Chapter 3, part b, The Image of the Stripper
Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants: The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter III part b
The Image of the Stripper
The image of strippers as sexually aggressive, sophisticated women with naturallyerotic figures is equally illusory. Although college students surveyed by Skipper andMcCaghy naively supposed that stripping was a profession for brainless talentless sexuallydeviant women who were: "oversexed," "immoral,""prostitutes," who "can't do anything else for a living," and were"lower class," and "stupid," statistically, strippers come from allsocial classes, levels of education, and religions. Strippers are usually recruited intothe profession after a major financial crisis (often a divorce), and their occupationalchoice is primarily based on financial need, not moral preference.
Strippers are most often, caucasian, firstborn in their family, and grew up in ametropolitan area, and on average are taller, heavier and bustier than the median Americanfemale of similar age. However, one study reported that fifty per cent of the stripperssurveyed had silicone injections in order to create this larger bustline. This would tendto support Kenneth Clark's contention that "the body is not one of those subjectswhich can be made into art by direct transcription," some alteration and highlightingis necessary in order to transform a naked body into a "nude." Clark noted,
To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude," on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed.
According to Clark this process of artistic idealization should not desexualize thesubject however:
No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow...the desire to grasp and be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as "pure form" is inevitably influenced by it.
Strippers, consciously or unconsciously attempt, through stage illusions like lightingand makeup, to transform themselves into this kind of idealized "nude," primarilyin order to arouse erotic feelings in the spectators. Lauri Lewin wrote of her experienceof the transforming effect of stage techniques in creating a fantasy image:
I felt that I'd become someone else: my ideal. High up on stage, clothed in extravagant satin and sequins, I could be tall and long legged, the scar on my knee could disappear, my face could be smooth and ethnically unidentifiable...Marilyn Monroe existed inside me. Under the right light, she'd appear. And the rosy stage lights of the Nudie-Tease that day, dulled by cigarette smoke, refracted and bent as they reflected in the mirrors, seemed perfect. In the streaming light, my hair looked like a blonde halo. My skin gleamed, smooth and shiny with the sweat of exertion.
If makeup and lights are insufficient transformers, costumes, music and movement can beused to create an image of confident sexuality even in the absence of real life practicalexperience. For instance, Blaze Starr, at the age of sixteen and straight from the rusticwilds of West Virginia, made herself look "sophisticated" in her early years inBaltimore (despite almost no experience, sexual or otherwise) by the use of suggestivecostumes:
I made myself a new costume of my own inspiration. The skirt was black and cut off well above the knees with slits up each side. The top was a red sequined jacket fastened only at the waist. It was accented with a black sequined beret. I looked pretty "whore-ified" but that was the whole idea. The band would play "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," then go into a drum solo about half way through my act as I strutted back and forth, shaking and twisting every part of my body in all sorts of titillative movements. The men loved it.
"Misty," a stripper of the Seventies contended that:
A skilled stripper doesn't just take off her clothes in front of an audience. Shedances, acts, flirts, teases and projects a distinctive personality that is part real,part fantasy...she has to put imagination into her movements and choice of costumes, musicand props. As her act proceeds, a feeling of suspense builds up to the final revelation oftotal nudity. Any stripper who fails to create such a feeling is justanother body walking around naked on stage. (Emphasis mine.)
And as Clark points out, nakedness is not as aesthetically (or erotically) pleasing asnudity.
It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model that the students are industriously drawing will know this is an illusion.
Strip acts support the ideal of the nude "confident" body of an idealizedsexually aggressive, sophisticated, well-endowed siren by the choice (and sometimesalteration) of body type, suggestive on-stage movements, fantasy costumes, and publicity.
Publicity image often starts with giving a stripper an exotic-sounding name: RoseLouise Hovick was transformed into Gypsy Rose Lee, Fannie Belle Fleming into Blaze Starr,and Annie Blanche Banks was made into Tempest Storm. The renaming of strippers continuestoday, although many now use their own names or conventionally sonorous stage names likeLois Ayers, Nina Hartley, etc. Most others still use names with slight traces ofsuggestion in them, however, like Angel Kelley, Barbara Dare, Lotta Top, Lacey Pleasure,and LuLu Devine.
Advertising publicity for strippers focuses on two main areas: suggestions on how"hot" the girls are (i.e. sexually aggressive) and how busty they are. Forinstance, LuLu Devine's ad copy for her appearance at the Market Street Cinema (which alsopresents live shows like Devine's) in 1990 was as follows:
The Most Erotic-Bizarre Act
You May EVER SEE!
SEEING IS BELIEVING
LuLu DEVINE LIVE
8th & 9th Wonders of the World
The all time centerfold sensation!
If you never see another nude show ever
--don't miss this one--Nuf Said!
The O'Farrell St. Theater tends to feature ad copy like this: "YoungWilling--INSATIABLE! Barbara DARE A Gorgeous Body--Just made for Love!" and"HOSE HER DOWN! She's burning down the house! She's got a fire inside...LOISAYRES." The public image of the performer begins with these pieces of publicity, andcolors the audience's perception of the performance, by pre-defining it as sexuallysuggestive.
Beyond the easily malleable publicity image which suggests an open, aggressivesexuality, the body image has proven to be almost as easily altered to suit. While thereare many strippers who were and are successful with skinny, flat-chested figures and fat,lumpy ones, there is no doubt that the preferred body type for stripping is alarge-busted, curvaceous figure, tending toward hourglass proportions. Both Tempest Stormand Blaze Starr, the top strippers of the Fifties, were encouraged to go into strippingbecause they had naturally busty figures. However, starting in the late Forties, and withincreasing frequency in the Fifties and Sixties, silicone injections and implants made"natural" curves unessential. Not surprisingly, the most famous"stripper" (actually, an "exotic" dancer) of the Sixties, Carol Doda,had breasts which were models of Twentieth Century "Space Age" technology. TomWolfe described her figure in "The Put-Together Girl":
Them! Carol Doda has had injections of a silicone emulsion put into her breasts in installments over the past three years. They have grown, grown, grown, enlarging like...dirigibles, almost as if right in front of the eyes of the crowds .. ..and all those people are out there practically panting. Topless, topless, the girl who blew up her breasts, Wonder Breasts, Wonder Breasts...Carol Doda's Breasts are up there the way one imagines Electra's should have been, two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture--viscera spigot---great blown-up aureate morning glories.
Goddess-like breasts are seen as part of the stripper's sexual ideal and consequently,from the Sixties on, strippers have been pressured into getting breast implants andinjections in order to increase their popular appeal, the strippers with the largestbreasts receiving the most bookings, and consequently, increasing their income along withtheir bra size.
Carrie Finnell, a stripper of the Twenties and Thirties found that large breastscombined with unusual muscle control could even overcome audience prejudice against herplain appearance and frankly fat body. Her act, which lasted into her sixties (when sheresembled a very plain D.A.R. president) apparently transfixed onlookers with her"educated bosom" as she called it. H.M. Alexander described her act in 1938,late in her career:
She stands there with her hands behind her back and by tricks of the muscles, flicks her breasts in and out of her dress. The finale of the act is executed to the tune of "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits." On the "Shave and a Haircut" Carrie's breasts rapidly and in unison point left and right. On the "Two" they point down, on the 'Bits" they point up.
Clearly the normal male breast fixation of the audience led to a rather abnormalbaroque set of performance expectations centered around the performer's breasts. Finnelloriginated the art of tassel twirling to cater to these unusual audience interests:
She would start one tassel on one bosom slowly like a propeller revving up on a World War I plane. Faster and faster it would spin while its fellow tassel lay limp and neglected on the other bosom. Then, the other tassel would come to life. It would start spinning slowly, while the first tassel was at full speed. Carrie looked like a twin-engined bomber. Carrie could do anything with those tassels. She could make one go slow, the other fast. She could spin the left in one direction, and the right in the opposite direction. She could lie on her back and somehow keep the tassels elevated and twirling. She could attach tassels to her derriere and have them spinning every which way while the bosom tassels revolved merrily on their own.
Apart from breasts, the impression of an aggressive sexuality is also an important partof a stripper's image- --Tempest Storm, throughout her career made a habit of being seento date a wide variety of men notable for their sex appeal, and she openly claims to haveslept with most of them, (while giving particulars of their bedroom performances in herautobiography). Whether she actually had sex with Elvis, JFK, and Frank Sinatra is totallyimmaterial; the point is that she openly claims to have seducedall these men. Even the cover of her autobiography presents her image as aggressivelysexual--- Storm (a woman in her fifties) is sprawled in a clinging transparent black lacebody suit and fur coat, wearing heavy makeup, rhinestones, and full, dyed red hair. Herpicture is enclosed in a purple frame with the title, TEMPEST STORM: THE LADY IS A VAMP.The whole picture promotes her image as that of a sexually aggressive siren.Significantly, Storm still was working as a stripper when she wrote her autobiography.Blaze Starr's 1974 autobiography (and the 1990 movie Blaze based on part of it) wasdictated after she had gone over to theatre management, and no longer needed to boost hercareer with tales of sexual prowess. Not surprisingly, it is considerably tamer.
While Starr was working on stage, however, her on-stage actions were as suggestive asStorm's autobiography. For one act she would "lie down on a red shag carpet andpretend to be a panther, screaming and crawling all over the carpet, mentally seducing themen in the audience." Another act she developed included her writhing on a couchwhich she had rigged to "burst into flames." "My plan," she said,"was to lie down on the settee and undress in the midst of this pretendconflagration." As her vice squad captain/lover of the time put it, irately,"You're promoting an idea that you're so hot up there the Goddamn stage isexploding." The appeal of this fantasy seemed so lewd, that he felt obliged to arresther, and their affair broke up as a consequence.
Starr's flaming couch and Doda's tumescent breasts are only two examples of anartificial construct being used to support the illusion of the stripper's idealized imageof female sexuality. Strip routines are, by their nature as theatre, a ritualizeddepiction of men's ideals of female sexuality. Audience breast fixation not only hasencouraged performers to increase the size of their breasts, but also has helped to centersome performers' actions around their breasts. A feminist stripper developed an act whichincluded breast imagery in a liberated piece of stripping performance art:
On a whim I took along a brown paper grocery bag stuffed with foam rubber eggs and breasts that I just happened to have on hand. (In my militant feminist artist days I once did a kitchen for a place called Womanhouse which was all flesh colored---ceilings, walls, and floors- -and which was dotted with foam-rubber fried eggs gradually metamorphosing into milk-filled breasts. There was a certain irony in my creations serving me equally well as feminist or stripper. This pleased me very much.) ...And then the music started. I came on...I began to empty out my shopping bag. The men all waited. An egg. A fried egg. A fried egg with a pink yolk with a nipple! And then a breast! And more breasts! This was fun. The music played. I took off my coat. I danced. I tried on one breast, then another. A child out playing with her mother's falsie. I threw the breasts out to the audience...They were very pleased. And then slowly I did my strip...And it was not like I expected--nothing like that at all. I rather enjoyed the dancing naked. The men were...sweet! I had expected that they would save the foam rubber breasts for souvenirs, but they dutifully returned every one to the causeway, like good little mother's boys. One man slipped a dollar tip surreptitiously beneath one tit!
Strippers also appeal to their audience with fantasy images of sophisticated sexualiconography created by their costumes. Gypsy Rose Lee was famous for her costumes withblack lace, fishnet stockings and black garter belts which did not convey a specificimage, but rather a general one of naughtiness. Many of these strippers were a markedcontrast to the images they projected with their costumes. Gypsy Rose Lee, who took careto look sophisticated and stunning on stage, and on all public occasions, was noted forspending vacation time at home without makeup, unwashed and in a filthy denim skirt,wrinkled blouse, and heavy wool socks. Ann Corio, who frequently did "artistic"strip routines that portrayed her as exotic types like Indian maidens and South Seaprincesses, was an un-exotic Italian-American girl from Hartford, Connecticut. The topstars of the Fifties, Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, made excessive use of luxurymaterials in their costumes, causing rhinestones, sequins, feathers, satin, and lamall to be inextricably associated with strippers, and even considered "cheap"and "tacky" by some people due to the association, despite their high cost. Thepublic image of strippers as worldly "vamps" who dripped with sequins andfeathers was most significantly fostered by these two women, who both grew up in tinyshacks in the rural South, near towns so small they rarely even appear on maps. Theirimage of what constituted sophistication and wealth came from movie magazines and not anykind of real life experience. It is little wonder then, that the image of the stripperthat they popularized was an unintentionally outrageous caricature of Hollywood glamourand sophistication.
Many strip performers mentally separate their on- stage personas from their day-to-daylives, knowing, as they do, that the image they have as performers is limited to a purelysexual one:
What's it like working in the clubs? It's like acting. I'm not the same person when I'm on stage. I become strictly sexual. And I enjoy it. You probably wouldn't recognize me if you saw me on the street.
Kelly O'Brian, a college girl from a Catholic background who turned to stripping as amethod for paying her tuition, recalls that the contrast between her on-stage andoff-stage lives was so extreme that she started getting confused about her identity, untilshe quit:
For the most part the experience is behind me. But whenever I hear the music from Flashdance, I see the image of a girl dancing naked in front of rapt, longing men. She revels in the attention. I still can't believe she was me.
Many strippers "revel in the attention" either because they areexhibitionists or because they have a low opinion of themselves and their appearance.While the public has an image of strippers as glamorous and beautiful, many strippers areinsecure about their personal appearance, and strip partly in order to gain desperatelywanted confirmation that they are attractive. Far from being self-confident, seductivevamps, O'Brian saw insecurity as the norm among strippers:
Gradually, though, I began to discern our common thread. Not one girl in the club truly liked herself, really believed that she was pretty or worthwhile.
For some, like O'Brian, stripping merely confuses their shaky sense of self-worth andidentity, for others it becomes a way to grow more comfortable with themselves.
A lot of people think that women who dance topless are victims, and that may be true sometimes, but personally I've found it to be a very positive experience. Of course, it depends on how you feel about yourself and what kind of consciousness you bring to it.
Strangely, some strippers, contrary to the socially conscious interpretation of them asvictims, use stripping as a means to express hostility towards, and victimize men.
When I dance topless, I see the way the guys look at me, and I...uh...sorta get this thing inside of me that says, Hell, I'm teasin' you, and you can't touch me! I really like doin' it...it's a real power trip---it is!
A feminist stripper, Victoria Hodgetts, analyzed the feeling of power over menstripping gave.
I remember thinking that it was like rape, only backwards. The women got to violate the men. There was something angry in these dance seductions. The women tried to get the men as hungry and turned on as possible. Then they left them hanging. They could do nothing. Nothing but sit there in exquisite frustration, eager guilt. It was revenge for all the times that men put their greedy fingers all over women. It was striking back.
The anger towards men and the low self-images which some strippers have contrastsharply with their on-stage image, and show that the image is capable of being enactedeven by performers who are psychologically the antithesis of the self-confident vamp whodesires all men. Indeed it is a documented fact that in total contrast to theonstage personas of strippers as promiscuous heterosexuals, stripping as a professionincludes one of the highest rates of homosexual activity among women of any group studied,including a higher rate than prison populations. McCaghy and Skipper in"Lesbian Behavior as an Adaptation to the Occupation of Stripping" in DeviantBehavior: Occupational and Organizational Bases (1974) found that:
The estimates of 50 to 75 percent are well above Kinsey's finding that 19 percent of his total female sample had physical sexual contact with other females by age 40. This difference is further heightened when we consider that a large majority of our sample (69 percent) were or had been married; Kinsey found that only three percent of married and nine percent of previously married females had homosexual contacts by age 40.
The conditions of work in strip establishments contribute in a number of ways to makeheterosexual relationships seem undesirable:
A recurring theme in our interviews was strippers' disillusionment with the male of the species. This disillusionment often begins on stage when the neophyte first witnesses audience reactions which prove shocking even to girls who take off their clothes in public...she is often gratuitously treated to performances rivaling her own act: exhibitionism and masturbation. There is no question that strippers are very conscious of this phenomenon for they characterize a large proportion of their audience as "degenerates."
This negative image of men, when coupled with the long awkward working hours andtouring schedules of strip shows, and the liberal attitude toward sexual encounters of allkinds found in the profession, all contribute to a higher than normal rate of lesbianpreference in the performer's private lives. This is in marked contrast to their onstageimage as ardent heterosexuals.
The most amazing example of strip performers who would seem to be totally unsuited tothe depiction of an ideal of sexualized womanhood, and yet do succeed as strippers, arethe transvestites and transsexuals of the New Orleans strip joints on Bourbon Street.Although these performers are genetic males, their sexual orientation leads them to adesire to be seen as, or even to become, sexually desirable women. Few professions offermore confirmation of a woman's purely sexual appeal than stripping (few legal ones, thatis) so transvestites who are also exhibitionists are naturally attracted to stripping.When transvestite strippers are also homosexual the desire to actually become female hasboth personal and professional advantages, so some strippers opt for a permanent change intheir sexual status. Horrifying as this may seem to some, it has obvious physical andpsychological benefits for men engaged in acting the part of a female sexual ideal, asLisa in Anne Rice's novel, Exit to Eden (1985), learns:
And a man who looked exactly like a giant of a woman was dancing, if you could call it that, or more truly shuffling back and forth in satin mules, the light flickering on her white satin gown, her heavily made-up cheeks, the spun glass of her white wig, her vapid unfocused eyes. She/he was watching herself in the mirror...the silver boa shivering over her smooth and powerful arms, her whole appearance strangely, undeniably sensuous as it was manufactured, beautiful as it was ghastly. To me anyway. You are all angels. You have transcended everything into the pure theatre of yourselves....Like the giant marble angels in church who hold out the shells full of holy water for us to dip our fingers. Larger and smoother than life, undeniably perfect creatures. They were all of them having operations, the girls. The Angels. They did it piece by piece. She had her balls still, tucked up someplace into her body, and her penis all bound down so that it wouldn't show when she stripped down to the G- string, and she had breasts and estrogen injections.
As Lisa observes, the added height and muscles of the man, when surgically transformedto womanhood, give them a larger than life quality in their role as female sexual figures.These men are transformed by the stripper's ideal of female sexuality and use modernmedicine, not only to improve their appearance as performers, but to allow their lives toimitate, and even become their art. "You have transcended everything into the puretheatre of yourselves," is a tribute not only to the image of female sexuality whichthey have chosen to portray, but to the performer's desire and effort to become that imagein truth. Rice's use of religious imagery is hardly out of place in such a totallyextraordinary transformation and mortification of the flesh in the name of an ideal.
Yet obviously this transformation is theatre, even with surgical help to back it up.These performers are not perfect examples of sexualized womanhood any more than those whobegan life as women are. They are all normal, real-life people who habitually usetheatrical devices like costumes, makeup, music, and dance in order to enact the role of asex goddess on stage. That transvestites borrow some of these arts in order to enrichtheir lives as ordinary people is merely a tribute to the extraordinary transforming powerof these theatrical devices. The image of the ideal remains invested in the tools used tocreate it: G-strings are sold in mail order catalogs to women who will never wear them onstage, but use them to excite their lovers; and feather boas and sequined gowns are wornto parties by transvestites who want to share in some of the imagined glamour and sexualpower of the stereotypical stripper's image. Even without the physical presence of one ofthe performers, the image of the ideal holds power through these devices: fetish-like, theaccessories of stripping symbolize the ideal of sex itself.
Most women who strip are lacking some part of the ideal in their real lives. Even ifthey are actually sexually aggressive characters, with considerable social and sexualsophistication, it is still necessary to use the theatrical signals of suggestivecostumes, gestures, and dancing to convey these personal feelings about sexuality to anaudience. For instance, Danyel, a stripper from Vancouver, preparing an act to present atthe first annual Strippers' Convention in Las Vegas, described her feelings aboutsadomachochistic sex:
When I was sixteen...I started to realize that I was into different things sexually than the usual normal things...I began to get into wild clothing and wild catalogs...I started experimenting with a few people. I like it. It's a need in me. I have to have it...And I guess it might be a part of me all my life, it is a part of me...It's so much fun. Pain can be pleasurable. And it's nice to receive it, and it's nice to give it. (pause) I like it. (pause) A lot.
Yet, seen off-stage, and in her "normal" job as a veterinary assistant, noneof this sexual kinkiness showed through: She advised pet owners to disinfect the ears ofkittens with medicine, she walked to dance class in normal, everyday clothing, and thenstretched and lifted weights like any other dancer to prepare for her night job. In orderto create an on stage presentation of her sexual feelings she had to go to considerabletrouble to create a series of artificial symbols to depict them. She hired achoreographer/dance coach to help her develop a domanatrix's dance routine, she chosesuggestive music and a studded leather costume to go with it, and tested the color andconsistency of several varieties of stage blood in order to achieve the theatricalimpression of tearing her flesh open with a whip. The whole act was a totally graphic, yetstylized, vision of sadomasochistic sex. But by nature of the artifice necessary to createit--it could just as easily have been copied and enacted convincingly by someone who didnot share Danyel's personal erotic preferences.
To summarize, a stripper as a performer is obliged to use artificial (theatrical),methods in order to enact the part of an aggressive, hyper-sexual seductress. Artificialmethods for supporting this role can include methods as extreme as cosmetic and/orsex-change surgery, and methods as ordinary as suggestive costumes, props, and dancemovements. Nearly all the parts of the performance from publicity to costumes promote thisideal of the performer by either highlighting the breasts, or exaggerating the sexuallyaggressive nature of the performer's onstage personality
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