Strip Down, Rise Up

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Strip Down, Rise Up Movie Poster Image
Traumatized women heal by pole dancing; language, sexuality.
  • R
  • 2021
  • 112 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Women can unlock their bodies through sensual movement. It's time for women to step into their power. Sometimes confronting demons can help disperse them. Women who embrace their sexuality can help themselves feel powerful and release themselves from self worth emanating from male approval. Fashion magazines and other media outlets try to persuade women that there's only one kind of female body shape that society deems attractive. Bodies that don't conform to narrow criteria regarding weight, height, and facial features are attractive, despite what advertisers and the media tell us.


Positive Role Models

Women suffering loss, trauma, sexual abuse, and other hurts, who may be dominated by controlling husbands or boyfriends, try to heal themselves through pole dancing.


Women describe being raped and sexually abused, one by a family friend.  A woman describes bring raped in college by a friend, then bullied and ostracized until she dropped out of school. Another was drugged and raped at age 13. A former child gymnast describes being violated by Larry Nassar, the Olympic women gymnastics doctor who was convicted of molesting many female gymnasts. Many kept the abuse secret. Some are ashamed, as if the women were at fault for the terrible behavior of the attackers.


A man on social media posing as a former porn actress uses crude language about ejaculating on a woman's face, and "draining balls," and "squirt."   Many moves in pole dancing are overtly sexual. Women are encouraged in class to feel free in their bodies. Women wear bikini-like outfits so their skin "sticks" to the pole as they perform complex moves. A teacher encourages women in the class to embrace themselves as they are. One woman who would like to lose 100 pounds describes how sexual abuse made her shut down and put on weight to hide her sexuality. One woman describes appearing in porn movies and continuing to go to church until someone who recognized her from her films reported her to the pastor, who asked her not to return. One student reports she successfully completed her "homework," to give her husband a lap dance.


"F--k," "s--t," "p---y," "vulva," "come," "hell," "ass," "bitch," "suck," "balls," and "squirt."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that while pole dancing is often seen only as a seedy strip club staple, Strip Down, Rise Up looks at women who practice pole dancing as a way of reclaiming their bodies after sexual abuse and other trauma. This 2021 documentary, with lots of raunchy language and frank sexual discussion, follows beginners through a pole dancing course where the women wrenchingly reveal their emotional damage, feelings of self hatred, distorted body image, and experiences of rape and sexual abuse. Blame is placed on a male-dominated society that devalues women and objectifies them sexually, putting women at the wrong end of a power dynamic, but decent men are lauded and invited into this world of healing. One woman describes being sexually assaulted as a child by the convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, the Olympic women's gymnastics team doctor who violated young girls while parents were in the examining room. Pole dancing is also presented as a form of exercise and as a competitive sport. Women move sensually, wearing skimpy outfits. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "p---y," "vulva," "come," "hell," "ass," "bitch," "suck," "balls," and "squirt." Adults drink alcohol.

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What's the story?

STRIP DOWN, RISE UP follows a movement to take pole dancing out of the seedy strip club environment, where women dance to titillate paying male customers, and embrace it as an activity women can proudly use to become fit, both physically and emotionally. The film suggests that men fear women taking control of their sexuality, making pole dancing a subversive and empowering act. Actor Sheila Kelley, founder of the S Factor pole studio in Los Angeles, learned pole dancing for a role in a 2000 film, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, and as she began to teach others saw its potential as a healing tool. A competitive pole dancer and self described Christian describes a husband who won't allow her to post her poses on social media. When she defies him, he threatens divorce. Amy Bond, a Mormon former porn star who owns a pole studio and regularly competes, says her upbringing frowned on female sexuality. She recalls that her brief stint in porn, when she was desperate for money, tainted her in the eyes of some, ironic given that she's shamed by those who viewed her movies, people who don't seem to feel any shame for having watched them. One woman, a former aerialist for Cirque du Soleil, revels in the physical power and self confidence pole dancing has given her. The most moving sequences focus on a class of beginners looking for emotional relief. They bond as they share worries and trauma. The film doesn't glorify female sexuality for the purpose of exploitation or titillation, but frames it instead as part of every healthy woman's identity.

Is it any good?

This documentary is surprisingly poignant and powerful. Downtrodden, depressed women, mourning loss and injury, bloom like flowers in front of director Michele Ohayon's cameras as they strive to shed inhibitions, self hatred, body-image stereotypes, and other baggage associated with pleasing men and conforming to unforgiving social standards for physical beauty. Strip Down, Rise Up is inspiring and often moving as it portrays women who believe they are too heavy, or too outside the mainstream standards of attractiveness to be sexy. That said, the emphasis on waging a war on "the biggest obstacle…the male gaze" is overstated. Far from man-hating, one teacher emphasizes that there are good men out there and she brings some into the class to provide positive masculine support to the students, many of whom have had few good experiences with men.

Viewers should not be put off by jargon that needlessly downgrades the profundity of the experience. One teacher says she's "trying to bring women back into their wholeness," and "I teach women to move into the fullest integrity of their feminine," which is accomplished in a "circle of naked truthing." The psycho-babble goes a bit too far when a teacher chastises a crying student as engaging in a "pattern of apology" simply because she wipes away her flowing tears. Most important is the teacher's intention to help her students move forward fearlessly in life. Ultimately, the film focuses on the value of the physical movement and emotional support, not the words. The transformation that some of the women undergo from self loathing to exhilaration makes it clear that a little language-mangling shouldn't turn anyone away from the good work being done here.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how many people who have been sexually assaulted try to keep that experience secret. In what ways do you think keeping a terrible experience secret can hurt a person?

  • The women who love pole dancing express a pride in co-opting this sexually-charged activity -- often used to please male customers in clubs -- as a way of rebelling against a patriarchal society that judges women based on the way they look. In what ways do you think taking charge of your own body can be an empowering act?

  • Some of the women who complete the beginners' course make progress in their lives after. How do you think what they learned in the class may have helped them?

Movie details

  • On DVD or streaming: February 5, 2021
  • Director: Michele Ohayon
  • Studio: Netflix
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA rating: R
  • MPAA explanation: for language, sexual material, brief graphic nudity and some descriptions of sexual abuse
  • Last updated: February 17, 2021

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