The Cowboy and the Stripper (Part 2: Cowboy Bob, The White Lady, and The Stripper)

Oh Portland, why do drunken nights always get me to places like Mary’s Spot? Mary’s Spot is probably the oldest strip club in Portland and I’ve been there more times than I’d like to admit. […] I found myself watching naked dancers with my new boss and coworkers. I don’t know how the fuck that happened.
28 Toed Hen

I met them all at Missy’s house in LA: Missy Suicide, and a bunch of the Suicide Girls. There was one girl named Katie who I thought was so hot on the site, this really hot gothy chick, right? But then I met her, and her personality wasn’t attractive. She was just another girl, you know, trying to make her way in the world. Whatever, though. Missy’s super rich.
–Another friend

(Note: this post is about heterosexual dynamics in the culture. The reason is that I don’t know much about gay culture as it is experienced by gay men and women, and I’m hesitant to generalize about the effects of gay culture on American culture as a whole. Also, it seems significant that stripping might be relevant to straight women, whereas male stripping has no relevance I can see for straight men.)

Every single time I’ve been out bar-hopping with new acquaintances in L.A. — twice, because I’m a graduate student — the idea of going to a strip club has come up prominently. The first time we ended up eating apple pie at a late night café, the other time singing karaoke. The idea of strippers and some strong drink has also been raised in Irvine as an alternative to poker.

But wait — it’s like Ed Norton says at the beginning of Fight Club: the story doesn’t start there. The story starts with Cowboy Bob.

Cowboy Bob is a burner. He has come to Burning Man with his son, his brother, and some friends. The brother is a little whiny; the son is a teenager with Eminem hair and huge canvas pants. Bob is the genuine article: the inside and the outside of his tent are lined with Budweiser empties. He’s about fifty, I’d guess, although his face looks really, really old, and mean. He’s a junkie and an inexhaustible talker. He wears a T-shirt awkwardly wrapped around his waist for clothing, and for four days, it’s the same T-shirt. He has a sort of performance schedule for the week, in which he plays on certain themes, says things that may or may not be true. In the first few days, he is stuck on his hatred of the non-white races (particularly Mexicans) and also on Jesus. In fact, he becomes convinced that he is Jesus at about eight Monday morning, and begins to shout through a megaphone.

COWBOY BOB, ON MEGAPHONE, WHILE EVERYONE IS STILL SLEEPING: I have been denied! I have been denied!

Cowboy Bob both hates women and wants to make love to them quite badly. At some point in the week he starts offering to take off the T-shirt around his waist, but only in the following manner: “Do you want to see my junk? Do you? FUCK YOU!” He also says droll and nonsensical things. He shows us bits of sign language he learned from a girlfriend, who was an interpreter for the deaf. He is now married; before that he dated a lame “college girl.” He tells us he has “fiberglass shorts” that “aren’t working.” He tells us that System of a Down and Flea are at Burning Man and he has just been out drinking with them. We invite him over for tacos.

But really, the important thing about Cowboy Bob is this story.

COWBOY BOB: One time these fuckin’ tweakers made off with two of our bikes. Man, I was pissed. So you know what I did? (“No.”) I went over to where these fuckers lived, and I set their house on fire. These guys had, like, shelves and shelves full of books, and the flames are just eating their way into the books with the little tweakers running around like “Get some water!” and “Fuck you, how could you do this!” You better believe I got the bikes back. Because why the fuck would you want your house burned down just to get some bikes? Does that make sense? It doesn’t make sense! It’s a house, for Chrissake!

…We, of course, were dying with laughter. Bob appeared, in his manic and mangy glory, to have a point. The house has to be your first priority. But deep inside me, this is where I would stop inviting him over. It’s possible that the story was all or partially untrue. I don’t really care: even as a fiction, maybe somebody is passed out in the bathroom and chokes on smoke before any of the other tweakers realize what’s happening. Maybe the fire jumps to a different house whose inhabitants aren’t really involved with this little bicycle-arson feud. In this other house, which is now on fire, the people have only shoplifted once, and that was years ago from JC Penney’s.

I’ve rudely interrupted Bob’s story.

COWBOY BOB: I have nothing against drugs. I like drugs myself. I’m just saying that if you are going to do drugs, you should pay for ’em. For example, sometimes me and my old lady will do dope and hole up in the house for three or four days. We’ll get a little crazy. But that’s just us.

…Which reminds me that all this has something to do with a girl I met when I was still living in Sacramento.

Now I have a standard thing I say about Sacramento, just like I have a standard line about astrology. My standard line is that I had to live in Sacramento for almost two years before I started having fun there and knowing the town. Sadly, it was right then that I started packing my bags for my first year at Irvine.

Let me unpack the phrase “having fun and knowing the town.” At the time I had a friend who was pretty good-lookin’ and could talk to anybody. We started going out on the town, and he would pick people and make immediate friends with them. Eventually, this enabled us to discover a divey hipster bar called the Press Club, which had (and I think still does have) cheap drinks and a good crowd. We land there one night in the middle of a roaring drunk, and I meet a girl who I date for two days, until I get terrified. I am simply too far gone that night to be my normal shy self. We talk about our jobs. I’m unemployed, sort of writing a novel, waiting for school to begin. She’s a stripper.

It’s the second day of us dating, early in the morning. She’s been drinking a huge iced coffee, I’ve been drinking something wimpy like an Italian soda. She’s telling me about how she’s looking for a temp job until she can find another stripping gig as good as the Blue Moon in Phoenix. Then we start talking about Chuck Palahniuk, with whom she once drove to Seattle, and who talked her ear off about Nine Inch Nails.

All of which I am trying to comprehend with only an Italian soda to help me.

ME: What did you end up doing in Seattle?

HER: Oh, I was with a boyfriend in a hotel room, doing a bunch of heroin. We hung out for like four days, doing nothing.

Which is why, although he is potentially a liar, I believe the ending of Cowboy Bob’s story because it brings back that memory. I also believe it because his face looks like Lou Reed’s face, and Iggy Pop’s face, and, for that matter, Anthony Kiedis’s face. (Who is in a band with Flea.)

All three of these singers have written great songs about heroin. The fact of the matter is heroin is great material, because heroin, more than any other drug, more than any other phenomenon except AIDS, revives the Western equation of pleasure with death. It’s as if heroin had to be invented because 2,000 years ago somebody wrote: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” To which somebody else has to reply:

I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who need reasons when you’ve got heroin? People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget – is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid. Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.

The moment when I lose my mind with fear of this other person is not when she tells me about the Blue Moon in Phoenix, but rather when she tells me about a star-studded trip that ends in junk. As the runaway son of Puritan sexuality and the Protestant work ethic, heroin looks to me like the sleep of death. So I make excuses and go home. We talk awkwardly on the phone a couple times, and that’s that.

The strip club is designed to create an invisible barrier that keeps this sort of reality far away, and which even keeps sexuality itself behind a glass. Instead of refuting the equation that pleasure is death, it is actually an inoculation against pleasure by the maintenance of distance, so that by overcoming pleasure, the individual can again choose life (i.e., work and family). The striptease is a form of reassurance in which both dancer and audience exist isolated from each other. Roland Barthes has a fantastic essay in which he describes “the nakedness which follows [that is] itself unreal, smooth and enclosed like a beautiful slippery object, withdrawn by its very extravagance from human use: this is the underlying significance of the G-String covered with diamonds or sequins which is the very end of striptease.”

This girl in Sacramento talked honestly about her life, and I handled it about as well as Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy. That — the truth, I mean — is not actually what you get in a club. Another friend of mine, who right now is working on a mainstream TV show about strippers, mentioned Lily Burana’s Strip City when I told her what I was planning to write. Thanks to Amazon.com’s book search, I found this little gem from Burana:

Do I lie about my age? Honey, I lie about everything. Highly impolitic, I’ll concede, but what about this profession isn’t? My job is not to be who I am, but what the average strip club customer wants, and those things are, I’m resigned to admit, quite different. Sure, some guys might find my loopy urban pedantry attractive, but they aren’t the men who frequent strip clubs. Men who come to the clubs want to be soothed, catered to, and stimulated…but not too much. The governing principle of stripping is Thou Shalt Not Threaten. So when I dance, I’m not an engaged, cranky ex-punk rocker with a stack of published articles and the larger portion of my twenties behind me. I’m a twenty-six year old milk-fed girl from Minneapolis who’s come to town to help her sister take care of her newborn. And a Pisces, should you care to ask. All this chicanery has a purpose apart from pleasing the men—it protects me.

Naturally, this opposition between pleasure and life, which Barthes calls the “meticulous exorcism of sex” through the striptease, comes home to roost in the cool. (Thus Miles Davis, in a perfect realization of the American Dream, locks himself in a barn, on his father’s farm, for seven days because heroin is destroying his talent. Then he emerges to record ‘Round About Midnight, one of the most beautiful examples of absence of feeling outside of Mondrian.) Which means that anyone who is beyond the naïvete of anxious lust goes to strip clubs specifically to keep their cool. In every scene where Tony Soprano is in the Bada Bing, he pays absolutely no attention to the dancers: he drinks, has meetings, gets rough with the bartender. He does business, which is what one is supposed to do. It’s a sign of weakness and idiocy to come to the Bada Bing for the dancers, and the characters who do eventually become problems for Tony. In the end, there’s hardly any difference between the main bar, and the back office, which is littered with ignored pictures torn from magazines. It is, as Barthes writes, the woman driven “back into a mineral world” of statuary. She is “the absolute object, that which serves no purpose.”

So that’s the payoff for the hip audience. They don’t need to be soothed by milk-fed Minneapolis girls; much more soothing is the Stoic use of pleasure — the absorption of pleasure into nonchalance. Somewhere, like all good opposites, this comes close to the nirvana of the opiate dream.

But what about the dancers…and what about aggro dancers, specifically? They, presumably, aren’t telling a bunch of fibs about a heart of gold. What about “burlesque” and Gypsy Rose Lee? What about the friggin’ Suicide Girls?

Post-feminism, Britney Spears, and the empowerment vacuum

Note: I’m going to get back to talking about stripping later on, but I’m never going to really get into stripping as just a profession. I understand that that is what it is, and I support unionization and whatnot, just like I support the cause of actual ranchers who could be considered real “cowboys.” I think discussions of stripping as another way to make rent usually fail to be realistic; they fail to substitute truth for myth. They end up either being subterfuges for talking about something erotic, or as attempts to neutralize the striptease, by, as Barthes writes, giving it a “reassuring petit-bourgeois status […] [as] the honorable practice of a specialization.” It’s like the reason I wouldn’t talk in my earlier post about metrosexuality. A male metrosexual is saying only one thing: “I have a good job and am consistent in my habits. Marry me.” It’s the cowboy who speaks in poems and turns the wheel of history.

So: the early 1990s. It was a good time for feminism, all things considered. Anti-feminist movements were clearly recognizable as such: they wanted women to go back to child-rearing, they hated Hillary Clinton, and they had severe reservations about children raised by one parent. They were so patently wrong that you could almost enjoy proving it.

These were my high school years. During one terrible lunch hour when I decided to sit with the teachers, I listened to them heap adulation on The Bridges of Madison County, which was occupying the same market share that now belongs to chick lit. When I graduated, in 1997, the epochal film was of course Titanic. It had enormous glaring weaknesses. It also managed to be a pretty damn good romance. It turned out that Titanic would be the last of its kind. (The unwatchably long Pride and Prejudice miniseries aired in 1995, two years earlier.) Admittedly, we were all perplexed by Showgirls, but nobody actually saw it, and we did not think it would be released in a special collector’s edition with shot glasses, like, ever.

The albums I listened to, at the time, were Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Dig Me Out, Not A Pretty Girl, Little Earthquakes, Live Through This, and various stuff by PJ Harvey and the Cranberries. Of course, the men seemed to be on the right track, too: “Polly” was wonderfully compassionate, and me and my friends would sit together in cars listening to Pearl Jam sing “Better Man” or Elliott Smith sing “Say Yes.” But most important were the riot grrls and Lilith singers, and Ani Difranco. If, in the middle of all this talk about strippers and heroin and Leo DiCaprio movies, you are wondering where my feminism actually lives, it’s partly in the lyrics of these artists.

Some of those records are forgettable. I don’t listen to Sarah McLachlan, or the Indigo Girls, or the Cranberries as much now. But I do listen to Ani and Tori and Sleater-Kinney, and I still think they capture as well as any artist alive the ambivalent feelings of women towards family, romance, and sex — which are relatable to the ambivalent feelings of anybody, male or female, about these things. (NB: they are also eloquently political.) You can go to a hundred nightclubs and never hear something like this:

I search your profile
for a translation
I study the conversation
like a map
‘Cause I know there is strength
in the differences between us
I know there is comfort
Where we overlap

Of course, The Chronic isn’t exactly a feminist masterpiece, but that isn’t what changed things. Really, the sign that something strange was afoot was the Spice Girls. These five English women had been recruited by producers, and were marketed as caricatures instead of as real people. They sang their songs for men, and were clearly the stuff of male fantasy. They claimed to be neo-feminists, though, and even introduced a new catchphrase (“girl power”) to describe their attitude. This was the genius of the Spice Girls, or whoever was behind them: to see that it is significant to change “woman” to “girl,” and to see that a claim to “power” can justify anything, powerlessness included.

That’s in 1996. By 1997, the floodgates are opening. Shania Twain releases “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” which has a really incredible guitar riff and a bunch of lyrics about wearing short skirts and the “prerogative,” the right, the freedom to “feel the way I feel.” She sang, “I ain’t gonna be politically correct.” Candace Bushnell publishes Sex and the City in 1997, and a year later it’s on HBO, promoting basically the same premise as the Spice Girls: do everything for men, but justify it as a function of female-female comraderie. The new thing, if you can call it that, is an obsession with consumer spending.

Then, in 1998, Britney releases the single and accompanying video “…Baby One More Time,” which, in my opinion, is what blew the lid off 90’s feminism. (Also, “Baby One More Time” is why Liz Phair makes such awful albums now, instead of ferocious manifestoes like Exile in Guyville.) You have to give Britney and her various Svengalis credit. They perceived some real problems with the status quo.

For example, the female body was being treated increasingly as an object of trauma, which may have meant asking too much of the audience. Tori and Fiona Apple had both actually been raped, and their songs came from very dark experiences of exploitation and betrayal. In their songs, desire is accompanied by the aggression of a cornered animal (“Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon / How’s that thought for ya”). (A lite version of this was Alanis Morrisette.) Ani and Sleater-Kinney remained underground artists, in part because they were so defiant of men, both when they were sleeping with them, and when they were off with girlfriends.

There was nothing you could dance to, except rap. Artists like Sarah McLachlan, Suzanne Vega, and Natalie Merchant seemed to be singing while in comas. Madonna was making weird and irrelevant career moves, including Evita.

So Britney sauntered in, wearing a fetishistic schoolgirl’s outfit, singing a song that masochistically took all that trauma and trumped it with feverish desire. The song had a dangerous, growling piano riff and a boom-bip dance beat. Plus, she could dance like Michael Jackson, so women got interested in copying her. The female body was suddenly back as something to be flaunted, and not in the old, done-to-death Supremes manner of En Vogue or TLC.

Britney picked up on the Spice Girl theme that all this strutting, and come-hither dance pop, was empowerment as well as simple physical exuberance. This was the compromise with feminism: the industry felt obligated to present this new music as empowering. There was, in addition, a deeper kind of palliative at work: the theme of “girl power” disguised the neediness of the songs and provided an alibi for isolation.

Britney has released some dreadful ballads about isolation, such as “Lucky,” but the really significant piece is her video for “Stronger,” which, if you want, you can watch on music.aol.com. “Stronger” is a song pretty much like “I Will Survive,” although it contains a clever allusion to “Baby One More Time”:

I’m stronger than yesterday
Now it’s nothing but my way
My loneliness ain’t killing me no more

In the video, Britney is more or less totally alone, except for a couple of scenes where she’s sulking at a party. She drives a car around, almost committing suicide by driving off a cliff (amazingly, this is one of two videos where she almost commits suicide, the other being “Everytime”). Mostly, she gives a chair dance, kinda like a stripper would, except that she does so in the middle of a black void. There’s nothing and nobody around her, even though Britney’s performing a dance clearly intended for others; she’s occupying the same space as Julianne Moore’s character in SAFE, who sits in front of a mirror in a solitary hut, repeating affirmations. It’s what I call the empowerment vacuum, and it is a very unstable kind of narcissism.

OK, let’s put Britney back into the crowd to see what happens. Well, the problem with Britney’s extraordinary dance moves is that guys can’t do them. I mean, they can’t do them and still feel manly. So the guys in Britney’s videos do stuff like backflips, and breakdancing. It’s possible that the good people at Jive Records thought that they could make breakdancing trendy again. Nope. Ordinary guys don’t have the time to learn how to do a backflip or a headstand, plus most dancefloors aren’t set up that way. They get crowded, so your average guy will mark time by sort of bobbing around until he starts freaking some girl, which requires confidence but not skill.

(A funny outgrowth of this is the club-ready “duet” in which a female-led song features a guy singing or rapping about totally unrelated issues. For example, in “Crazy in Love,” Beyoncé sings about how much she craves her man, while H.O.V.A. tells us “I shake phonies” and that his “pockets are fat like Tony Soprano.” Jay, you do realize this is a love song, right? Why don’t you start by telling her there ain’t no mountain high enough?)

That means the woman is always the main attraction, even to other women. A guy can be attractive and confident, but only a woman can make interesting moves. (This is, incidentally, completely different from ballroom dancing, and different from many sorts of folk dances.) Which brings us back to strippers, who do all of the dancing, and belly dancers, and so on.

So back also to Lily Burana:

I turn away from the table and see a girl reclining in her customer’s lap, her head thrown back, her perfect small breasts vaulting heavenward. As she grinds on him she runs her hands up her torso and pinches her plump, caramel-colored nipples. I stand there riveted to the spot as if I’ve been struck between the eyes with a poison dart. Not because I’m repulsed, mind you, but because it’s just about the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Leaving aside the purple prose, the significant thing here is the relationship to the customer. Who is he? Who cares! An act that would have no meaning without a customer is abstracted from him, without ceasing to be called sexy, and this is the lie through which a service industry can become empowerment.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand the genesis of Suicide Girls. Missy Suicide saw that the element of audience “cool” could be mined further, so that suddenly, in the middle of the striptease, there could be the same old conversations about Fugazi and Andy Warhol. She also saw the connection between the “you” of the anonymous customer in the strip club, and the antagonist “you” in punk: “Problems, problems, problems / The problem is you!” Both of them are springboards for a feeling of personal superiority. Finally, Missy realized that if you put all the stress on piercings and tattoos, nobody would linger on the fact that these were thin, young models.

I don’t want to be too brusque here. Suicide Girls has undoubtedly done some good by representing alternative sexualities and lifestyles, and by being an online community as well as porn. However, the idea of the “vintage” pin-up, and the cult of Bettie Page, doesn’t mean anything to me except cultural regression. Plus, the overlaps between this sort of girl power, and the other, mainstream girl power, are too glaring.

* * *

Well, there it is: as wide a swath as I can cut through the culture, in search of the way we do gender now, in the shadow of the free market and the pleasure principle. Perhaps we could begin moving away from the masochism and coldness of the cowboy, to fighting for something in a way that transcends gender. Like Cash did, when he sang at Folsom Prison. We could move towards an ideal of fulfilled desire, with seduction as its prelude, instead of glamorizing seduction as an endlessly reiterated technology of power. (This sentiment comes through achingly in Portishead’s “Glory Box,” though that was 1994, the same year as “Overlap.”)

The cowboy and the stripper have been immensely useful. The cowboy, as a gender archetype, has protected us against the metrosexual, aka Justin Timberlake: that is, the eternal boy whose every move, thought, and visible inch is a product of increasingly dense, layered commodification. The cowboy has also been a conduit for our annoyance with Rivers Cuomo and all his self-hating followers. Finally, he was an emblem of a repressed side of American culture: the vast rural parts of the country, which for a time had been getting less than full cultural representation.

The stripper, as an archetype, has more or less done away with the myth that no body ought to be more desirable than another. We now live in a gym-obsessed culture, and that’s probably a good thing, since some bodies are healthier than others. The emergence of “sex-positive” feminism, and the embrace of new sex symbols in our pop culture, created a necessary counterweight to a desexualized, traumatized version of the female body that simply wasn’t the whole story.

Nonetheless, these fantasies have troublesome aspects. Both of them rely on sentimental myths: for the cowboy, the myth of the good provider, and for the stripper, the myth of empowerment. Both represent armored ways of life. By definition, neither the cowboy nor the dancer give a f*** what you think of them, because it’s strictly business, or because it’s their prerogative to have a little fun; above all, because, like the country ballad goes, “you don’t know me.” Burana again: “Like, if they find me repulsive, they’re not rejecting the real me, they’re rejecting this shimmery tartlet who looks like she sprang fully-formed from the head of RuPaul.” There is an ethos of toughness which leaves real feeling out of the picture.

There is a lack of reciprocity. The man cannot do what the woman does when she dances; the cowgirl is definitely not the cowboy. The result is a terrible claustrophobia of self. The wide open spaces of the Midwest, in Capote, give way to the enclosure of the prison cell (and this is also true of the spaces in Brokeback Mountain). Tony Soprano literally becomes unable to breathe during his anxiety attacks; several other of Britney’s videos (besides “Stronger,” which is obviously claustrophobic) show her narrowly escaping a death by drowning.

To the extent that money (spent on Manolo Blahniks, or stuffed in a G-string, or shelled out to Carmela) is supposed to compensate for all this loneliness…well, I won’t say the obvious. The return of coquette culture (“My Humps,” anyone?) is really sad.

Above all, you have the indefatigable effort to make pleasure pay off as empowerment and industry, or to make it disappear into nonchalance or Stoicism. Otherwise pleasure is slow suicide, and is pre-figured as such in our culture. While Tony is meeting a beautiful business associate in Italy, Christopher Moltesanti is tying off in a hotel room. Tony discovers that this woman, Annalisa, is actually his equal, and he finds that attractive in her. She sends him scurrying back to Carmela: “I don’t shit where I eat.”

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

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