He may have been a king of nudity, but Hugh Hefner probably never found himself in a room full of dancing naked men. (...Probably.) It’s unlikely that he gave much thought to the male form at all, and yet, his legacy still casts its long shadow over Welcome to Chippendales. Not five minutes of Hulu’s latest true-crime miniseries go by before Hefner’s face, youthful and smiling, flashes across the screen. His likeness is pasted to the wall of buttoned-up Indian immigrant Somen Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani) as one of the many glossy cutouts making up his living room vision board.
As the theme to The Six Million Dollar Man plays on his television, Somen (soon to be Steve) ignores both the perfect male specimen Steve Austin on his screen and the bulk of the sprawling, sparkling images that make up his vision board. Bionic men, backgammon, luxury clothing, and a vision of a better American future be damned; what catches Steve’s eye instead is that little black-and-white picture of the world’s most famous magazine editor.
It’s not that Steve was unique in this respect; since Playboy’s debut issue was published in 1953, many men have looked to Hefner’s studly reputation, his bon vivant lifestyle, and the leagues of women with whom he surrounded himself with awe and aspiration. But what Steve knows, and what Welcome to Chippendales seems keen to remind us, is that Hefner was first and foremost a businessman. Behind the decades of glamour and hedonism was one simple but profitable fact: Desire is a commodity, something to be bought and sold. And by 1979, second-wave feminism had made its indelible mark, the pill was widely available, and liberated women were a market force to be reckoned with; it was abundantly clear that men were not the only ones buying. Selling, though? Well, Chippendales took its cues from Mr. Playboy in more ways than one.
Of course, Welcome to Chippendales cannot change history. This was never going to be a story about women commodifying their own desire, and there’s no denying that men are built into the story of Steve Banerjee’s dancing empire. But where the show fails its subject — and its audience — is in what it seems to forget, or worse, willfully push aside: women.
Even as they crowded the floor of Chippendales’ original west Los Angeles location, even as they may flock to this show about a kingdom of half-naked men, even as they supplied the dollar bills that made this chronicle, tragedy and all, possible, women were never the main concern of Welcome to Chippendales. In fact, apart from a line or two from the ill-fated playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz) — “I have something to tell you, Paul. Something extremely shocking… but women get horny!” — the salience of women’s desire to Chippendales’ success is neglected episode after episode, unceremoniously buried in favor of the sensationalism of men’s desire. The meat (sorry) of the show is not the bustling male revue but the two men making it bustle: Steve and his new Emmy award-winning choreographer, Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett). Both men want success for the club, but to both men, the definition of success is control. Methods and egos clash, friction ensues.
It doesn’t take long for these tensions to set in; this is true crime, baby. We don’t want sociopolitical awareness, not really. We want a bad guy, and we want him now. Time that could be spent making the audience understand what went into making Chippendales such a worldwide hit — women’s liberation, a more traditional, straightedged masculinity that presaged the commercialism and conservatism of the 1980s — is spent more straightforwardly on making us understand the building blocks of Steve’s ego and establishing the origins of his mounting rage. (Not so much background is afforded to Nick, but he’s not the villain; we don’t have to understand what makes him tick so much as we need to know that he’s ticking.)
Really, Steve’s journey is a well-trodden path: A man has a dream, different from the one his parents had for him. He succeeds in his goals, but not in theirs, and comes out feeling like a failure. It hurts and it hurts, and then everyone around him is made to suffer. What Steve wants (parental approval, fame, fortune) comes into conflict with what Nick wants (creative freedom, fame, fortune), even though it’s really all the same thing. Hostilities escalate, and what should have been a story about the lucky convergence of historical moments is reduced to the prideful follies of two men. It’s true to life, of course, but still — it irks.
Male desire has always been taken seriously. People may joke about reading Playboy for the articles, but in its heyday, among the pages and pages of nude women, the magazine published writing from the likes of Roald Dahl, P.G. Wodehouse, Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, Margaret Atwood, and many, many more. Female desire has seldom received the same treatment; even a former Chippendales dancer has described the show as a “comedy act for women.” It’s not that what we want has never been in vogue — Chippendales itself is just one example of the outsized influence of women on popular culture. But for every bit of legitimacy our desires get, there is always a wave of ridicule and erasure waiting in the wings. There’s always someone (usually a man) to say, “That’s not really important,” or “That was always overrated.”
While Welcome to Chippendales doesn’t mock or deride women, the camera glides again and again over screaming crowds and backstage trysts and sends a clear message: That’s not really important. When men want women, it’s front page news. But when women want men? Well, we know that — what’s the real story?
It’s not just the women that Chippendales forgets, however. Even most of the dancers are pushed to the wayside as nothing more than faceless accessories in Steve’s relentless pursuit of fame and fortune. They rip off their pants with gusto and regularly have sex with enthusiastic fans, but nothing about them lingers. Almost none of them are afforded any interiority. The show seems almost as disinterested in them as it is in the women they service. But such is the trap of true crime, or at least the river of true-crime series that we’ve been swimming in as of late: Any detail that doesn’t contribute to the implicit behavioral profile of whatever wretch we’re focusing on is not really worth exploring. If it’s not going to tell us What Makes Steve This Way, then what’s the point? Beyond making caricatures out of the real-life dancers, this tendency of form once again delegitimizes female desire. It flattens it and diminishes a complex phenomenon into a simple fact — naked, muscly men here — in order to make room for the violent main attraction.
One notable exception — really the only one — is Otis (Quentin Plair), Chippendales’ only Black dancer and their most popular one at that. We learn that he has a family and aspirations, and that he looks up to Steve as a successful businessman. There are hints of Otis’ struggle with his newfound fame, as white women jump at the opportunity to manhandle him, grabbing his crotch to “confirm” rumors and stealing messy kisses they did not ask him for. But even Otis, based on real-life Chippendales stripper Hodari Sababu — who at one time was also the only Black member of the dance troupe — soon finds every hint of individuality the show gives him in the destructive path of Steve’s goals. In this week’s episode, aptly titled “Just Business,” Otis learns too late that he has been excluded from the inaugural Chippendales calendar, which is a commercial success before it even hits the shelves. You can see the doors of opportunity shutting before his eyes. When he confronts Steve about the matter, his answer is simple. “Ultimately, I felt it would be bad for sales… Most can [handle a shirtless Black man], but not all. And we want them to buy the calendars, too.” And that’s it. Otis’ career as a Chippendales performer has reached its limit. Not because he can’t, and not because women don’t want him, but because Steve says so. One man’s desire rules all.
Welcome to Chippendales is, at its core, a series about the dirty business of wanting. Not the sensuous, sexy wanting I was hoping for, but a grittier kind, the kind that leads otherwise sane men to commit violent acts like the ones Steve Banerjee eventually did (no spoilers; the show’ll get there). It’s about how covetousness — the excess of desire — corrupts and devours everything in its path. But more than that, it’s about the ways in which men’s desire — their ego and their pride — swallows up women’s specificity, even in the case of Chippendales where they are the ones doing the desiring. Think back to Hugh Hefner and his monthly playmates and centerfolds; women reduced to a list of turn-ons and turn-offs, star signs and measurements. You can argue that it’s not inherently degrading, but it is undeniably flattening, in every sense. Hefner and Playboy knew that men wanted an ideal woman, not a specific one.
Chippendales doesn’t do anything so egregious, and yet the effect is not far off: The women who, for better and for worse, helped set Steve Banerjee on his dangerous path are reduced to a faceless, screaming mass. Their desire is rendered into nothing more than a weapon that Steve and Nick wield happily against each other, fuel that stokes the fires of their rage. It has no particularity, no context. “Women get horny!” Dorothy Stratten tells Steve. Welcome to Chippendales suggests there’s nothing else to it.