On my 25th birthday, I went to a strip club.
We were drunk, but not excessively so. I was with a group of my best friends, and we had all just finished law school, and we were exuberant and relieved. It was my idea. I had been talking with one of my female friends about doing it forever, and she was about to move away, and I thought, hey, let’s just all go? Guys and ladies? I have never been a real party animal. I thought that doing something sort of off-the-hook for my 25th birthday would be kind of cool. Because most of my birthday parties have involved my drinking two beers and eating cake and perhaps convincing people that we should play the best board game of all time, Taboo. Internet ferocity aside, people, I am kind of a dork. I am a social homebody. I like to be at my home, or other people’s homes, on the couch, talking. This is my favorite activity.
But not that night.
We went to the Admiral, which is supposedly the “upscale” strip club in the city of Chicago and, in fact, the only one I knew of. It was already probably after 2 am. We paid our cover. We watched the strip show, which didn’t faze me even a little bit. Particularly at the Admiral, which has a stage and theatrical lighting. I’m watched enough pornography in my life to find images of naked ladies writhing around to be pretty banal. And that’s what this was–from afar, in the dark. It was boring, even.
I told my boyfriend I wanted him to buy me a lap dance, and he obliged. I “picked” my candidate, although I don’t remember deliberating very much. She was young, young, young, couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20. And she was sweet, or she acted it. The lap dance was bizarre–I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why I thought I would. It seemed so strange to be just sitting there, doing nothing, while this person rubbed her body all over me. This young woman was gorgeous. She had long straight hair. Her makeup was perfectly applied. She was thin and looked like she worked out a lot. Her skin was incredibly soft. She smelled amazing. She made jokes and was complimentary to me.
When she was done, I asked her how much I owed. She smiled sweetly and said “Oh, it’s 10 dollars.”
I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
Later, as I cried my eyes out on the couch in my apartment and my boyfriend soothed me, I tried to make sense of it. Here was this incredibly beautiful woman, who did everything, everything that a woman was supposed to do to make herself appealing to men. She was thin, she was compliant, she was beautiful, she spent probably hours every day shaving and lotioning and applying makeup and picking out clothes and pouring what was surely substantial cashflow into maintaining her appearance. She was, in a word, perfect. And then, this perfect woman would go to work, and rub her impeccably maintained and beautiful body all over any patron, at his or her request, no matter whether she liked the person or not, for TEN FUCKING DOLLARS? I mean, TEN DOLLARS? Less than I would spend on a pair of shoes. Less than I would spend on a motherfucking hamburger.
I was able to buy access to this woman’s body and (very convincing) pretend affections for less than I would spend picking up a couple of last-minute things at the grocery store. It was worth almost nothing. Less than an oil change. Less than someone cutting my hair. Less than getting a decent tailor to hem a pair of pants. Less than a bouquet of roses.
And that’s the day that I realized we were all the victims of a sick joke. A despicable charade where so much is demanded of women, so much compliance and poking and prodding, so much effort to make ourselves beautiful and radiant and perfect, so much forcing of square pegs into round holes, just so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing. We would be left with alienation from our own bodies, our bodies that we squeezed into stilettos and shaved and waxed and whittled into tiny silhouettes at the gym, always striving for more perfect, thinner, prettier, more alluring. Working so hard to satisfy the cultural imperative toward female perfection–how could we have time for our own desires except to be desired?
Why don’t you love me
Tell me, baby, why don’t you love me
When I make me so damn easy to love
Why don’t you need me
Tell me, baby, why don’t you need me
When I make me so damn easy to need
Latoya Peterson writes about the video that “Once again, Beyoncé’s lyrics define her positive attributes in the context of why she should be desirable to some fool that doesn’t appreciate her. The video, however, is a lot more interesting since, with Beyoncé playing the role of “B.B. Homemaker,” it is openly mocking a lot of the ideals and tenets of womanhood.” I’d go much further than that. I’d say that the song and the video together form a radical critique of femininity, full stop. Because this is what femininity is about: making yourself appealing to men by adhering as closely possible to cultural ideals of perfect womanhood. Her lyric is not “when I am so damn easy to love,” but “when I make me so damn easy to love.” It’s effort, it’s a construct, it is something she does and not something that she is. It is performative.
This song is about the bait-and-switch that women are presented with by the femininity imperative. Because femininity is a lot of work. It is, to be frank, a real pain in the ass. If we weren’t so used to it, we’d realize that the things we are expected to do in service of perfect femininity are basically humiliating. That’s what interesting about this video–Beyonce looks extremely hot and sexually appealing, and she also seems pathetic. She is a caricature of femininity, prancing around the house dusting in an ass-showing french maid outfit and bending and sighing and fanning herself over a car engine. It’s ridiculous. She heightens femininity to an absurd level, showing us how bizarre it is. Of course, we don’t do all of the things she doing at once, thus avoiding the kind of absurd hyper-femininity on display in this video. But by going so far over the top that we smile and kind of pity her, she demonstrates how absurd all femininity is, at its core. Is the femininity performance that average women engage in before a night out at the club really so different from what she’s doing here?
And THEN. The fun part is that, after all that, after all that effort and humiliation, it doesn’t work? After all that? That’s why Beyonce’s indignation and anger in this video is perfect. She’s throwing a tantrum, almost, throwing things around and flouncing on the floor, as if to say, WHAT THE FUCK?? YOU DON’T WANT THIS? I did everything I was supposed to do, I cleaned and cooked and pranced and paraded around in bustiers and wore extremely sexy makeup! And still! Nothing? I played by the rules and the rules were A BIG LIE.
Which is basically what it’s like to be a modern woman. We perform femininity, and not only does it not succeeding in bringing about the desired result, I think it’s actually counter-productive to our real goals. Particularly when we’re talking about relationships—lots of people really do want love, and close and serious romantic connections, and femininity is supposed to help us be lovable and desirable. And sure, it might help in attracting a man, but the culture of performative femininity actually makes it less likely that men will regard us as complete human beings, thus making it almost impossible for us to have real emotional intimacy with them, the kind that comes from being able to regard each other as equals.
What’s more, the body alienation that performative femininity causes in us will make us less able to engage in those kinds of egalitarian relationships as well, because we can’t full engage our own desires. Our psyches have been warped to focus on pleasing rather than establishing our own pleasure. This isn’t just about sex. This is about constantly being a compliant caretaker, or doing the emotional work to keep a relationship working smoothly, of anticipating desires.
I was thinking earlier this week about the psychological effect that performing femininity must have of women, because in its purest form, it is not only humiliating, but kind of disturbing. I am thinking specifically of two videos that are getting a lot of attention, which present performances of femininity by people that are not adult women. One is deemed to be hilarious, the other disturbing.
The first is the Army Telephone video, where a bunch of military guys serving in Afghanistan do a video interpretation of Lady Gaga’s Telephone video. They are dancing around, doing moves that, were women doing them, would be so boring as to not even warrant 5,000 views on YouTube. Shaking their hips and swiveling around. But when men do this? It is hilarious, it is absurd, it is bizarre. You smile and laugh, and you think, man, those men are kind of awesome, because they are so funny! Would you ever think this about women doing these exact same things? You wouldn’t even notice. It’s of a piece with how women move through the world every day and how they are constantly presenting themselves as over-sexed sex objects in pop culture. It’s not even close to noteworthy.
The second is a dance performance by a bunch of 7-year-old girls in the style of Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. The performance has been roundly criticized, including some commenters saying that it is so bad that the adults in question shouldn’t have even allowed their daughters to participate. The way these little girls move their bodies is a surprisingly good imitation of how adult women who are performing “sexy” dance, and people DO. NOT. LIKE. THIS. Even worse, their outfits are supposedly more scandalous than the dance moves themselves. This is despite the plain that that they’re not particularly revealing and don’t show much more skin than a ballet leotard would. The discomfort isn’t because what the outfits reveal, but what they allude to. The lace, the stockings, the corset lacing on the “bodice” are, it seems, too much like what adult women wear when they are trying to evoke maximum sexiness. Doing this dance and wearing these clothes is, in our cultural estimation, firmly in the territory of not appropriate.
I think it’s pretty telling that when femininity is performed by non-standard actors, we either get really uncomfortable or laugh our asses off. It’s not just a bait-and-switch, as the Beyonce video so effectively argues. It’s a bait and kick-you-in-the-face. It’s toxic.