Nice Shoes, Wanna Fuck?: Gender Construction and Performance in Formally-defined Heterosexual Space
Women's Studies 1 Final Project
Erin, Michaela, Amber, Katie, Jenna and Anya


Dancing with Distance

Chest Flex

An Uncomfortable Katie

Anya and the Ice Cream Man

Power, dominance, and equality are related issues: They define the nature of interpersonal relationships. Much of that definitional process is accomplished nonverbally. In a formally defined heterosexual space such as a club, nonverbal relational messages signal how participants regard each other, their relationship, and themselves in the relationship. Central to that definitional process is determining who wields power within a relationship and how that power is manifested through nonverbal messages. Often examined under the rubric of dominance and status displays, this experiment sought to examine this in part through looking at body language displayed by participants at Club Egypt on the Waterfront. Although a combination of behaviors besides body language contribute to the gender construction and atmosphere in a social setting like a club, looking separately at body language clearly helps evaluate whether these basic feminine and masculine display patterns reflect differences in power.

Body language was assessed by watching paired-off people interact. The male was watched and his body language recorded for two minutes before watching the female and noting her body language for an equal amount of time (in this particular club, all observed couples were one man and one woman). Alternation between the two individualsı body language followed until their interaction ceased. A total of 20 pairs were observed. Similar body language was found in almost all cases. Men were the primary initiators of contact between the pairs. They would make their presence known most often by approaching from behind. After reaching towards the woman he was pursuing, he pulled her towards him placing his hands around her hips, belly, or down near her genitalia. He initiated dancing through his pelvis region by abruptly ³thrusting² his pelvic bone and genitalia at her behind. Once a woman felt a manıs grasp on her, she allowed herself to be pulled or helped move herself back towards him. A man would dictate the motion of their movements through twisting and turning the woman to correspond to which posture or position he was aiming for. Women within the sample never resisted. In our own interactions, all of us separately tried to both accept these codes and to subvert them. Erin asked one man, ³Who gave you permission to touch my ass?² The man quickly backed-off; this was the only observed objection to the constant male behavior mentioned above. Thus, most women participated in this behavior. Womenıs body language most frequently included: chewing gum; sucking on lollipops; touching their necks; playing with their hair; drawing attention to their breasts or genital area when dancing; dancing as if intoxicated or taking careless, off-balance steps; or pursing their lips. Men's behavior, on the other hand, included flexing their biceps and chest region; walking with their chests thrust outward; swaying distinctly in their walk; embracing other men aggressively to engage in ³body slamming² hugs; thrusting their pelvises; and gesturing sexually with their hands when acknowledging a femaleıs presence.

Almost two decades ago, Henley exposed the theory that menıs nonverbal behavior is characterized by dominance and womenıs behavior by submissiveness (Burgood and Dillman, 163). Behavioral differences observed through our study challenge Henleyıs primary findings. Henley does suggest, however, that:

How strong are sex differences for these [other than nonverbal
behaviors compared to sex differences for nonverbal skills and
behaviors? The answer is clear: sex differences are larger for the
nonverbal variables (Henley, 145).

As Henley proposes, not only are these sex differences larger for nonverbal variables, but the level of intimacy and dominance dimensions of various gestures often play out differently whether performed by a male or a female. Interesting to consider is that womenıs power gestures are often interpreted as sexual (Radecki and Jennings, 17). Therefore, nonverbal control may allow women to gain one form of power. Such power is of particular importance to women since they are most sensitive to such cues and probably more likely the targets of such control.

Gender itself contributes to the nonverbal control introduced above. There is a strong interaction between gender and (sexual) performance. One is able to ³do² gender. As Judith Butler suggests, gender is ³an act­ both intentional and performative² (404). Genderıs reality is influenced by the extent that it is performed. Does one sex perform gender through body language better or more frequently than another? Linda Williams demonstrates performance art done by the female gender. Through her essay, she alludes to performance art being of particular genius with some limitations for women (361). Perhaps, performance art, body language and gender relate closely in this instance. Looking at two specific examples observed through our experiment helps this connection gain strength.

One woman, Candy, was able to act subversively within the heterosexually-dominated environment . Not only was her cover-charge waived, but Candy appropriated the ³rape stage² for her dancing. She made a spectacle of herself. Candy physically created ample space around herself though her fluid and space-consuming body movement. Candy directed the movement of others surrounding her by inviting them to dance with her; she initiated a doggie-style reenactment on the dance floor. Candy was playing a specific role, that of an ultra-sexualized woman able to erotically remove articles of clothing while she danced provocatively. She lusted for both sex and sexual movement. Like Annie Sprinkle in Linda Williamsı essay, Candy shows that,

[ ]within the realm of the sexual, performances of bosom ballets,
female money shots, and six-minute orgasms can sometimes work
wonders. For sexuality today is a thoroughly commodified arena to self­
help and self­fulfillment requiring levels of self-control and agency that
would have baffled the Greeks. (376).

Candy displayed self­control; her ability to dictate the movement towards her and surrounding her contributed to her agency. Through her strong, assertive, dominating body language, she subverted the common expectation of this club. She could gain sexual satisfaction anyway that she pleased. Candy may have asserted extra sexual control to challenge the public mind of the club. What was interesting, however, was the positive and supportive attention that this woman received from the eager male on­lookers. It was obvious that a strong, sexual woman was accepted by the men within the space.

The second example relates to the performance aspect of gender and its interaction with body language. One woman placed a soda bottle between her legs to readjust her pony-tail. While the bottle was propped between her legs, a male kneeled down and pretended to drink from this bottle. This blatantly ejaculatory image exemplifies further subversion that occurred while at Egypt on the Waterfront. The distinct sex-reversal here demonstrated dominance in jeopardy. Who was being satisfied through this act? The woman with the bottle shoved between her legs was gaining pleasure, or was it the thirsty male sipping from her hard, glass ³bottle?² The particulars of this debate are quite arguable; but what is integral to consider is the very imagery this invokes contributes to the performance of gender and sexuality within the space.

Certain atmospheres may call for greater acting, and these are the environments where true gender ³doing² or performing is most obvious. The club scene where our body language research, observation, and interaction occurred enables us to determine the correlation between gender and dominance within such a formally-defined heterosexual space function. We conclude that the observed male-female differences may not be necessarily attributed to males expressing dominance, power, and oppression and females expressing deference, submissiveness, and powerlessness. Women may simply perform different dominance displays than men do. Thus, nonverbal behaviors exhibited by women may not have the same dominance meanings as when exhibited by men. There is definitely room for body language subversion within this particular heterosexually formally­defined space.

Burgoon, Judee K. and Leesa Dillman. 1995. ³Gender, Immediacy,a nd Nonverbal Communication.² In Kalbfleisch and
Cody (Eds.) Gender, Power, and Communication in Human Relationships. Hillsdale, N.j. Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates Publishers.

Butler, Judith. 1997. ³Performative acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Thinking.² In
Conboy et al. (Eds.)Writing on the Body. New York: Columbia University Press.

Henley, N.M. 1977. Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Nonverbal Communication. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice­Hall.

Radecki, C. and J. Jennings. 1980. ³Sex as a Status Variable in Work Settings: Female and Male Reports on Dominance
Behavior.² Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 10, 71­85.

Williams, Linda. 1997.³A Provoking Agent: The Pornography and Performance Art of
Annie Sprinkle .² In Conboy et al. (Eds.)

Link to the Women's Studies Department at Swarthmore College

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