Friday 21 October 2011

Dancing for the Eyes of Men (triggers for rape culture)

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

I wrote "Eyes of Men" to explore the conflict between being a feminist and being sexually attracted to women, in a culture where attraction to women is represented as something which is only experienced by men, and which almost always involves some degree of objectification.

The song is about becoming aware that the way I look at women is shaped by the way I see men looking at women, and the by way male perspectives on women are represented in fiction and the media. When objectification is frequently represented as an intrinsic part of sexual attraction, it is difficult to reconcile attraction with respect. As a queer feminist woman, this is an issue I struggle with, and one I wanted to explore. In the fight against the kyriarchy I believe it is important to examine the ways in which we internalise oppressive attitudes and ways of relating to others, and to become aware of how we are each complicit in perpetuating oppression. For me, exploring  how I personally have internalised objectifying ways of looking at women is part of the process of challenging the culture of objectification.

At this point it would be useful to explain what I mean by objectification. If you're already familiar with the concepts of object and subject, feel free to skip this part. If you're not sure, I'll try to explain. To treat a person as a subject is to acknowledge that there is a particular way the world looks from that person's perspective. A subject has experiences, feelings, desires, goals - in other words, they have subjectivity. As Thomas Nagel put it, there is "something it is like" to be that person. To treat a person as an object is to consider them only in terms of how they appear from other people's perspectives, and ignore their own perspective. Objectification, then, means to think of a person as an object, by failing to acknowledge that they are a conscious, feeling, experiencing person with their own point of view.

I'm not going to discuss the song itself much here, because I think the lyrics are largely self-explanatory and you can read them here. What I want to write about is the way different dancers have interpreted the song.

I always intended that Eyes of Men would be performed by a singer and a dancer. The audience watches the singer watching the dancer, and if the song is effective, they empathize with the singer as they begin to question how they themselves are looking at the dancer. It is rather telling that I never gave very much thought to what the dancer would do. Partly that's because I'm not a dancer or a choreographer myself, and it's in keeping with the way Lashings works that people who had the skills and the desire to choreograph a dance took on that task. But without getting into the details, I could still have given the various performers who have played the dancer some clues as to her character and motivation. In fact, I decided that there should be someone on stage to be objectified by the singer, and left it at that.

The consequence of my apparently having genuinely no interest in seeing "beyond the facade" was that different dancers have brought very different interpretations to the character, and that has been really interesting. The context and meaning of the song changes with each performer. The song is very personal for me, and so I've found myself having quite strong reactions to the different characters portrayed by the various performers. In this post I will talk about my emotional reactions to the different characters. Since the song is in part about feeling guilty, the level of guilt I feel about my interactions with each character is an important part of  my response to them. However, when I say that I feel less guilty with some characters, I'm not implying that there is anything about those characters which morally justifies my character's (or indeed my) attitude towards them. I think the intuition that objectification is somehow less wrong in some circumstances than others is worth exploring in itself, but I don't believe that intuition is always correct. As will become clear, the lines between myself and my character in this song are very blurred, so my feelings while performing the song offer an insight into how I experience attraction and objectification more generally.

Lilka poses on chair in Eyes of Men
Lilka in Eyes of Men at Goldsmiths, Feb 2010.
Photography by Laura Morris.
Description of picture: Lilka sits astride a backward-turned chair. She is wearing fishnets, high heels and a shiny black and red tailcoat. Her face rests on her left hand and her right arm rests across the top of the chair back. She is looking out towards the audience.

The first performer to dance Eyes of Men was Lilka. Her character is very knowing: her dance is almost a parody of eroticism, deliberately playing into stereotypes of what is sexy. She comes across as very much in control of herself and the situation, inviting the audience to lust after the image she is presenting while keeping her real self well protected. Her character never appears vulnerable, or in need of the audience's approval. She performs confident in the knowledge that she's good at what she does, and she seems to enjoy it.

It was Lilka who came up with the finishing touch that, towards the end of the song, we see the dancer back stage. As the imaginary curtain drops, she drops the mask and the audience sees a little of her real feelings - her feet are sore from wearing high heels. Later this ending developed so that not only does she remove the shoes but she actually gets fully dressed, covering the "stripper" outfit with jeans and a jacket, and turning to give a smile and a wave to the audience as she leaves.

I have always been much more comfortable singing Eyes of Men with Lilka than with any of the other dancers who have performed it, and I think that has a lot to do with the way that her character seems to give me permission to objectify her. For the period when she is on stage, she is inviting the audience to look at her and desire her, consciously adopting every possible cliche to let them know that she is there to be lusted after. When she leaves, I get the impression that regardless of what the audience thought, her self-esteem is intact and she can look after herself. In other words, neither my lust nor my discomfort has hurt her.

Now, obviously, my feelings towards the character are shaped in part by what I know of Lilka - that she is not in fact dependent on erotic dancing to make a living, that she will be safe when she leaves because we'll all be leaving together, that she is very much in control of her own performance because she choreographed it herself and chose her own costume, and is free to decide not to perform that act if she feels at all uncomfortable. If I were watching a stranger perform that kind of dance, I wouldn't infer from the performance itself that the dancer was happy and safe and in control, because I wouldn't know anything about the context of their life and the conditions of their employment. But, given that the Eyes of Men character doesn't exist beyond Lilka's performance, speculating about that character's life is a very different activity from speculating about a real person. In this case, based on Lilka's performance, I speculate that the character is strong, confident, perhaps a little cynical, but largely unscathed by the experience. She's not going to reveal anything that she doesn't want to. Although the song is about the guilt that comes of being aware of myself objectifying other women, I don't feel all that guilty because Lilka's character seems able to take a little objectification in her stride.

 Again, I want to reiterate that I'm talking about my emotional reaction to the character rather than the moral right or wrongness of objectifying such a person. Thinking that because someone gives the impression of being strong and confident, therefore you don't have to worry about their possible vulnerability, is just another form of objectification. When I perform with Lilka, I feel that the song becomes entirely about the effect she has on me, and there is a certain amount of relief in feeling that I am not having much effect on her, because she's not making herself vulnerable. It's important to me to be aware that I'm sometimes tempted to imagine that other people are not vulnerable enough to be affected by my actions.

Annalytica and Itcia performing Eyes of Men
Myself singing and Itcia dancing at Baby Simple, May 2010
Photography by Laura Morris
Description of picture: Annalytica stands to the left, singing into a microphone. She is wearing a long-sleeved purple top and black trousers. She is looking towards Itcia, who stands behind a red and silver chair to the right. Itcia is covering her face with her left arm and turning her head away from Annalytica. Itcia is wearing a black corset, black hot pants, black stockings and high-heeled knee-high black boots.

Itcia's performance was very different. She also went for a fairly stereotypical stockings, corset and heels look, but throughout the dance her character was clearly uncomfortable about being watched. She scowled at me, playing the sexy dancer from the neck down but making no attempt to hide the disgust in her face. It was much more difficult to sing opposite Itcia. In showing genuine (and painful) emotion, unlike Lilka's mask, Itcia's facial expressions invited the audience to empathize with the dancer. And since the audience's empathy with the singer is dependent on their objectifying the dancer, once the dancer becomes a sympathetic character, the singer becomes the antagonist.

I'm not averse to playing an antagonist: in my time with Lashings I've played various villains, including a personified Facebook, Mok Wan, and A S Byatt disguised as Dumbledore in order to poison Harry and Ron (it makes sense in context ...... sort of). Villainy can be a lot of fun to perform, but when I sing Eyes of Men I am pretty much playing myself, so being cast as the villain is rather more uncomfortable.

And yet.... the song is supposed to be uncomfortable. It's certainly easier to tell an audience that I sometimes objectify women when the particular woman I'm looking at seems OK with being objectified, but ease is not necessarily the most important thing. I considered asking Itcia to play the character more the way Lilka does, so I wouldn't look like the bad guy. But on reflection, her different interpretation of the dance is just as valid. It becomes a rather different act - darker, more disturbing. There is no happy resolution with the dancer confidently striding off in her jeans: there is just an aftertaste of guilt and discomfort. In some ways that's appropriate - I didn't write a resolution into the lyrics because I haven't found one.

Carlotta's interpretation was different again. Unlike both Lilka and Itcia, she is apparently unaware of being watched. Or at least, she is unaware of the intensity with which she's being watched. Carlotta plays the character as a teenager, innocently dancing in the way she's seen her idols dance. Perhaps she does want some attention, and to be found attractive, but she probably doesn't want the kind of attention she's getting. Depending on who is singing and how they play the character, this can make the act incredibly creepy. Alternatively, if the singer portrays their character as being equally young and almost as innocent, it can become a song about teenagers struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.

I've never actually sung opposite Carlotta myself, and generally my emotional reaction to these characters only really happens when I'm performing with them, so I don't have such a strong opinion about Carlotta's performance. In some ways her character is closer to the people who inspired the song in the first place - after all, I don't actually hang around at strip clubs, and I'm more likely to find myself guiltily lusting after ordinary unsuspecting women than professional erotic dancers.

Galatea's portrayal of the dancer affected me deeply, and we went through a few variations in rehearsal to find a version we were both comfortable with before we performed together. She conveyed a very different character from any of the previous performers. Lilka's character was very aware of the audience and performed to them, but seemed secure enough in herself not to be too affected by their reaction. Itcia's character hated being looked at, while Carlotta's character seemed unaware she was being watched. Galatea's character wanted to be watched. She demanded my attention. I felt that the character would be upset and offended if I didn't desire her, which created a fantastically complex tension between us. The whole issue of objectification was brought into sharp relief by how much it disturbed me to feel that I was having an effect on this person - that she was vulnerable and my interactions with her had the power to hurt her.

The first time I rehearsed Eyes of Men with Galatea, I was aware that my own performance was far more intense than usual. The confused mixture of eroticism and guilt that I always aim to convey was much closer to the surface this time. Initially there was a great deal of interaction and contact between us. I later asked Galatea to change the dance so there would be less interaction, on the grounds that it's a song about looking but not touching. And certainly when I first wrote it, it was at least in part a song about not being out - and therefore thinking that most women wouldn't expect me to be looking at them that way, and feeling even more guilty because of the dishonesty. For the dancer to want and expect me to find her sexually attractive seemed to obscure that meaning too much.

And yet it brought a different, more complex meaning to the act. It was not only about the way that our culture encourages us to objectify the women we found attractive, but also about the way we are encouraged to objectify ourselves by making our attractiveness a measure of our worth. Two women who have each internalised the male gaze so deeply that, without any men even being present, they both encourage one other to think of one of them as a sexual object, dependent on the other's desire to prove her worth - that's not quite the story I intended to tell with this song, but it's still a story worth telling.

I wrote a song about my experiences of objectifying other women. From my perspective, it's a song about me and my feelings and how I am affected by the women I'm attracted to. The various performers who have danced in Eyes of Men gave the dancer her own character and perspective and feelings. I left the character as a blank slate because I was writing about the experience of not seeing her as a person, and as a result, each performer has developed a unique character that goes well beyond anything I imagined when I wrote the song. Each has answered the questions "How is the dancer affected by the singer?" and "How does she feel about being watched?" in a different way.

That diversity is itself a powerful challenge to objectification. Obviously I'm already against objectification or I wouldn't have written the song, but equally obviously, the fact that I know it's wrong doesn't stop me doing it. Sometimes an intellectual argument isn't enough. The graphic portrayal of the different ways different women respond to being objectified highlights their individuality and above all, their subjectivity. The different performers each brought their character to life, forcing me, and the audience, to be aware of their feelings and experiences. I'm grateful for that.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen Lilka perform this and I thought she was great, really knowing - the twist at the end with the jacket and jeans was a fantastic touch. Interesting to hear how others have interpreted it!