Poles, Power, and the Everyday Woman: The Dilemmas of the Strip Club Chic

 photo rihanna-showers-money.jpg
by Monique John

Going to the strip club for a night out with friends was never something that appealed to me—that is, until I saw other women doing it.

Nicki Minaj. Rihanna. Diamond. Young B. These celebrities have made going to the strip club a part of their brand, singing about their titty club escapades, posing for Instagram photos with strippers and hosting events as if the strip club were any other venue.

I have spoken with dozens of ordinary, millennial women that have gone to the strip club so often that they almost see it as a mundane activity. I, however, am fascinated by the phenomenon. For years I’ve read feminists’ and hip hop scholars’ arguments against hypersexuality in the media and the exploitation of women’s bodies, especially among women of color and in the context of strip club culture. Yet I’ve also observed everyday women of all sexual orientations (particularly those of the hip hop generation) who have echoed those arguments still patronizing these clubs as a venue for socializing and sexual experimentation—and genuinely loving it.

There is a wealth of literature speaking out against patriarchy and sexual objectification. However, there is relatively little that holds women accountable as agents of that exploitation, as opposed to being objects of it. To have an honest, productive conversation about gender politics and sexuality in hip hop, we must acknowledge the way we as female consumers engage in and enjoy social institutions that perpetuate patriarchy and sexual objectification of female bodies—particularly because the accompanying media products have historically depicted us assuming passive sexual positions. Placing women who frequently patronize strip clubs at the center of that discussion would help bring it to life.

Understandably, this is not an easy conversation because it is so politically incorrect, making it all the more urgent. On the surface, the strip club appears to be a site where blackness, queerness and capitalism collide at heterosexual men’s economic benefit. Sexy ladies are checking out other sexy ladies (a reality that may make anti-gay blacks shudder), while male strip club owners are sitting pretty on racks they collected from dancers’ payments on exorbitant house fees.

But deeper than that, women are deriving pleasure from gazing at a body type already loaded with political baggage. With her giant breasts and butt cheeks the shape of basketballs, the stripper physique is directly reminiscent Sarah Baartman. The parallel is undeniable, given Baartman’s legacy of being put on display to be poked and prodded by strange (white) people titillated by her curves.

Even the much sought-after "stripper booty” itself is brimming with symbolism in the context of black sexual politics. Theorized by Patricia Hill Collins “the booty” is inextricably linked to the stigma of black promiscuity, connoting male plundering and ownership of female bodies. It is all a familiar narrative told to a more contemporary and catchy instrumental.

America was built off of a sexual economy that rested on black women’s bodies for white profit in the institution of slavery. Years later, the hip hop world has capitalized on commodifying black female sexuality, giving male hip hop artists an item to showcase their own human capital. In essence, when we’re talking about women making it rain at the strip club, we’re talking about women celebrating a construct historically representative of their own oppression as sexual beings and people of color.

If I sound terribly bleak, I don’t mean to. Like the words, “nigger,” “bitch,” “slut” and “dyke,” we as women have the ability to claim strip club chic for our own satisfaction. With businesswomen like Amber Rose, Trina and Diablo Cody infiltrating the Hollywood elite, there are plenty of examples of females proudly doing that. This whole phenomenon could ultimately be an example of turning patriarchy on its head.

Although hip hop glamorizes girl on girl action for heterosexual male desire, the women I’ve observed are going to strip clubs purely for their own curiosity. If a population of women are comfortable obtaining sexual gratification in this environment, to what extent to do we identify certain behaviors with the feminist ideal of sexual liberation? After all, the third and fourth waves have strayed from unified agendas that promote wholesome messages about women’s sexuality and gravitated more towards the idea that women should do whatever they please. It is the ironic, yet positive development that women engaging in spaces and activities originally designed for men’s enjoyment can give us a wealth of knowledge about our own motivations and sexual pleasures. If we always discuss these topics in relation to a man’s perspective, we’ll never fully come to understand ourselves.

We ultimately have to ask ourselves if the strip club is truly an institution we want to support. There are the obvious injustices of strippers’ poor working conditions and occasional horror stories of women being pushed into prostitution. But then there’s the more subtle aspects of how glamorizing strip clubs is negatively impacting our music and even our sex lives. The dramatic decline of female emcees in the mainstream arena is accompanied by the rising presence of stripper-video girls and stripper-turned socialites, strippers now being the ones to inform the hypersexualized identities of the few mainstream female rappers that are left. It all suggests that there’s only one way to be sexy and female in the hip hop community.

Sex itself has increasingly been discussed as if it were transaction, rather than some shared, intimate experience in hip hop and in real life. Between the media’s hype around young people hooking up and hip hop’s obsession with using luxury items to attract sexual partners, studies have shown that we millennials approach choosing our sexual partners more impersonally than generations before us. The trends sound oddly similar to the dynamics of a strip club, given the casualness in which women are offering their sex to whomever will patronize them. It is an inconvenient truth that being active in strip clubs and our sex lives is completely different than being dominant in them.

Yes, we can have fun at the strip club. But how much fun and for how long?

Monique John is a writer and activist for education and women's rights. She loves writing about black culture, sexual politics, feminist theory and media representation. In addition to managing her personal blog and developing VO!CES Magazine, a publication for survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence and the commercial sex industry, Monique is currently developing "Twerked: The Official Blog for the Poles, Power and the Everyday Woman Project." You can read more of Monique's writing at moniquejohn.com.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.