Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
In the teen movies of the 2000s, the kids always seemed to be drinking at house parties (on weeknights!), necking with boys (on weeknights!), and going to prom to drink and neck with boys. In my small group of close girlfriends in high school, our vices were far more circumspect, but daring in their own right. There were five of us in the inner circle, all from strict-ish Asian-American households in the dizzyingly diverse, immigrant-heavy suburbs of Dallas that still managed to feel like a cultural wasteland. We fell into deep, easy friendships because there were things that didn’t need explaining. Yes, the thermostat has to be kept at a balmy 83 degrees in the summer. No, obviously I cannot stay out past 10 p.m. Yes, I am stooping slightly from bearing the weight of my parents’ hopes and dreams, thank you for asking.
We spent our Friday nights having our minds blown by uncensored episodes of Sex and the City, which we watched with the volume low, pretending to be versed in whatever Samantha Jones was getting up to; we snuck peeks at Cosmo magazines splayed out on the floor of the mall Barnes and Nobles, getting high on vanilla Frappuccinos and trying to decipher the bizarre hieroglyphics of womanhood; we read the smuttiest YA we could find. And one spring in 2005, we scored an exceptional piece of contraband: The new release of Carmen Electra’s aerobic striptease DVD.
I’m sure someone brought it home from Target as a joke, but soon it was a treasured possession passed from house to house, a kind of sisterhood of the traveling striptease. Remember Carmen Electra? Formerly a protégé of Prince, she was also a dancer and a model, a Baywatch babe and MTV personality, a wife of both Dennis Rodman and Dave Navarro, and ubiquitous sex goddess of the late 1990s. She showed up on TV and in magazines, doing that casual smoldering thing and baring her perfectly toned midriff, as the era’s uniform required. In 2005, when I was 17 and Carmen’s career was probably past its zenith, she added fitness guru to her extensive resume, releasing a series of “aerobic striptease” exercise DVDs.
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“Exercise” was extremely generous for what was happening here. Mostly, Electra and her posse of backup dancers wore matching low-rise track pants or booty shorts and shifted their weight from side to side and seductively rolled their heads in circles. What sounded like low-rent porn music played in the background. In the advanced section, there was a good bit of writhing around on the floor. “It’s not sleazy, it’s sexy. It’s for you to be sexy for your boyfriend,” Electra explained in an interview.
The thought of real, in-the-flesh boyfriends was still preposterous to me and my friends, so this mission statement was inapplicable. Still, when our parents were gone or busy, we barricaded the doors to the den and tried to get through the entire hour-long disc. We dutifully sashayed our wiry hips from left to right and did our best to pop out our nonexistent butts. We aimed to walk sexily toward the TV, one foot directly in front of the other in a straight line, just like Carmen instructed.
One maneuver required us to crawl our hands down our legs to the ground before springing back up, flipping our hair back in the process. But then it would all be over when Carmen would say something like, “Never underestimate the power of a finger in the mouth,” and it was all over. At which point we would lose our minds and collapse into a pile of giggles, laughing so hard that it was a better workout than the actual exercise routine. To her credit, Electra was so relentlessly sunny and earnest that when she said stuff like “the secret to sexiness is YOU,” and “it’s all about having a good time and not judging yourself.” I took it to heart. She was sparking a tiny revolution while rocking an impeccable smokey eye.
The sexual politics of the 2000s were profoundly weird and confusing. This was the era when George W. Bush was president and evangelical Christianity was so ascendant that briefly, it managed to capture a significant segment of mainstream pop culture. Carmen Electra and female entertainers like her were obviously at the opposite end of the spectrum.
At the time, pop stars like Jessica Simpson and the Jonas Brothers were proudly sporting purity rings and waxing poetic about their commitment to chastity. In a few years, when we went off to college, my friends would be singing along to “Misery Business” on the radio: “Once a whore/ you’re nothing more/ sorry that’ll never change” (a transgression that lead singer Hayley Williams has repeatedly apologized for). And if you fell out of line, Diane Sawyer would grill you about your sex life and your failures as a role model for young girls on national television, as she did to Britney Spears in an excruciating 2003 interview on Primetime. Slut-shaming was less in the vernacular as something to be avoided and more of a national pastime.
In North Texas, where there were as many churches as there were strip malls, this culture was pervasive. And despite my fascination with the necking teens and Carrie Bradshaw, these attitudes burrowed deep in my psyche. I had only a vague grasp of what “saving yourself” meant — save yourself from what, exactly? But I believed it to be the good and righteous thing to do and I wanted to be good and righteous. My main avenue for expressing my principles was mean and petty gossip about other girls’ rumored misdeeds. Callie L. went to the movies with who and did what? Megan R. got in the car with whom? All these years later, I’m embarrassed by the absurdity of it. Me, a gawky Muslim teen, being swept up in the Jerry Falwell agenda.
The months I spent badly mimicking stripper moves were the first time I could imagine that sex — the fun of it, the silliness of it, the pleasure of it — could be for me too.
Part of it was that I didn’t believe that the worlds of sex and desire were built for people like me. All the bombshells back then, all the women on the cover of Cosmo, including Carmen Electra herself, had perfect butts and flat abs and oh yeah, almost all of them were white. None appeared to be Bangladeshi girls with a mass of giant frizzy hair and boobs they didn’t know what to do with yet.
The months I spent badly mimicking stripper moves were the first time I could imagine that sex — the fun of it, the silliness of it, the pleasure of it — could be for me too. I was also starting to flex a muscle that would need to be strengthened over a lifetime: enjoying the hell out of things that weren’t made with me in mind. There didn’t even have to be anyone around to see it. There was a delight to be taken in the weird contortions of your own weird body.
Post-aerobic striptease, I had several more years of awkward adolescence to wade through. It would be a while yet until I learned about things like feminism and sex-positivity that would help me unpuzzle the bewildering world and stop being such an uptight prude. But those DVDs were the very beginning of unraveling a flimsy and toxic belief system, one that guilelessly bought into that whole virgin/whore construct. I think back on the cross-currents Electra herself must have been navigating in the late 1990s and 2000s as a woman in the public eye — the double standards, the misogyny, the ever-shifting standards of beauty. I’m grateful she thrived enough to bring five teenage girls such unexpected joy.