Arts » Arts Feature

Embracing the Stripper?

What happens when a culture's afraid of really getting "filthy"? The answer's all around you.


In a recent Simpson's flash-forward, the prophet Marge Simpson told her husband, "You know, Homer, FOX became a hard-core porn channel so gradually I never even noticed it."

Meanwhile, in the present, trendy fashion shops for young women sell baby tees adorned with the Playboy bunny logo, or the words "Porn Star" or "Hooker" on them. Strip joints have become popular hang-outs for young, hip heterosexual couples with disposable income. And according to a recent CBS 48 Hours, the newest fitness craze to emerge from Southern California is "Stripping for the Everyday Woman." They're calling it the next Yoga or Pilates.

To what do we owe women's recent embrace of bad girls? Feminists are hoping it signals the twilight of the virgin/whore dichotomy, that centuries-old paradigm that gives virgins respect but no freedom, and whores freedom but no respect.

It might also have to do with how everyday life has become saturated with pornography from the Internet. Perhaps the good girls decided "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Rather than be excluded from sex by pornography or displaced by cyber dolls, an increasing number of women are accepting the bad girl and aspiring to resemble her more: Witness the simultaneous mainstreaming of pornography and plastic surgery during the 1990s.

Perhaps women are interpreting the omnipresence of pornography as a message to get hip or get bumped. In response, some of them are straining to keep up with real (and virtual, unreal) worlds that they fear will literally outstrip their desire and their availability--and their mutability and malleability as well.

It could also be an effect of the commercial production of nostalgia. Recycled artifacts from yesteryear's sex trade have become somehow more palatable when repackaged as knowing camp or kitsch. Experience shows that historic distance lends the "low arts" cultural cachet: We're not far from the day when Restoration Hardware offers a "Santa's Little Helper Thong and Pasties Kit" and Phaidon Press publishes an expensive coffee table book of 1950s pinup girls.

Already, even reputable and relatively stodgy academic presses are getting into the act. Knopf gets naked with Elizabeth Eaves' first book, Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex and Power, and Duke University Press is about to get in on the action with its January 2003 release, G Strings and Sympathy.

Nostalgia for older (read: kinder, gentler) forms of sex work goes some way toward explaining the Fluffgirl Burlesque Society, a touring spectacle that touched down at Durham's Ringside on Monday, Dec. 2.

Cecilia Bravo of Vancouver founded the troupe in the spring of 1997. Sad to see the tease disappearing from strip dancing, Cecilia created a one-woman show modeled on older forms of burlesque. Her performance was a success--so much so that she formed the Society to meet a growing demand for shows like hers. The Fluffgirls have been touring internationally, generally booked solid ever since.

It's tempting to call them high-class strippers who charge more to show less. Like any other line of work, the practice of stripping for money happens within a tiered system of labor; groups like the Fluffgirls are to your average strip club what a cup of Starbuck's French Roast is to gas station coffee. It's stripping for cultured, petit-bourgeois aficionados who "appreciate" Betty Page, but would never subscribe to Hustler.

Incidentally or not, all the Fluffgirls have milky white skin.

On show night Ringside (bless its heart) almost seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of becoming what it's always longed to be: Durham's own sociosexual commedia dell'arte.

The dance floor, as always, was covered in cracked, aging black and white tile old enough to have been chosen by Valentino himself. A glossy black baby-grand piano jutted out from the darkest corner of the room, while at the base of the staircase, the brown and gold lines of a conspicuously decadent chaise lounge ran diagonal to the pattern on the floor. The walls of the chamber were red, red and more red.

Architecturally, Ringside is perfect for strip tease shows. Its dance floor in the round allows one to survey not only the performers on stage but fellow spectators as well. As we waited for the show to start, we entertained ourselves by scanning the room to see who else was there. Making eye contact with one another, we pulled each other into relationships of complicity: We were all there, then, to watch that.

Since stalling, of course, is essential to the art of the strip tease, we were made to wait--approximately one and a half hours--for the show to begin. As the tension slowly built, the DJ played a mix of 1960s and 1970s lounge and sexadelic music to get us in the mood.

Finally, Fatima descended the staircase. Madame was dressed this evening in a creme-colored, strapless, backless satin dress, faux-fur shall, and delicate heels. Her hair was styled like Louise Brooks--jet black bob with blunt bangs. She wore fake eyelashes, bright red lipstick and heavy, glittery green eye shadow. Around her neck, a string of pearls that she fondled with satin gloves that went all the way up to her elbows.

In her right hand dangled a martini glass. She stumbled onto the dance floor looking like a drunken, aging broken-hearted heiress.

If you've ever been to a drag show, you'd immediately recognize this character as a favorite of the sister syndicate.

Fatima and her associate, Blaze, each performed three times. The night was divided into sets, in which each stripped to one song. Between sets, we were made to wait patiently for their next appearance. As soon as one of the dancers was spotted in costume at the top of the stairs, the crowd would go quiet, and take their seats for the next set.

Their act covered a wide range of historic and thematic approaches. From the allure of the fan dance to what they called "the astonishing art of pastie twirling," the performance featured a cunning array of stunts, impressive dance moves, gorgeous vintage costumes, extravagant wigs, sexy boots, stacks, stilettos, and other fetish-worthy props.

Blaze followed Fatima's drunken heiress by dancing her way into and out of a cop costume complete with handcuffs. In the second set, Fatima became a futuristic, silver and platinum nurse dancing "the robot," and Blaze was decked out in Spanish exotica: black lace with removable red roses. In the nightcap, Fatima performed a "ballet" dance to Vivaldi in courtly costume and powdered wig. Blaze closed the show with a balloon dance, entreating audience members to pop her suit, balloon by balloon, until only her bra-less corset and 1930s fringed panties remained.

But what of the audience?

As crowds go, we were well-behaved--indeed, too much so for the performers. Blaze actually had to coach us to clap and cheer at moments when we would have otherwise remained silent and attentive, demonstrating quiet appreciation more appropriate to a jazz musician's solo than a stripper taking her clothes off.

But Ringside's not a strip club, and the feel of an erotic or sexually explicit show depends a great deal on the make-up of the audience. Our crowd had as many women as men, if not more.

All of us were apparently well-practiced in the art of ironic distance. By this means, we got to be present in a room full of strangers, near a stage decorated with partially naked bodies, while at least pretending to be above it all. Acting aloof came particularly easily to those watching from the balcony on the second floor.

As if resenting such hypocrisy, the dancers repeatedly interrupted our pretensions by including audience members in the spectacle--and then obliging us to put up more money for having been the recipients of their special attentions. After each set, our economic complicity escalated: One of the dancers worked the crowd while topless, holding a tip jar under our noses, while the rest of the audience watched to see what we'd do. As though we were in church passing the collection plate, everyone tipped generously and repeatedly, lest they appear cheap before fellow parishioners.

But if its real filth you're ultimately looking for, you might want to check out Elizabeth Eaves' new book, Bare.

Be prepared for a surprise when you find out what it actually is.

In the book, Eaves describes her one-year stint as a peep show dancer at a Seattle strip club called the Lusty Lady. In some ways Bare strangely echoes Nickel and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's book that documented a year she spent in a series of low-paying service jobs across the United States.

Bare opens with an epigraph from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, in which Edmund Mansfield says to his cousin, Fanny: "You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at." It's around this problem that the rest of the book revolves.

Eaves writes in Bare about how a group of attractive young women understand, negotiate and even profit from all of the wanted and unwanted sexual attention they get from post-pubescent men.

The first time Leila (the author's stage name) stepped into the peep show booth, she is surprised to discover how easy and familiar it all seems to her:

The strangest thing about it was that it wasn't very strange. I had never done this work before, but it felt like a fragment of a dream coming back to me. There was the music, and I was dancing to it; that wasn't new. There were the mirrored walls, much like a dance studio or a health club. And there were men watching me. Always, it seemed, men had been watching me, assessing, surmising, deciding.

Reading this passage I couldn't help but recall the bleak portrait of heterosexual romance in Wim Winders' film, Paris, Texas. In one scene at a peep show, a "private pleasures" booth like the ones documented in Eaves' book becomes a microcosm containing what seems to be the only possible dynamic between the sexes.

After they've divorced, a coda to Nastassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton's family romance takes place in a booth where she's selling and he's buying. The two are separated by a two-way mirror: He can see her, but she only sees herself--nothing remotely new about that image.

A private telephone connects the two. He talks; she listens and begins to take her clothes off. "No," he says, "I just want to talk." Confused, she listens to him recount the story of their relationship's demise--as though he were just another man who'd stumbled in off the street. While she shows signs of faint recognition, she doesn't interpret the story as her own. She's heard it so many times before; all the stories of the anonymous men that watch her from the other side of the glass have run together.

Looking back on her experience and asking herself why she danced naked for countless men, Eaves decides:

[T]he Lusty Lady's mirrored boxes had contained me like a chemical reaction in a test tube. There had been no place else to put the volatile mix I had inside: desire and vanity, seductiveness and anger, exhibitionism and self-consciousness. Stripping, in retrospect, looked like a much-needed outlet, and I wondered what would have happened to all that energy if I had never taken the job.

So do I. Eaves suggests here that the sex industry not only provides an outlet for the sexual energies and frustrations of men as paying customers, but also for young women with explosive combinations of anger and desire. If she's right, or at least partly so, how else might these mixed-up energies be channeled? What could they do? What happens when they are not?

Eaves never gets this far, but I would extend her argument to suggest that if women want to challenge what "sexy" is and does, they have to get in on the production side of things.

Bare is a valuable addition to public discussion of sex work if for no other reason than it insists on a more complex range of experience than popular thought generally allows. Eaves' tales from the booth challenge popular assumptions that usually frame debates about sex work: namely, that women who work in the sex industry are either victims and sex addicts or gorgeous, empowered goddesses who've got it all.

The first perspective could be called the Oprah-esque take; the second, the post-feminist position. Both are terribly reductive, and inadequate to account for the range of women's experiences as laborers in the sex industry. They defy the varying perspectives and rationales which the women, who come from a range of social and economic backgrounds, offer on the work they do.

Perhaps surprisingly, Eaves tells us near the end of her book, that the Lusty Lady is ultimately a static world. When she first entered the booth she described it as "a dazzling scarlet and silver womb." Indeed, the Lusty Lady is womb-like, to the extent that it's a fantasy space wherein men can briefly experience the impossible: climax without vulnerability. Of course, seeing the men from the perspective of the dancers exposes this image for the fantasy it is.

"Physical eroticism has in any case a heavy, sinister quality," notes Georges Bataille. "It holds on to the separateness of the individual in a rather selfish and cynical fashion." What I hear behind the celebratory openness about sexuality, both in Eaves' book and more broadly in American culture, is loneliness.

On the market, there's always something better up ahead: something shiny, new and improved. No matter how "dirty" the Lusty Lady claims to be, what she sells is sterilized--and sterile--sex. At a time when safe sex has become a matter of life and death, porn's version of hygiene is not concerned with the exchange of fluids. Rather, it specializes in the manufacture of a prosthetic surface on which to achieve orgasm.

Men pay for the fantasy of chase, Eaves tells us, but in most cases they don't want to interact with these women in real-life scenarios.

Here is where we learn that what's actually "dirty" in our culture. It's not sex. It's dependence.

Fear of dependence lies at the heart of the relationship between a strip dancer and her clientele. Paying her cash for her image abates the anxiety customers might feel over their dependence on her: Through the exchange of money, things are equalized. Money provides the symbolic matter necessary to erase such relations, to clean them up--restoring to the stripper and her customer the individuality and separateness of each.

The fantasy of the strip tease or the private dancer is a dream of clarity in sexual and gender relations. At a moment in history when we've either destroyed the relational scripts that once existed or done them serious damage at least, the simulation of clearly defined and scripted roles for seduction and sex is comforting on one level, even if it remains disturbing on so many others.

On a landscape where so many traditional positions have been transformed, challenged, moved or wiped away, these negotiated arrangements provide a concrete marker of sorts, to show where two people stand in respect to one another.

The pleasure we take in watching strip tease and nude dancing (beyond the utilitarian function) is not so different from a child's pleasure in watching Scooby Doo. Think about it: Both are formulaic, both offer spectators the pleasure of recognizing the unfolding of a narrative and the outlines of a pattern they already know.

The sex industry sells the familiar, the routine, the ritual, the stereotype, the role-play: In the words of Radiohead, no alarms and no surprises, please. Though it may claim to provide encounters with the alien and the outré, on one fundamental level its mediated exchanges are as exotic as McDonald's. In times like these they have to be. The participants--in this culture, each of us, to some degree--apparently insist on it.


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