It doesn’t take long for Shakedown, Leilah Weinraub’s documentary about the LA lesbian dance scene in the 90’s and 00’s, to remind viewers how heavily gendered LGBTIQ+ mainstream documentaries are towards the male population of the rainbow banner. I could rattle off twenty documentaries covering the lives of gay men, but I find myself struggling to name more than a few that touch on the history of lesbian culture, the lives of the women who fought to bring equality for queer women everywhere, and what life as a lesbian is like. There’s the documentary about Tig Notaro, Tig, or L Word Mississippi, a film about lesbians living in the Bible Belt of America, and the exceptional Jewel’s Catch One, a film that works in unison with Shakedown, exploring the club culture in America.
Sure, fictional films about lesbian relationships exist, but there feels like a dearth of mainstream, or readily accessible, lesbian documentaries. Which is why Pornhub’s decision to help amplify the release of Shakedown is so important. After an exhibition run in art institutions around the world, Shakedown comes to the site via a unique link, with the film being active for the entire month of March, before heading over to the Criterion Channel and on demand viewing. During March, Weinraub will be engaging with viewers in a run of Q&A sessions. If you’re interested in watching the film, you can reach it via an established link that will take you away from the graphic pornography that makes up the entirety of the main site.
Pornhub have been vocal about wanting to push Shakedown towards the women who visit the site. Porn is so often hyper-focused towards the masculine, with many of the videos on the site being directed towards the male gaze, enticing and providing men with unrealistic positions and acts. Even when it comes to women focused pornography, it’s often directed from a male perspective, with the performers often needing to act out masculine fantasies, rarely presenting what genuine lesbian affection is like in real life.
I mention this, not because of the platform Shakedown is appearing on – it’s not a porn film – but because its subject matter and focus is so heavily aimed at the feminine gaze, particularly, the lesbian or bi-women gaze, that it makes the world of LGBTIQA+ documentaries feel fresh and invigorating. A film like Shakedown reminds viewers how hyper-masculine the gay-doc genre is. It’s almost as is if most of them forget that the first letter stands for lesbian.
The refreshing and eye-opening perspective that Weinraub’s footage brings works to reveal how the clothed and naked bodies of women have been forced by archaic societal expectations to be of service to men. Weinraub’s camera observes and watches the heaving crowds of black women, dancing, grooving, adoring and loving the women around them. These dancers are dancing for the women, and they’re loving having an audience that they desire equally as much as the audience desires them.
Shakedown shows what happens when women strip for women, and it’s distinctly different than from how women strip for men. When women strip for men, there’s a transactional quality to the act, where the man simply wants to be aroused and enticed by a naked woman. Usually the women are on a stage, elevated above the man, but here, the dancers are on the same level as the women they are dancing for. This is a venue for lesbians, and as such, there’s lesbians dancing for lesbians. It’s a communal attraction, and it’s clear that this is a purely positive one.
Weinraub intercuts shots of the dancing with the posters from the era announcing where and when dance acts would take place. These posters would declare the names of the dancers who would be there, helping elevate them to become celebrities within the community. Posters were made of icons like Egypt, who is interviewed here in the film, and it’s clear by the way she talks that she loved the attention as much as she loved the dancing. As the dancers grew in notoriety, they made their way onto trading cards, albeit misspelled ones. One dancer talks about stealing the poster of Mahogany from her closeted mother, leading her to get in trouble for both being lesbian and stealing.
Elsewhere in the film, someone comments about being ‘strictly dickly’ as a teen – meaning, she hid being lesbian by being outwardly straight. The vernacular surrounding this culture reminds me of the way ‘yas queen’ has been co-opted throughout society. The podcast Reply All covered the history of this saying. It’s well worth being aware of the history of different sayings, given how intimately they have crept into society and have been co-opted by the dominant straight ‘community’. Shakedown shows at length the importance that this lifestyle and the freedom that these dance/strip events brought to the black lesbian community in LA, reminding viewers of the culture that is so often unashamedly and unknowingly stolen by mainstream culture.
There are facets to sexuality. We say LGBTIQA+ as if each letter is reflective of the other. But, each letter is a culture unto itself, each letter is a lifestyle that is decidedly not like-for-like. Additionally, white lesbian culture is not the same as black lesbian culture, and it’s here that Shakedown shows the freedom that commonality within a group brings. These are black lesbian women enjoying and loving the bodies, movements, soul, and vibrancy of other black lesbian women.
It’s intimately revealing to see this comfort and unbridled excitement on film, and I feel fortunate and positively lucky to have been able to watch this film for that exact reason. This is a slice of history which I would not have known otherwise, and I’m beyond grateful that Weinraub has captured what is so clearly an important aspect of queer culture in America.
As such, I’m also grateful that terms like ‘stud’ and ‘femme’ have been brought to my attention, given they provide the contrast to the gay communities terminology about body types such as ‘bears’, ‘otters’, ‘twinks’, etc. It’s my ignorance about these terms that shows how little I have gleaned about the lesbian community around the world.
An amusing moment reminds that while the ecstasy that comes with stripping and dancing is great, it is still a money source for the dancers. A dancer shouts out to the women in the front row who may be straight, saying: ‘If you straight, don’t sit in the front row if you aint gonna tip’. It’s still a business after all.
Which in turn makes the appearance of the horrendously white undercover cops later in the film all the more infuriating. Standing in the crowd, almost leering in wait, these police officers hover, watching for the dancer to be naked so they could be arrested for ‘soliciting sex’. The discrimination against consenting adults wanting to watch a dancer dance, and against the dancer herself who clearly enjoys the attention that comes with being naked in front of women who appreciate her body, is genuinely horrifying. Yet, what’s even more horrifying is how terrifyingly expected it is.
In one moment, a police officer arrests an almost entirely naked dancer, denying her the opportunity to put her clothes on before being dragged out to the car. As he manoeuvres her out of the club, the patrons and her fellow dancers drape her in clothes and give her the respectability and care that the office himself is so eager to deny.
The film is short, running just over an hour long, with one section having been removed for unknown reasons (a title card says ‘chapter 10: removed’), but for the majority of its length, Shakedown shows a eutopia where women can be women free from the manipulative grip of men. So when these men in blue appear to break apart the sanctity that exists within the club, it is an undeniably hate-driven act. Sure, they can hide behind ‘the law’, but as seen clearly in the film, there’s more to the arrests than that. It’s layered racism, homophobia, and judgement for sex workers and entertainers.
This is what I mean when I say that white lesbian communities are different than black lesbian communities. The struggles may appear similar, but the layered prejudices stack differently. Each letter in the queer alphabet is different, and each letter has their own world of difficulties and complexities that inform those who find themselves under the umbrella of different sexualities.
I can’t help but applaud both Leilah Weinraub for bringing this story to wider attention. Pornhub has gradually pushed itself into mainstream culture, and given there was an estimated 42 billion visits to the site in 2019, it makes the video platform one of the biggest streamers in the world. People visit Pornhub, even if they say they don’t. It is the platform for pornography. There are certain controversies about the platform (see Jon Ronson’s excellent podcast series The Butterfly Effect), with a petition being created to address the issues of profiting from, and hosting, illegal pornography. The site has stated that they have actively started to stamp down on revenge porn, illegal porn, and have removed major channels from the site that have engaged in illegal activities, but as per National Review, there are claims that the site simply is not going far enough to eradicate this kind of content.
With that in mind, what does a film like Shakedown mean for the future of Pornhub? Well, one can hope that it means that they’ll start to embrace more varied LGBTIQA+ documentaries and films. But, additionally, the site needs to address these major, serious issues with the videos they actively host. Given they are essentially the YouTube of the porn world, they have a responsibility to host ethical videos that do not profit from illegal porn.
As per Variety’s article (read: press release) on the release of Shakedown, Pornhub’s brand director Alex Klein said, “this film is part of a larger general commitment Pornhub has to supporting the arts. We want to be seen as a platform that artists and creators can use. We’ve seen artists in general upload content to the site, that might not have a home at places like YouTube or Vimeo, who don’t permit nudity. For us, premiering a feature length film is a first. We’re very excited about it.”
The quality of Shakedown is undeniable – if you haven’t gotten the drift, it’s great – and it’s great that a site as massive as Pornhub has brought the film to a wider audience, but at what cost? By merely hosting a positive, inclusive film and failing to address systemic issues the site has, it’s clear that no matter the amount of pure intentions, the site has a long way to go to being a safe platform for all.
Director: Leilah Weinraub
This review has been edited and updated to include links to articles regarding petitions against Pornhub. A previous version of the review praised the site for hosting this film.