Sunday, December 19, 2010

Big Shoe - CGU Art Show

Burlesque Returns to LA: A Visit to Bordello in Little Tokyo

Dear Reader:

May I share a confession? I yelled “Woo-hoo!” Saturday (12.11.10) night during a burlesque show at Bordello.

Bordello is a charming nightclub in LA that contains, according to the website, the oldest bar in Los Angeles. My friends and I ventured there to celebrate the end of the Fall semester of grad school. I realized that when it comes to sensual spectatorship, I may not be the voyeur I imagined myself to be, rather, I am more of an enthusiast/cheerleader.

This realization led me to wonder if my “ooos” and “ahhhs” might have signaled, (a.) my naïveté regarding the live burlesque show, or (b.) more specifically, my naïveté regarding male-centered-live performance created and performed by women.

Confession number two: Until Saturday, my only experience of burlesque was what I had read in books about the great performers of the past like Josephine Baker and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Actually, the only “women” I had ever seen performing live sporting provocative clothes were, in fact, guys. That’s right, professional and amateur Drag Queens for an AIDS research benefit sponsored by a university. (What is it with grad students and cabaret-style entertainment?) That was a bawdy, night and for a good cause, too.

Not knowing exactly what to expect from a burlesque show outside of an academic institution, I kept an open mind, and discovered that at Bordello, located on E. 1st Street in downtown Los Angeles, the female stage performers enhanced their feminine allure to reveal and display the naked truth about the beauty of the female body. Today's burlesque sirens are thinnish, toned, and quick on the uptake. So, maybe they are not so different from past burlesque entertainers, although they did strike me as more petite and less curvy than the black-and-white photos of follies girls that of days gone by. What more can I say, except all of the dancers looked healthy.


Unlike my experience at the drag show where the focus of the performance was on the art of female mimicry, at the burlesque, I appreciated the vicarious nature of the art form. When watching drag performers, I never got the sense that I was acting a fantasy of dancing in front of an audience. Instead, I was enamored by the lengths to which the guys transformed themselves into women. Their beauty was awesome, and over-the-top.

But while watching the female burlesque dancers at Bordello, I had moments where I identified with them and I imagined myself on stage performing the routines. I also considered how I would need to enhance my own work-out routine, which consists of working with a personal trainer three times a week for resistance training and light cardio. I plan to return to yoga in the New Year, and possibly a dance class.

One of my friends who attended the burlesque with me asked me if I felt empowered by watching the burlesque dancers strut their stuff. I have to say, no. Rather, I felt awed by their confidence. At the same time, I recognized their confidence as a tangible quality that, I too, posses. Is there anyone who wouldn't want to be admired for their beauty, strength and confidence? Ah, but there is the question of nudity.

Maybe the jiggling, giggling, and gyrating of the striptease are but a metaphor for the kind of performance all of us give as we present ourselves to the world. Attention gender feminists: I say "all of us", but that is definitely open for interpretation. Have at it on this board, if you like by posting comments.

As I imagined myself up on stage twirling around a pole, doing the splits, using my abdominals to squeeze and support my body while dangling precariously off the ground, I inhabited the role of spectator. Thus, my internal narrative relative to my own self-perception became part of the experience.

Rather than seeing the burlesque dancers as exploited due to their sex, I saw them as youthful, vibrant, and employed. That is to say, these women were not amateurs, but professionals whose job it was to demonstrate confidence, grace, comedic timing and the intangible quality of sex appeal while balancing on Lucite heels. All of these acts possessed an internal logic and an intelligence, hence, “Woo-hoo,” as synonymous for: “Good job!” or "Hats off!"

I did wonder what other audience members thought about my exclamation.

There seemed to be a near even mix of men and women at Bordello and I was initially a bit confused by this. I thought, this would be more of a women's night. Nonetheless, it was a fun evening and I participated in the burlesque experience with guys who seemed to be appreciative of the art and mystery of the genre.

This place was awash in satiny pink drapery, warmed by the glow of chandeliers with red lights. The men were friendly, yet, not necessarily on the prowl.

Sensing my confusion, one of my girlfriends stated, “I think this place looks like a big vagina.”

Indeed, her comment caused me to think about this space as a space of heterosexual fulfillment – a male-centered space, where women were the focus of the gaze.

Therefore, in this gendered, presumably heterosexual world, my "Woo-hoo!" shout out, may have been read as an unnecessary coda, or a signal of my momentary confusion or general confusion. It could also be read as just a shout.

A word about the speech-act known as the “shout-out” is necessary before I make my next point linking the shout-out to the context of the event.

I see the shout-out as a speech act of enthusiastic admiration addressed to a subject at a distance. The context in which a shout-out is given may be broad and can encompass meetings, musical or theatrical events, as well as sporting events.

Although not typically associated with a particular ethnic group, I have most commonly witnessed the shout-out in the form of a call-and-response speech act that has traditionally been associated with the African-American tradition. Typically, the mood of such a speech act is lighthearted, but the mood can also be solemn. In both cases, the shout-out is meant to convey praise on the subject.

Another way to think of the shout-out is as an auditory turn. The shout-out, like the gaze, provokes. At least that is my understanding, but the basis for my exploration of this speech act within the context of this experience at Bordello is my utter amazement that my provocative utterance was not returned.

I most commonly have witnessed the shout-out at sporting events such as college football games. Typically, at such an event, cries of enthusiasm are echoed by spectators who are expressing joy at a stellar play by members of the team on the field, or conversely, shock at a poorly executed move by one of the players.

I was unprepared to be a spectator within a heterosexual space of fulfillment, a space like Bordello, the very name is synonymous with brothel. Thus, understanding my momentary confusion at being a woman in a male space gazing at other women, provides insight into the role gender places in everyday-life.

As to the topic of how to “appropriately” respond to the female stage performer executing moves in a space of heterosexual fulfillment, I remember feeling a bit shocked that no one seemed to echo my shout-out. With the exception of my two female friends, I had suddenly noticed, that all of the people directly closest to me, were men. At one point, while a song by Weezer played and a girl dressed in a Santa Hat strutted her stuff, a guy turned to be and said, "Weezer is great! It's so good that they used Weezer for this!" To which I replied, "Yeah, I like Weezer, too!" So, that was about all we could comment on, really, as the stripper continued her comical, and artful, routine.

Perhaps that is why my shout-out was met mostly with subdued smiles of amusement from the men who were closest to me. These men, I surmised, were not having the same kind of spectator experience as I was, assuming that they had heard my shout-out in the first place. To reiterate, I was having a vicarious experience. For some reason, I expected that my shout-out would be met by other exclamations by either men or women watching the show with me, but that was not the case.

So, if the men were not having a vicarious experience, what experience were they having? An internal experience?

I gather from their wry smiles, I may have interrupted some internal experience of their own. When I really focused my attention on the totality of the experience, I could see them gazing intently at the stage and the girl on the stage.

Unfortunately, I also found myself falling in to the trap of really wanting to know what the guys who were watching the burlesque show were thinking about … aside from the obvious.

For example, I wonder if when watching a burlesque show, does a guy ever look at the pink, ruched, drapery and pink chandeliers inside the club and think, Ooo, what a lovely job they did with the décor? Or, How does one build the stamina to execute that spin?

Or, perhaps the questions men ponder while women display their feminine essence and sexualized presence are not of a material nature, if questions are pondered at all.

If I, a female, experienced the burlesque vicariously, could it be that men experienced the burlesque indirectly, or via an exchange value (or conversely, a non-exchangeable act) of some sort? I believe so. More research may be necessary, though.

All of this I considered while celebrating the end of the semester at Bordello.

After paying a $13-cover charge, I stepped into a space of old-time grandeur with black chandeliers lit with pink lights, pink satiny drapery, and classic-style-furniture; Western/Victorian, let us call it, or cowboy meets cathouse.

Not knowing what to expect, I initially thought we would be seeing a cabaret, think Liza Minnelli.

But no, Bordello is located in the heart of downtown LA, which means, not Broadway and not Hollywood. Instead, its charm rests in its authenticity, and post-war, funky, yet, humble vibe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wikileaks as Specter of Burlesque and the Fourth Estate Blues

Today's release of Wikileaks founder and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange from Wandsworth prison conflates issues of gender, sexuality, media and the law. In other words, it is a huge cultural studies subject.

Wikileaks is both an echo of past acts of populist radicalism, and a compelling striptease threatening to reveal much more than what the eye beholds and the mind can comprehend regarding diplomacy. This is why it is important that we see Wikileaks as a corpus, that is to say, a body of work. A question to ask, then, is who gets to decide how Cablegate, the latest data dump, will be placed in context? A second question to consider is how will Julian Assange's sex charges impact how Wikileaks' contributions to journalism will be viewed? In the past, Assange has argued that history will vindicate his organization. This could be true.

It is also my assertion that traditional news organizations lack sufficient standards to fairly evaluate Wikileaks as a corpus. Therefore, we in the humanities (especially those of us like me who also used to be full-time journalists) must contribute to this conversation regarding Wikileaks in order to provide the public with a model for how to critically evaluate the Wikileaks catalog. This academic, evaluative exercise must be carried out without fear of recrimination from our United States government.

Additionally, sexuality and gender studies scholars will need to re-engage public discourse regarding issues of gender, power, sexual assault and the law in order to determine what the allegations made about Assange say about the nature of digital media today as a field of opportunity. If it is OK to praise Assange and his team for their maverick approach to revealing key information that will potentially allow world citizens to better grasp the nuances of world politics, is it also OK to critique the seemingly male-dominated fields of media, politics, and software and computer technology for not seeming to take rape allegations against a public figure (one who was in the running for Time's person of the year) seriously?

It is my hope that the charges against Assange are false. If not, then appropriate and fair steps should be taken to secure justice for any victims, such as they might exist and the converse is also true. Should the charges be false, then Assange is owed a public apology. That the charges against him are of a sexual nature, not related to Wikileaks, only enhances the notion that Assange, and by extension, the business he leads, are somehow shadowy and therefore sinister.

Thus, secrets become the very focus of the Wikileaks/Assange story. He deals in secrets, he has become the subject of the secret that always surrounds sex. What is lost is truth, or rather, that the concept of truth will somehow illuminate the complex underworld of global politics and inter-personal relations. Should such world-class obfuscation continue, we will keep on being dupes to the shadowy striptease of international politics, and the lure of sex as a means of producing knowledge (Foucault, 1990) about the subject. Secrets, therefore, are not the end, but only the beginning of the reveal. Educators in institutions of higher learning must shine a light on Wikileaks/Assange and Wikileaks' Assange in order to reduce the level of discomfort some in the graduate community have relative to talking about controversial topics.

What are secrets if only details? Wikileaks’ Cablegate fascinates and dominates international news in part because those who are intrigued by the inside of international politics and diplomacy are drawn to the art of the reveal. Thus, Wikileaks is both a temptation and a provocation. The existence of the organization as an alternative to traditional news media outlets is telling. Wikileaks will change the way international news is covered, and the way international diplomacy is practiced. Transparency is becoming a trend.

As the news media and the political establishment face criticism for having been co-opted by the industries of advertising and entertainment, in addition to the political establishment, it remains to be seen for how long Wikileaks will remain outside of this submission to authority and to the lure of the dollar. Thus, Wikileaks provokes the question: Who needs to embrace capitalism? This question depends upon an understanding of history and echoes Jacques Derrida’s (2006) question, “How can one be late to the end of history?"

These are just some of the questions we emerging academics will discuss during several forums related to history, civil rights, and the gaze this spring at Claremont Graduate University's School of Arts and Humanities. Check out our blog, The Drive: The blog of the CGU Cultural Studies Student Executive Committee, for more details.

Julian Assange's incarceration in Great Britain was not a result of his Wikileaks activities, but rather accusations made by two women, of rape, sexual assault and molestation in Sweden. The Swedish court is asking that Assange be extradited to address these allegations. However, as everyone who has been following this case understands, the timing of these charges is suspect. The underlying message is that publishing documents that were deemed to be under the purview of a government will be met with not only an attack on one's character, but also an attempt to affix a label to your name that will brand you as deviant.

It is important that we separate the man at the center of this blizzard from the chaos he has created while at the same time understanding that Julian and Assange and Wikileaks are organic products that are part of a historical context and therefore Assange and Wikileaks are complex systems. They are not easily reducible.

Easy is the tendency to objectify a person or a thing, all the better to manipulate it to the will of the one wielding power.

That is why it is imperative that academics become a model resource for encouraging the public to take a stand against the lazy, traditional media. Academics must reinvigorate the masses; they must become the temporary vanguards of the Fourth and Fifth estates, of which the mob (defined as those unaligned with the aristocracy), the press, and the blogosphere are thought to be members.

Lastly, it is also important that educators encourage students to critically engage with the world in an effort to produce substantive discourses of tolerance and understanding for all to decipher without fear.

Finally, for an article relative to the discussion about rape, Swedish law and the Assange case, read Jessica Valenti's (Fri. Dec. 10, 2010) article in The Washington Post, "What the Assange case reveals about rape in America."