Friday, September 01, 2006

a vegas nudie show, or, my exercise in feminist masochism.

now i’ve done it. i haven’t even gotten into a discussion of seeing La Femme, a “celebration of the artistry of the nude” at the MGM Grand in vegas, and i’ve already said something that i need to explain. when i say that it was an exercise in feminist masochism, i recognize this can only be applied to myself with certainty. i know there are lots of sex-positive feminists who would not have batted an eye at the thought of going to a nude revue; hell, i’m sure there are sex-positive feminists in those nude revues. and i’m surely not going to get into whether or not i consider myself a sex-positive feminist at all, because that’s a hall of mirrors that i don’t particularly feel like skipping down today. so anyway, suffice to say this is just one feminist’s take on her first experience seeing a naked woman, on stage, as entertainment.

i’m honestly not even sure how it came about that we decided to go. my parents were going to go to one of the cirque du soleil shows, but decided against it, and then there was some consideration of other options. BoyCat and i weren’t originally planning on going to any shows, given the highway robbery pricetags, but it turns out there are half-price, day-of ticket kiosks in vegas, too! imagine that! so, having agreed the night before that La Femme looked interesting, those ended up being the tickets MomCat and SisterCat came back from the ticket booth the next morning. naked ladies it was!

i approached the evening with equivalent levels of curiosity and skepticism. while i was no big fan of the striptease motif in general, i was also intrigued by the way this show was positing itself as the Artsy Nudie Show. it had some cred where that was concerned; La Femme originated over 50 years ago in paris, where it is still running today at the famous Crazy Horse saloon. for the show’s 50th anniversary, they inaugurated the vegas version, which is staged in an almost-exact replica of the Crazy Horse in paris, with trained ballet dancers who have all performed in the original venue. so this wasn’t some flash-in-the-pan, tits-and-ass bonanza slapped together for the benefit of drunk conventioneers. this show had a history, a background, and a theory – the idea that “L’Art Du Nu,” or “the art of the nude” was not merely nudity for nudity’s sake, but an artistic creation based on the female form.

i was there, essentially, to see whether i bought this line.

in short, i didn’t. but did i enjoy myself? yes. before i started writing this post, i was trying to figure out how, or if, one could reconcile those two things. and i was realizing that i didn’t buy what they were selling (in theory, that is – i did drop $30 for the ticket) because i’m a feminist, and my personal feminist convictions don’t line up with what the show was presenting. and honestly, the fact that i enjoyed it in spite of all that was an un-feminist thing to do. it wasn’t actively anti-feminist, but it was un-feminist. and i see that and accept it, because you know what? when you grow up in a culture that is so often un-feminist (and also anti-feminist much of the time), when you’re steeped in that and weaned on it and you live it every day, in the end you’re going to find yourself enjoying some un-feminist things (for more, see my shoe rack, and how i’m inexplicably drawn to those sex and the city reruns on tbs). this is not the end of the world. so i’m glad i went and sat in a red velvet chair and drank a $10 martini and watched a show with naked women in it. i had a good time. but i also noticed a few things, and the feminist in me would just like to take a minute to point them out.

one, the “art as woman, woman as art” thing skeeves me out, period. the program book for the show actually trumpets this as bernardin’s (the creator of the show) highest accomplishment, as if this kind of fusion is ever truly possible. you can dress the idea up in as much high-flown language as you like, but it’s just another way of saying women should be looked at, women are objects, women are raw material with which men can fashion their artistic creations. (and we’re not getting into a “but men can be objectified too!” debate, because it’s a matter of numbers: as the guerilla girls so famously noted, “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections [of the Met] are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”) and i’m sorry, but folks, this whole motif is just tired. art as woman, woman as…zzzzzz.

and really, if there’s one question i’ve been chewing on since seeing La Femme, it’s the question of high and low art in general. because we tend to think of stripclubs and erotic dancers as practically the lowest form of low art, no? i mean, many would laugh to even label it “art.” and then here’s this show proclaiming that it has “elevated” the female form into “art”? where exactly did these naked women, in their supposed ascent, cross the line from low-art jokes into high-art muses? really, at the end of the day, aren’t boobies on stage just boobies on stage?

you know, it’s funny. there was one act in the show that was a male magician, doing a little cutesy mimed card trick number. he had on a full black suit. mid-way through his act, he took off the suitcoat, much to the amusement of the audience. this was the only moment in an hour and a half show filled with nude women that elicited hoots and cheers from the audience. the only one! this intrigues me in a number of ways. is it because we can only think of a disrobing man on stage as humorous? as play-acting? but men hoot and cheer for other women disrobing in other shows, so what gives? i think it was because La Femme billed itself as such a serious, artistic show, and people adjusted their expectations accordingly. clearly, the breasts in this show were not to be hooted or hollered at – they were to be considered, intently. you were supposed to watch closely, and ponder whether the left breast represented Truth and the right one Beauty, or vice versa.

which, really? is pretty ridiculous. this was naked women, dancing, singing, tromping around on stage in thongs and nipple tassels and heels. let’s call ‘em like we see ‘em, ok?

i think that’s why, of all the numbers in the show, the ones that i enjoyed the most were the ones with a wink and a nod - a wink that showed an understanding of the nature of a naked woman on stage, a nod of collusion with the audience in the spectacle. one number, called but i’m a good girl, had one nearly-naked woman dancing around poles and through beaded curtains, singing about her jet-setting, man-servicing ways. however, each verse ended with that great trap-door of a title, “but i’m a good girl!” this was great, in that it served to infuse the whole number with a bit of meta, with the absurd contradiction of a topless woman doing high kicks while proclaiming her innocence. (and can i just say, the high kicks? holy shit. these women were dancers, i knew, but this woman was astounding. picture a woman doing a full split on the ground, then stand her up vertical, and you can start to picture it. one minute her foot is on the ground, the next, it’s 180 degrees away, like her hip is on a pivot. the first time she did it, i literally gasped out loud.)

ok, the second point (i am wrapping this up, i swear) that unnerved me was the way these woman all looked alike. this was not surprising in the least, but seeing it, taking it in, was just such a visceral reminder of the way we fetishize a female form that is so extreme, and so far from what most women experience in life. the show gets points for not showcasing breast implants, but the woman were all still thin, tall, not too curvy, and from what i could tell, white. beyond that, though, it was like they all had the same measurements, the same proportions – like they were all the same woman, really. there was one boudoir-themed number where the women all wear short, bleached-blond wigs, and after a few moments i was taken aback by how i could not tell one apart from the other. there were no distinguishing characteristics, at all, anywhere. they were like a dancing fembot army. if there was ever a visual representation of that ideal to which 99% of women will never live up, this was it.

and this impossible ideal is, ultimately, what i was left with after seeing the show. true, i talked with my family about the different numbers, which ones we liked and which ones we didn’t, and i pondered a few issues and questions seeing the show raised for me. but the next day, after coming back up to the room to change, i caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as i was climbing out of my clothes. the emotion i felt in that split second could only be described as shameful disgust. i mentally chastised myself for feeling that way - i turned away from the mirror and refused to let myself dwell on it. but that moment, and all other moments like it, is why i don’t plan on seeing a nudie show again.


Toast said...

I don't get it. When I watch a football game or basketball game (not so much a baseball game ;-)) and see these perfect male specimens with 0% body fat and shredded arms and chests and abs, I think "Damn, it'd sure be cool to look that good." But it would never occur to me to look at my own flabby ass pulling on a pair of sweats after work and feel *shame*.

Should we, as a culture, just not have any physical ideals, changing or not?

kate.d. said...

hmmm, how to be concise? because i think the reason this is different for men and women is at once very complex and very simple.

it has to do with a culture that tells women, in so many subtle and overt ways, that the way they look is the most important thing about them. when women become convinced that their worth is somehow tied to their size, their face, their body, they're going to experience physicality in a very different way that men do.

that's as concise as i can go, i think! :)

barb said...

oh kate, i have to laugh because this post is so timely for me, as right now my favorite pastime seems to be posting nude photos of myself on my flickr account! LOL... and I agree with you that about this "that the way they look is the most important thing about them". I hate to generalize but I really do think it's worse in Latin American countries and this affects me because I go there so often and even want to move there and I wonder how that will impact me. I already feel it. I mean not only when I'm there but for months here when I come back to my safe feminist harbor here in the states too (meaning my progressive hometown, not my country). My feelings are so complicated about this I feel it deserves a full blog post. Not that I have time to write one! But yeah... interesting. *sigh*