A joke I recently learned:
That’s not funny!!!
My daily e-mails from Living Social (a company that offers deep discounts on restaurants, goods and activities) often include a great deal on pole dancing lessons.
This makes me a little crazy, hard as I try to be a light-hearted feminist.
It makes me a little crazy because, while I have deep respect for women earning a living by pole dancing and know that many of them are working hard to stay safe and pay the bills at the same time, I really hate that this has become a now almost passe form of exercise. Shrill as I may sound, it’s just not feminist.
Belly dancing, on the other hand: totally feminist.
The funny thing about pole dancing and belly dancing is they have the same potential result: women feel sexy and desirable, men are drawn to them, and chemistry can take over. So what makes one feminist and the other anti-feminist?
It’s not complicated: pole dancing is all about how to appeal to the man, how to excite him. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a killer workout from what I hear. But a friend of mine who did a pole dance (or strip tease?) workout video said one of the tips is to make sure to put your finger near your mouth a lot…I’m assuming that’s not in order to strengthen your pointer finger muscles. (For an odd but interesting reflection on a pole dancing class at Cambridge in 2010 as well as mistreatment of British politicians’ wives, click here.)
According to my mother (who has taken belly dancing at the Anne Arundel county senior center), belly dancing was originally meant to be performed by women for women. Since the 1960s it’s intertwined itself with feminism in America. Friends who have taken the classes feel more in touch with their bodies and feel sexier and more powerful and more desirable. That doesn’t mean it’s not complicated, of course. In an interesting reflection by a feminist belly dancer, Nadia, she quotes Andrea Deagon about the inherent conflict within belly dance: “Belly dance exists at a point of conflict between women’s expressions of fundamental truths, and patriarchal interpretations of this expression. It is not an easy place to be” (“Feminism and Belly Dance”).
I think all of this is rattling around in my head because my fatherland of India is currently stirred up over the brutal gang rape and manslaughter of a 23-year-old woman riding home on a bus from a movie with a friend. Arundhati Roy, world-renowned author and social commentator, has framed it as part of a culture of rape in India with significant class and caste issues embedded within it. Forced sex usually has little to do with sexuality–it has to do with power–but this article from Foreign Policy also highlights some devastating statistics about the acceptability of forced sex (by men on women, including their wives–the statistic is 1 in 4 Indian men have forced women to have sex with them) in a culture that diminishes women through the gender gap created by infanticide and through the Madonna/whore dichotomy that runs rampant (there as well as here, I should add, as someone who gets sexually harrassed all over the world).
I don’t know if it matters what kind of exercise classes we take in the face of such widespread physical harm. (Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, or SAVE, here in Oakland, just held a vigil for all the women beaten to death by their husbands this year, in a city with an Asian American woman mayor and a city council that has strong female leadership and with women on the police force and powerful women pastors and imams and rabbis.) I don’t know that it makes a difference that we choose sexuality that empowers us instead of sexuality solely meant to excite our partners, when men may interpret any type of sexuality as being about them. I don’t know if it makes any difference that we express ourselves as powerful when people (people I love who work with strong feminist men and women every day) make music videos where they need “sexy women with pouty lips and a big booty” (for a video about stopping the violence in Oakland? Really, friend?).
A few weeks ago, a teenage nephew of mine in India posted an image on facebook of this shrieking harpy shouting “I’m a feminist! Treat me as an equal! And I’m a lady! Pay for things and hold the door open for me!” I asked whether that’s actually the way he experiences women in his daily life. “It’s just a joke, aunty. Why so serious?” he responded. I said he wouldn’t find it so funny when he had a daughter. And when I read this EXCELLENT commentary on the way we (South Asian women in particular, but I think all of us who are female might recognize ourselves in it) swallow the anti-feminist slights that result in a culture that always asks, “What did she do that invited the attack?”, I remembered my conversation with my nephew and wish I could find a way to stand with my sisters in a way that is powerful and not humorless. (Although as one colleague pointed out, “We’re not always lighthearted because THIS ISH AIN’T FUNNY.”)
How we choose to represent ourselves is half the struggle. I am truly grateful for the men I know who bother to ask what it’s like to navigate this. (Even my feminist male friends usually assume they understand already–and you know what happens when you assume.)
I continue to feel both outrage and rage that we actually pay to participate in our own oppression (those pole dancing classes aren’t cheap, even with a Living Social discount) and sometimes impotence that people I love think feminism is worth making fun of. I seethe today over that 23-year-old woman but also the 637 reported cases of rape in India and the thousands of unreported cases, including rapes of Dalit and Adivasi women that police don’t care about or in some cases have actually perpetrated against women in prison. Because this ish ain’t funny.
But maybe as women claim our bodies and support one another’s comfort with our bodies as NOT inviting harrassment by men, and as men grow in recognizing that the love, the friendship, and the sex are all better when we all are comfortable in our bodies and are not assuming that said comfort is about the other person….maybe we can have a culture of bellydancing and not pole dancing. And maybe men will be liberated in their own selves as well…
And maybe the next time my nephew answers the door to a feminist, he’ll say “Lucky me!” instead of “That’s not funny!”