By Savanah Mandeville
For this month’s Fem Lit segment of Julie, I really wanted to include a passage from Caitlin Moran’s 2011 memoir, “How to Be a Woman.”
The book, in my opinion, is modern day required reading for feminists. It has sold well over a million copies, so it’s likely you’ve already read it or at least heard of it. I admit, my recent reading of the book was way overdue. But hey, better late than never, right?
Every single chapter is brimming with thought-provoking wokeness and gut-busting jokes, but Chapter 9: I Go Lap-dancing, stands out to me. I mean, at times I was laughing so hard it hurt.
The chapter also pointed out some fairly obvious things about strip clubs that I think often go over our heads. They certainly did mine. I’ve always been a little bit confused about what to think about strip clubs. Certainly, I would never shame a stripper, and hell, I myself have gone to strip clubs and had a decently good time when alcohol was available. As Moran points out in the passage below, a strip club simply isn’t fun for women without booze to try and force some fun out of it, which really makes it strikingly clear why Sensations in Galena is so creepy. They do not serve alcohol because the strippers there get completely naked. It’s some kind of law. So, clearly, Sensations is not a place for fun and joy and women – it’s a place for lonely men to see some vaginas.
But anyway, I’ve been personal friends with strippers, I’ve never really had that big of a problem with any of my boyfriends going to a strip club (granted, I’ve never been with a guy who cared all that much about going … or so they said), I love burlesque shows, I’m for legal prostitution, I’m all about “free the nipple” and whathaveyou – so when it came to strip clubs, I’ve more or less shrugged them off.
Having read this chapter, though, I can see how strip clubs are detrimental to society and feminism in a way that other forms of nude expression – such are burlesque – are not. It was extremely eye-opening. I never want anything to do with a strip club again and I’m about to book plane tickets in order to see a burlesque show (because, unfortunately, there aren’t any in SWMO). And I’m in no way afraid to be a giant scrooge about strip clubs from here on out.
The parts below in bold, I found especially striking.
Without further ado, here is the passage:
Context: Caitlin and her coworker Vicky go to a strip club in 2000 for journalistic reasons. In the mid-90s & early-00s strip clubs, which had kinda gone out of style, are becoming popular again. Caitlin and Vicky are covering the phenomenon for the magazine they work for. They are accused of being prostitutes and are thrown out.
“We know your game,” they said. “You’re prostitutes.”
Apparently, we find out – during the next five minutes to increasingly shrill inquiry – “rough looking” Russian prostitutes often frequent the club, picking up trade from clients whose taste is for disappointingly “normal”-looking women rather than strippers. This is what the bouncer is convinced we are. He knows we aren’t strippers – so we must then, ergo, be prostitutes. Vicky in her cardigan, and me in my sneakers.
In his world, woman-type runs on a binary system: stripper, whore. There aren’t any other kinds of women. Certainly not 20-something columnists hoping to milk 1,200 words out of the event, while caning the free bar for all it was worth.
Once again, I was apt to dwell on what a thunderingly inappropriate and rude relic the strip club is.
“I TOLD you they were arenas of abuse,” I said to Vicky, as we sat in the doorway smoking a fag.
“But we’ll both be able to get a column out of it,” she replied, eminently reasonably.
And so, really, we were not losers at all.
But, of course, in a wider sense, we were. For – given the context of the entirety of history up until about yesterday – the idea of clubs where women take off their clothes in front of men is stupendously … impolite.
After all, history is very much “99 percent women being subjugated, disenfranchised, and sexually objectified.” Women have – there’s no two ways about this – really been shafted by the simple fact that men fancy them. We can see that men’s desire for women has, throughout history, given rise to unspeakable barbarity. It’s caused terrible, terrible things to happen, because men have been the dominant force, with no rules or checks on their behavior. It’s no exaggeration to refer to “sexual tyranny,” and “total bullshit.” Within living memory in this country, men could rape their wives: women were not seen as a separate sexual entity, with a right of refusal. Germany only criminalized the practice in 1997; Haiti, in 2006. It’s still legal in – among other places – Pakistan, Kenya, and the Bahamas. Even in countries where it has been criminalized, there is an unwillingness to actually prosecute: Japan and Poland have been particularly criticized by human rights organizations for their low conviction rates. There are large parts of the world where women are – with either the explicit or the nonexplicit sanction of the state – deemed little more than souped-up sex toys for men.
In this context, then, it’s obvious that a lap-dancing club is as incongruous in a modern society as a “Minstrel Show!” or ads for “Jew Beating – Sticks £1!”
Of course, the big difference here is that if a white man suggested starting a cleaning agency that only employed black cleaners, dressed up in plantation clothing, and being excessively cowed and deferential to their employers, the entire world would be up in arms.
“What are you playing at?” they would shout. “We’re not going to bring back a ‘light entertainment’ version of slavery! Not even if it’s for a ‘social experiment’ reality documentary on Channel 4!”
But what are strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs if not “light entertainment” versions of the entire history of misogyny?
Any argument in their favor is fallacious. Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university. This is thought to pretty much end any objections against strip clubs, on the basis that – look! – clever girls are doing it, in order to become middle-class professionals with degrees! Ipso facto Girl Power!
For myself, I can’t believe that girls saying, “Actually, I’m paying my university fees by stripping” is seen as some kind of righteous, empowered, end-of-argument statement on the ultimate morality of these places. If women are having to strip to get an education – in a way that male teenage students are really notably not – then that’s a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.
Are we really staying that strip clubs are just wonderful charities that allow women – well, the pretty, thin ones, anyway: presumably the fatter, plainer ones have to do whatever it is all the males students are also doing – to get degrees? I can’t believe women supposedly in higher education are that stupid.
One doesn’t want to be as blunt as to say, “Girls, get the fuck off the podium – you’re letting us all down,” but: Girls, get the fuck off the podium – you’re letting us all down.
But you know what? It’s not just the questions of girls letting other girls down. Strip clubs let everyone down. Men and women approach their very worst here. There’s no self-expression or joy in these joints – no springboard to self-discovery, or adventure, like any decent night out involving men, women, alcohol, and taking your clothes off. Why do so many people have a gut reaction against strip clubs? Because, inside them, no one’s having fun.
Instead, people are expressing needs (to earn money, to see a woman’s skin) in pretty much the most depressing way possible. Sit in one of these places sober – as Vicky and I did initially; it took almost SEVEN MINUTES for the first bottle of complimentary champagne to get to the table – and you see what’s going on here. The women hate the men. The stripper’s internal monologue as she peels off her thong for the twelfth time that day would make Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory” look like “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston.
And the men – oh, are you any gentler or happier? You cannot put your hand on your heart and say – as the music starts up, and she moves toward you – that you have kind feelings toward these women. No man who ever cared for or wanted to impress a woman made her stand in front of him and take her knickers off to earn her cab fare home. You spend this money on nothing at all – addiction to porn and strip clubs are the third biggest cause of debt in men. Between 60 and 80 percent of strippers come from a background of sexual abuse. This place is a mess, a horrible mess. Every dance, every private booth, is a small unhappiness, an ugly impoliteness: the bastard child of misogyny and commerce.
On the high street, a strip club looks like a tooth knocked out of a face.
In 2010, Iceland – with a lesbian prime minister and a parliament that is 50 percent female – became the first country in the world to outlaw strip clubs for feminist, rather religious, reasons.
“I guess the men of Iceland will have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale,” Gudrun Jonsdottir, who campaigned for the law change, said.
I don’t think that’s an idea that will do men, their bank balances, or the women they come across anything but good. Men don’t HAVE to see tits and fannies. They won’t DIE if they don’t have access to a local strip joint. Tits aren’t, like, vitamin D or something. Let’s take our women off the poles.
But pole-dancing classes, on the other hand, are fine. I know! Who would have thought! There seems to be no logic to it! I know a lot of feminists regard them as a sign of the End Days – evidence that the world is not being run by some misogynist Illuminati, intent on weakening our girl-children with stripercise classes at the local gym, 11:30 a.m. – but that’s cearly not the case.
I mean, on a practical level, they’re totally useless: there any poles in nightclubs, girls. You’re going to spend hundreds of pounds learning all these “sexy” moves and then never have anywhere to show them off in public, save the grab-pole on the bus. If you think that’s a fair exchange for all your time and money, then best of British.
But practical considerations to one side, there’s nothing contrary to the rules of strident feminism in gyms and dance classes offering pole-dancing lessons, and women attending them. In a world of infinite possibility, why not learn to hang off a pole by your pelvic floor? It probably will be more useful than learning Latin. For starters, I bet it’s incredibly useful if, when decorating, you need to roller a tricky corner on a landing. And who’s to say that, in the event of an apocalypse, being able to take off your knickers in syncopation to “Womanizer” by Britney Spears won’t make the difference between the quick and the dead?
Just as pornography isn’t inherently wrong – it’s just some fucking – so pole-dancing, or lap-dancing or stripping, isn’t inherently wrong – it’s just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun – because they want to, and they are in a place where they won’t be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing, and something that might very well end with you learning against a wall, crying with laughter as your friends try to mend the crotch-split in your leggings with a safety pin – then it’s a simple open-and-shut case of carry on, girls. Feminism is behind you.
It’s the same deal with any “sexy dancing” in a nightclub – any grinding, any teasing, any of those Jamaican dance hall moves, where the women are – not to put too fine a point on it – fucking the floor as if they need to be pregnant by some parquet tiles by midnight. Any action a woman engages in from a spirit of joy, and within a similarly safe and joyous environment, falls within the city walls of feminism. A girl has a right to dance how she wants, when her favorite record comes on.
And, frankly, from a spectator’s point of view, it’s better than watching people line dancing or doing the Macarena.
For exactly the same reason, we shouldn’t have a problem with burlesque – lap-dancing’s older, darker, cleverer sister. Yes, I know: it’s stripping in front of men, for cash. Given the patriarchy and all that, I can see how many would say, “But that is like eschewing Daffy Duck and loving George Costanza from Seinfeld. They are both essentially the same thing.”
But, of course, they are not. The difference between a burlesque artist putting on a single show in front of hundreds and a stripper on an eight-hour shift going one on one is immense: the polarity between a minstrel for a bored monarch, playing whatever song the monarch asks for, and U2 playing Wembly Stadium.
With burlesque, not only does the power balance rest with the person taking her clothes off – as it always should, in polite society – but it also anchors its heart in freaky, late-night, libertine self-expression: it has a campy, tranny, fetish element to it. It’s not – to use the technical term – “an easy wank.”
Additionally, despite its intense stylization of sexuality, it doesn’t have the oddly aggressive, humorless air of the strip club: burlesque artists sing, talk, and laugh. They tell jokes – something unthinkable in the inexplicably po-faced atmosphere of a lap-dancing club, which treats male/female interactions with all the gravitas of Cold War-era meetings between Russia and the USA, rather than as a potential hoot. Perhaps as a direct consequence, burlesque artists treat their own sexuality as something fabulous and enjoyable – rather than something bordering on a weapon, to be ground, unsmilingly, into the face of the sweaty idiot punter below.
Because, most importantly, burlesque clubs feel like a place for girls. Strip clubs – despite the occasional presence of a Spice Girl, ten years ago – do not. Watching good burlesque in action, you can see female sexuality; a performance constructed with the values system of a woman: beautiful lighting, glossy hair, absurd accessories (giant cocktail glasses; huge feather fans), velvet corsets, fashionable shoes, Ava Gardner eyeliner, pale skin, classy manicures, humor, and a huge round of applause at the end – instead of an uncomfortable, half-hidden erection, and silence.
Burlesque artists have names – Dita Von Teese, Gypsy Rose Lee, Immodesty Blaize, Tempest Storm, Miss Dirty Martini – that makes them sound like sexual superheroes. They explore sexuality from a position of strength, with ideas, protection, and a culture that allows them to do, creatively, as they please. They are dames, broads, and women – rather than the slightly cold-looking girls you see in strip clubs. Their personas embrace the entire spectrum of sexuality – fun, wit, warmth, inventiveness, innocence, power, darkness – rather than the bloodless aerobics of the podium.
Do you know what the final rule of thumb is with strip clubs? Gay men wouldn’t be seen dead in Spearmint Rhino [a London strip club] – but you can’t move for them in a burlesque joint. As a rule of thumb, you can always tell if a place is culturally healthy for women when the gays start rocking it. They are up for glitter, filth, and fun – rather than a factory-farm wank-trigger with – and I can say this now – very acidic house champagne.