What is the overall theme and/or message in the poem "Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing" by Margaret Atwood?
I think that the speaker here is a stripper justifying herself and explaining what she does, but I don't quite understand what her message is.
On a literal level, you are right. The speaker in the poem is a stripper who is justifying herself and her profession (the money's good, it's easier than doing retail work, etc). But more that that, this is a poem about women and sexuality and the fact that these things make a sort of double-edged sword for a woman (something that can be a weapon to use against others but which can also hurt the woman herself). This poem always makes me think of the debates in the 1990s (and which still continue) about how women should perceive their sexuality -- whether it was a source of power or something to be hidden. The speaker in the poem is, to me, exploring this question.
On the one hand, the speaker's beauty obviously makes her into a piece of meat. The men treat her like all she is is a body. This is the degrading side of women's sexual attractiveness -- it makes them into object in the eyes of men.
On the other hand, however, the speaker clearly feels empowered by her beauty and her desireability. She has power over men that other women do not have. This makes her feel strong and I think this is why Atwood uses this title since Helen of Troy had the power to "launch a thousand ships".
So this is a poem not just about one stripper's thoughts, but about the dilemma that faces women -- what is the meaning of their sexual attractiveness and how should they feel about it?