"Down in the valley where the girls get naked...” The song from P-Valley’s opening credits still gets stuck in my head and when it does it takes me right back to the magic of this show. The STARZ series premiered this summer and follows employees working at a The Pynk strip club in the fictional city of Chucalissa, Mississippi, an area known as Pussy Valley. When I first started the show I was anticipating scandal, drama and skin — that’s what I came for. However, it turned out to be more than just a soap opera set in a strip club. It’s a true-to-life look at the experiences of the human beings who exist within this ecosystem.
The show is based on a play by Katori Hall, who serves as showrunner. She spent 6 years researching this world, visiting 40 clubs across the United States, predominately in the south. She herself, was also born and raised in the south, where the strip club is part of your coming-of-age story. It’s a social gathering spot — she even attended a baby shower at the club once – and Katori said she wanted to bring to the screen the story of dichotomy of these women carving out a space of liberation (financial freedom and sexual empowerment ) within a space of exploitation, against the beautiful backdrop of Black southern culture.
The show follows Mercedes, the girl who’s made enough money to get out of the game but her toxic mother ruins her plans; Autumn Night, a girl on the run who’s stumbled into town and into the club, becoming the rookie on the roster; and Mississippi, one of the club’s rising stars who’s dealing with a new baby and an abusive partner. Then you’ve got Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of the club — the HBIC in every way. Plus, a sleazy (or romantic?) businessman who’s chasing Autumn Night, and appearances by Isaiah Washington as the town mayor and the legendary Loretta Devine. My favourite character is Uncle Cliff (pronouns: she/her). Not only does she bring fun to the show, but as cliche as it sounds, you still don’t see characters like this on television. She’s always got on a glittery (borderline gaudy) look with acrylic nails and bold wigs, with a beard. What makes the character so interesting to watch is her confidence in being authentically herself. There’s a sort of harmony of masculine and feminine, in presentation and personality. Often non-binary characters are genderless, but Uncle Clifford exists at the intersection of gender and thrives there. The only time we see a dent in her armour is when a secret relationship develops with closeted, hyper-masculine rapper Lil Murda. We stan a forbidden love story.
And if you thought the stripping in Hustlers was impressive, you need to see the acrobatics exhibited on P-Valley. Katori Hall said part of her mission as the showrunner was to showcase the athleticism and skill of the craft. All 8 episodes of the first season are directed by women (like Karena Evans and Kimberly Pierce) and you can tell watching the show that it’s through a female lens. There’s a fair amount of skin on display, but it’s not gratuitous and when these women are working the pole, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching porn, it feels like you’re watching gymnasts.
Besides the commentary on sexual empowerment, the show deals with the topic of gentrification. The mayor is trying force The Pynk out of business so a big corporation can tear it down and build a casino resort in the neighbourhood, despite the fact that the club is an institution in the community. The show also tackles racial identity, as a neighbouring plot of land which needs to be sold for development is owned by three brothers. Two of the brothers are white, the third is their mixed-race stepbrother, and when the going gets tough the white brothers aren’t shy about sharing their true feelings about their Black brother — even if he is white-passing. Homophobia, misogyny, colourism, generational wealth are all long-term effects of slavery on the south but the way the show handles these themes never feels preachy or inauthentic. These are topics that the characters would deal with on a daily basis. Not tackling these topics would be giving us characters that aren’t fully formed.
The song from the opening credits goes on to pay tribute to the women who are “climbing up the pole just to get out the bottom”, explaining how down in Pussy Valley the men grind hard, but it’s the women who are really out here putting in work. I love this series because it celebrates the complexity of people who are often put in a box and disregarded. I’ll confess that I cry every time Viola Davis delivers an acceptance speech and one that stands out is her 2017 Oscar win for Fences, where she explains she wants to tell the stories of ordinary people who dreamed big and never saw their dreams come true. They’re the most interesting. Those are the characters I want to live with for years. P-Valley was renewed for a second season just two weeks after its season premiere. I can’t wait to see what’s in store.