harder, bend lower, whine deeper, and pop their pelvises quicker. The music is harsh but fits within the aesthetic of the club scene. The music drives the dancers and excites the audience, creating a call and response between the dancer, DJ, and audience. The musical lyrics that accompany Mercedes’s opening dance sequence are as follows:

                        Tell em I want my muthafucking check

                        I ain’t throwing ass unless I see some fucking money fall

                        Nigga let me see them dollars fall

                        I ain’t make my pussy talk unless I see that money talk

            The remaining lyrics suggest that she wants the man to have big pockets for lots of money and an enormous sexual organ. Lyrics like this center Black singers/rappers addressing and instructing Black dancing bodies and feature dances that stimulate sex acts. (Johnson 2020, 157). Flesh dance also acknowledges that sensual and sexual movement lives inside the culture of African American social dance as a path to body image liberation. Social dances from the Black, African American community have embedded and embodied the essence of sensual, sexually provocative movements. In some respects, the community has an unspoken acceptance of these characteristics. However, through respectability politics, this element of the dance in the community can be shunned depending on the situation. The disrespectability politics of flesh dance embraces P-Valley’s women/exotic dancers, affirming that the ownership of the sensual and sexual movement is heavily connected to who we are as a community.    

            Another example of sensual, sexual, and athletically complex movement, “Ass-clapping,” a pelvic-centered movement done to songs like “Drop Down and Get Your Eagle” that manipulates butt checks to clap together, is centered under the theory of flesh dance. Twerking and ass-clapping are dances that shake up Black respectability politics that demand chaste bodies. However, the women/dancers of P-Valley find body image liberation in executing the ass-clap and the twerk. Physically, both movements are intricate and impressive. However, the implications of the movements from some parts of society are not. As Amin argues, dances are sites for bodily enactments of pleasure, agency, and resistance. Amin asks us to consider that “moving one’s body in the manner of one’s choosing is perhaps as revolutionary an act as many others” (Amin 2020).

            The women/exotic dancers of P-Valley are fictional but represent members of the Black, African American exotic dancer community. They are moving through life on their terms through markers. Markers are represented by self-naming and visual images permanently painted on the body’s flesh. Badass femininity and athletic pole dancing demand the dancer approach the exotic pole with fire and affirmed sexuality. Without these movement characteristics, the dance experience is not believable or authentic.

            Disrespectability politics, the opposite of respectability politics, is the tool the women/dancers of P-Valley use to navigate life on their terms and with body image liberation. Navigating with disrespectability politics dismantles objectifying, hypersexual overtones attached to Black, African American women’s bodies simply because of skin color, race, and gender.

            Flesh dance is heavily connected to disrespectability politics because the music in hip-hop is the tool that navigates the Black, African American woman’s body to move with sexuality and sensuality, and it is affirmed, normalized, and celebrated to move in this way.

            By reclaiming their bodies, pushing against hypersexual stereotypes, and embracing the concept of body image liberation, Black African American women/exotic pole dancers are self-affirmed, validated, and mentally and emotionally committed to wearing their life and dance choices like a badge of honor, outwardly and proudly. These women have consciously and subconsciously owned their sexual body language even though others have tried to stifle and suppress it through tactics like respectability politics. Further affirmation from Katori Hall proclaims:

Real talk, P-Valley is a love letter to all women who are scrapping it out, but particularly for the Black women that I think many people thumb their noses at, even Black folks […] I think the truth and honesty of the story can combat a stereotypical idea of Black womanhood […] I wanted to create an image of women who could hold their weight, literally and figuratively, but in the next second, could burst into tears because the power dynamic in their life shifted for whatever reason. I wanted to show Black women in their full humanity.
— Kraft 2022

This article makes the case that exotic pole dance and dancers fit into the conversation of Black feminism and how they add to the lineage of dancers in the Black, African American community. It is up to the Black, African American community and the global, increasingly Westernized, community to see the power of the exotic pole dance. The women/dancers of P-Valley dismantle white male patriarchal systems and views. They stand firm in reclaiming and dismantling stereotypes while owning/affirming who they are and what they do while celebrating body image liberation.

1. To honor and respect how women of color identify themselves, in this article, I use Black, African American women, or singularly Black, African American woman, as a description of identity to give honor to tradition and lineage. back to text

Works Cited

Amin, Takiyah Nur. 2012. “Girls Run The… What? Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Black Woman’s Dis/Respectability Politics.” Society of Dance History Scholars Newsletter 32: 9-12. journals.publishing.umich.edu/conversations/issue/54/download/6

Amin, Takiyah Nur. 2020. “The Booty Don’t Lie: Pleasure, Agency, and Resistance in Black Popular Dance.”  In Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Simone C. Drake and Dwan K. Henderson, pp. 237-51. Durham: Duke University Press

Christmas, Alesondra. 2022. “Disrespectability Politics in Choreographies of Fatimah Robinson.” The Dancer-Citizen 15. http://dancercitizen.org/issue-15/alesondra-christmas/

hooks, bell. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York: Routledge

Johnson, Imani Kai. 2014. “From blues women to b-girls: performing badass femininity.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 24 (1): 15–28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0740770X.2014.902649

Johnson, Jasmine Elizabeth. 2020. “Flesh Dance: Black Women from Behind.” In Futures of Dance Studies, edited by Rebecca Schneider, Janice Ross, and Susan Manning, pp. 154-69. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kraft, Coralie. 2022. “‘P-Valley’: How Katori Hall Made a Progressive Show About Strippers.” New York Times, June 6. www.nytimes.com/2022/06/03/arts/television/p-valley-katori-hall.html

Spillers, Hortense, J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/464747.