‘Welcome to Chippendales’ and the Dorothy Stratten Problem

Watching the premiere episode of Hulu’s limited series “Welcome to Chippendales” left me thinking about the 1997 comedy classic “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” To look impressive to their former classmates, Romy (Mira Sorvino) tells them she invented Post-Its and that her bestie, Michele (Lisa Kudrow), thought to make them yellow.

In Hulu’s new limited series “Welcome to Chippendales,” Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz) is presented as the person behind putting the Chippendales dancers in their soon-to-be-iconic cuffs-and-collars look. With 10 minutes left in the pilot, Stratten pitches an idea to Chippendales creator Steve Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani): “I know how much you admire Hugh Hefner…which got me thinking, what if Chippendales did a Playboy Club thing? Cuffs and collars, just like the Bunnies.”

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It’s understandable why the series wants to show Stratten had autonomy, especially considering that her name is now synonymous with her murder. So why not give her a grand and life-changing (in the world of the series, at least) idea? The problem is how performative the plot is. It’s akin to what many critics are pointing out about Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Princess Diana in this season of “The Crown”: The creative team’s desire to show a deeper understanding of a character who, time and again, is reduced to simplicity.

In Stratten’s case, she’s remained the doe-eyed sweetheart epitomized in Bob Fosse’s 1980 drama “Star 80” and Peter Bogdanovich’s book “The Killing of the Unicorn.” The audience’s first introduction to her in “Chippendales” has all the nuance of a “Saturday Night Live” skit, with Peltz Beckham wearing a blonde wig and standing opposite Dan Steven as Stratten’s husband/murderer, Paul Snider. For the entirety of the premiere — the only episode in which the two appear — the character is written to be a sweet but integral part of the Chippendales mythos.

Is this true? It is. As the A&E docuseries “Secrets of the Chippendales” lays out, Banerjee and Snider did become collaborators in the creation of Chippendales. As far as Stratton suggesting the “cuffs and collars” element, the docuseries mentions that Stratton did suggest that “[the dancers] could wear the cuffs and collars like what I wear at the Playboy club.” The rest is history.

The problem is how this plays out within “Welcome to Chippendales,” with a sweet Dorothy popping out during a busy club night with a cuff and collars in hand to present her idea to Steve. It’s meant to play like a proper business idea, but since Dorothy is never mentioned after the premiere, it’s a footnote.

“Welcome to Chippendales” - Credit: HULU
“Welcome to Chippendales” - Credit: HULU

HULU

Putting Stratten’s idea against the backdrop of what audiences ultimately know about her demise is jarring. And the series seems to assume you know how her story ends from the moment she enters. The introduction to Snider and Stratten plays like something out of “Walk Hard,” with a close-up and blocking that says, “You know these two.” And while Stevens gets the second half of the episode to go full Snider — controlling his wife’s every move and showing increasingly high levels of jealousy — the only thing the audience knows is Stratten is cute, she’s nice, she could be a star, and she invented that Chippendales uniform.

And yet, with such significance paid to her and Snider, the episode ends with a single scene to reveal their ultimate demise. Banerjee calls Snider’s house as the camera pans to a blood-soaked bedroom with Stratten and Snider’s bodies on display (a rather sanitized presentation of their deaths, all things considered). When Banerjee finds out about the murder-suicide, there’s no moment of reflection, and the pair are never mentioned again. Considering how much they factored into the creation of the Chippendales world, the two are erased from any sense of future the rest of the characters have.

Stratten certainly deserves a voice but presenting her as a pert fashionista who conjured up the Chippendales wardrobe and then died feels like a disservice. Maybe if there were more than an episode devoted to her and Snider, as opposed to a Cliff’s Notes rundown, she’d have more impact. If anything, her presence will compel many people to Google her tragic story or check out the masterpiece “Star 80.”

“Welcome to Chippendales” streams on Hulu.

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