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Poetic Thinking 2016 | February 17, 2020

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Harris –> Barthes

Harris –> Barthes
Harry Desmond

The discussion of Harris’ “I love your work” (and in particular the question of whether the women were being objectified, exploited or demeaned) reminded me of the interesting perspective of Roland Barthes in Mythologies (“striptease”). Barthes argues that the craft or professionalism of the women engaged in striptease (or porn) effectively acts as a covering, rendering them far less vulnerable than one might otherwise have thought. They may be naked, but their deliberate and skillful actions effectively draw attention away from their nakedness and onto their art. They are not demeaned by their situation but rather fully in control, nor are they appropriated by their voyeuristic audience but instead have power over them. If to be objectified is their lot, at least they have come to an understanding of it, come to terms with it, perhaps to some extent chosen it. I don’t want to commit myself wholeheartedly to this rather quirky position, but I did feel this coming through to some extent in the women’s confident comments in the Harris clip. Barthes writes:

Contrary to the common prejudice, the dance which accompanies the striptease from beginning to end is in no way an erotic element. It is probably quite the reverse: the faintly rhythmical undulation in this case exorcizes the fear of immobility. Not only does it give to the show the alibi of Art (the dances in strip-shows are always ‘artistic’), but above all it constitutes the last barrier, and the most efficient of all: the dance, consisting of ritual gestures which have been seen a thousand times, acts on movements as a cosmetic, it hides nudity… Thus we see the professionals of striptease wrap themselves in the miraculous ease which constantly clothes them, makes them remote, gives them the icy indifference of skillful practitioners, haughtily taking refuge in the sureness of their technique: their science clothes them like a garment.

Striptease is identified with a career (beginners, semi-professionals, professionals), that is, to the honourable practice of a specialization (strippers are skilled workers). One can even give them the magical alibi of work: vocation; one girl is, say, ‘doing well’ or ‘well on the may to fuelling her promise’, or on the contrary ‘taking her first steps’ on the arduous path of striptease.

All this, this meticulous exorcism of sex, can be verified a contrario in the ‘popular contests’ of amateur striptease: there, ‘beginners’ undress in front of a few hundred spectators without resorting or resorting very clumsily to magic, which unquestionably restores to the spectacle its erotic power. Here we find… gauche steps, unsatisfactory dancing, girls constantly threatened by immobility, and above all by a ‘technical’ awkwardness (the resistance of briefs, dress or bra) which gives to the gestures of unveiling an unexpected importance, denying the woman the alibi of art and the refuge of being an object, imprisoning her in a condition of weakness and timorousness.

Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.

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