Rachael Romano is writing a PhD at the University of Western Australia on ageism and the representation of age in Australian Drama. In between raising three children she has perfomed in a wide range of theatre productions.
Volume 2, November 1996
Thou turn shall come, and thou, a hag forlorn in deserted alley, shall weep o'er thy lovers' distain, when on moonless nights the Thracian north-wind rises in its fury, while burning with love and passion, such as arc wont to goad the stallion's dams, shall rage about thy wounded heart.
Horace Ode XXV (65-8 BC)
While writing on ageism and the aged body as a form of representation in Australian Theatre, I began to question the desiring gaze of the male spectator at a strip-tease show, and the abject reaction and fascination for the grotesque that accompanies age, sometimes associated with the circus and freak shows (Bogdan, 1988). Through my research I became increasingly aware that the performed sexual body is not limited to what Eugenio Barba refers to as "extra daily activity" (1991); it is performed as Judith Butler suggests in ways which pervade gender roles and the normative values associated with socialisation (1990). In this piece I will explore various aspects of strip-tease as performance and then relate this to my own performance experience, as an artist questioning notions of the aged body. It is my contention that problems of presentation and reception when faced by older women place them in double jeopardy.
Strip-tease as performance is a convenient and still very lively genre for investigation, stripped (so to speak) of many of the obstructive layers of normative and moral semblance, of performed sexuality. The position of women as objects of desire is a well documented phenomenon in feminist writing; theorists such as Laura Mulvey, for instance, emphasise the dangerous and the seductive notions of desire and the gaze.
Much of the discussion concerned with strip-tease focuses on the power-relations women are understood to negotiate during a strip-tease show. As Susan Bordo mentions "... I think it extremely important that we understand how beauty and sexuality can function as a medium of power and control for the otherwise powerless" (1993, 29). While not displacing the importance of this subject, my article emerges from the position that there is no single answer to the complex sex/art/exploitation discourses. It is my argument that women are both objects of the so-called male gaze and active participants in this performance which threatens to destabilise the somewhat reductive "women as passive victim" argument which often accompanies the former position.
Margaret Dragu and A.S.A. Harrison suggest that it is far easier to justify the position of sexually motivated female performers by stereotyping them as victims; as victims they have no choice or subjectivity (1989, 66).As a victim, woman is positioned and perceived as having no choice or control over her life. "She had no alternative", is a common catch-cry denying woman's choice to mobilise her body. The victim syndrome also facilitates disempowerment through stigmatisation, figuring the stripper as either a junkie or a prostitute. Druga and Harrison suggest that a woman's public engagement with her sexuality is perceived by some to be dangerous. This attitude explains, in part, the strict control, arbitrated by managers, agents and spectators, on what is thought as acceptable role-playing within strip performances; hence the adherence to traditions such as burlesque, sex kitten and slut roles.
The complications which age may add to the multiplicity of sexualities and role performances emanates from a plethora of social prescriptions and institutional controls. Dragu and Harrison refer briefly to the observations of a Canadian Deputy Commandant of the Montreal vice-squad whose opinion on strippers equates youth with good clubs and the older strippers as being more vulgar and lower class.1 Dragu and Harrison acknowledge that this may be motivated by older women needing to add vulgarity in order to compete within the market place, yet these comments also suggest differing expectations of spectators; there is an opportunity for older strippers, who play on the lewd and bawdy eroticism not associated with the younger performers. What is base or licentious is thought acceptable in the older woman, but condemned as inappropriate for the young.2 I am not suggesting that women should feel motivated to perform aged sexuality in what can be a humiliating and degrading position; rather my interest lies in the transition of the gaze of the spectator and the associations of age and the grotesque, or how age is equated with vulgarity.
One reading for situations such as this is the association of younger women as sexually available for reproduction and a cessation of sexual identity for older women. This must be seen as a contributing factor to the negative reactions to aged women as part of the youth culture in which we live. The existence of venues and paying customers, suggests an interesting dialectic between the older performers and the spectators; through the medium of carnivalesque dissidence, they fragment and rupture social taboos.
As I have suggested above, the various roles played throughout strip-tease are strictly controlled and confined. These are predictable variations of women enacting male fantasies of seduction and titillation. Recently I attended an evening at a modestly up-market lesbian night club; the entertainment for the evening was the Sunset Strip Girls, a local strip troupe who work in the bars and clubs of Perth. The ensuing discussion generated by the decision to include this type of entertainment for women, and by women, is a complete article in itself. What I found most interesting was the stereotyping of the roles played by the strippers, who performed their routines exactly the same as for other exclusively male or mixed gender audiences. The sexual orientation of the performers, which was incidental to the format, proceeded to play out the repetitive gestures of normative heterosexual seduction.3 The most dominant factor in their performance was the presence of the Master of Ceremonies who was the only male on the premises. His role was to simultaneously titillate and control the spectator; his responsibility was to maintain traditional readings, and effectively position the audience during the performance.4 To deviate from the designated stock roles of both performers and spectators would have created a potentially iconoclastic and dangerous situation.
Performed sexuality by the aged (aged here is defined as anyone who deviates from the youth ideal) becomes problematic. The safe roles (bikie slut, sex kitten, waif or vamp) are seen as no longer appropriate, because they are already defined using devices of controlled titillation and incorporate measured elements of soft (that is safe) deviance. Implications of age make these roles, grossly deviant, inappropriate and doubly dangerous.
With these thoughts in mind I devised a short (5 minute) performance piece in which I positioned myself (aged forty one) in a transitional state, capable of mobilising my body. The primary objective was to experience the performance anxiety associated with ageist attitudes, in order to provide a personal analytical perspective. I chose to perform at PICA in Putting on an Act, in July 1996 as part of Healthways Performance Week. This particular event provides an opportunity for performance artist, dancers, and visual artist to present works which fall outside the criteria of other events. The audience tend to be far more receptive to challenging images without the demand for entertainment elements.
The piece opened as I appeared on the blacked-out stage, climbing out backwards from a large wooden trunk. Titled "Glory Box" and with a programme note which stated "sexuality, youth, age, desire, abjection," the audience had some sense of the theme. Accompanied by a Tom Waits Russian march with a slurred beat maintained by the marching of jack boots, I limped in odd stilettos to a discreet but very brazen white spot lit area. I confronted the audience dressed in several layers of glitter erotica tat clothing, collected from ex-circus and strip performers from the fifties and sixties and I wore an obvious show-girl wig with three layers of masks. I proceeded to remove the layers in a mechanical non-performative manner, with no expression and a slow passivity. The pace was set to be an unrelenting ritual of removal, as if the performance was an obligation; the sooner finished the better. There was no hint of titillation or expectation. Having removed everything except white fish-net stockings, a tight garter and a choker chain from my dog (complete with identity registration tags), I revealed my flesh distorted with plastic wrap and gaffer tape, flattening and oozing my breasts in a deformed parody of plastic surgery. Two bird of paradise tattoos on my shoulder blades completed my costume. Throughout the performance I showed no recognition of the presence of the audience; I made no eye contact. Rather, the spectacle was one of self-absorption and passivity. This was, in part, to indicate that performances such as this are replayed in the lives of often unwilling participants in the situation of wife, lover, object.
The first mask was a carnivalesque, feathered and beaded cover, which was removed to reveal a depersonalised, flat, white, mime mask. The plaster mask was removed to expose my face distorted and stretched by a white stocking, completely covering my head. The stocking was them torn from my face to expose my features highlighted in a wrinkled and 'unbeautiful' state. With the end of the set music piece, and to the sound of a record stuck in the end groove, I looked to the audience. I recognised their gaze and in a reaction of shame, I proceeded to entwine myself in a long length of theatre black. To exit, I merged backwards out of the lit area into the blackout; signifying the disappearance of the aged body. The embalming in the black was stylised to also suggest a retreat into purdah, in which female physicality literally disappears.5
The reactions to the performance were mixed, some congratulating my position as a woman prepared to ask questions on the position of women and ageing bodies, the role of dress and undress, and the implications of the grotesque sexual gaze. The audience were drawn to look, initially uncomfortable about their complicity in a politically sensitive choice of vehicle such as strip-tease, but watched with a mixture of voyeurism and for some I'm told, celebration.6 One reviewer read a dance of the seven veils, a comfortable and easy trope to clutch to, but this could have been summoned from a relationship to the Arab Islamic suggestion which completed the performance. Others dismissed the performance as a middle-aged women needing to come to terms with her loss. The latter proved to be the more interesting (after no small amount of self examination) because it confirmed what I already suspected. Certain elements of the audience would not confront the aged body as a point of reference for social analysis, finding it far easier to dismiss it as the result of angst from a victim of age. By delegating the role of victim to the performer, one particular critic maintained a position of superiority enabling him to dismiss the motivation as either personal, and hence not his concern, or as unfortunate yet inevitable. Confrontation with the signs of death, or the ageing of another is far safer at a distance, where it may be dismissed as irrelevant. The denial of the injustices of youth power and the denigration of the aged is a superior objectifying position which maintains an unjust status quo.
The victim processes that work within the strip industry to provide a moral safety net can be seen at work in other forms of sexual identity disempowerment. This is not an exclusive process and works in conjunction with a multitude of disempowerment regimes. The result is that sexual identity is only one form of denied subjectivity that the aged must deal with. As a performer I had to negotiate not only the obvious matters of modesty and self doubt, but far more intimidating, I had to justify my motives in confronting an unsuspecting audience to witness a performing non-perfect, unyouthful body.
2. Susan Sontag's discussion on the beauty industry and women ageing in America "A process of becoming obscene.... That old women are repulsive is one of the most profound esthetic and erotic feelings in our culture." ("The Double Standard of Aging." Saturday Review. September 23, 1972, 37).
6. Another advantage of events such as "Perfomance Week" is that performers have the opportunity to get feedback from audience members and peers. In conjunction with the event there was also a workshop on "Review Writing for the Arts," which used "Puffing on an Act" as material and facilitated performer access to a wide range of criticism.
Barba, Eugenio and Savarese, Nicola. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. London: Routledge, 1991.
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowledge. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.
Butler Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Dragu, Margaret and Harrison, A.S.A. Revelations: Essays on Striptease and Sexuality. London, Ontario: Nightwood Editions, 1989.