THE STRIPPER AS SEXUAL IDEAL
(Lengthened version of my presentation at the UCLA Conference on Burlesque as a Social Phenomenon, 1993, highlighting the strip show portions of my dissertation)
Strip shows are usually fairly honestly acknowledged as a form of entertainment designed to sexually arouse men with the visual representation of suitable sex objects. By showing beautiful girls in a stylized representation of the acts leading up to sexual intercourse (disrobing and caressing the body) as well as stylized “bumps” and “grinds” which evoke the sex act itself, it completely distracts the audience from the fact than no actual sex is taking place on stage. Strip shows are the idea of sex divorced from the action itself and so represent a kind of idealized sex.
Fashion shows, strip shows and beauty pageants, on runway stages are all forms of theatre that attempt to glorify an ideal of womankind which has special significance to their audience. The main method of staging used in all three forms is that of non-speaking women walking and/or dancing to music down a raised runway just out of reach of the audience. This method “raises” the performer in the audience’s mind from the ranks of ordinary mortals and into an objectified ideal of femininity.
In all three genres the emphasis is on the concept of femininity and the performer’s place as the embodiment of an ideal. For the beauty queen whose audience is composed of entire family groupings, the ideal is of a daughter figure, for a fashion model, seen before a predominantly female audience, that of a successful self assured, self-controlled woman.
The role of the stripper is an expression of a masculine audience’s ideal of woman as a sexual being. The sexual double standard has had a profound influence on strip show audience expectations in this regard. Male audience members who would be horrified and disgusted to find their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives behaving in an overtly sexual manner in public, nonetheless enjoy watching comparatively anonymous women doing so, as part of a fantasy sexual ideal. As Warren Jamison put it in a letter to Dear Abby on March 12, 1990:
Men like to look. Some enjoy looking at horses, paintings, football and cars. But they are all genetically programmed to enjoy looking at women. You feel threatened because your man isn’t content to confine his looking only at you. Lighten up. All this looking doesn’t mean a thing–except that he’s human. Your man doesn’t compare you to the topless bar girls, because he loves you. He loves you for a thousand reasons, one of which is because you don’t get up on a stage and prance around bare-bosomed, where anyone with the price of a cup of coffee can look at you.
This kind of Madonna/whore conflict in the expectations of male audience members leads to a kind of exaggerated image of sexuality in strip performances (which have openly avowed their sexual content since the 1920’s) because they are seen as the theatrical equivalent of whorishness. Given this general attitude that stripping placed women in a special “not nice” category, the ideal image of strippers has generally not been that of man’s ideal of womanhood in the sense of mother, wife or daughter, but man’s ideal of purely sexualized womanhood, the “Seductress.”
Obviously, every individual man has his own personal fantasy in this direction, but there are several points upon which most men seem to concur, one being the importance of breasts as part of an eroticized female. Frequently successful strippers indicate that their careers were “made” by an ample set of breasts. “Susan” a topless dancer interviewed in Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts and Their Lives (1979), claimed that large breasts were an advantage in stripping: “The size of your breasts always determined how many bookings you got.” And Fanny Belle Fleming, better known as the stripper Blaze Starr popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, attributed her success with audiences to “big boobs.” Tempest Storm, her contemporary from Georgia, also claimed she was encouraged to become a stripper because she was told her abnormally large bosom would ensure audience approval. Large breasts also were a plus in the life of Carol Doda in the 1960’s and 70’s, who transformed a lackluster job as a minor stripper into an acclaimed career as the queen of the San Francisco strip scene by getting one of the first silicone implant operations to augment her from an A cup to a double D. Perhaps the most famous set of breasts in the strip trade was that of a very early stripper, Carrie Finnell. Finnell, while having a frankly fat figure (occasionally described as bovine) in the lean 1920’s, as well as being fairly old for a stripper, had such extraordinary control over her mammary muscles that she could do “tricks” with her bosom including pointing them in any direction and tassel twirling, male audience fascination with breasts having encouraged these rather baroque performances into further marvels of muscle control.
Another basic male fantasy about the ideal “Seductress” or sexualized female is that she is always “ready for action.” letters to “The Playboy Forum” by readers indicate that men are pleased with and attracted to sexually aggressive women: In one issue a male reader was outraged at an article in which Adrienne Burnette deplored “dominant women” and liked a man to make all the moves so she could “lie back and enjoy it.” The male reader countered that “I and my friends hate that routine and would love nothing better than to see more women take the lead, pay their fair share and make their share of the moves. I don’t feel the least bit threatened by aggressive women.” In the same issue another man reported with delight on the action of a female co-worker in aggressively initiating a sex act in his car. In addition, while passive females are the staple of women’s “bodice ripper” pornography, the longtime staple of men’s literary porn is the sexually aggressive female (the exception being certain Sadomasochistic literature). Nancy Friday noted in her survey and treatise on male sexual fantasies, Men in Love that contrary to the stereotypical “macho” image of men as sexual aggressors, men are more likely to fantasize themselves as the seduced than the seducers. The majority of male sexual fantasies described in Friday’s work feature women who either take the lead, or respond easily and willingly to a tentative sexual advance.
This desire for an idealized seductress figure who would seem to be cheerfully sexually aggressive did much to separate the most successful strip performers from the lesser ones in the early years of stripping. Strippers at the very bottom of the stripping profession, were described by Geoffrey Gorer as showing clearly that they did not enjoy performing:
Her face is frozen into a smile, a smile without gaiety, without amusement, without friendliness, a hieratic distortion; A parody so empty that one wonders that one can ever have thought that a smile could have either charm or significance.
Gorer goes on to point out that strippers who convey enjoyment in their act are better paid:
The one or two women who can convey some feeling of humanity to this act are well known and receive large salaries; Gypsy Rose Lee, who acts as though she enjoyed it, is said to earn a thousand dollars a week.
Morton Minsky pointed out that Lee, despite a thin flatchested figure, enchanted the audience with a lewd flirtatious patter in double entendre and “suggestive and seductive” costuming: “She used black silk stockings, lace panties, red garters, and mesh netting.” Margie Hart, the next most famous stripper of the 1930’s and 40’s also conveyed the impression of relaxed sexuality by performing without a discernable G-string. Hinda Wassau, the leading star of the 1920’s, and one of the first girls to be arrested for stripping (1927), made an act of “running the hands over her body slowly and lingeringly,” panting, and otherwise imitating a self-induced orgasm. Each of these performers was at the top of her profession making hundreds of dollars a week in the midst of the Depression because they were able to give the audience the impression of an aggressive rather than a passive sexuality. This non-passive sexuality was still preferred when “Misty” in the 1970’s asked the men at her day job in an office what they thought was most desirable in a strip performer: “The consensus seemed to be that girl who smiles and seems to enjoy what she is doing makes the biggest hit.” By degrees this ability to seem to enjoy the sexual nature of the strip act went from the most-prized talent in stripping to becoming the minimum qualification, and now even mediocre strippers are expected to convey an image of aggressive sexuality.
The audience by rewarding those performers who most closely imitated the masculine notions of an eroticized woman encouraged the performers to develop their onstage personas in line with male audience fantasies. This has fostered the image of female burlesque performers as aggressively sexual women with abnormally large breasts who enjoy exhibitionism in its sexual sense. This has also encouraged the development of strip routines which best display these apparent attributes. However, since male tastes in sexual fantasy are more individualized than this simple formula would indicate, in stripping, more than in the other two forms, the “ideal” that the stripper chooses to impersonate can have a much wider range of possibilities. This is where the importance of costume enters into the picture. While people unacquainted with the nuances of stripping assume that clothing is unimportant to a stripper’s art, it is an obvious prerequisite to stripping that the stripper should begin with a costume on, before taking one off.
The stripper’s costume is generally there, not only to take off, but also to create an image for the stripper in the act she is performing. The costume provides the context, the fantasy-image of the girl, for without specific fantasy costumes, a series of strippers would be simply a series of indistinguishable undressing female bodies. The variety of costumes that strippers presently use to convey fantasy images is best illustrated in the 1986 documentary film Stripper, where strippers are shown to have chosen costumes that depict a bride, a rhinestone cowgirl, a fashionable reader of Cosmopolitan, an ethereal Loie Fuller butterfly, a “flashdancer,” a woman covered with stuffed hands, a futuristic “space suit” with metal breast cups, a race car driver, an American Indian complete with full headdress, a whip-wielding dominatrix, a fire-eating vampire who enters in a prop coffin, and a little girl with a Teddy bear, writhing on a “Teddy bear skin” rug. The fantasy aspect of these costumes is what establishes the context of the performance. For example, Sara Costa’s costume of a blue chiffon butterfly cape establishes her character as a representation of ethereal idealized sex which silences her audience in awe; while Danyel’s costume with spiked collar, studded leather garments and spike heeled, thigh-high boots made her use of a stage-blood soaked whip seem so depraved that an audience composed predominantly of other strippers gasped in shock at her act.
Strippers’ acts naturally follow in the steps the costumes lead. For example, the previously mentioned cowgirl outfit included a prop hobby horse which the stripper “rode” suggestively while imitating the gestures of rodeo riders; while the girl in the bondage and discipline costume lashed at the stage and herself while crawling on her knees in a submissive manner. Both sets of gestures would be unintelligible and senseless without the costume establishing the context of the act.
Strippers’ costumes not only provide a functional ensemble for practical removal, but a functional ideal of female beauty that is “sexualized” by the revelation of nudity. Georg Mehlis in “The Aesthetic Problem of Distance” noted the difficulty of regarding a person as an “artistic creation of life, the beautifully formed human being contemplated from an aesthetic point of view” without employing some kind of distancing mechanism (psychological or artistic) in order to limit the intimate familiarity with a subject that “must necessarily destroy the aesthetic phenomenon.”
If mere nature is to become aesthetically significant then it must appear to the understanding of the eye as an image, divorced from its material aspects. In order that a human being may appear simply beautiful, I have to subject him to a separation which removes him from the incidentals of his surroundings and embodiment.
In short, the “incidental” mundane facts of the real person’s existence, if known, would prevent the observer from idealizing him into a beautiful artistic object. Theatrical artifice removes performers from the mundane world that they inhabit as people and puts them in an artificial, aesthetically created world in which they may act as an “artistic creation” fit to be contemplated and appreciated aesthetically as an embodiment of their “role.” This allows the audience to “believe” in the integrity of the role played, even when the performer’s real life and character would contradict that role. The performer on stage, in turn, adapts to the appropriate behavior for the stage character while on stage, temporarily melding with the character. Erving Goff man observes, in Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (1961), that “when an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them…they are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess.” Goffman also quotes Robert Ezra Park’s opinion of the idealistic nature of the “real” roles people adopt in their “real” lives: “The role we are striving to live up to–this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be.”
Onstage roles can also sometimes be seen as idealized selves, although the effort of performing one of these roles often negates the possibility of realizing it in daily life. Many strippers, exhausted after a 12 hour day of portraying an image of aggressive sexuality on stage protest that they have little or no time or energy to devote to indulging in a sex life. Goff man quotes Sartre to point out this contradiction between the role as performed and lived: “The attentive pupil who wishes to be attentive, his eyes riveted on the teacher, his ears open wide, so exhausts himself in playing the attentive role that he ends up by no longer hearing anything.” The creation of the image is independent and sometimes even contradictory to the actual circumstances of the performer creating it.
The image of strippers as sexually aggressive, sophisticated women with naturally erotic figures is equally illusory. Although college students surveyed by Skipper and Mc Caghy naively supposed that stripping was a profession for brainless talentless sexually deviant women who were: “oversexed,” “immoral,” “prostitutes,” who “can’t do anything else for a living,” and were “lower class,” and “stupid,” statistically, strippers come from all social classes, levels of education, and religions. Strippers are usually recruited into the profession after a major financial crisis (often a divorce), and their occupational choice is primarily based on financial need, not moral preference.
Strippers are most often, Caucasian, firstborn in their family, and grew up in a metropolitan area, and on average are taller, heavier and bustier than the median American female of similar age. However, one study reported that fifty per cent of the strippers surveyed had silicone injections in order to create this larger bustline. This would tend to support Kenneth Clark’s contention that “the body is not one of those subjects which can be made into art by direct transcription,” some alteration and highlighting is necessary in order to transform a naked body into a “nude.” Clark noted,
To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed.
According to Clark this process of artistic idealization should not desexualize the subject however:
No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow…the desire to grasp and be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as “pure form” is inevitably influenced by it.
Strippers, consciously or unconsciously attempt, through stage illusions like lighting and makeup, to transform themselves into this kind of idealized “nude,” primarily in order to arouse erotic feelings in the spectators. Lauri Lewin wrote of her experience of the transforming effect of stage techniques in creating a fantasy image:
I felt that I’d become someone else: my ideal. High up on stage, clothed in extravagant satin and sequins, I could be tall and long legged, the scar on my knee could disappear, my face could be smooth and ethnically unidentifiable…Marilyn Monroe existed inside me. Under the right light, she’d appear. And the rosy stage lights of the Nudie-Tease that day, dulled by cigarette smoke, refracted and bent as they reflected in the mirrors, seemed perfect. In the streaming light, my hair looked like a blonde halo. My skin gleamed, smooth and shiny with the sweat of exertion.
If makeup and lights are insufficient transformers, costumes, music and movement can be used to create an image of confident sexuality even in the absence of real life practical experience. For instance, Blaze Starr, at the age of sixteen and straight from the rustic wilds of West Virginia, made herself look “sophisticated” in her early years in Baltimore (despite almost no experience, sexual or otherwise) by the use of suggestive costumes:
I made myself a new costume of my own inspiration. The skirt was black and cut off well above the knees with slits up each side. The top was a red sequined jacket fastened only at the waist. It was accented with a black sequined beret. I looked pretty “whore-ified” but that was the whole idea. The band would play “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” then go into a drum solo about half way through my act as I strutted back and forth, shaking and twisting every part of my body in all sorts of titillative movements. The men loved it.
“Misty,” a stripper of the Seventies contended that:
A skilled stripper doesn’t just take off her clothes in front of an audience. She dances, acts, flirts, teases and projects a distinctive personality that is part real, part fantasy…she has to put imagination into her movements and choice of costumes, music and props. As her act proceeds, a feeling of suspense builds up to the final revelation of total nudity. Any stripper who fails to create such a feeling is just another body walking around naked on stage. (Emphasis mine.)
And as Clark points out, nakedness is not as aesthetically (or erotically) pleasing as nudity.
It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model that the students are industriously drawing will know this is an illusion.
Strip acts support the ideal of the nude “confident” body of an idealized sexually aggressive, sophisticated, well-endowed siren by the choice (and sometimes alteration) of body type, suggestive on-stage movements, fantasy costumes, and publicity. Publicity image often starts with giving a stripper an exotic-sounding name: Rose Louise Hovick was transformed into Gypsy Rose Lee, Fannie Belle Fleming into Blaze Starr, and Annie Blanche Banks was made into Tempest Storm. The renaming of strippers continues today, although many now use their own names or conventionally sonorous stage names like Lois Ayers, Nina Hartley, etc. Most others still use names with slight traces of suggestion in them, however, like Angel Kelley, Barbara Dare, Lotta Top, Lacey Pleasure, and LuLu Devine.
Advertising publicity for strippers focuses on two main areas: suggestions on how “hot” the girls are (i.e. sexually aggressive) and how busty they are. For instance, LuLu Devine’s ad copy for her appearance at the Market Street Cinema (which also presents live shows like Devine’s) in 1990 was as follows:
The Most Erotic-Bizarre Act You May Ever See!
Seeing is Believing 88FFF-24-35
LuLu Devine Live
8th & 9th Wonders of the World
The all time centerfold sensation!
If you never see another nude show ever
don’t miss this one–Nuf Said!
The O’Farrell St. Theater tends to feature ad copy like this: “Young Willing–Insatiable! Barbara Dare A Gorgeous Body–Just made for Love!” and “Hose Her Down! She’s burning down the house! She’s got a fire inside…Lois Ayres.” The public image of the performer begins with these pieces of publicity, and colors the audience’s perception of the performance, by pre-defining it as sexually suggestive.
Beyond the easily malleable publicity image which suggests an open, aggressive sexuality, the body image has proven to be almost as easily altered to suit. While there are many strippers who were and are successful with skinny, flat-chested figures and fat, lumpy ones, there is no doubt that the preferred body type for stripping is a large-busted, curvaceous figure, tending toward hourglass proportions. Both Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, the top strippers of the Fifties, were encouraged to go into stripping because they had naturally busty figures.
However, starting in the late Forties, and with increasing frequency in the Fifties and Sixties, silicone injections and implants made “natural” curves unessential. Not surprisingly, the most famous “stripper” (actually, an “exotic” dancer) of the Sixties, Carol Doda, had breasts which were models of Twentieth Century “Space Age” technology. Tom Wolfe described her figure in “The Put-Together Girl”:
Them! Carol Doda has had injections of a silicone emulsion put into her breasts in installments over the past three years. They have grown, grown, grown, enlarging like…dirigibles, almost as if right in front of the eyes of the crowds .. ..and all those people are out there practically panting. Topless, topless, the girl who blew up her breasts, Wonder Breasts, Wonder Breasts…Carol Doda’s Breasts are up there the way one imagines Electra’s should have been, two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture–viscera spigot—great blown-up aureate morning glories.
Goddess-like breasts are seen as part of the stripper’s sexual ideal and consequently, from the Sixties on, strippers have been pressured into getting breast implants and injections in order to increase their popular appeal, the strippers with the largest breasts receiving the most bookings, and consequently, increasing their income along with their bra size.
Carrie Finnell, a stripper of the Twenties and Thirties found that large breasts combined with unusual muscle control could even overcome audience prejudice against her plain appearance and frankly fat body. Her act, which lasted into her sixties (when she resembled a very plain D.A.R. president) apparently transfixed onlookers with her “educated bosom” as she called it. H.M. Alexander described her act in 1938, late in her career:
She stands there with her hands behind her back and by tricks of the muscles, flicks her breasts in and out of her dress. The finale of the act is executed to the tune of “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits.” On the “Shave and a Haircut” Carrie’s breasts rapidly and in unison point left and right. On the “Two” they point down, on the ‘Bits” they point up.
Clearly the normal male breast fixation of the audience led to a rather abnormal baroque set of performance expectations centered around the performer’s breasts. Finnell originated the art of tassel twirling to cater to these unusual audience interests:
She would start one tassel on one bosom slowly like a propeller revving up on a World War I plane. Faster and faster it would spin while its fellow tassel lay limp and neglected on the other bosom. Then, the other tassel would come to life. It would start spinning slowly, while the first tassel was at full speed. Carrie looked like a twin-engined bomber. Carrie could do anything with those tassels. She could make one go slow, the other fast. She could spin the left in one direction, and the right in the opposite direction. She could lie on her back and somehow keep the tassels elevated and twirling. She could attach tassels to her derriere and have them spinning every which way while the bosom tassels revolved merrily on their own.
Apart from breasts, the impression of an aggressive sexuality is also an important part of a stripper’s image—Tempest Storm, throughout her career made a habit of being seen to date a wide variety of men notable for their sex appeal, and she openly claims to have slept with most of them, (while giving particulars of their bedroom performances in her autobiography). Whether she actually had sex with Elvis, JFK, and Frank Sinatra is totally immaterial; the point is that she openly claims to have seduced all these men. Even the cover of her autobiography presents her image as aggressively sexual—Storm (a woman in her fifties) is sprawled in a clinging transparent black lace body suit and fur coat, wearing heavy makeup, rhinestones, and full, dyed red hair. Her picture is enclosed in a purple frame with the title, Tempest Storm: The Lady is a Vamp. The whole picture promotes her image as that of a sexually aggressive siren. Significantly, Storm still was working as a stripper when she wrote her autobiography. Blaze Starr’s 1974 autobiography (and the 1990 movie Blaze based on part of it) was dictated after she had gone over to theatre management, and no longer needed to boost her career with tales of sexual prowess. Not surprisingly, it is considerably tamer.
While Starr was working on stage, however, her on-stage actions were as suggestive as Storm’s autobiography. For one act she would “lie down on a red shag carpet and pretend to be a panther, screaming and crawling all over the carpet, mentally seducing the men in the audience.” Another act she developed included her writhing on a couch which she had rigged to “burst into flames.” “My plan,” she said, “was to lie down on the settee and undress in the midst of this pretend conflagration.” As her vice squad captain/lover of the time put it, irately, “You’re promoting an idea that you’re so hot up there the Goddamn stage is exploding.”The appeal of this fantasy seemed so lewd, that he felt obliged to arrest her, and their affair broke up as a consequence.
Starr’s flaming couch and Doda’s tumescent breasts are only two examples of an artificial construct being used to support the illusion of the stripper’s idealized image of female sexuality. Strip routines are, by their nature as theatre, a ritualized depiction of men’s ideals of female sexuality. Audience breast fixation not only has encouraged performers to increase the size of their breasts, but also has helped to center some performers’ actions around their breasts. A feminist stripper developed an act which included breast imagery in a liberated piece of stripping performance art:
On a whim I took along a brown paper grocery bag stuffed with foam rubber eggs and breasts that I just happened to have on hand. (In my militant feminist artist days I once did a kitchen for a place called Womanhouse which was all flesh colored—ceilings, walls, and floors–and which was dotted with foam-rubber fried eggs gradually metamorphosing into milk-filled breasts. There was a certain irony in my creations serving me equally well as feminist or stripper. This pleased me very much.) …And then the music started. I came on…I began to empty out my shopping bag. The men all waited. An egg. A fried egg. A fried egg with a pink yolk with a nipple! And then a breast! And more breasts! This was fun. The music played. I took off my coat. I danced. I tried on one breast, then another. A child out playing with her mother’s falsie. I threw the breasts out to the audience…They were very pleased. And then slowly I did my strip…And it was not like I expected–nothing like that at all. I rather enjoyed the dancing naked. The men were…sweet! I had expected that they would save the foam rubber breasts for souvenirs, but they dutifully returned every one to the causeway, like good little mother’s boys. One man slipped a dollar tip surreptitiously beneath one tit!
Strippers also appeal to their audience with fantasy images of sophisticated sexual iconography created by their costumes. Gypsy Rose Lee was famous for her costumes with black lace, fishnet stockings and black garter belts which did not convey a specific image, but rather a general one of naughtiness.
Many of these strippers were a marked contrast to the images they projected with their costumes. Gypsy Rose Lee, who took care to look sophisticated and stunning on stage, and on all public occasions, was noted for spending vacation time at home without makeup, unwashed and in a filthy denim skirt, wrinkled blouse, and heavy wool socks. Ann Corio, who frequently did “artistic” strip routines that portrayed her as exotic types like Indian maidens and South Sea princesses, was an un-exotic Italian-American girl from Hartford, Connecticut.The top stars of the Fifties, Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, made excessive use of luxury materials in their costumes, causing rhinestones, sequins, feathers, satin, and lame all to be inextricably associated with strippers, and even considered “cheap” and “tacky” by some people due to the association, despite their high cost. The public image of strippers as worldly “vamps” who dripped with sequins and feathers was most significantly fostered by these two women, who both grew up in tiny shacks in the rural South, near towns so small they rarely even appear on maps. Their image of what constituted sophistication and wealth came from movie magazines and not any kind of real life experience. It is little wonder then, that the image of the stripper that they popularized was an unintentionally outrageous caricature of Hollywood glamour and sophistication.
Many strip performers mentally separate their on-stage personas from their day-to-day lives, knowing, as they do, that the image they have as performers is limited to a purely sexual one:
What’s it like working in the clubs? It’s like acting. I’m not the same person when I’m on stage. I become strictly sexual. And I enjoy it. You probably wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me on the street.
Kelly O’Brian, a college girl from a Catholic background who turned to stripping as a method for paying her tuition, recalls that the contrast between her on-stage and off-stage lives was so extreme that she started getting confused about her identity, until she quit:
For the most part the experience is behind me. But whenever I hear the music from Flash dance, I see the image of a girl dancing naked in front of rapt, longing men. She revels in the attention. I still can’t believe she was me.
Many strippers “revel in the attention” either because they are exhibitionists or because they have a low opinion of themselves and their appearance. While the public has an image of strippers as glamorous and beautiful, many strippers are insecure about their personal appearance, and strip partly in order to gain desperately wanted confirmation that they are attractive. Far from being self-confident, seductive vamps, O’Brian saw insecurity as the norm among strippers:
Gradually, though, I began to discern our common thread. Not one girl in the club truly liked herself, really believed that she was pretty or worthwhile.
For some, like O’Brian, stripping merely confuses their shaky sense of self-worth and identity, for others it becomes a way to grow more comfortable with themselves.
A lot of people think that women who dance topless are victims, and that may be true sometimes, but personally I’ve found it to be a very positive experience. Of course, it depends on how you feel about yourself and what kind of consciousness you bring to it.
Strangely, some strippers, contrary to the socially conscious interpretation of them as victims, use stripping as a means to express hostility towards, and victimize men.
When I dance topless, I see the way the guys look at me, and I…uh…sorta get this thing inside of me that says, Hell, I’m teasin’ you, and you can’t touch me! I really like doin’ it…it’s a real power trip—it is!
A feminist stripper, Victoria Hodgetts, analyzed the feeling of power over men stripping gave.
I remember thinking that it was like rape, only backwards. The women got to violate the men. There was something angry in these dance seductions. The women tried to get the men as hungry and turned on as possible. Then they left them hanging. They could do nothing. Nothing but sit there in exquisite frustration, eager guilt. It was revenge for all the times that men put their greedy fingers all over women. It was striking back.
The anger towards men and the low self-images which some strippers have contrast sharply with their on-stage image, and show that the image is capable of being enacted even by performers who are psychologically the antithesis of the self-confident vamp who desires all men. Indeed it is a documented fact that in total contrast to the onstage personas of strippers as promiscuous heterosexuals, stripping as a profession includes one of the highest rates of homosexual activity among women of any group studied, including a higher rate than prison populations. McCaghy and Skipper in “Lesbian Behavior as an Adaptation to the Occupation of Stripping” in Deviant Behavior: Occupational and Organizational Bases (1974) found that:
The estimates of 50 to 75 percent are well above Kinsey’s finding that 19 percent of his total female sample had physical sexual contact with other females by age 40. This difference is further heightened when we consider that a large majority of our sample (69 percent) were or had been married; Kinsey found that only three percent of married and nine percent of previously married females had homosexual contacts by age 40.
The conditions of work in strip establishments contribute in a number of ways to make heterosexual relationships seem undesirable: A recurring theme in our interviews was strippers’ disillusionment with the male of the species. This disillusionment often begins on stage when the neophyte first witnesses audience reactions which prove shocking even to girls who take off their clothes in public…she is often gratuitously treated to performances rivaling her own act: exhibitionism and masturbation. There is no question that strippers are very conscious of this phenomenon for they characterize a large proportion of their audience as “degenerates.”
This negative image of men, when coupled with the long awkward working hours and touring schedules of strip shows, and the liberal attitude toward sexual encounters of all kinds found in the profession, all contribute to a higher than normal rate of lesbian preference in the performer’s private lives. This is in marked contrast to their onstage image as ardent heterosexuals.
Most women who strip are lacking some part of the “ideal” in their real lives. Even if they are actually sexually aggressive characters, with considerable social and sexual sophistication, it is still necessary to use the theatrical signals of suggestive costumes, gestures, and dancing to convey these personal feelings about sexuality to an audience. For instance, Danyel, a stripper from Vancouver, preparing an act to present at the first annual Strippers’ Convention in Las Vegas, described her feelings about sadomachochistic sex:
When I was sixteen…I started to realize that I was into different things sexually than the usual normal things…I began to get into wild clothing and wild catalogs…I started experimenting with a few people. I like it. It’s a need in me. I have to have it…And I guess it might be a part of me all my life, it is a part of me…It’s so much fun. Pain can be pleasurable. And it’s nice to receive it, and it’s nice to give it. (pause) I like it. (pause) A lot.
Yet, seen off-stage, and in her “normal” job as a veterinary assistant, none of this sexual kinkiness showed through: She advised pet owners to disinfect the ears of kittens with medicine, she walked to dance class in normal, everyday clothing, and then stretched and lifted weights like any other dancer to prepare for her night job.
In order to create an on stage presentation of her sexual feelings she had to go to considerable trouble to create a series of artificial symbols to depict them. She hired a choreographer/dance coach to help her develop a domanatrix’s dance routine, she chose suggestive music and a studded leather costume to go with it, and tested the color and consistency of several varieties of stage blood in order to achieve the theatrical impression of tearing her flesh open with a whip. The whole act was a totally graphic, yet stylized, vision of sadomasochistic sex. But by nature of the artifice necessary to create it–it could just as easily have been copied and enacted convincingly by someone who did not share Danyel’s personal erotic preferences.
The most amazing example of strip performers who would seem to be totally unsuited to the depiction of an ideal of sexualized womanhood, and yet do succeed as strippers, are the transvestites and transsexuals of the New Orleans strip joints on Bourbon Street. Although these performers are genetic males, their sexual orientation leads them to a desire to be seen as, or even to become, sexually desirable women. Few professions offer more confirmation of a woman’s purely sexual appeal than stripping (few legal ones, that is) so transvestites who are also exhibitionists are naturally attracted to stripping. When transvestite strippers are also homosexual the desire to actually become female has both personal and professional advantages, so some strippers opt for a permanent change in their sexual status. Horrifying as this may seem to some, it has obvious physical and psychological benefits for men engaged in acting the part of a female sexual ideal, as Lisa in Anne Rice’s novel, Exit to Eden (1985), learns:
And a man who looked exactly like a giant of a woman was dancing, if you could call it that, or more truly shuffling back and forth in satin mules, the light flickering on her white satin gown, her heavily made-up cheeks, the spun glass of her white wig, her vapid unfocused eyes. She/he was watching herself in the mirror…the silver boa shivering over her smooth and powerful arms, her whole appearance strangely, undeniably sensuous as it was manufactured, beautiful as it was ghastly. To me anyway. You are all angels. You have transcended everything into the pure theatre of yourselves….Like the giant marble angels in church who hold out the shells full of holy water for us to dip our fingers. Larger and smoother than life, undeniably perfect creatures. They were all of them having operations, the girls. The Angels. They did it piece by piece. She had her balls still, tucked up someplace into her body, and her penis all bound down so that it wouldn’t show when she stripped down to the G- string, and she had breasts and estrogen injections.
As Lisa observes, the added height and muscles of the man, when surgically transformed to womanhood, give them a larger than life quality in their role as female sexual figures. These men are transformed by the stripper’s ideal of female sexuality and use modern medicine, not only to improve their appearance as performers, but to allow their lives to imitate, and even become their art. “You have transcended everything into the pure theatre of yourselves,” is a tribute not only to the image of female sexuality which they have chosen to portray, but to the performer’s desire and effort to become that image in truth. Rice’s use of religious imagery is hardly out of place in such a totally extraordinary transformation and mortification of the flesh in the name of an ideal.
Yet obviously this transformation is theatre, even with surgical help to back it up. These performers are not perfect examples of sexualized womanhood any more than those who began life as women are. They are all normal, real-life people who habitually use theatrical devices like costumes, makeup, music, and dance in order to enact the role of a sex goddess on stage. That transvestites borrow some of these arts in order to enrich their lives as ordinary people is merely a tribute to the extraordinary transforming power of these theatrical devices. The image of the ideal remains invested in the tools used to create it: G-strings are sold in mail order catalogs to women who will never wear them on stage, but use them to excite their lovers; and feather boas and sequined gowns are worn to parties by transvestites who want to share in some of the imagined glamour and sexual power of the stereotypical stripper’s image. Even without the physical presence of one of the performers, the image of the ideal holds power through these devices: fetish-like, the accessories of stripping symbolize the ideal of sex itself.
Where are strip shows going now, and what is their possible role for the future? According to their critics they are hopelessly anti-feminist and going nowhere fast. Yet this form of theatre show no signs of disappearing: strip shows are even spreading into the video market; live strip shows have replaced porno movie houses as the erotic theater of choice in many towns and now strip performances, both male and female are spreading their popularity into Eastern Europe. If this form is so archaic and decaying, why is it showing continued signs of life? I believe that part of the answer lies in the data here assembled. The one fact that seems most evident from the material discussed in this study is that strip shows are extremely elastic, and capable of mutating whenever a change seems to be desirable or necessary to hold the audience. As their audience’s taste changed, all three forms of performance have radically changed the “ideal woman” each one glorified, and each will probably continue to change that image to fit the nature of their audience in the future. This seems to be the main strength of this form of idealizing theatre: it’s mutability.
While many (if not most) performances of fashion shows, strip shows, and beauty pageants, have been reductionist and/or demeaning to women, this does not alter the fact that there also have been performances in these genres which have been positive idealizations of some aspect of womanhood. The “breast-giving-fantasy” strip performance done with foam eggs and breasts taken from a shopping bag described earlier is a case in point. Connecting breasts with their actual food-function by association with groceries and food reaffirmed their primary role in the mothering and nurturing part of sex, and caused the audience to behave “like good little mother’s boys” politely enjoying a normal Oedipal fantasy. This kind of healthy fantasy is a positive experience both for the audience and performer. The fault to be found in a demeaning performance is not with the format of the genre, which has proven to be elastic enough to be used both positively and negatively, but with the use to which the individual performance is put. To criticize the format of these genres because they are predominantly used for sub-standard performances, and occasionally are used for offensive ones, is much like declaring Kodak film is bad because most photos taken with it are ill-focused vacation snaps, and some is used for child pornography. The medium is not necessarily the message, and bad theatre is not confined to strip, fashion, and beauty shows.
Ultimately, the hyperbolic frenzy that surrounds the theatre of the feminine ideal is about sex, and the almost hysterical fear–shared by fashion show audiences, conservative pageant promoters, radical anti-pageant feminists and self appointed guardians of public morals–that the women in these forms of entertainment may be voluntarily ascending this pedestal and asking to be worshiped as sex objects. The violent moral attacks on strip shows and beauty pageants by the moral guardians and feminists, the sexless body image demanded of the fashion model, and the conservative, chaperoned rituals of the beauty pageant, all stem at least in part from this intense fear of female sexuality. The actual problem is that we do not live in a “liberated” society at all, and the theatre of the feminine ideal usually reflects our society the way it is–not as we wish it would be. Theoretically, in a genuinely free and open sexual atmosphere, women exhibitionisticly seeking approval would not seem so threatening, but while we live in a society that strongly represses female sexuality, conservative people naturally see any glorification of female sexuality as an attack on the values of that society.
Radicals are equally right to question whether performances which are tolerated by a repressed society at large are not in fact expressions of that repressed society’s negative view of women and sex. However it is the radicals, particularly radical feminists, who are on shakiest ground when they criticize these forms of performance. For no other types of performance have as much female input and participation, few offer as many possibilities for creating and showcasing positive propaganda images of women, and few offer better opportunities for women to express their own abstracted images of themselves, both sexually and socially. People who wish to improve the status of women should be attempting to take over these forms of theatre and use them as showcases for new ideals of womanhood. Obviously, this is difficult to envision, much less attempt, since the concept of female “beauty” in 20th Century society has primarily been used as a method of controlling and penalizing women for being female, but it is precisely because of this social evil that it is important that feminists use these media to eradicate the view that “defines 90% of women as rejects.” Attacking strip shows and other forms of erotic theatre across the boards as automatically sexist, is to ignore the positive image that many of the better erotic performers try to create.
Even an average stripper usually embodies both an image of individuality and an image of sexual enjoyment: both of which are (or should be) part of any self-respecting feminist credo. Some strippers, like “Danyel” in Chapter III, use stripping as a way of expressing their “deviant” sexual orientation. For others, like Nina Hartley of the Mitchell Brothers Theatre, the chance to exhibit themselves publicly is in itself a form of sexual self expression:
I discovered early on that I had exhibitionistic tendencies. But not wanting to physically endanger myself by doing something stupid on the street or in a bar, I found out about the [strip theatre] amateur night, and realized here is a safe, physically safe place for me to live out my fantasies, and see if the reality is anything like I think it might be. And it turned out that I enjoyed it even more.
Hartley, by stripping, is doing what sensible women’s rights advocates have been hoping women would feel free enough to do for years: expressing her sexuality as she feels it and not the way society says she should. People who object to any strip performance, regardless of its positive personal or political content, have been subconsciously brainwashed by moralists into automatically equating sex with sexism. This is just a new variation on the old sexual double standard. Any doubts that this is what is at work here are crushed when one considers the case of the famous touring all-male strip show, Chippendale’s. No one decries the sexual exploitation of young men who take off their clothes for money; no one intimates that they are symbols of the sexual enslavement of men by women, and yet they do exactly the same thing as female strippers–they are silent, they wear a stereotyped male “character” costume, they dance, writhe, remove their clothing, and do bumps and grinds in a simulated reenactment of sexual excitement.
Chippendale’s male performers show women that one doesn’t have to be a sexist pig to enjoy watching good looking people of the opposite sex take their clothes off, and that people who take their clothes off for an audience don’t necessarily have to be the object of pity. A female caller to a San Francisco talk-show, People are Talking, doing a segment on “The Women of Mitchell Brothers,” brought up this point: “why are we so condemning of women?” (who strip,) she asked, while the Chippendale’s men “are going all over the country while women stick twenty dollar bills in their shorts?!” Annette Haven a former Mitchell Brothers stripper and erotic film star (Autobiography of a Flea) gave this answer:
It’s because men in this society are allowed to have sex and women aren’t. Therefore if women are participating in a sexual industry they get a lot of criticism. Men in my business get asked by people: “Gee, what’s it like to have sex with such a beautiful woman?” whereas the women get asked “How can you do such a thing?” and that’s the societal attitude.
This “societal attitude” has a negative effect on strip-shows in general and on the women who perform in them in particular. Negatively portraying strippers as either immoral tramps or victims of sexual exploitation totally denies them their individuality, and denies the possibility that they work in stripping as a matter of conscious choice between several possible alternatives. This is counter to the evidence found in every empirical study of stripping as a profession, from Skipper and McCaghy to Carey, Peterson and Sharpe. The worst effect of the prejudice against stripping is found in the area of club management. Stigmatizing strip clubs as the preserve of sexist sleaziness, only barely on the right side of the law, seems to have driven out old-time semi-respectable managers like the Minsky’s, and left largely thick-skinned, aggressive, manipulative men in their wake. In the documentary, Stripper, not one manager seen on film seemed to treat his employees with anything approaching respect, despite the obvious talent and intelligence many of them possessed. To draw a Marxist parallel, the means of (theatrical) production would obviously benefit from being put in the hands of the workers. In one case this happened, although only for (touring) “headliners”: the O’Farrell St. Theatre in San Francisco (formerly run by the wacky Mitchell brothers, who proudly claimed to have produced the first all-safe-sex porno movie) “rented” stage space to headliners for a flat fee, and the strippers keep all their own box office receipts. While this was doubtless done to limit the Mitchell brothers’ financial risk, it also insures the artistic independence of the performers, who are only dependent on the audience for approval, not the managers. Not surprisingly, the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell St. Theatre became one of the top strip venues in the country, attracting stars like Hypatia Lee, Tempest Storm and Maralyn Chambers to name a few.
The next obvious step would be for strippers, male and female, to consciously self-produce works designed to enlighten as well as entertain their audiences, in the way that certain porno film stars have created “feminist porn” production companies like Femme Productions and Fatale Films that promote egalitarian sex and lesbian sex respectively.