|Nice Shoes, Wanna Fuck?: Gender Construction and Performance in Formally-defined Heterosexual Space|
If we regard gender as a performance, we must, in a study if this sort, also examine the stage. The performative arena is socially created. By creating the places where individuals daily enact socially prescribed gender roles, ³architecture functions as a cultural practice that actively shapes masculinity and femininity[and thereby] reinforces gender differences² (Sanders 77). Yet it is vital to also note that performance is not controlled solely by the setting; space and behavior are mutually dependent (Ardener 2). We chose to enter the space, we chose whether or not to follow the rules for performance the space sets up, and we chose to remain or leave the space.Ardener writes, "A restricted area like a clubhas a set of rules to determine how its boundary shall be crossed and who shall occupy that space. Those who enter it will share certain defining features" (Ardener 1). To enter Club Egypt, one has to pass a door bouncer, who determines whether your proof-of-age is acceptable and whether there is enough ³space² (I put this in quotes because the club allows approximately 3,000 people in each night. The bouncers knew nothing about the maximum occupancy when asked); a second bouncer checks any bag you may have and passes you through a metal detector; and the cashier (there is a $10 cover fee; the club makes around $3,000,000 each year). This is an entirely passive process wherein the participants relinquish authority to the Club which, I argue, is reflected in the participants' later willingness to follow the rules of gender performance the Club promotes. These rules are centered on gender difference and physical proximity. Furthermore, the participants are inducted into this system with the assumption of commonality identified by Ardener. This is reinforced by the feeling of isolation from the ³normal.² The last part of the club entrance is a short passageway of stone which, coupled with the lack of windows and the disjuncture between the posh, light-colored exterior and the dark interior, conveys a sense of absolute separatism. It is also important to note here that by restricting the maximum age at 24, this becomes a world defined by the absence of parents and, by extension, their moral norms. The club, and the performance acted out within it, is the carnivalesque; it is physically and symbolically on the fringes of normative society. At the end of the stone entranceway is a mirror; the participation is prefaced by preparation-- this is a space of visuality and image in which the mirror's reflection reminds the participant that they are fully integrated into the performance.
I. The Setting
Club Egypt (on-the-Waterfront, as is often tacked on to the name) is located on Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street on the very edge of Philadelphia. The neighborhood is urban and the club is surrounded by, and thereby associated with, other social establishments that ³sell sex²- Delilahıs Den and Hooters. As you can see on a map, Egypt is truly marginalized, outside the norms of society.
There are two important elements in the decor of Egypt: a strikingly ³masculine² tone and the defining feature of exoticism. The exterior of Egypt is marble and the interior walls are designed to look like stone. ³Because of their hardness, durability and strength, materials such as glass, steel and stone are ascribed masculine properties² (Sanders 79). The palm trees that rise out of bulbous pots, lining the sidewalk in front, are strikingly phallic. Also, the sparsity of Egypt's decor reinforces essentialist notions of gender identity and its inherent discourse of domination. Classically, adornment is associated with femininity. Womanliness is seen as artifice while, in contrast, masculinity is seen as genuine. Decor free from ornamentation is seen as an expression of a buildingıs ³pared-down inner truth² and masculinity, thereby reinforcing the naturalization of gender roles. The only decor Egypt sports is the large face overlooking the club, two "egyptian"women overlooking the dance floor, two sphinxes (the sphinx is female in the Oedipal myth), and a notably vaginal image of a woman painted onto the wall. True to Sanders' analysis of adornment, all of the decorations are associated with womanliness. The idea of feminine decoration over a masculine surface reinforces the preconception that there is an essential gendered self and that the female is simply a decorated version of the default male.
The club is also decorated with "egyptian"images and animal prints so as to evoke the exotic. The exotic is defined as outside the norm, here foreign and animalistic. Often associated with women, and reinforced by the temporal antiquity of the ancient "Egyptian" imagery, the exotic inherently introduces a discourse of colonialism. This stage is a space separated from normative society, a place that elicits animal desire and creates a forum for the conquest.
II.Space Divided: Gender Roles and the Maintenance of DifferenceThe space inside Egypt is divided into five categories that correlate to societally defined gender roles and their performance: dancing, watching, walking, preparing, and the Alternative Room.
The majority of space inside the club is devoted to dance space; a space for performance and spectacle. In the main room, there are a series of dance floors, distinguished from walkways by wooden flooring, as well as a raised platform. The dance floors are framed by the bars that surround them and are smaller than would comfortably accommodate the number of people dancing. The second night we spent there was less crowded; the club responded by closing off an area so as to maintain the system of forced bodily contact. The raised platform, or "rape stage," provides clear visibility of every one else dancing yet is also a stage in every cinematic sense of the word, complete with lighting, framing, and an audience. The architecture reflects this confusion of roles. The "stage" is framed by two egyptian women, yet these women are also looking out over the main dance floor. The lights, while illuminating the dancers, also flash out, making it difficult to see the faces of those on "stage". The stage becomes Colomina's "theater box," "The voyeur in the theater box has become the object of anotherıs gaze; she is caught in the act of seeing, entrapped in the very moment of control" (Colomina 82). The simultaneity of looking and being-looked-at is manifested physically in the mirror that lines the back wall of the raised platform.
The second concentration of space is devoted to watching- the audience for the performing dancers. The dance floors are surrounded by the bars. Notably all of the bar stools are placed to face toward the dance floor, even if this necessitates a turn away from the bar.
Walkways are given the least space of these three categories, far too little for the number of people present. They, in their narrowness, perhaps even more than the crowded dance floors, are designed for bodily contact. The major walkway at Egypt ran alongside the main dance hall and was the only way to move from the entrance to the rest of the club without making a long detour. Designed as one of the few spaces in which the participant neither looks or is looked at, the architects placed a mirror along the wall, providing a continuity of gaze relationships. Yet this mirror was, ironically, blocked by a group of men who lined the walkway, appropriating this space for watching. This was a very powerful space-- because it was the most efficient option of the two passageways, the men held a great deal of control. I was freaked by the same man three times as I walked between dance areas yet could not avoid this if I wanted to get between the two quickly.
The bathrooms are the only formally sexually segregated space in Egypt. They are set in the back of the club, accessible by a brick hallway and marked by red neon signs. They contrast sharply in decor from the rest of Egypt, eliciting images of an undecorated backstage. It is not surprising that the activity corresponds to the architecture- this is the space of preparation. The wall of the bathroom is taken up by a large communal mirror that constantly reflects the universal activity of masking. The bathrooms (both male and female) are patroned by a staff person who sells hairspray, cologne for the men, and for the women: perfumes, tampons, gum and lollipops. This reinforces the idea of the bathroom as a space for the pre-performance. Selling lollipops further emphasizes the idea that feminine gender is active performance for men-- the women leave to enact this symbolic oral sex and suck their lollipops on the dance floor. The female bathroom patron was the only African-American, the only larger, and the only older woman working at Egypt. She was the only element of Egypt that connoted the maternal (and by extension, the moral, the familiar and even the archetypal "mammy"). Her vital role as the maternal in the promotion of gender performance can be read as a frightening reflection of the legacy of oppression passed down through the oppressed.
E.The Alternative Room
The Alternative Room is a dance space set in the far corner of the club and marked off from the rest by a wall of sound-proof smoked glass and closed doors on one side and a long passage in front of the bathrooms on the other. The fringe position of the room introduces the dichotomy of the dominant and marginalized, creating a system of hegemony of the main dance area. The room is decorated with an image of Buddha, associating the Alternative Room with orientalism; the positing of the East on the fringes of the dominant West. The Alternative Room is further distinguished from the main dance area by a defining gender roles differently. The Alternative room is not a place for spectatorship- the chairs are placed to foster conversation and some chairs are even designed for two people. The most fascinating element of the Alternative Room is that is was underused. While the main dance area was packed, the Alternative Room had only 11 people at one count. In this sense it is truly an "alternative"-- the majority chooses toward the dominant floor. This reiterates the idea that even the disempowered of these social relations of dominance choose to perform within their role. The alternative to the scopophilia, spectacle, and physical proximity of the main dance floor is not used by women, despite its function as a possible and easy means to extricate oneself from the system of masculine power.
It needs to be said that despite our attempts to distance ourselves from what we observed and interacted with, there was no way to complete this project without being deeply affected by it. To study the normative rules of soociety forces one to reexamine her/his own willing (though perhaps unconscious) adherence to them. I was struck constantly by the sense of reflection as the images of gender-play floating below my sociologist eyes looked back at me with my own face. I enter into such oppressive interactions far too easily. It may have been this mirror-effect, or just a basic truth, but I found it imposible to fully detach myself. Yet, I was also surprised and disturbed at how easy it was to pretend that "I" was separate from the body that was being grabbed, pulled, kissed, licked, looked at. In my defence, I also objectified my flesh, dehumanized myself. In part, this was subversive- I was decoding gender performance and masked, played "woman," fully conscious of its construction. Yet, I was involved and, to be honest, more than half of our nightly performances felt "natural." I am left with threads of uncertain gender-identity definitions- a post-modernist questioning of the selfand my self.
Ardener, Shirley. "Ground Rules and Social Maps for Women: An
Introduction" Women and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps. Ed.
Shirley Ardener. New York: Berg, 1993. (1-30).
Colomina, Beatriz. "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism" Sexuality and
Space. Ed. Beatriz Colomina. New Jersey: Princeton Architectural
Press, 1992. (73-130).
Sanders, Joel. "Male Space." Opinion.Architecture, 85:6, June 1996.
Spain, Daphne. "Space and Status" Gendered Spaces. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1992. (1-30).
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