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Welcome to the Institute for Beyonce-related Cultural Studies

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.

42 Comments

  1. Jennifer S. wrote:

    Yes! Yes! I watched that video approximately 10 times thinking this exact thing, but not nearly so eloquently.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  2. JfC wrote:

    This is a great article. I think the effects you’re talking about, being goaded to perform femininity perfectly, but even perfect femininity being devalued, is related to a couple other concepts. First, the idea that the work we put into being beautiful should be hidden and effortless. How many times has Hollywood or even literature presented us with a ‘vain, shallow’ woman as a villain. Her primping is viewed as deceptive and frivolous. Eventually she’s bested by another woman who’s just naturally radiant and doesn’t need to put as much effort into looking gorgeous. You can see parallels to it in society’s view towards plastic surgery. Sure, women that show signs of visible aging and/or larger body sizes are gross and sexless, but plastic surgery to correct these “flaws” is fake and vain. Guess you should just be a natural, effortless goddess. People talk out of both sides of their mouth all the time on performative femininity.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Jennifer wrote:

    This is really smart and brought together a bunch of different threads of thought I’ve been having recently.

    And I know it’s largely besides the point, but I can’t help wondering if the lap dance was cheaper because you were a woman. Or maybe I’m also shocked at the low price and trying to find excuses for it.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Seth Gray wrote:

    That little kids video squicks the shit out of me. Nothing drives home the sexualization of our culture like seeing kids with no grasp at all of their sexuality “goin’ hard” on Single Ladies.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  5. EM wrote:

    You took this post and [AMAZING GAME-WINNING SPORTS FEAT] with it. Holy fucking shit. You nailed this to the wall. I could watch the replay for hours, I think, and not stop being amazed.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  6. maggie wrote:

    That story almost made me cry too.

    I gotta say, though, that the (probably cis)male soldiers? I enjoyed it cause they look like they’re having a whole bunch of fun putting it together.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  7. Eneya wrote:

    Wow… I had completely different attitude towards the video and it’s meaning.
    Very, very good article and it presented very interesting way of seeing the video.
    Thank you.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  8. Stacy wrote:

    I know the little girl video is kind of creepy, but all I could think about was how well those girls were dancing! I mean, I took dance classes when I was a kid and we could never have pulled something like that off.

    Also, I’m not surprised by that ten dollars at all. People tip less than that most of the time, and waiters work just as hard. And most retail workers get paid close to minimum wage. When you think about it, ten dollars for probably about ten minutes isn’t that bad. I actually think this could be a result of viewing sex work/stripping differently than other kinds of work, even though someone who works in customer service does degrading things as well, and probably gets paid less for it.

    Not to take away from your point about performing femininity, because I agree with you, just hoping to add to the discussion.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  9. Nymeria wrote:

    This is amazing, and great, and awesome, and lots of other adjectives that would never do it justice.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  10. Anna wrote:

    This is a fantastic article, and as some of the other commenters have already pointed out, you do a great job of bringing together so many of the thoughts I had while watching Bey’s video (over and over and over again).

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  11. Geek wrote:

    The girls are really talented. I wished I could do more dancing in imitation of adult females at their age (but instead, ho-hum, normal ballet).

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  12. Beth wrote:

    It’s the “When I make me” wording that makes this song so striking to me. On top of all the work it takes to produce desirable femininity, we’re also supposed to make it look effortless and natural (at least to men)–our femininity is supposed to be a polished final product, not something that is constantly being constructed through a lot of damned work (check: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2010/04/15/the-work-of-making-femininity-look-effortless/). Beyonce infuriated acknowledgment of all the work it takes (and the fact that it’s still not enough to make her lovable) is why I watched this video on a loop when I first saw it.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  13. boats and birds wrote:

    Wow. Normally I get annoyed when people comment with the basic “this is a great article!” thing because I feel like they add nothing to the discussion – but now I realize that sometimes, you just have to say that awesome writing is awesome writing. Silvana, I am so impressed, and legitimately STOKED about the fact that you’ll be posting regularly, aka I get to read brilliant things like this all the time.

    Honestly, this makes me feel so much more inspired and aware and angry and hopeful all at the same time. Thank you so much for articulating what needs to be sung from the freaking mountaintops.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  14. jennygadget wrote:

    “I enjoyed it cause they look like they’re having a whole bunch of fun putting it together.”

    hmmm…the funny thing is, I thought the same thing of the 7 yos as well though. It made me laugh and cry and the same time. I found it sad for the same reason I think many adults find it obscene. But…it was also clear that the girls were totally into it. It makes me wonder how much of it was the kids and how much of it was whatever adult helped them, bc I very much remember doing shit like that with a bunch of friends just for fun when I was about 7-12.

    Also, those girls are wicked talented. Which again, makes the video both incredibly fantastic and sad at the same time. bc OMG! they were totally rocking those moves! at 7!!!! But, god, how crappy is it that all that talented is expected to be focused towards being “sexy” to the exclusion of all else.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  15. Wow. I just watched the Army one (I’m behind on internet memes usually by a few weeks, so I think this time I’m actually ahead of my curve for once). That was really awesome. I agree with Maggie that it looks like they really had fun with it. My other main thought going through my head when watching it was worrying that they’d get in trouble for looking/acting gay. Well, and that a lot of the scenes didn’t look much like what I remembered the video looking like (though I liked the stop hand/double clap whatever thing they did, they seemed to do a good job with getting it all down).
    BUT, that said, I’m sure that most other people would find it FUNNY instead of just happy-making, because yeah, when we see men performing femininity, that’s the only option that our culture really allows (other than disgust if they are too good at it or seem too serious about it).

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  16. sam wrote:

    So many amazing things about this post. But for me this:

    so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing

    I’ve recently realized how much time I spend hating myself. I’ve internalized all of it. Without primping, I’m ugly, and even with primping I’ll never be pretty enough.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  17. Alicia wrote:

    The next time somebody is confused/dismissive when I mention gender as a performance, I am going to direct them to this post. Brilliant!

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  18. Amanda wrote:

    When I was 10-years old, my best friend and I, during a sleepover at my house, performed a dance, complete with costumes, for my Mom and a visiting male family friend, to a tune that I could play on a recorder. I remember feeling upset about how much skin my friend chose to show. It was like she was wearing a bikini. She even had a sexy dance. I thought it was gross that she would dress and dance like that in front of the adult man. Now, as I think about Silvana’s description of the performance of femininity, it strikes me that my problem was that on some level, I understood that sexual dancing is perceived as a degradation. That’s what upset me, at least, when *I* encountered my very first strip club. (It had also been my idea.) The way the men would sit back, their palms clutching the air, hoping for a bit of ass as a dancers would grind down in front of them – the looks on the men’s faces. It was a disturbing, sweaty wham of reality. The performance of femininity is a degradation, and our differing reactions to the videos, for example, fulfill and reinforce that idea.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink
  19. Gnatalby wrote:

    I love the video for exactly the reasons you laid out. I also think that having Beyonce look like a miserable, unraveling mess is amazingly effective at undercutting the cheesecake of the video.

    If you look at this video and just think, “Yep, there’s Beyonce looking sexy” there’s something a little creepy about your sexuality since for half of it she’s crying or passing out on the floor.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  20. Kate wrote:

    Yes, I had the exact ‘right’ reactions to those videos – I found the guys hilarious (and kind of brave?) because they looked like they were having fun, and the girls really fucking disturbing.

    I had this moment when I was watching a video posted here, a while ago. At one point the female dancers were just blatantly presenting parts of themselves to be oggled. And now, I am not dumb. I know that is the point of dancing in film clips. But I sort of felt like maybe we could all PRETEND it was for another reason and come up with dance moves that COINCIDENTALLY put women on display and yet also sort of looked like dance moves. As the caption on the video of the girls says ‘If you just look at them dancing you will see that they are good dancers!’ But what does that even mean, in that context?

    And Beyonce doesn’t just say ‘I make me so damn easy to love’, she also says ‘there’s nothing about me not to love’. Sexy but not too sexy or you’re a slut, independant but not too independant or you’re a ball busting bitch, loving but not too loving or you’re clingy. You don’t gotta just have it all, you gotta have it all a the right time and place, in the right ratios.

    The imagining a man doing something thing is a good trick. Unfortunatly (?) I hang out with some men who WILL wear skirts and heels out – and it;s only sometimes a costume event. This brings a whole bunch new layers to the event.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  21. Phryne.F wrote:

    I’d avoided the single ladies 7 yr olds video, because when I read about it it filled me with a type of dread… but watching it then in light of your post just made me think: those girls are awesome dancers. Like, REALLY awesome. I was, in lieu of a better word, awestruck watching them. It makes me sad that these girls are doing EXACTLY what is being asked of them, and dancing the shit out of it, and it’s not good enough. These young girls’ amazing talents are being disregarded under the outrage over what they are wearing. This is common, no? Common that women/girls are remarked upon more for what they are wearing than what they actually do/think/feel.

    The costumes are not good, it is true. Particularly when coupled with some of the more suggestive dance moves. But wow, they are incredible dancers.

    Thanks for the post Silvana. It was moving and thought-provoking.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  22. zzita wrote:

    what does it say about me that i didn’t find the guys foolish, or the little girls disturbing?

    what struck me about the men was how uninhibited their movements were. the plump guy in particular, is so flexible, and, as we dance ppl used to say ‘in his body’ that he could have quite a career doing…whatever it is that men with that talent and bodytype are allowed to do. stand up comedy?

    the little girls, they were the ones that i felt brought home the artificiality of feminine performance. shaking imaginary boobs, taking poses that made them look like they had hips when they don’t yet.

    but neither group seemed nearly as absurd as the women in non-tongue-in-cheek music videos do. to me, anyway.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  23. RMJ wrote:

    This piece is frakking awesome and INSPIRED ME to be less ashamed of wearing things that are comfortable but which I feel guilty/embarrassed to wear in public, like Crocs, because they are not pretty enough.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  24. T. wrote:

    As I read this, I was actually nodding at my computer screen, and it reminded me of a charming anecdote.

    I recently turned down sex that I very much wanted because I hadn’t shaved any part of my body in two weeks. I told this dude my reason, and it basically blew his mind. “I don’t care, please believe me, I don’t care,” he whined, again and again.

    But the problem was that I care. Certainly, most women probably care less than I do, and I know it’s a personal problem, but I’m sure I’m not alone here. I’ve found that most men legitimately don’t give a crap, especially past a certain age (we’ll call that “freshman year of college”), but that’s part of the double-talk: outside of the bedroom, straight cis men are supposed to pretend that they have disdain for a less-than-perfect performance of femininity. Many straight men will claim that they would not like to have sex with a hairy lady on her period – that would be gross.

    But turn those same men down for those same reasons, and suddenly they want to take it back – they were lying before, please believe them! The truth is that most of them would rather have sex with a woman than perform “straight male,” and it’s so very silly that those two things can contradict one another.

    In conclusion, my main point is that I love Beyonce and this article. Thanks for writing this Beyonce article that I loved!

    Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  25. Amazing post. Brava.

    Your comments about Beyonce’s frustrations at performing femininity and it still not being enough remind me of my own frustrations in my late teens and early 20s, as summed up in an article I wrote: “How Sweet Valley Ruined My Life”.

    I was perplexed by the fact that I’d been told (if not explicitly, then certainly implicitly) that if I was blonde and feminine and a “perfect size 6″, I would be loved, and yet even as I worked to achieve this ideal, all it did was show me what a crock it was.

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  26. Mockingbird wrote:

    I think I may have finally forgiven Beyonce for that heinous “Cater to You” song. But, as much as I am loving “Why Don’t You Love Me,” we’re still talking about a singer who is a product of other people, not herself. Her father manages her career, her mother dresses her. It’s interesting to me how similar her look is in this video to hers in “Telephone,” like working with Gaga has maybe freed her to be a bit more conceptual and less the perfect R&B queen. I remember reading interviews with Beyonce when that Austin Powers movie she did was coming out, and she seemed to be finding herself, trying different musical styles, enjoying the afro she had for the film. Few months passed, and she was primped and ironed back into perfection.

    The video may be about making yourself perfectly feminine for a man visually, but I think the song is even sadder. The verse about being smart, but he doesn’t care about that? This is about a woman who has everything, but is shoving down all the things she loves about herself to please a man who still doesn’t want her, who is “just plain dumb.”

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 4:19 am | Permalink
  27. mulierosity wrote:

    What Boats and Birds said. Amazing piece of writing.

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  28. anodyne lite wrote:

    When I was a sex worker I loved having female clients- they usually tipped better. Sex work was a lot less ‘humiliating’ than a lot of other jobs I’ve had.

    I’m with you on the problematic nature of gender performativity, and your analysis of Beyonce’s song/video is spot on…but sometimes sex workers get really sick of everyone’s “pity” and sympathy. It often comes off as condescending- as if we couldn’t possibly make choices for ourselves that make sense for us, so you girls who know better just have to feel sorry for us. All women who identify as female perform their gender- not just sex workers. Save your tears for yourself, maybe? The sympathy-for-strippers gambit reminds me a lot of when the teenage virginity brigade “pities” women who “give up” their precious maidenhood before marriage.

    Also, I know a lot of strippers and other women who’d resent the idea that men are buying “access” to dancers’ bodies. That language comes a little too close to sounding like rape apologists’ justifications for why strippers get assaulted, to me. Exotic dancers perform for men, they don’t give men “access” for a fee.

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  29. Sam wrote:

    Hey -

    interesting perspectiv – here’s a perspective that is less about performative femininity and more about economics.

    Before I get to that I would say that you have a point that – extreme – versions of performative femininity may make it more difficult to be perceived as a complete person, simply because one element of that person’s personality is amplified over the rest. That said, it’s also a great screening mechanism, I’d say: if a man can treat a woman who does perform femininity in this way as a complete person, and is still also sexually attracted, he may an interesting specimen.

    Back to economics -

    “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.”

    My experience with this kind of service is rather limited, but I once talked to a prostitute who had written a book about her life and who had offered sexual services for both 20 Dollars and 20,000 Dollars. One difference is obviously time invested, but the main problem, I suppose, is a rather segmented market.

    I suppose you don’t really like the argument you kind of propose – that there should be a premium on perfection – and, I’d say there really isn’t much of a premium because the market is segmented in a way that only differentiates for such criteria within each segment: Kind of a local optimum.

    I’m pretty sure that the same kind of service can be sold for very different amounts of money depending on the social segment you’re selling to. If this perfect woman would get dancing jobs in a market segment that would find it demeaning to themselves to have someone dance for them for that amount of money, she would likely be able to add a zero.

    And within each of these segments, beauty may be a secondary source of differentiation, but the harder thing would be to enter the market at a different point. I mean, what is the essential difference between a 3,000 Dollar a night escort and a 300 Dollar a night escort? Education? Another language? It’s simply access to a market in which a different payment structure has been established and is accepted and has become part of the service itself.

    Sure, beauty is important. But without market access, beauty doesn’t help.

    “Pretty Woman”, anyone?

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  30. Jen wrote:

    I really appreciate Anodyne Lite’s comment, because I had some of the same hesitations about your reaction to the stripper. I found out (and grew to appreciate) Tiger Beatdown because of your confessions about slut-shaming, and in some ways, I worry that your sympathy for the woman you encountered is a manifestation of the same attitude. I agree with Anodyne that your grief (regarding gender performance and its oppressive bait-and-switch), but I am concerned about the extra step of projecting humiliation on a person who may (or may not; we don’t know) feel empowered by her performance.

    Monday, May 17, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  31. Duck wrote:

    …the culture of performative femininity actually makes it less likely that men will regard us as complete human beings…

    Loving this post. I wonder, though, how much of the disdain for performative feminity comes directly from its (assumedly universal) artificiality, rather than its femininity itself–that is, the fact the women do it. To what extent does taking examples of performative adult feminine sexuality out of their usual context just highlight the ways in which society is uncomfortable with…stuff that is usually associated with women? :/

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  32. of making many books wrote:

    Amazing, thank you Silvana!! So many parts of this really hit me, especially: “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.” !!!!!

    Literal, overly revealing and long-winded personal example of this: when I was 19 moved in with a boyfriend who was 27, we’d been off-and-on since I was 17, we had such cool intellectual conversations about big things etc etc. After we moved in together, he started doing things like buying me lingerie/stockings/pumps that look just like Beyoncé’s in this video (which is the shit, by the way), calling me “slut” during sex, getting me to say I’m his slut, etc. This sounds plainly awful now but I just bought into it because I so deeply subsumed his desires of me into my own. When he started cheating on me/leaving me for a non-white, glasses-wearing, dark-haired, smaller-chested girl, he shouted at me, “BE A PERSON!” I.e. I was no longer a person (though of course he took no responsibility for my objectification/dependency). It’s like he got exactly what he asked for, and then was disgusted by it; “the rules were A BIG LIE.” I’ve started to wonder if maybe being white, thin, light-haired, and busty contributed to it– according to him I “looked like a porn star,” I happened to fit the model where perfect performative femininity = degradation on that same token.

    Happily, now I can analyze all of this and can understand my own desires as an actual person! This, times a thousand: “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.”

    p.s. I wish I could say that he was a sicko creep exception, but he is currently racking up scholastic accolades at Berkeley. Toxic indeed…institutionally pervasive. Enroll me in the Beyoncé Institute asap, please!

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  33. Miranda wrote:

    This post is literally a work of genius.

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  34. Kendra C wrote:

    I 34th the sentiment that this is an outstanding post! So many perfectly phrased thoughts; I’ll definitely read it again and again.
    And: the stripper. I’d love to see a post/discussion about this in particular. I agree with Anodyne Lite that your telling of the strip club story removes agency from the stripper, and elides the super-complex reality of sex work. I’ve gone to strip clubs, many times, and enjoyed the watching the dancers mightily. What I didn’t enjoy was some of the men who were also enjoying watching the dancers. Not all of the men, but some of them really really disturbed me. Perhaps part of what’s upsetting is that strip clubs are seen as females performing strictly for males. In some locations, though, like Mary’s and the Acropolis (both in Portland OR), the crowd is mixed and the attitude is different.
    More talk about sex work and feminism, please! And awesome post, Silvana.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  35. Bakemaster wrote:

    This is a compelling article, Silvana. Re: femininity as a construct, you might find Margaret Mead’s “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” interesting.

    JEN said, “I am concerned about the extra step of projecting humiliation on a person who may (or may not; we don’t know) feel empowered by her performance.”

    And if she feels empowered, what then? The dancer’s feeling should be respected, certainly. But what if you feel that her profession is inherently coercive? It may not be enough that the sex worker *feel* good about sex work, if the profession is inherently coercive and harmful to its participants. I can’t claim to know that this is the case, but it’s this line of thought that keeps me generally uncertain how I feel about sex work. Circumstances definitely vary widely – and some are definitely coercive. Are they all? If not, which ones? Pretty sticky question. I don’t have the answer.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  36. Sady wrote:

    @Bakemaster: We don’t do that here. Assuming authority over sex workers’ experiences, and saying that you can say “what it means” better than they can, if you are not a sex worker, ist Verboten on Ye Olde Tiger Beatdowne.

    Friday, May 21, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  37. Cass wrote:

    There are a lot of interesting points in this piece, but you make so many assumptions here about the performance of gender and the reasons for it. I, for one, LOVE the performance and rituals that go into producing femininity. I like painting my nails, shopping for dresses and makeup, doing my hair. I certainly don’t find it humiliating, disturbing, etc, and i feel pretty insulted that someone would feel those things FOR me. Do I do it for man’s approval, as you suggest is the endgoal of performing femininity? Of course not! No girls I know do.

    (And what is the alternative to performance via fashion/appearance? Should we all choose the least ‘man-pleasing’ outfits? Ride the first wave far, far from our high heels?)

    And as for that stripper, you paid 10 bucks for a performance. Trust me, she’s in on the joke. She’s not there to win husbands with her ‘primping,’ she’s there to make money, and she’s going to make a lot of it at $10/song. What she makes in three minutes I make in an HOUR.

    Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  38. That Girl wrote:

    This post is amazing, and well-written and so clear that I shared it with my brother who is starting to understand. Your eloquence and wit literally makes my life easier.
    I would totally enroll at the Institute for Beyonce-related Cultural Studies

    Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  39. roesmoker wrote:

    Yes, performing femininity is extremely degrading – see Twisty:

    http://bit.ly/aWQcE0

    and

    http://bit.ly/cyr4pi

    Monday, May 24, 2010 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  40. buttermellow wrote:

    I, too, agree that this article is thought provoking and spot on in many observations.

    However, I would also write some words of caution. Absolutely by no means do I deny that many women (and men, let’s not forget) perform a role they consider to be desired by society/men/women, etc. I myself struggle with depression stemming from never feeling “enough”–pretty enough, thin enough, talented enough, kind enough, considerate enough, the list goes on. Often I strive to portray an image of myself to the world perfectly tailored to fit society’s mold. Of course, I will never achieve this, as I am 5’2″, 170 pounds. Even now typing, I automatically began to justify the reasons for my weight (uncontrollable health reasons, back problems, etc), which simply further proves how deeply I’ve embodied the prejudices of society.

    That being said, though, I am a very self-aware person, and I know the difference between attributes that are me and those which I have imposed upon myself. The perfect woman in my society is the perfect mother, perfect cook, perfect dresser, wears perfectly applied makeup, perfect student, and loves sex (but of course not too much). Well I love children, I love cooking, I enjoy dressing well, I like experimenting with different ways of decorating my face, I love my studies and learning, and I certainly love having sex with my boyfriend. From the outsider who doesn’t know me and hasn’t talked to me, it would look like I was putting on a performance in assuming these traits. But that’s not true. I do these things because they are *me*, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t.

    Too often people who do actually enjoy aspects of what we call “femininity” are criticized for bowing down to men and merely performing for the outside world. But mothers who don’t want to miss their babies’ childhoods are very different than mothers who are forced to stay home by society’s strictures. Sex workers who work only for the money (for school, perhaps) are very different from those who see no problem with it and view it as another job, who in turn are very different from those who feel liberated from their community’s taboos on expressing sexuality, who in turn are different from those who are convinced that this is the only way that they will become a more perfect person.

    Basically what I’m trying (successfully?) to say is that while generalizations do help in pointing out the iniquities of our society, it is a vast, vast fallacy to assume that merely because a group of people act in the same way that they necessarily have the same reasons for doing so.

    Monday, May 24, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink
  41. polarcontrol wrote:

    Do I do it for man’s approval, as you suggest is the endgoal of performing femininity? Of course not! No girls I know do.

    C’mon Cass!
    This actually reminds me of myself, having internalised this girly position and trying to make it all “I like it!! really!” and that’s all.
    I think I did that for a long time cos it’s fucking depressing to think of the reality of the whole thing.
    Well, irrespective of your feelings, that’s not all there is to it. (I mean think of the history of the feminine aesthetic, and where it’s all coming from today and the beauty/fashion/etc business) And read again Silvana’s post.

    I, too, “like” performing femininity, I would say genuinely, even. But still, I see where it’s all coming from and realise that much of my liking femininity is because society, on many levels, rewards me for doing it!

    Monday, May 31, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  42. Esme wrote:

    I never thought this would happen, but you’ve caused me to start buying pop music. Beyonce probably owes you a few dollars now.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

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