Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Welcome to Chippendales and American Horror Story: NYC.
Materialism! Yuppies! MTV! The 1980s seemed to look at the 1970s and say, “Thank you for all the Middle East peace, the end of the Vietnam War, and the advancement of women’s rights, but we’d like to be a little self-indulgent for a while.” Thus began the “Me First” decade, when a new sense of conservatism moved like a foamy tide across the country, young people eschewed the Peace Corps for well-paying jobs in the city and an Izod emblem on their clothes, and big hair meant even bigger fun. It was also a schizophrenic time for the LGBTQ+ community. While 1970s activism brought more visibility and acceptance to the gay community that accelerated into the 1980s, the AIDS crisis brought much of that progress to a screeching halt and threatened to drive the entire movement back into the shadows. Two recent television series, Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales, about the rise and fall of the all-male dance and strip revue, and American Horror Story: NYC, Ryan Murphy‘s latest installment of his creeper anthology, not only immerse viewers into all the sights, sounds, and sensations of the decade, but also highlight stories and themes that give voice to the queer community amidst the backdrop of this historically tumultuous time.
The Queer Vision That Inspired Chippendales
If the ’70s was the decade of sexual liberation, the early ’80s saw its full embrace. While strip clubs had been part of the American extracurricular landscape since the 1800s, they gained more mainstream acceptance in the 1960s, and with the proliferation of Hugh Hefner‘s Playboy Clubs, the more “classy” era of the “gentleman’s club” began. But these venues were strictly the domain of the heterosexual male — a safe place where the straight man who had everything (or aspired to) could come and openly ogle the female form in an environment of manufactured respectability. In 1979, entrepreneur Somen “Steve” Banerjee gave heterosexual women the right to feast on the male physique with the establishment of the first Chippendales club in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, Banerjee wasn’t initially looking for a counterpoint to the Playboy Club, and that’s the fascinating angle that Welcome to Chippendales explores. Banerjee (played by Kumail Nanjiani in the series), small-time hustler Paul Snider and his wife, Playboy Playmate and tragic figure Dorothy Stratten (portrayed by Dan Stevens and Nicola Peltz Beckham), came up with the idea of half-naked men performing for female audiences after a visit to a West Hollywood gay club.
In Welcome to Chippendales, it’s a built, blonde male Adonis positioned on a catwalk high above the dance floor, clad only in a white vest, white short shorts, and white cowboy boots, taking it all off to ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” who gives Banerjee his inspiration. It’s as if Banerjee is looking to heaven and seeing the queer archangel who will guide him to his bliss. It’s interesting, but perhaps not all that surprising, to discover that a piece of gay culture was responsible for the birth of a flesh and fantasy world for straight women. It’s no secret that trends, tastes, and fashions often take hold in the queer community before making their way to the mainstream. “Voguing,” for instance, began in the gay and drag underground of New York City years before Madonna popularized it for the masses.
Nick De Noia’s Queer Aesthetic Revolutionized the All-Male Revue
Welcome to Chippendales not only acknowledges the influence of gay culture on the story of the cuffed and collared hotties, but celebrates it, especially with its telling of the story of Nick De Noia (played by The White Lotus‘ Murray Bartlett). De Noia was an Emmy-winning choreographer who Banerjee persuaded to partner with him to make Chippendales more than a sweaty meat market for hungry ladies looking to drop a few dollars. De Noia, former husband of model and actress Jennifer O’Neil, turned male erotic entertainment into an art form with the carefully devised dance numbers he staged featuring the buffed and bronzed performers. De Noia was also, sadly, a closeted gay man who never fully emerged from it. His queer aesthetic, however, was undeniable. De Noia knew what turned him on, and he knew how to translate that into a sensual aphrodisiac for the women who drove in from Tustin and Altadena to get their thrills. As portrayed by Bartlett, De Noia is a man who is stimulated as much by the physical as the mental. He instructs his dancers on how to gaze at the female customers, how to extend their hands to arouse the patrons, how to move their bodies in a way that’s more impassioned than carnal. In a scene in which De Noia attempts to bring his fantasies to a Broadway stage-level realization, he creates an elaborate number involving a mad scientist constructing the perfect male specimen, “Hunkenstein.” The scene is part Bob Fosse‘s All That Jazz and part Jeff Stryker‘s Bigger Than Life, a glorious theater piece celebrating all that’s prurient and provocative.
In Welcome to Chippendales, De Noia has a semi-hushed relationship with a man, Bradford Barton (Andrew Rannells), who encourages him to expand the club to New York. Together, the men bring their gay aesthetic to Manhattan, making Chippendales a coast-to-coast sensation. Barton, however, is a fictional character. Those familiar with the real De Noia assume the Barton character is based on talent agent Will Mott, a work associate of De Noia. Mott, however, had no association with Chippendales, and while there were rumors that the two men had been involved, by most accounts, any love the two may have had for each other went unrequited. De Noia remained closeted throughout his life, up until his 1987 murder. While De Noia’s untimely death is heartbreaking, Welcome to Chippendales doesn’t create a character whose demise is a result of his being gay. Instead, it celebrates a gay man who, through his own “queer eye,” helped make Chippendales a phenomenon and who, in the end, paid the ultimate price for his visionary ways.
‘AHS:NYC’: A Queer History Lesson
On the other side of the 1980s queer experience is American Horror Story: NYC, a tale centered around a series of murders of gay men in 1981 Manhattan, a time when AIDS was still germinating, but hadn’t yet firmly extended all of its deadly roots and anchored itself to the city. Although he’s telling a fictional story, AHS:NYC creator Murphy fills his drama with characters clearly patterned after real-life individuals, many of whom were queer icons in 1980s New York. From performance artist Klaus Nomi to erotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to author Quentin Crisp, Murphy creates a macabre thriller that’s also an ingenious lesson in queer history at a pivotal moment. Queer culture was thriving in New York City in the first half of the decade, and with these real-life characters peppered throughout the series, it’s easy to see why.
An Unflinching Look at the Ravages of the AIDS Epidemic
Like Welcome to Chippendales, the first half of the AHS:NYC season is immersed in the creativity and abandon of the gay community, from the leather scene to the new wave music arena to the bathhouses (viewers even get to experience a thinly veiled version of Bette Midler in the form of Patti LuPone). The second half of the season, however, shifts its already dark tone to one of sheer blackness, abandoning the supernatural for stone-cold reality. Audacious newspaper columnist Gino Barelli (The Watcher‘s Joe Mantello), an amalgamation of Lawrence D. Mass, co-founder of New York’s City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis and playwright and ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer, becomes the embodiment of the gay community’s fear and despair in the face of the outright combustion of AIDS in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond. Visions of young men marching single file into an open grave ravage Barelli’s mind as the virus itself ravages his body. Week after week, Barelli attends yet another funeral as he watches the Manhattan landscape, once a rainbow of queer elation, become a frostbitten desert of anguish and decay. For the heterosexual population who could never understand the true terror and dismay experienced by the queer community at the height of the AIDS epidemic, as well as for the younger gay generation who came of age after this era, Murphy lets viewers in on how it felt for those who experienced it first hand. Far too many watched their worlds vanish before their eyes as they themselves wondered if that small cough they had in the morning, that tiny rash they noticed on their arm, that nighttime fever they felt would mean they were next. It’s the queer representation that’s tortuous to witness, but necessary to experience, and Murphy doesn’t flinch. AHS:NYC uses actual queer history to create the anthology’s most frightening story to date.
It’s rare to see television programs that recognize the queer community, let alone two different series that illuminate the gay culture at a specific period of time and present the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. The 1980s were a time of pride and indulgence that too quickly transitioned into one of suffering and grief, and Welcome to Chippendales and AHS:NYC are like two visual encyclopedias of 1980s queer representation.