Poles, Power and the Everyday Woman

I went to a strip club for the first time Friday night. Here are some mental notes I made within five minutes of walking inside:

Lesson #1: Never go to a strip club without singles.
Lesson#2: Never go to a strip club with a tote bag.
Lesson #3: Unless you’ve got the crew and the cash, don’t sit at the bottle service table. You’ll just look lonely. 

In all the fourteen years of living in my hometown, it took me twelve of them to realize that the neighborhood strip club was located yards away from town hall. Nightlife in the suburbs isn’t really…nightlife…so thus far none of my experiences partying it up at 1:00 in the morning as an adult have been in good ole Murdaville. Hot chicks, live music and flowing alcohol? Sure, I’m down for a night of dancing at SOB’s. But jiggling cellulite, overpriced drinks and flying wads of cash? Not exactly my scene. Sue’s Rendezvous was a name that went through one of my ears only to seep through the other—never to be one of my hangout spots in town. I wouldn’t have even seen the flashing neon lights against the ivory brick façade at night if I didn’t pass by during a ride back home with a friend on New Year’s.

But when I was throwing around ideas for my senior thesis I knew I wanted to write about something dealing with women, sex and power—three of my favorite things. I just didn’t know how to contextualize it. After a ten minute brainstorming session with my professor and some classmates of mine at Fordham, I found my topic: implications of (black) women in hip hop’s strip club imagery. Some questions I outlined in my thesis proposal:

Does hip hop strip club imagery ever truly put women in power, despite the fact that it is overwhelmingly seen as oppressive to females? Does strip club imagery have implications of rape considering it’s common placement of men in power over women? How do strippers themselves feel their experiences in their profession interact with this imagery? Even with hip hop’s undeniable popularity and its extensive amount of content referring to women working in strip clubs, how much does this imagery and these themes associated with it actually resonate with hip hop’s audience?

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My crappy view from my bar stool.

The idea sat with me for weeks, pushing me to read a passage here, watch a debate on hip hop rhetoric there. But I knew I wouldn’t have really delved into my topic until I’d actually made it into a real strip club. So I convinced myself to put aside my psych midterm and head out to Sue’s. Just for a half hour, I thought to myself. Just to get a look.

As I first walked in the lobby I could hear the music and laughter while I was greeted by a security guard and attendants collecting the $20 cover charge. The guard put me through a full body pat down, even taking my fedora of my head while letting the two men that came in behind me go inside without even so much of a glance. It was so dark I barely noticed the metal detector I walked through once they finally let me in.

To my surprise, there weren’t only woman on the poles—there were women everywhere, making up at least half of the people in the club. Throwing money, giggling at strippers, dancing in their bar stools and rapping along to Jay-Z lyrics. The only women that didn’t look like they were having fun were the strippers themselves.

After bitching in my head about the $7 ATM fee (I lost all of my cash at the door) I bought myself a Corona, got cozy in a stool and took a good look at the swinging legs and plastered smiles. I could do that. Ooh—no, I definitely couldn’t do that…Ugh…I’d never even want to do that…How did she get so high on the pole? Do you have to train to be a stripper? Do strippers get to practice on the poles when customers aren’t around?

Songs like “Blow the Whistle,” “Nobody’s Business” and “Rack City” blared from the speakers with the DJ’s awkward come-ins on the hooks. I sat listening closely to the lyrics while gawking at the shapely women, marveling at the fact that some of the songs being played didn’t specifically reference strippers or strip clubs, but their words about “making it clap” and excitement over the “bitches and the drinks” perfectly set the scene.

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Inside the dancers’ makeup and dressing room.

One of the strippers shyly grinned at me as she walked past me behind the bar. I thought to lift my Corona to acknowledge her but my attention drifted to her bouncing breasts and the black g-string sitting halfway down her hips. With another look around the room I observed the men with the singles in their hands. They didn’t look nearly as excited as the women beside them. They simply stuck their G-strings where they pleased, pausing every now and then to take a couple swigs.

Why are there so many women here? I thought to myself. Surely I’m the only one here to do participant observation. Why is this so enjoyable for women to watch? Do they feel they are somehow different than the women dancing before them? If they do, why?

Everyone has something to say about the old debate on whether or not hip hop degrades women. But I wonder how many people stop to make the connection between hip hop’s rhetoric promoting the male gaze through music just as strip clubs capitalize on the male gaze in public spaces. Or how ordinary women themselves feel about those “degrading” and “objectifying” images in hip hop music when they are encouraged-even empowered-to rap the lyrics, throw the singles and pat the shaking backsides. And if the connection between the hip hop’s male gaze and strip clubs’ male gaze is as strong as it appears from what I saw tonight, what do these themes mean for black women in and outside of the strip club?

Mental notes I made on my way to the exit for next time:

  1. Wear some stilettos.
  2. Go H.A.M. on the hair and makeup.
  3. Find a bodyguard. Maybe Gary can help me out with this one.
  4. Come back on a Friday or Saturday night. People might be more talkative if they’re more tipsy and riled up with the mid-weekend rush.

Friday night I walked in dressed like a college student: crimson turtleneck, sensible suede ankle boots and a black skirt that came down about an inch before my knees. I’m curious to see how differently people will react to me if I’m dressed like a stripper that came in on the night when she didn’t have to work.

After this weekend, I’ve decided to take my professor’s advice as my official mantra for the rest of the semester: don’t cut corners on an idea this big.

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