A Digital (N)Ethnographic Journey through the Roots and Routes of Boylesque

Note: This blog post is cross-posted with the ASTR Digital Methods Working Group. Feel free to provide comments here, however, as I will answer them here too!

Self-identified male bodies in burlesque has a history that goes further back than is normally considered in accounts of burlesque history and are an under-theorized absence in nearly all accounts of burlesque within Theatre and Performance Studies. More general studies of striptease, as well, do not normally focus on male bodies with a few notable exceptions.1 In my dissertation, I look to boylesque, a fairly new genre still growing out of, or intricately mixed with, the neo-burlesque movement, where male-identified bodies of different sexes perform in creatively constructed striptease routines. I address the history and political aspects of boylesque, both as genre and term in relation to the larger history and context of male striptease in New York, the US, and globally.

In an early part of the dissertation, “Heteroflexible Bodies,” I will look at norms around and conceptions of male striptease in mainstream culture, through both films representing male strippers and their adaptations. I focus on the establishment and perpetuation of such norms through marketing and performances, originally by Chippendales and, starting in the 1980s, their many competitors: American Storm, Australia’s Thunder from Down Under, Men of Sapphire, Men of X, La Bare, International Men of Steel, Olympic Gardens, and Hollywood Men. I argue that the establishment of these norms took place through the forced assumption of female audiences by a more or less explicit ban on male audiences, and that these performers are what I call “heteroflexible,”seemingly giving up power by objectifying the male body, but still assuming a position of power, in relation to their female audiences that maintains the male gaze as a governing structure.

The examples in the first part are contrasted by another part of the dissertation that traces a history of male striptease dancers, primarily in the Times Square area, gearing their acts to marginal audiences, performing different forms of objectification and more flexible ideals of masculinity. One historical example in this part concerns male strippers in the late 1920s and early 1930s burlesque theatres who performed in semi-drag in theatres along 42nd Street. Another example will come from interviews with dancers from gay striptease theatres of Times Square and their conception of the construction of masculinity. Should their performances be considered an extension of the norms established by Chippendales and their imitators.Were they perpetuating the same “heteroflexible” ideals—but in relation to the queer audiences in those theatres?2 Considering the Chippendales’ ban of potentially gay audiences, can we say that these theatres offered anything different in terms of their performances, solely based on the assumed audience?

A third part of the dissertation brings us to boylesque and the examples of contemporary boylesque performers who engage playfully with femininity and masculinity, rejecting the heteroflexible objectification of the male body, and challenges the norms elaborated in the previous two parts.The playfulness of their acts, and their awareness of the gender politics of their acts, becomes especially challenging to the normative ideals of male striptease, I argue, because the performers are tightly knit together in what I call the “boylesque circuit.” I am currently working with the thesis that boylesque is organized in a more transient movement pattern across the United States, and potentially beyond its borders,compared to male striptease culture generally.3 This might have to do with the fact that boylesque as a genre is a product of a new media culture, relying for marketing as well as organization, on online spaces and interactions through digital media, which makes it easy to organize performances in spaces and for audiences that might not have known about the performances otherwise.4

These three parts—the dissertation’s “chapters”—will come together in a born-digital, non-linear dissertation constructed through the open-source platform Scalar, which allows me to integrate video-recorded interviews, maps, timelines, and other media into the more traditional text of my study—but also for my informants themselves, to annotate and comment on the material itself. As hopefully becomes clear, I am interested in using technology to develop new methods to engage with the historical and contemporary subjects of my dissertation in ways that can involve them in the longer process of both participating in as well as creating a research project. The technology can also make the project accessible to audiences outside the traditional boundaries of academia. In all, the dissertation project is developed in and with the public, and thus situated in the intersection of Public and Digital Humanities.

In this way, I am interested in “challenging the traditional humanist ethos of solitary thought,” as our Working Group’s Call for Papers suggests that DH can do. But I am also interested in challenging some potentially prevailing normativity within the field of DH itself: the male gaze is often thwarted here, as we are looking at bodies that have been marginalized—as non-female or non-normative in terms of their genders and sexualities—through both the historiography of the genre itself (regardless if we discuss striptease or burlesque) as well as the manifold ethnographies written on striptease dancers.

The Map

The use of the term (n)ethnographic research in the title of my paper is meant to signal my first attempts at entering into this dissertation project outlined above.In order to begin my investigation of the employment of the term boylesque and its relation to other forms of male striptease, I have attempted to map the physical as well as the conceptual relation between the different terms and forms. For the past year, I have scraped Twitter for conversations around boylesque, and more recently male striptease generally.5

My goal is to create a topic model of the Twitter discussions over the past year, in order to figure out what is being spoken about and where in audience and performer groups respectively. This would ideally govern the formulation of my initial research questions for the dissertation project at large. The project is still a work in progress and I am currently working on a method to map the Twitter conversations into a MySQL database, by scraping the social network (using TAGS), geotagging the individual tweets (through a complex method which I will be happy to talk more about or write another blog post about), and mapping them in CartoDB. The next step will be to visualize not only the physical location of the tweets but also the relationship to certain topics.

The method I have developed poses a number of problems at almost every point of data collection, which I am happy to talk more about in the comments to this post or when we meet in Portland.

In a future version of the map, I hope to be able to create a separation between the different categories of tweets so that I will be able to select whether the CartoDB interface shows tweets mentioning boylesque or tweets mentioning the male striptease collection of search words. I am speculating that there might be a difference between the two in terms of location. With the help of software such as Gephi, I would be able to also visualize the user interactions within and between the two respective categories. Another hope for a future version of the map is to create a temporal dimension of the map, where I will be able to navigate, over the year, where tweets around these topics are happening over time.

In the remainder of this post, I hoped to describe in detail the process of bringing tweets from over the past year into a single heat map with interactive (clickable) tweets displaying more information. However, that description ended up 1,000 words long. I would still be happy to post it, should you be interested in reading a long description of the question that Miriam Posner asked best: “How did they make that?”

Notes

1. For men who dance for men, see Tewksbury 1993, 1994; DeMarco 2002, 2007; Boden 2007. For men who dance for women, see Petersen and Dressel 1982; Dressel and Petersen 1982; Margolis and Arnold 1993; Calhoun et al. 1998; and Bernard et al. 2003. For a full bibliography, see boylesque.info. Note that most of those are written not byscholars in the field of Theatre and Performance Studies, however, but mainly by sociologists and anthropologists.

2. I believe we can safely assume that audiences in gay striptease theatres are not always gay but will certainly queer heteronormative assumptions about rigid separations between heterosexual and homosexual desires, which is why I have chosen to call them queer audiences here.

3. Compare to other studies of striptease culture, which seem to show that dancers are fairly static in one physical location, town, city, or even one specific bar, over extended periods of time

4. This part will also discuss the susceptibility of such media interactions to a capitalist circulation of bodies, notably in pornography, where the term boylesque has recently circulated as part of the marketing strategy of gay pornography producing company CockyBoys.

5. The search term “boylesque” has been active since Oct 15, 2014, and the search terms “male strip,”“male erotic dancing,” “male revue,” and “#malestriptease” have been active since July 17, 2015. Before then, the project was going to focus explicitly and only on boylesque as a genre.

Bibliography

Bernard, Constance, Christen DeGabrielle, Lynette Cartier, Elizabeth Monk-Turner, Celestine Phill, Jennifer Sherwood, and Thomasena Tyree. “Exotic Dancers: Gender Differences in Societal Reaction, Subcultural Ties and Conventional Support.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 10, no. 1 (2003): 1–11.

Boden, David M. “Alienation of Sexuality in Male Erotic Dancing.”Journal of Homosexuality 53, no. 1–2 (2007): 129–152.

Calhoun, Thomas C., Julie Ann Harms Cannon, and Rhonda Fisher. “Explorations in Youth Culture. Amateur Stripping: What we Know and What we Don’t.” In Youth Culture: Identity in a Postmodern World, edited by Jonathon S. Epstein, 302–326. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

DeMarco, Joseph R. G. “The World of Gay Strippers.” Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 9, no. 2 (2002): 12–15.

DeMarco, Joseph R. G. “Power and Control in Gay Strip Clubs.” Journal of Homosexuality 53, no. 1–2 (2007): 111–127.

Dressel, Paula L., and David Peterson. “Gender Roles, Sexuality and the Male Strip Show: The Structuring of Sexual Opportunity.” Sociological Focus 15, no. 2 (April 1982): 151–62.

Dressel, Paula L., and David Peterson. “Becoming a Male Stripper: Recruitment, Socialisation and Ideological Development.” Work and Occupations 9, no. 3 (August 1982): 387–406.

Dressel, Paula L., and David Peterson. “Equal Time for Women: Social Notes on the Male Strip Show.” Urban Life 11, no. 2 (1982): 185–208.

Margolis, Maxine and Arnold, Marigene. “Turning the Table? Male Strippers and the Gender Hierarchy.” In Sex and Gender Hierarchies, edited by Barbara Diane Miller, 334–50. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Tewksbury, Richard. “Male Strippers: Men Objectifying Men.” In Doing Women’s Work: Men in Nontraditional Occupations, edited by Christine L. Williams, 168–181. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1993

Tewksbury, Richard. “A Dramaturgical Analysis of Male Strippers.” Journal of Men’s Studies 2, no. 4 (1994): 325–335.