Friday, August 6, 2010

Women and The Gaze

There is something inherently disturbing to most women about erotic dance and the women who perform it.  Some of this disturbance stems from an overall discomfort with sex and sexuality, which then gets translated into judgment of the women who are more comfortable with it.  Some of it, though, comes from the uneasy sense that to engage in such overtly sexual behavior is to risk being objectified.  In objectification, the gaze of the audience (usually male) regards the women who are dancing as tools to be used, as a means to an end rather than an artist who is sharing her talents and gifts.  The common thread among all forms of erotic dance, from temple dancing to striptease is that there is almost always a watcher, and that watcher is male.  Helen Thomas describes this phenomenon in her book “The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory”: 
The female is the object of the ‘male gaze’ and the viewer (male or female) is entreated to see her through the male look.  The woman in film [or dance] is objectified and rendered passive by active power of the male gaze…

Feminist critics are concerned with how women can transcend this passive “to-be looked-at-ness” , as is the everyday woman.   In other words, how can women resist being rendered passive by the male gaze?  And can they instead, look back at the men? 
This is exactly what the women in exotic dance do.  They look back.  There is nothing passive about the way in which exotic dancers receive their audience’s gaze.  Lucinda Jarrett makes the argument that one of the things that keeps erotic dance in the grey area between the formal and informal arts is the blurry line between the performer and audience.  Anita Berber, who began performing nude in 1918 in cabarets in Germany, was known for “looking back”:
[She was known]… for combining her nakedness with a powerful expression of her emotional integrity.  She carried the creed of her art into her private life.  Her uniqueness was in the beauty of her body that dared to look back at the audience.  She lashed out at members of the audience who were not watching her as she wanted to be watched.

La Goulue, a famous can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge, “…would stare greedily at the crowds, absorbing the desire that shone in their faces, which turned pale under her insolent gaze.”   These women are far from being rendered passive by the male gaze.  What distinguishes them from being objectified by the male gaze is their willingness to participate with their audience and, in effect, look back at them, to challenge them.  There is tremendous power in being able to own one’s body and sexuality so forcefully and confidently.  This power, and the pleasure women take in displaying their sexuality is unfortunately precisely what earns them the label “slut” in American culture.  We don’t like women who do that sort of thing.  We either denigrate them or we pity them as victims of low self-esteem or of abuse.  We assume that they take no personal pleasure in their actions.  And if they do, then God help them – they need saving.
            This concern about the objectification of women is connected to the stigma of the “slut”.  Merri Lisa Johnson argues that traditionally, women who have openly displayed their appetite for sex or their willingness to engage in sexual behavior have been judged as having loose morals and therefore being “bad”.  In this context, “stripper sexuality” which is characterized by a heightened sensuality, could be considered non-normative sexual behavior, like homosexuality or bisexuality.  This open sexuality often gets pigeonholed as dysfunctional, or the unfortunate result of childhood sexual trauma.  The common cultural perspective on stripping or erotic dance is that it takes something away from a woman whether it is self-respect, self-esteem or freedom.
"We might argue, in contrast, that it is mainstream culture that takes something -our sexual freedom - away from us, and stripping can, in some cases, give it back.  In Pat Califia’s introduction to an anthology of forbidden fantasies, a contrast is drawn between the American cultural hysteria over sexual abuse, defined as incest, pedophilia, rape and other egregious acts of sexual aggression, versus a different kind of sexual abuse, defined as sexual panic and the withholding of information about sexuality.  As part of the sex radical segment of feminism, Califia, along with Amber Hollibaugh, Carol Queen, and other feminist sexual educators, redefines abuse to reveal how it is endemic to American cultural constructions of sexuality in its common prohibitions on speech, knowledge, and experimentation.  From this point of view, it is possible to invert the usual hierarchy of strip clubs and mainstream American institutions of sexuality like family church and marriage.  Whereas sociologists and psychologists have historically approached the stripper as an abuse victim, perpetuating her abuse by working in the sex industry, one could make an equally valid argument that nonstrippers - those who are uncomfortable with public nudity, those who confuse lack of modesty with a lack of self-respect, those who perceive explicit sexual talk as inappropriate outside the bedroom or the monogamous couple - are also abuse victims, learning these psychological and social cues within a strict sexual economy that prohibits the free play of pleasure."

This argument is similar to the one Barnaby Barratt  makes in his book “Sexual Health and Erotic Freedom”, in that it suggests that sexual phobia is so endemic to our culture that we are unaware of the lenses through which we view sexuality and how they color our perceptions.  Both the stigma of being objectified and the stigma of being viewed as a slut not only interfere with women’s perception of others who are able to transcend these labels, but restrict them from enjoying the full spectrum of their sensuality and connecting with their erotic power.  And an understanding and connection to our erotic power, as we know, is an essential part of a healthy female psyche.