The fantasy that changed female friendship forever

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History" and is co-producer of the new podcast "Welcome To Your Fantasy." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Of all the made-up holidays that sitcoms have graced us with — Friendsgiving, Festivus, Chrismukkah — none is more wholesome or more necessary than Galentine's Day. Leslie Knope, the main character of the NBC show Parks and Recreation, explained the holiday to the world this way: "Every February 13, my lady-friends and I leave our husbands and our boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style. Ladies celebrating ladies."

Galentine's Day emerged as a less-debauched alternative to the more traditional ladies' night out (though a mimosa-fueled brunch can leave participants as sozzled as a night spent bar-hopping). And just as Galentine's Day has become a holiday not only about female friendship but feminism, so too did the rising popularity of ladies' nights become a central part of the debate about feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. And the core of that debate took place at the most unexpected of places: Chippendales.
    Yes, that Chippendales. The male dance revue where men stripped down to padded thongs while throngs of women gasped and ogled and cheered. Founded in 1979 by Steve Banerjee, an Indian immigrant attempting to turn his run-down nightclub into a star-studded must-visit venue, Chippendales arrived on the scene after a decade of feminist activism was beginning to hit a wall. As the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment stalled in the states, Chippendales offered a new version of women's equality: the right of women to lust after scantily clad men.
      Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation"
      That, anyway, was the sales pitch: that women could turn the table on men by coming down to the club on the west side of L.A. to watch them strip. That it would be empowering. Liberating. And while that peering-at-pecs-as-praxis may seem eye-rolling today, one feminist saw Chippendales as an opportunity to press the case for equality.
        In 1980, Gloria Allred, who at the time was president of the Women's Equal Rights and Legal Defense Fund, sparked controversy when she chose to hold a fundraiser for the group at the LA club. She treated it as a lark, a way to raise money, generate press and have a laugh. "Feminists are always accused of having no sense of humor," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Well, we do, and we think it will be fun." Banerjee, always eager to court press attention for the club, also pushed the feminist line. Watching men strip down to their thongs was, he insisted, "a very, very liberated thing to do."
        A show by the Chippendales in New York City, 14th April 1984.
        The funds for the performance went to a noble enough cause -- teaching women how to secure alimony and child support payments without the expense of hiring a lawyer -- but not everyone was convinced that Allred was furthering the feminist cause. Calling it "demeaning" and "objectification," a number of feminists held that Chippendales not only contributed to the exploitation of bodies, but downplayed the far more vulnerable position of women who engaged in sex work.
          Allred seemed to understand that as well. While women were often limited to low-wage jobs, she acknowledged, "With men it's different. They have access to every other occupation in life. If they're stripping, it's generally a matter of choice, rather than of economic necessity." In order to argue she wasn't engaged in exploitation -- the men didn't have to be there -- she had to admit that she wasn't really turning the tables -- as she implicitly acknowledged, women didn't have that power. As if to underscore that point, during the event one of the male dancers approached Allred and flipped up her skirt, making it clear that even if he was the one stripped down to his underwear, he could turn the tables right back around on her.
          A scene from "Sex And The City" ("The Caste System" episode).
          Allred wasn't able to turn Chippendales into a feminist paradise (in fact, she would later sue the club for discrimination, arguing that by not allowing men in as patrons, it was engaged in sex discrimination). Nor was Banerjee, who was more invested in making himself and his male partners wealthy through the club, and assorted criminal activities, than creating a place where women felt safe and empowered.
          But one group of people did find a way to turn the club into a place of friendship and feminism: the women patrons themselves. At least for some women, Chippendales served as a place where they could bond with other women without being hit on by men, a slice of women's-only nightlife that could rarely be found elsewhere in the city (though Chippendales did open its doors to men after the last pair of tear-away pants had been shed). As Candace Mayeron, a Chippendales' associate producer in the 1980s told us for the podcast "Welcome to Your Fantasy," which delves into the history of the Chippendales, women at the club confided they found it a "safe, insulated environment."
          Even though these off-stage bonding moments were largely hidden from public view, Chippendales had a real impact on rituals of female friendship. It played a role in transforming bachelorette parties from at-home gift extravaganzas to the night-on-the-town debauchery that gained popularity in the 1980s, and has expanded into the full-blown bachelorette weekend at destinations like Las Vegas and Nashville.
          By the 1990s, though, men in Spandex grinding on stage were no longer the center of conversations about women, sex and friendship. They'd been replaced by women in Jimmy Choos downing cosmos, as "Sex and the City" offered the same thrill of sex and mostly naked men but placed far more focus on the way friendships could serve as the primary relationship in women's lives.
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            That show, which centered on well-off White women cloistered in New York City, offered at best a limited kind of feminism -- the show ends with most of the main characters devoting themselves to their romantic relationships. But in more recent years, female friendship has moved to center stage. Last year, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, hosts of the "Call Your Girlfriend" podcast, published the book "Big Friendship," an exploration of female friendship that argues friendships need just as much care and maintenance as romantic relationships, and should be valued at least as much. And that's a feminist argument: dethroning the notion that heterosexual romantic relationships should be the center of women's lives. It's that same ethos that fuels Galentine's Day.
            So, was Chippendales feminist? I've spent two years studying it and I'm still not convinced. It was a deeply heteronormative and even at times misogynistic place. But women did find some solidarity in their experience at Chippendales. If there is a Galentine's seedling in the seedy club, it is with these patrons and the meaning they made in its women-only space.