“That’s all you have on at the end of the day, the music and your shoes.” That’s how Viva Las Vegas, the subject of the documentary Thank You for Supporting the Arts, describes her day job at Mary’s Club. But when the Portland stripper/writer/musician discusses her philosophy about stripping, it’s clear there’s much more at work. “The sacred feminine is something that just isn’t seen,” she says, echoing a sentiment that Thank You for Supporting the Arts takes pains to illustrate.
When women’s bodies do appear in art, it’s often through the male gaze. As the Guerilla Girls put it in 1989, “Five percent of the artists in the modern arts section [of the Met] are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” Here’s how Viva puts it: She has a background in ballet, but found it to be “a very misogynist stage,” where “a lot of choreography was by men” and relied heavily on “women fainting and falling into men’s arms.”
For Viva, stripping—in which a woman is paid to perform both her own choreography and a mode of emotional and physical labor—is a way of upending these gender dynamics. She’s the artist and the subject, the dancer and the choreographer. “This is art,” she says. “I don’t care what kind of dancer you’re talking about... you have to have the confidence and wherewithal to get on that stage.”
Thank You for Supporting the Arts takes its title from what Viva says to her customers, and does something that shouldn’t be subversive, but is: It asks a sex worker to define her work for herself, and listens when she does.
Thank You for Supporting the Arts takes its title from what Viva says to her customers, and does something that shouldn’t be subversive, but is: It asks a sex worker to define her work for herself, and listens when she does. When we meet in a coffee shop to discuss the film, Viva describes being inspired by early mentors like Mona Superhero, who, she says, “would almost antagonize the viewer” in what sounds more like performance art than bachelor party entertainment.
And stripping is a performance. Viva’s “real” name is Liv Osthus, and while “Viva” is her most public-facing alter-ego—it’s her byline, her stripping persona, the name she signs on her emails, the name she used on Facebook until recently—Thank You for Supporting the Arts also features another alter-ego, Coco Cobra, the name she uses with her punk band Coco Cobra and the Killers. What’s thrilling about Thank You for Supporting the Arts is that it makes no effort to reconcile these alter-egos with each other or to force her to use her given name. There’s no attempt to show the “real” Viva or Coco. The woman who came up with them is allowed to contain multitudes, to be expansive and fascinating, and, like all of us, to build performative elements into her life.
During the filming of Thank You for Supporting the Arts, Viva allowed the filmmakers to follow her life closely, including private moments like discussions about surviving cancer and depression, her complicated relationship with her parents, and the birth of her daughter. These are all worthy subjects, and lend emotional resonance to what otherwise might have been superficially packaged as a merely salacious “True Life: I’m a Stripper.”
Equally important is that Thank You for Supporting the Arts depicts Viva’s work as what it is: work. It’s fulfilling work that she obviously enjoys, but it also enables her to devote time to her writing and music. Sex workers are often stereotyped as desperate, drug-addicted women, but the reality, says Viva, is quite different. She approves of the way sex worker characters were handled in The Wrestler and The Florida Project (“she was real”), but it’s a challenge to come up with this short list. And even if the stereotypes were true, says Viva, “If that were to be somebody I would see, still there’s that subtext and still there’s that beauty.”