Words By Legba Carrefour, Photos By Danielle Vu
Ritual magic is something that often transports someone from one social position to another. It usually happens during a delicate time, a time where the social fabric runs thin, roles become reversed, and categories of power become unstable. Anthropologists speak of rituals as mechanisms for resolving the psychological (often Freudian) anxieties that these thin times produce. Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper is a pretty solid example of this sort of role reversal in the face of anxiety about God and mortality–he humbles himself as he’s about to be crucified and borne into Heaven, blah blah blah.
Now think of that same Jesus, nude but for cuffs and a bow tie, being screamed at by hundreds of young women as he gyrates in front of an audience and begs forgiveness for his sins and that might make sense of what was going on in my head that night I stepped into the Fillmore to review a Chippendales show. I was greeted with what can only be described as the most impressive use of ritual magic since Aleister Crowley led the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Chippendales was founded 1979 when two failed gas station owners turned failed nightclub owners were brought the idea of an all-male strip tease show aimed uniquely at women by a failed exercise bench salesman. That the idea immediately took off owes its success to Chippendales’ commitment to providing a “safe, female-only environment that’s about fun and fantasy fulfillment”–commitment to such a degree that an early source of lawsuits were from attempts by the club to bounce gay male clientele. After the suicide of the exercise bench guy following the murder and corpse-defilement of his wife and the suicide of one of the club owners following the murder of other club owner, the trademark fell into a period of disrepair until a massive clean-up and revival operations in the late-90s. Since then, the show has grown into a global club franchise operation, complete with a regular tour in 60-odd countries.
By the time I walked in, a review of the show proper was more or less impossible (and let’s be real, the photos alongside this story are why you clicked the link) as general admission was shunted to a balcony filled four rows deep with screaming ladies in their twenties dressed to the nines. I didn’t figure this as a handicap–I walked in with this thing more or less written in my head and my mind made up. My plan was a quick comparison of the aesthetics to pro-wrestling, check out the audience demographics, flee, trash the show on the Internet, move on. What I found instead was a strange liminal zone where heterosexual women got to have fun simply by virtue of being heterosexual women in a space where the men present were merely set-dressing for the ritual. When you see the men dance, you see less men than men-as-objects, nude but for their Ken doll-style blanked-out junk spots–their genitals like lacunae in a grand opera of gender in the 21st century. I expected the cheesecake, I expected the screaming, what I did not expect was to (a) have fun despite not being able to really see anything and (b) find the experience, on the whole, mouth-gapingly profound.
The show itself is a Vegas-scale impressive pastiche of tropes about male strippers and current pop culture references (if you watch them on YouTube, you’ll find a bunch of Men In Black inspired scenes and, I, for one, am glad to live in a world where a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones can be turned into a sexy striptease), split into scenes that sometimes drag random audience members on stage, such as a middle-aged woman who got dragged into a twerking contest (which was just amazing, I can’t lie). It’s worth noting that simply putting on cheesecake without making it deeply creepy is difficult–the notorious eroticized images of Nazis in uniform by renowned gay cheesecake artist Tom of Finland aren’t an aberration in the history of nude performance.
As strange fertility rituals go, this seems a pretty fun way to navigate the terrain of gender in a world where being a heterosexual woman often means being told to play out the most boring or threatening of roles. Lupercalia, the fertility holiday renamed St. Valentine’s Day, involved half naked men running through towns slapping random women on the hands or backs in a ritual that likely involved less attractive men and far less consent. You quickly realized that these women weren’t dressed up or screaming cheers for men (the building was entirely empty of men who weren’t employed in some way to be there, including myself), but for each other and themselves.
In professional wrestling, there is such a thing as “kayfabe”–a code of honor on the part of the wrestlers not to do anything to break the suspension of disbelief that surrounds the hulking, sweaty, choreographed bodies that circle each other, cling, and pronounce their virility to the audience. That suspension is allegedly to maintain the dramatic, years-long rivalries and triumphs between good and evil that are pro-wrestling’s trademarks. The more likely explanation is that it allows everyone to pretend like what they aren’t enjoying isn’t deeply homoerotic. That’s not a knock on pro-wrestling fans (whom I’ve come to respect after this): The homoeroticism deferred is what makes it fun, campy, an indulgence–something that eases anxieties. Chippendales is no different, and it’s no wonder that the two found meteoric success in the 1980s–the decade when the explosion of American cultural dominance across television screens produced anxieties on a global scale.
The only difference is in who is playing the kayfabe game. In pro-wrestling, it’s the guys in spandex. At a Chippendales show, it’s the audience. I met a woman, who insisted on being unnamed for this review, who had a husband of seven years and said that her favorite dancer is the one who looked like her ex-boyfriend.
As the show ended, and this seemingly endless parade of young women in stretch pants burst out of the doors that the Fillmore had to barricade with planters at one point, the middle-aged woman who got pulled up on the stage was surrounded by what I could only describe as fans. Swear to God, one girl asked her for an autograph. The older woman plumped up her bust triumphantly and stepped out into the night.