In this two minute clip, comedian Kate Berlant casually makes the case that women should steal cosmetics because, to paraphrase Berlant, no one should have to constantly pay for their own domination.
In this two minute clip, comedian Kate Berlant casually makes the case that women should steal cosmetics because, to paraphrase Berlant, no one should have to constantly pay for their own domination.
Is there really a clean-cut difference between work and sex work? Is sex work really or always sexual? Are all the other jobs asexual? Where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line? Should we?
These were some of the questions that we discussed in my power and sexuality class this past semester and, like magic, an article appeared asking whether “bikini-clad baristas” at sexy-themed coffee shops are sex workers. Well, are they?
These coffee shops require women to wear bikinis or lingerie. At The Atlantic, Leah Sottile writes that “bikini” is an overstatement. On that day, a Wednesday, the employee slinging coffee wears lacy underwear. It’s their slow day, she explains, because on Tuesdays and Thursdays she wears only a thong and pasties.
“It’s like a really friendly drive-through peep show,” writes Sottile.
School administrators have re-routed buses.
There are some interesting players in this debate, people who sociologists would call stakeholders.
Mike Fagan is one. He’s a politician and some would say that he’s responsible for making sure that city rules match the values of his constituents. He’s pro-regulation, explaining:
In my mind we’re talking adult entertainment. We don’t want to shut down the stands. We want to say, “Look, you either put the bikinis back on, or you move your business to an appropriately zoned area.”
Business owners — at least the ones that own sexy coffee shops — are generally anti-regulation. They’re not interested in relocating their businesses to an “appropriately zoned area,” the sad, skeezy corners of the city where we find strip clubs. One explains that she’s “just selling coffee” and if her girls want to wear a bikini when they do, who’s to say they shouldn’t?
Sex worker advocates are also involved. Savannah Sly, a representative of the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project, argues that bikini baristas are sex workers:
…because their work involves using sexual appeal… Because they may be stigmatized or their place of employment scrutinized due to the erotic nature of the work, I deem it worthy of the label of sex work.
Right or wrong, this is a convenient conclusion for Sly. If more workers are classified as sex workers, than sex workers become more powerful as a group, enabling them to better advocate for better working conditions, more protection, and rights.
The bikini baristas themselves surely have a variety of opinions. The one interviewed by Sottile points out that models often wear as little or less clothing, but no one’s debating whether they’re sex workers.
It’s a fair point. And it gets back to our question — and the question for the cities of Spokane, WA; Clovis, CA; Forest Grove, OR; Aurora, CO and more — where do you draw the line between sex work and not sex work?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible.
Sex is a part of lots of jobs. It’s not a binary, it’s a spectrum. Sex is a part of modeling, dancing, and acting. The bartender, the waitress, and the hostess all sometimes deploy their sex appeal. How much does sex play into how lawyers are viewed in courtrooms or personal trainers are evaluated? Is sex a part of pro sports? The therapist’s relationship with their client? Selling pharmaceuticals to physicians? Heck, even college professors are evaluated with chili peppers.
Maybe the difference is the contact or the penetration? But there are other jobs that centrally involve bodies and some involve kinds of penetration. What about the dentist climbing in your mouth? The phlebotomist drawing your blood? The surgeon opening up your chest? All these things are invasive and risky, but we manage them.
If not the penetration, maybe it’s the stigma? But there are other jobs that are stigmatized, too: undertakers, sewage plant employees, slaughterhouse workers, abortion providers, politicians (only sort of kidding), and many more.
The truth is that the things involved with sex work — emotional vulnerability, intimacy, emotional manipulation, physical contact, health risks, and moral opprobrium — all characterize at least some other jobs, too. So, the only thing that separates work from sex work is sex.
And, this might sound weird but, I don’t really think that sex is a thing that lines can be drawn around.
Is penile-vaginal intercourse sex? Is oral sex? Is manual stimulation of the genitals? Is making out? Is kissing? Is thinking about kissing? Would you offer different answers if I asked if those things were sexual? Would you answer differently if the question wasn’t about what counted as sex, but what counted as abstinence?
Is the penis a sexual body part? The clitoris? The anus? Breasts? The inner thigh? The back of one’s knee? The back of one’s neck? How do you decide? Who gets to?
So when is work sex work? I can’t conceive of an answer that would satisfy me.
So, what should be done about bikini baristas? A strong minimum wage. Unions. Protection from harassment. Sick days. A nice vacation. Penalties for wage theft. Predictable schedules. A nice benefits package. I want all those things for bikini baristas. I want them for all the other “sex workers,” too. I want those things for all workers because the important word in the phrase “sex work” isn’t sex, it’s work.
In the contemporary U.S., individuals choose who to marry based on personal preference, but there is a specific script by which those choices become a wedding day. Not everyone follows the script, but everyone knows it: the man decides to ask the woman to marry him, he buys a ring, he arranges a “special” event, he proposes, and she agrees. Many of us grow up dreaming of a day like this.
But this isn’t the only possible way to decide to marry. A reverse script might involve female choice. We can imagine a world in which, instead of hoping to be chosen, women decide to propose and men can only marry if they get asked. Another alternative script might involve no proposal at all, one in which two people discuss marriage and come to a decision together without the pop question and uncertain answer.
Of course, many couples essentially decide to marry through months or years of discussion, but these couples frequently act out the script anyway because, well, it’s so romantic and wonderful.
Or is it?
Andre M. sent in a clip of John Preator, a finalist on a previous season of American Idol. In the clip, he proposes to his girlfriend Erica on Main Street at a Disneyland Resort. The clip exaggerates the patriarchal underpinnings of both marriage and the marriage proposal. It may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes.
Here it is:
First, Andre says, the spectacle is a shining testament to our commitment to the idea of marriage as an ideal state. Everyone loves marriage! As Andre writes:
A whole rainbow of characters come out of the shadows to push her towards yes, from the smiling Asian janitor, to the African American guy knighted by our hero and his plastic phallus, to the disabled woman who wishes to trade her fate with the bride-to-be.
We are supposed to think: “How wonderful! How sweet! How perfect!” What is made invisible is the fact that, in addition to a potential site of wedded bliss, marriage is the site of the reproduction of patriarchal privilege (especially through women’s disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare) and heterosexist (still excluding same sex couples). But the audience knows that they are supposed to feel elated for the couple and privileged to witness their special moment (whether they feel these things or not).
Second, the public nature of the proposal put a lot of pressure on her to say “yes.” The audience is asked to participate in urging her to agree to marry him (“come on folks, how about a little encouragement?!”). And the performers, as well as the performance itself, create conditions that look a lot like coercion. Could she have said “no” if she wanted to? As if breaking his heart wouldn’t have been deterrent enough, saying “no” would have disappointed the onlookers and ruined the performance. He put so much work into scripting the proposal and it was very clear what her line was. How many women, with less pressure, have nonetheless felt it difficult or impossible to say “no”?
Okay, so let’s assume that Erica did want to marry John and that they will live happily ever after. And let’s also assume that most marriage proposals in the U.S. do not come with this degree of pressure. The clip is still a nice reminder of (1) just how taken-for-granted marriage is as an ideal state (can you imagine her saying, “I love you more than life itself and I want to be with you forever, but marriage, no thanks!”) and (2) the way that the proposal script puts men in the position of getting to choose and women in the position of having to agree or go off script.
Originally posted in 2010.
The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.
And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.
And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).
Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked. Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.
A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.” Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.
“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.
Originally posted in 2010.
Social science bloggers have been buzzin’ over whether drag performance is offensive and to whom. I have been researching and doing drag through a queer feminist anthropology lens for two years. I’ve taken an autoethnographic approach in an attempt to fill the scholarly gap where a male-bodied researcher, specifically a queer one, has lacked the enthusiasm to habitually perform as a drag queen. The motivations for this post easily align with my research as I hope to further develop the trending conversations of drag and its meanings.
Is drag offensive? It’s necessary to specify that this conversation is primarily about drag queening men. This is what most people would think of in terms of “drag queen,” a cisman who dresses as a woman on a stage, which I argue is a limiting definition. Five or ten years ago I would not have to specify “drag queening men,” but today there are genderqueer performers, ciswomen, transwomen – all bodies participate in drag as an expression, and not necessarily while cross dressing. Drag queens embody a range of femininities and masculinities (and sometimes species).
So, are drag queening men offensive? I keep in mind the ultimate queer mantra – both/and.
Looking to literature, this is an argument worked out back in the high Butler days. Esther Newton started this dialogue in the ‘70s and it was clearly closed out by Rupp and Taylor (and Shapiro) in the last decade. There are plenty of lit reviews to read on this [tired] subject.
Drag queening implies an individual who performs and embodies femininities for some kind of audience. Historically, and today, the majority of queens are male bodied. Some may continue this femininity off the stage, others do not. Their identities are assumed to be cis men, but this is incredibly complicated by the fluidity of drag bodies and the politics of the “transgender” category.
Regardless, you have male bodies who are distinctly breaking heteronormative ideas of identity and performance. Drag queening is a subversive outlet for male bodies to participate in gender play, oftentimes exploring femininity within themselves that they have been socialized to fear. Doing drag successfully is “working it” — you don’t give a shit about the patriarchy, your parent’s disappointment, getting fired from your job, or who will think you are date-able. It’s breaking out of boxes. Drag is a display of who you are (or just a part of yourself) and telling everyone to deal with it. If you like what you see, feel free to tip a dollar.
Drag claims the labels “offensive” and “radical” because its goal is to disrupt and show the audience that some identities, especially gender, are more fluid and performed than we think. Drag pokes holes into rigid ideas of gender and sexuality that most choose to ignore. Drag queening men are defiant, messy cyborgs, performing fluid and simultaneous contradictions of femininities and masculinities through their bodies. And of course, there is an entire history of drag acting as an important mode of protest, resistance, and survival for the queer community.
At the same time, drag queens are people who live in the same society that we all do. Drag is an institution that still exists — and always will — within the larger social structures. So, drag queens can be racist, transphobic, homophobic, and even more problematic. The best example for this is the drag queening man who takes her microphone privileges too far, such as a joke about a trans audience member’s genitals.
Drag queening men will often claim immunity under the trans umbrella or argue for the sanctity of comedy, but the reality is that drag queening men do have an underlying rhetoric of transphobia. The reminders that they return to presenting as men after the performance (“This is just a job, I don’t want to be a woman!”) are an unneeded distance created by drag queening men who are afraid and feel an attack against their masculinity. The heteropatriarchy suggests that male bodies who express femininity should fit into a more complicit, fictionally ideal “transsexual woman” category where all parts match behaviors. Some drag queening men respond to this pressure with transphobic masculinity, disastrously reinstating the binary they work to dismantle. It’s also in part to the idea that hegemonic forces continually pressure marginalized groups to create an Other, even if they are part of the same “community.”
Similarly, drag queening men still participate in hegemonic masculinity, and so they may make misogynistic jokes or may think domestic abuse makeup is some kind of “high fashion” (which is the WORST). Drag pageantry can be racially segregated and transwomen can be discouraged through the exclusionary bans of hormones and surgeries. Drag queening men can be soaked in privilege — using the T-slur, blackface, or feeling authority over female-bodied audience members. Most drag queening men have the ability to take off their wigs and makeup to “pass” outside queer spaces.
This in no means is an apology toward these actions, but I feel a stress needed to be made that the tradition of drag queening, a male body performing femininities, is not offensive. It stands as a transgressive act of male bodies deviating from and deconstructing the binary of gender. When drag queening men remind an audience they have a penis, it explodes the heteropatriarchy and dislocates gender from the body. For my own purposes in research and performance, drag is a safe place to explore forbidden femininities, freely navigate bodily inscription, and embrace corporeal versatility.
The tradition of drag queening is not an offensive act, but drag performers may abuse privilege and create problematic messages regardless of their intent. The problems of drag as an institution are the pre-existing racist heteropatriarchal structures that impede upon it. These difficulties with drag are the same hegemonic forces which delve deep into our film, art, video games and universities.
In closing, it is impossible to ignore the reality that groups of people think drag is offensive and no feelings should be ignored. I have no answer as to how this claim of offense can be processed besides our scholarly discussions, but I do hope that drag performers take care to be consciously aware of their privileges and prejudices, remembering their duties as queens who take down the heteropatriarchy one lip sync at a time.
Ray Siebenkittel is a student in the anthropology MA program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They take a feminist anthropologist approach to studying drag performance. You can follow their blog, where this post originally appeared, or meet them on twitter.
Content Note: This posts discusses various forms of transmisogyny and TERFs
Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010
On Tuesday, Lisa Wade posted a piece, asking some important questions about drag- Is it misogynistic? Should it be allowed in LGBT safe spaces? How can pride organizers enforce drag-free pride events, if such an idea is useful? The good news is that many of these questions are already being asked in some circles. The bad news, is that outside of these circles –where specifics are unknown and the cis experience takes centre stage– such questions can lead to some harmful conclusions.
First some basics. Wade contends that a recent Glasgow Free Pride event “’banned’ drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women.” The event didn’t ban drag queens, but rather decided not to have any drag acts perform on their stage, but even this decision has now been reversed. In any case, the initial decision to go without drag performances was not made because of offence caused, as Wade says, but rather because the Trans/Nonbinary Caucus of the event felt that it would “make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”. Wade’s misunderstandings seem to come from having used the Daily Beast article on the matter as a source rather than the actual press release from free pride.
The title of Wade’s essay, and the repeated references to “girlface” in the essay itself, not only misunderstood the critiques levelled at drag, but also conflated blackface and drag. This misconception is appropriative of black struggle- it stems from conflation of the two separate histories, one of which was a major tool in the subjugation of black people across America and another which grew as part of queer (then, gay) liberation in a diverse, working class environment, led by women of colour. Comparing the two of them is highly disingenuous.
It is an argument that is about as novel as it is accepting of trans people’s existence. Sheila Jeffries, among many other TERFs, is infamous for using this line of argument to capitalize on the widespread condemnation of blackface in her efforts to attack trans women. Wade is, whether she intends to or not, using this dog whistle in her essay.
Getting a few facts wrong (Which is understandable if you are not part of these conversations. The Daily Beast got it wrong too and this is why allies are usually asked to take a seat in these debates.) and using terminology that is usually reserved for deeply transphobic arguments are somewhat superficial problems that lay on the surface of a much bigger problem: the centering of cis feelings on trans issues. Wade seems to think that the biggest problem, with the Glasgow Free Pride decision is that drag parodies femininity and womanhood.
While this is true in the general sense, drag is understood in the trans community to be oppressive because of the central conceit of the parody: that the performer, while affecting womanhood, is “actually a man.”
It’s about the bulge in the dress, the errant chest hair and the deep voice from the sculpted body. The fact that they’re “always PMSing” is a joke about how they don’t have uteruses. Their stage names, often punning on genitals (“Conchita Wurst”), act to center not their femininity, but the “failure” to produce a cis femininity. This was the drag that the gay media was insisting be reinstated, and that Glasgow Free Pride allowed on their stage again when they reversed their decision.
Drag is not monolithic –both historically and sociologically, different drags have and do exist– which is why Glasgow Free Pride specifically critiques “cis drag” (drag performed by cis people) as making people uncomfortable.
Many of the drag queens of color who led S.T.A.R. and Stonewall were not people who played a woman on stage or in a bar for a few hours a week, but people who lived their lives as women, and their drag is fundamentally different from that of people who perform in televised competition today.
Maybe these drags belong on a pride. Maybe there are decolonised drags which would be welcome. But contemporary western cis drag isn’t about femininity, it’s about the drag queen’s “failures” to produce an impression of cis womanhood, the upshot of which, also produces a caricature of trans womanhood, seen by society as a flawed womanhood.
Given this, it is possible to see drag as an attack on transwomanhood first and foremost, and cis women more as collateral damage in a long controversy within LGBTQIA+ communities. Glasgow Free Pride understood this, and this is why the call came from their trans caucus, not their women’s caucus.
Writing a post which centers the debate on cis women while spending a minimal time on trans women derails a conversation that should be about the transmisogyny of contemporary drag. It is an issue which is actively causing damage by perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, making pride parades unwelcoming for trans women and other maab trans people.
Wade should rest assured that the “conversation” she calls for is, actually, happening. It happens in trans communities all the time. It bubbled over into the mainstream for a few days, and trans people lost a safe space in a radical pride alternative in the process. What she’s actually asking is that the conversation become permanently legible to cis women by focusing on the minor issues that effect them, rather than the transmisogyny of drag.
I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie. Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.
The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest.
But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.
Here is the R-rated version of the trailer:
What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review, the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination,” for example, because… well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”
“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.
Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.
As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things: body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter. Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem (see this earlier post). It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.”
With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly a nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo.
Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork. And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.
Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.
The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive.
Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order (emphasis mine):
Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness
the degradation of sex — and women
uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.
She enjoys a sexual license
Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men
Lacking . . . old-fashioned sense of shame,
It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer
Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.
This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,
she aims to acquire cultural power
Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics
I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor. Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp: a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.
Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.