Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hear me, I'm graphically yours

I am in the beginning stages of joining a sideshow troupe, directed by someone I've known for many years but been mostly estranged from. These are they, the Sideshow Sirens. It is an all female troupe, with the exception of the aforementioned director/MC. And, because it's me, one of my main initial hangups was around this. Since hearing out his philosophies on the structure and presentation of the group, a lot of my reservations have dissipated, but I still feel that it's important to work through them in text form. I feel similarly about this to how I feel about gogo dancing, which I have wanted to write about for a long time, but never got to the meat of it. Gogo dancing is an extreme conflict of interests for me, but I love it, and that's the side that wins out. But when I intellectualize it, I rarely come to positive conclusions.

So, actually I'll touch on dancing before I get to the sideshow aspect. My problems with it are not about objectification, because I am fully in favor of willful, intentional, self objectification. My problem is that most clubs, including Ruin, use only women dancers. I dislike feeling like one in a group of sexy women, mostly because it makes me feel that I am upholding a gender boundary system with which I do not agree. My solution to this is not a lack of objectification (as it seems to be for many other people who look down on women objectifying themselves), but merely taking away the gendered aspect by putting men in the same position. So the idea is not to eliminate objectification, but rather to...disperse it. Individuals displaying their fabulous sexiness for other individuals is great, but when it's strictly gendered it feels like it's upholding a system rather than showcasing awesomeness. And especially in the goth club scene, aren't traditional standards like this supposed to be subverted rather than upheld?

One of the only strong nightclubs I can think of that consistently had both genders gogo dancing was Miss Kitty's, and I really appreciated that about them. But because Miss Kitty's had a significant gay crowd (as well as straight hipsters, goths, general weirdos; it was a really unique crowd) this really points to the fact that the "male gaze" is still in effect. That's one of those terms that I'm a little hesitant to use because it comes from a line of feminist criticism that, in my opinion, often upholds the binary rather than deconstructing it. However, that doesn't mean that it isn't often relevant, and this is one of those times. What I mean is that the "audience" is inadvertently imbued with a male perspective, and the fact that this isn't done consciously shows how insidious it is. The fact that male gogo dancers are only added in when a significant portion of the crowd is gay really points toward this. This is to say, if male dancers are added where there are usually just women, it might seem like a gay audience is suddenly implied. I don't think anyone would cite this as a reason for not having them, but I do think that it is looming in the back of the general consciousness, making people uncomfortable when they have no right to be. Whereas, does having only women imply that the women in the crowd are gay? I don't think anyone would answer yes to that. Women dancers are non-threatening and historically agreed upon as pleasing to everyone, partly because (and it pains me to agree with this ultra-traditional feminist criticism) men are doing the agreeing, and the fact that this is not a conscious act shows how much of an institution it is. What I'm trying to say here is very straightforward in my head, but I realize it may have come out somewhat convoluted.

I sincerely think that LADead could do well with throwing a couple male dancers into the mix. While it makes sense for "normal" clubs to have just women to uphold the heteronormative system on which their thoughtless social lives rely, it just doesn't make sense within the so-called goth scene. Men and women often dance pretty much the same (that is to say, variation is usually individual or experience-based rather than gender-based), and even often dress similarly. Is there really a fear that male dancers would make patrons uncomfortable, threaten someone's precious sexual identity, or look somehow wrong or boring? I really don't know what the rationale is, other than maybe playing it safe. But the goth scene should not be a place for complacency.

I think Bar Sinister needs male dancers, because it would probably significantly cut down the douchebag crowd. Then again, they would loose a lot of business. OH BURN!

I went through a similar criticism with Rocky about five years back, around the way only female "sheet sluts" were used, and pressured to create a makeout spectacle during Brad and Frank's bedroom scene. I made an epic LJ post about it geared toward cast and regulars, and somewhat surprisingly, people gave it thought and discussion and things changed in a rather natural way. More men were picked, and everyone was still encouraged to go up in their underwear, so it's not like the objectification factor was killed, which it shouldn't be, because it's actually relevant the the spirit of Rocky. Upholding heteronormativity is not.

The irony is that if a significant amount of gogo spots were open to men, that would cut down on opportunities for myself. But I would feel so much better about taking part in this institution when able to. I really enjoy it, and I'm proud to be doing it, but I would be much more proud if it didn't uphold a structure I disagree with. A huge part of the reason that I have longed to be a boy is so that I could have the same aesthetic that I do now, change almost nothing about how I present myself, and severely fuck the system just by going about my business. I would be able to actively change these structures rather than just telling other people that I think they should do something different that doesn't include me. I may have a dark and unconventional aesthetic, but my gender expression is actually very conventional, and I don't like that. I identify with my femininity more than my femaleness, though I have gotten significantly more comfortable with the latter.

But, I came here intending to write about my induction into sideshow. My perspective on joining an all female sideshow group with a sexy neo-Victorian aesthetic (which I must say I'll fit in with very well) is actually largely the same as what I've written above about dancing with all women. I have no problem with the dynamic between the individuals, or the aesthetic of it, or the displays of blatant acts of masochism; the thing I get hung up on is what it implies about the perspective of the audience, and how we are supposed to be seen. Of course, I say "we" like a performer, when realistically I probably won't be in shows for quite a while.

There is, of course, also the issue of being directed and MCed by a man. I'm not talking about my personal relationship to him as an individual, because Michael is awesome, and a great performer and director, and there is literally no weirdness there whatsoever; I'm talking about what I think the audience will see, or unconsciously see. There is something very unsettlingly traditional about a man presenting a group of sexy women. And yet, I feel that by admitting this, I am upholding it. Ideally, it shouldn't matter, and I'd rather discard this opinion entirely. (For what the weirdness is worth, I say this as the girlfriend of a strip club DJ. Who often looks like a woman.) I was thinking, would I feel better about it if the MC were a woman? I don't know. Maybe not. Would I feel better if there were men in the troupe with the same dynamic, stunts, and general aesthetic as the women? Probably. But I don't think it's the troupe that needs to change, I think that I just need to think what I think, and maybe evolve past some reservations that I have.

Having said that there is something unsettlingly traditional about a man presenting sexy women, I realize that sideshow itself is an unsettling tradition. So perhaps, in that particular way, it is fitting.

One thing I really respect about the group is that it's not just a bunch of sexy women doing masochistic stunts; there's a surprising amount of character creation that goes into it, such that it's more like performance art. I've started writing my character, and I've gotten really great feedback, to the point of being asked to potentially help write aspects of the show itself. I was extremely flattered, though I hate the word flattered for no discernible reason. And I have a new reason to publicly use the name Vesta, which pleases me.

Perhaps the most invigorating thing about pushing myself into more performative avenues is that it actually increases introspection, and I can essentially watch myself grow. Pursuing body-based activities does not contradict my brain-based pursuits, in fact, it really gives me fodder for contemplation and writing. This also means that my dissatisfaction with the structures I've mentioned in this post doesn't necessarily come from a place of anger. It comes from having had the opportunity to take part in some pretty unique things, and then filter them through my brain to maybe reach something better.

Addendum: I have since learned that Bar Sinister now has a male dancer, so I must admit that I'm really pleased to hear that, and revoke my snide remark. Except for the part about the douchebag crowd. Unless that is magically changing too.


  1. Not that I ever make it out to clubs these days, but when I did, I would have rather enjoyed male gogo dancers. Heck, I would have enjoyed doing it myself, although I've never been in the kind of shape I would have wanted to be for doing it (even while in the Marines, heh)...

  2. Last time we had a long talk about the direction of the show, the eventual goal of is to be entirely silent (like the Cirque shows) so if we go international it will translate well. I think the primary reason we have a male MC is because it's something Micheal is good at. Last Halloween we performed at a party without him, and Alina MCed for us. At the Villans venue we had a male hawker (to draw the crowds to our performing area)- but that was more someone willing to do it for us, and us happily accepting the talents of a friend rather than the management of a male.

    This is definitely a troupe selling the sexiness of women, and I may be wrong, but as sideshow is traditionally a male dominated performance path- including men, even androgynous men, takes away from the uniqueness that is a feminine show. Imagine (from a "normal" person's perspective) having a boy do the glass walking while I do the staple gun stunt it tells the audience that "we needed a boy to do that part" as if we aren't strong or daring enough to do it ourselves. While I can see your want for both genders aesthetically we lose a sense of feminine bad assry when we have/need men to do our stunts.

    We are also having to sell this to the "normals" which means we have to play by their standards. There is a way we have to market this to make it sell, and while someone like you or me may appreciate the femininity of an androgynous man and appreciate his sexiness and talents the way we would the rest of the girls, there may not be an appropriate place for it with the standards we're confined to. I mean we have to wear full bottomed underwear otherwise we'd lose out on commercial gigs.

    Perhaps with his more artsy troupe- Circus Insidious (where I get to do a nearly fully nude fire dance) having a beautiful boy will fit in perfectly, I just don't know how you'd make non-conventional appreciation work in a conventional performance- the Sirens. (I think I've run on a bit so I'll end it here)

  3. This is a small response to the male gogo dancer section, since I don't know much about sideshows. Boston's best goth club, Manray (long gone, RIP), did have some male dancers and my straight friend Aaron was one of them. It was totally awesome, and wasn't intended for the gay crowd. They still had predominantly women, but it was a welcoming environment.

    So, it is possible, and there are people out there doing it. I think if you could get more women to express interest, that might encourage the clubs to put their money on male dancers.

  4. My appreciation and respect for your voice; your viewpoint; your intelligence; and your emotional honesty grows every time I interact with you.

    I have little to add or comment on your main points; as most of it is towards something I haven't spent much time thinking about. I suspect I will more in the future.

    One singular perspective to contribute. If I were someone running a club; and particularly if I was working on the crappy margins I suspect LA DEAD is, and my goal was to make money; every dollar spent would have to
    a) measurably add to the vibe of the venue, sustaining the event and adding money in the long term.
    b) be directly responsible for generating revenue

    I'm not sure male dancers would occur to me as A or B. A --- do male dancers add enough to a venue to make it attractive for *most people*? B --- do male dancer bring in customers, directly? [Mostly because of gawkers, but also, do they solicit their friends to the venue?]

    (I totally buy that both that perception; and the fact that both may be false are artifacts of the idea that woman-dancers are non-threatening (not to everyone; but that's not important right now.). It might also be a business reality for LA DEAD; they haven't seen a return on having male dancers, and this is a for profit venture for them.) I don't disagree that it's worth changing; but I think the way to do it is to either
    a) appeal to the moral/aesthetic mind, as you have eloquently done.
    b) show how it will further the monetary value of the club to LA DEAD.

  5. It occurs to me that a bar might be convinced to employ male dancers as not only an appealing aesthetic in it's own right, but also as an actual douchebag screen.

    Any dude who is driven away by the presence of male dancers, is probably the sort of dude that you don't want at the club. Not just because you don't like them, but because the presence of this sort of dude in great numbers will likely drive away the crowd that you do want to attract.

    This brings the argument around to dovetail into Riz's musings about aesthetics needing to work hand-in-hand with maintaining the bottom line.

    There's no shortage of places for your typical bro to hang out, but if you can establish a fun bro-free environment, you will likely secure for yourself a very loyal regular crowd.