Well I’m back from the dead. Banging out the rough draft of the thesis paper took some serious focus but it seems to have paid off: my advisor said it was “bold, cutting edge and powerful”! If it’s so strong, then why do I still feel scatterbrained when I try to explain what I’m doing to other people?
I took a third visit to Sue’s. And a fourth. And a fifth.
On my third visit I found mostly Hispanics in the club, where one man and a woman made out at the bar. The songs “No Worries,” “Magic” and “Ayy Ladies” blasted throughout the club as couples enjoyed lap dances and bartenders walked around in their pink cheetah leotards with black hi-tops. One couple I met had been married for 6 years, making trips to Sue’s for dates. I felt conflicted, gleefully engaging in the culture but laughing from discomfort at the language in the songs and from other patrons used around me.
On my fourth visit a girlfriend from work accompanied me. It was another quiet night. I felt a little awkward this time as my outfit was more modest than in the past, dressed in a loose black top without any cleavage exposed. The outfits I wear as a female patron are still having a big impact in the way people interact with me in the club, despite the fact that I’ve been there a few times. NO ONE came to sit beside me at the bar this time-in fact, my whole side was empty besides me and my friend. Scrolling through the Sue’s Tumblr blog only hours before I saw how different the women in the club advertisements looked from the women actually dancing on the pole. Not surprisingly, the women in the ads looked glossier, but they also looked dramatically larger, toting basketball butts virtually nonexistent among the girls on staff.
Last night was dead. But then again, it was a Monday. I managed to fool a stripper in to thinking I was a stripper myself, entering with a skin-tight leopard print dress from H & M. About seven to eight patrons sat at the bar. I considered buying myself a lap dance as I have yet to knock that one off of my to-do list. I was about to do it when a Vivica A. Fox-look-a-like started flirting with me from on stage, but I eventually decided I was too tired, stuffy and broke to make it into the champagne room. Another night, I told myself.
You know how there are songs you hate but just can’t help singing and dancing too from hearing them so many times? That happened to me tonight. Ugh. “Bow Down” by Beyoncé came on and before I knew it I started bobbing my head. As I listened to the lyrics I wondered how she would have interacted with the strippers. How she would have danced among them. Would she imitate their moves? Would she pose as a man and tower over them? How would she dress?
Writing my thesis I spent hours thinking about the oppositional gaze, arguing that women in strip clubs and hip hop had more power attributed to them because they had the power to look back at the gaze that had so long abused them, questioning the images and assumptions that had been imposed upon them in the past. There I was, taking on the male gaze myself while also taking on an oppositional gaze, looking critically at the power relations and sexual displays that were happening to and around me.
However, I was surprised at how uncomfortable I still felt. Have I been kidding myself? I started to think. If I of all people still feel strange paying for performances at strip clubs, why shouldn’t other women? Where’s all of the power I was bragging about in my draft? Some dancers look bored dancing to the same songs they had heard all week. Others fought relentlessly for male patrons’ attention, hiding their annoyance when a competing dancer gave a man a lap dance while he was sitting watching behind the bar.
And then I saw an older white man off to himself in a corner that seemed as uncomfortable as I was, turning his head from one side of the club to the other, looking at everything but the stripper directly in front of him. He had a dollar bill in his hand but it seemed he didn’t know what to do with it. I suppose possessing the male gaze is one thing but being comfortable enough to embrace it is another, regardless of what lies in your pants. In other words, men and women alike have the ability to take on the male gaze—the gaze that has created what is to be seen as beautiful and hideous, proper and indecent for all of society. But how you use the gaze and complicate it with your personal experiences and insight is another. It is the kind of gaze that others should see and understand.
I could sit there and move my eyes from the carpet to the TV screen. Or I could lay my eyes on the beautiful woman wriggling in front of me, conscious of the ways she can manipulate the men inside the club to give her the money she needs for the week, conscious of the ways I could employ her sensuality and manipulative ways into my own sexual and professional life. Figuring out the specific ways of doing that is what comes next.