I was confused when I came across a sentence in “The Body Politic” in New York Times (June 28). The emphasized one.

The legal dos and don’ts suggest that the law of the father has been partly overthrown, even if the naughtiness remains hidden, away from the glare of the outside world. The club is something of a playground, a place where women and men teasingly, raucously switch traditional roles. Yet there’s a serious undertow to their interactions because the women pay men for a sexual pantomime that the men live off of. (The plot also involves Dallas’s plans to open a bigger club in which he’s promised Mike equity, a pledge that keeps Mike dancing and distracted from his own dreams.) From the way that Mr. Soderbergh shoots the opener, the lights shining into the camera and your eyes (you may flash on “All That Jazz”), it’s clear everyone is playing a role, including you.

In this sentence, “the men” are strippers who live off of sexual pantomime. And “the women” are clients who pay for their sexual pantomime, right?

Why not say “the women pay the men for a sexual pantomime that the men live off of”?

Actually, I don't know why this can be an undertow to their interactions. Since they have already switched traditional roles in that club, it is only natural to see female clients pay male strippers for sexual pantomime. Can that be an undertow?

3 Answers 3


I think the author meant to say, "A serious undertone". The word "undertow" doesn't fit very well in this context. "Undertows" are "hidden", they're "dangerous", but they're not usually described as "serious". "Undertones" on the other hand, are very often "serious" or "sinister". So I'm calling it either a typo or a less-than-stellar education.

  • I'd go with the education. No-one's mentioned "live off of" rather than "live off".
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 2, 2012 at 17:43
  • "live off of" is perfectly fine in AmE. Aug 2, 2012 at 18:17
  • 1
    Rule of thumb: give New York Times writers the benefit of the doubt concerning word choice. Had he felt like using the commoner word undertone, one presumes he would have done so. Undertow provokes the ear, and gives a more powerful impression.
    – Robusto
    Aug 3, 2012 at 3:33
  1. The definite article is used with "women" because the writer is referring to a specific set of women.

  2. No article is used in the first instance of "men" and I can think of several reasons for this: a) the women pay men in general, not just the ones at this club; b) the writer wanted a little more variety of expression ("men", "the men" vs. "the men", "the men"); c) the article simply got left out unintentionally.

  3. The definite article is used in the second instance of "men" because it refers specifically to the men referenced previously, and not men in general (even if men in general is what the antecedent refers to).

An undertow is something that sucks one down into the depths. The dynamic described by the writer may mean that either or both parties are being pulled down in this manner, and it may also suggest that the viewer is being pulled down into it. There is an energy here, a force that must be reckoned with.

  • That makes a lot of sense because it explains why there was a The plot also involves Dallas’s plans to open a bigger club in which he’s promised Mike equity, a pledge that keeps Mike dancing and distracted from his own dreams. That should be another force which pulls down the stripper. Thank you very much( I wish I can find better words to say thank you.)
    – yunkai
    Aug 3, 2012 at 2:25

Regarding your question about correctness of «"the men" are strippers ... "the women" are clients who pay...», that is correct, although none of the words clients, customers, consumers would be quite right to describe the women, who are onlookers who have paid a cover charge to enter the club. (I don't know just what word should be used.)

Regarding your second question, about "pay men" vs "pay the men", either is correct, but I think it's stylistically better to leave out that the.

An undertow can be "a feeling that runs contrary to one's normal one" (sense 2). Presumably that's the sense the writer is using. There's no problem with undertow; there is an undertow. The apparent problem is Yet, as it suggests "to the contrary", even though the sentence starting with Yet seemingly continues the same sort of thought as the sentence just before. However, the paragraph structure actually does work: 1, "law of the father ... overthrown", 2, "club is a playground", 3, "Yet there’s a serious undertow because".

  • To me, the ambiguous Yet was the author contrasting playground, raucously and teasingly with the moral implications of sexual commerce which has not been "switched from its traditional role". The sentence could have been better structured ... Aug 2, 2012 at 17:39

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