Staging the Slut: Hyper-Sexuality in Performance
Issue #20, April 1995
slutkiss girl won't you promise her smack
IS SHE PRETTY ON THE INSIDE
IS SHE PRETTY FROM THE BACK
SLUTKISS GIRL WONT YOU WATERHERBACK
IS SHE PRETTY ON THE INSIDE
IS SHE PRETTY FROM THE BACK
dead moon girl molasses rot black strap
is she rotten on the inside
ugly from the back?
my pretty power
my pretty power,power,prayer
is she UGLYUGLYUGLYUGLYUGLY
— Courtney Love (Hole)
Is there a place for a sexualized female with integrity, strength, and respect in American culture? If not in reality, then how about in a comic book character-turned-Hollywood movie icon? How about Tank Girl? Tank Girl kicks ass without ever letting her audience and rivals forget that she's a damn good piece-of-ass. Tank Girl is a survivor; she's tortured, beaten, spat upon, and degraded but comes back fighting at every turn with her most intimidating and powerful weapon — her sexuality. Most social circles would call Tank Girl a slut. She cusses like a sailor, shows way too much flesh, and comes off as a real mindless hussy. But Tank Girl's slut-identity keeps her alive; men cannot penetrate her. When Malcolm McDowell says he's going to torture her, she practically purrs with pleasure. She can't wait. She disarms Malcolm McDowell's weapon — the threat of physical violation and pain — and throws it back at him. She does not bow down and play virtuous victim. She throws her sex in the face of all her perpetrators, and she comes out on top. The slut wins.
Or does she? Sure, in the end Tank Girl ends up in a relationship with a person who does not see her as a sexual plaything, but appreciates her as a whole person (how romantic). But, that person is a canine-male, a mandog! Is that the prize at the end of her struggles? Did this comic slut hero really conquer? Not according to box office returns and critics responses. The film was simply not a success, and apparently America is not quite ready for a larger than life, hyper-sexualized female comic book hero. But why should it be?
...all I know is I'm clean as a whistle baby...
— Liz Phair
All girls are supposed to want to be popular. That is the girl-dream: to be liked, loved, respected, and popular among one's peers. Well, if you want to be popular in the 90's; if you want to be accepted and respected, there are two sure ways to do it: 1. be the Good Girl and live quietly and complacently in the heterosexual matrix; 2. be the Good Feminist and show your strength by not perpetuating those horrible, dehumanizing, and disempowering malecreated images of female sexuality. Either way you have to be a 'clean' girl, hide your sloppy female sexuality, keep your physical desires under cover, and play by the prescribed rules of behavior, communication, and fashion that Good Girl Patriarchy and Good Feminist Matriarchy enforce. The Good Girls and Good Feminists wear their 'acquired' gender roles well; they have integrated the system into their bodies and lives and fit quietly with the other pieces in their social clique.
If you're not a Good Girl or a Good Feminist then theres a Good Chance that you are the Other Girl, the one whos supposed to be kept undercover. You know, the one 'they're' always talking about — The Slut. She's always been around — the bad girl on campus, the one that will give anyone a blow-job for a beer, the one who wears her insides out, flaunts her sexuality, and seems to have a real good time doing it. She's dismissed by men, scorned by women, but necessary for both. The men need her to fulfill their fantasies and satisfy their libidos; they need her for the blow-jobs and for the affirmation of their power over women. The women need her to affirm their own purity and rightness, to secure their place in the Good Girl/Good Feminist communities. The problem with sluts, however, is that they talk back. In practice the Slut shamelessly rants, is in your face at every turn, and refuses to slink away after the dirty deeds have been done.
The Slut has recently taken center stage in all forms of media. She comes in a flurry of controversy and hype. But what happens when one adopts the persona of the whore, takes the insides of female sexuality and wears them on the outside? Performance sluts take all the mess of female sex and throw it into the public eye. Ultimately, they help empower women by forcing people to question their own attitudes toward female sexuality. However, this degree of empowerment does not come without complex implications.
The sex industry has always been an arena in which women perform their sexuality for the consuming pleasure of the male gaze. The prostitute, the erotic dancer, and the porn queen consciously mold their personalities and physically manipulate their bodies into sexual objects created to fill the male appetite for that tantalizing yet forbidden raw female flesh. However, performing hyper-sexuality is no longer confined to slippery stages in red light districts, 16mm porn flicks, or faux-velvet motel rooms. It has become a standard act for female performers of all types. From rock stars to art-robots to comic book heroines, women are adopting the vocabulary of the locker room and applying it to their own bodies and work; they dig out the unglamorous, unseemly, and unacceptable dregs of female sex and construct pop icons out of them. They are taking control of their bodies by losing control of their bodies and forcing people, male and female, to question their sexual values/attitudes and to reconsider what it means to be female.
The slut leaks out of a bed of noise, equipped with electric guitar, apocalyptic machinery, and a dirty, dirty mouth. She spews her sex on major record labels, in movies, and in art galleries. She wont shut up. But it is not the pure porno-queen sex object that emerges here. She denies her audience the satisfaction of a pure pornographic/erotic moment by disrupting its sexual pleasure with a bunch of ugly noise. Courtney Love and Hole provide the perfect 'erotic noise' balance as Courtney's songs oscillate between orgasmic sex-kitten pants and violent witch-like howls; she is the perfect little baby-doll broken into shards of screeching guitar and ear piercing wails. Throughout history, women's sexuality has tended to become a 'thing.' A thing, after all, is more manageable than a person. However, for a thing to be formed, it must be de-formed, robbed of its original shape. Female sexuality has always been forced to conform to a social mold — either locked behind closed doors or exploited for the pleasure of the male consumer. We expect women to conform to one form or the other, but Courtney gives us both — the glistening sex doll and the screeching life buried under the pink plastic. In the process, she forces us to question our need to place women in fixed sexual identities.
I witnessed the complexities of the 'erotic noise' audience/performance slut dynamic on an intimate level at a recent art opening featuring apocalyptic industrial robots. 'Humper,' a mechanized street walker whose dialogue I scripted and performed, roamed the gallery confronting the viewers with an onslaught of obscenities and unglamorous details of her sexual exploits. Her body was as messy as her life — a bunch of rusty metal blades, broken machinery, and ugly apparatus, yet she spoke in a seductive, enticing voice full of juice and sex. The audience members visibly struggled with their reactions to Humper's ugly sexuality. Should they be attracted? Repulsed? Horrified? Aroused? As they struggled with their feelings, their reactions ultimately revealed how reactionary contemporary perceptions of female sexuality really are, even in the supposedly avantgarde art scene. The men alternated between disgusted looks of dismissal and rapt gazes of excited curiosity and coy wonder. The women at one moment clung to their male partners, averted their eyes, and turned and walked away, and at the next moment stood mesmerized and agape at the mechanical display of female sex, at their hidden insides so graphically exposed. Upon realizing that they were engaging so intimately with their own sex, the women quickly turned away, embarrassed for engaging with 'themselves' in this pornographic way.
As long as men are so easily seduced by the whore, even when she's as ugly as Humper, and as long as women are embarrassed and mortified by her and by their own sexuality, then the whore needs to continue to perform. She needs to confront her adversaries with her open sexuality and force them to re-examine their imprisoning standards and attitudes toward female sexuality.
slut me open and touch my stars
slit me open and suck my scars
— Courtney Love (Hole)
In all her raucous noise and sexual exploits, alternative slut/diva Courtney Love has become the whore we all love to hate. She has appropriated the identity of the whore and plastered it and herself all over the American media — tabloids, MTV, Newsweek, etc. With Courtney, the complexities of performing hyper-sexuality are constantly at play. Why does the world love to hate Courtney? Because she is a slut; because she is totally fucked up; because shell fuck anything; because she is out of control. Or is she? Because of Courtney's teenage and young adult years in the sex industry, and because of her current and quite convincing stage slut persona, the division between imitation and original becomes murky. Is she really a slut, or is she just manipulating the image of a slut? How much of Courtney's out-of-control-sex-slut shtick is self-created? My guess is a lot more than people tend to believe.
One can read Courtney's appropriation of the whore identity as a survival tool, as a way of taking an active role in the formation of her own identity. She creates her own identity before the outside world creates it for her. '[I was a] Teenage whore/Because I wanted that shirt & I wanted those pants,' wails Courtney on 'Pretty on the Inside.' Sure, one can read this as empty material desire or as ironic commentary on capitalism, which it is in part. More significantly, however, it suggests that by becoming a 'teenage whore,' Courtney found the means with which to take control of her own life. She wanted something; she used the tools she had to get it on her own. She created her own path, rather than following the one prescribed for her. Similarly, as long as she turns herself into/out as a whore, then no one else will have the power to do that to her first. She creates her own destiny; although her destiny is to be a 'whore.'
Like Tank Girl, Courtney uses her sexuality as a tool to disempower the men in her life. In the song 'Violet,' she sings, 'Go on take everything, take everything I want you to.' By telling 'him' (whoever the male may be in this context) to take everything, she deprives him of his agency and power. Somehow, if the woman strips, lays down naked with her legs spread, and says, 'Go ahead. Fuck me any way you want,' rape just doesn't seem quite the same. If a woman tells a man to take everything from her, then he has no power to 'rob' her. Likewise, if she strips away her own 'dignity' and adopts the identity of the slut, then no one has the power to take her dignity from her.
Needless to say, this kind of sexual performance has its problems. How many people are able to see through the surface of Courtney's sexual identity and understand the pro-feminist context in which it takes shape? Not many. In both her concerts and videos, Courtney returns the male gaze and toys with traditional female pornographic representation by ripping away the romance from sex and her body and by objectifying a barrage of men in her life — from rock stars and talk show hosts to audience members, etc. One of the most extreme cases was when Courtney dry-humped professional boxer George Foreman on _Saturday Night Live_. (However, few men are aware of the performance slut's conscious manipulation of male desire and objectification of female sexuality).
I recently had a chance to see Courtney in action and sort through the ramifications of her performance. At her 1994 concert at San Franciscos Fillmore Auditorium, Courtney alternated between tearing loose into gut wrenching, high-intensity female rants punctuated by her driving electric guitar and performing a sort of stand-up comic, slapstick burlesque in which she flung out retorts to all the guys she's fucked and blown, told us who's a bad fuck, who's a good fuck, and who she wants to fuck. She punctuated each burlesque slut spiel by ripping into another song with a fierce intensity that would be hard for anyone to equal, regardless of gender.
Her 'fuck me/don't fuck with me' dialogue between herself and her audience had two effects. One was to create an attraction/repulsion dynamic similar to Humper and typical in the performance slut genre, in which the audience members, both male and female, are lured into the seductive diatribe of the performer only to find themselves disgusted and repulsed by their participation in this pornographic and tasteless act, and by their realization that it is their attitude towards female sex that creates this pornographic object in the first place. This 'dangerous object,' this broken/possessed/ugly doll that so repulses the audience is a direct manifestation of the audience's own desires and limited views of female sexuality. She would not exist or have any meaning or impact without the audiences participation in her creation. This is a positive effect of the performance slut/audience relationship as it forces the audience members to question their own preconceptions of and attitudes toward female sexuality.
The second effect is not so positive. Unfortunately, as gender roles exist and are understood today, the majority of people, male and female, do not have the capacity to understand Courtney's self-conscious parody of female sex roles; they only see the 'slut' without the critique of the system that creates categories like 'slut.' The majority of responses I read and heard about Courtney's performance focused on their perception that Courtney was 'all fucked up,' that all she did was talk about the 'guys she fucked.' Most of them left out the fact that she gave one 'fucking 'great musical performance. But the fact that a woman is a good musician and songwriter is not important here; the fact that she is fucked up and a slut is. After all, once she has been classified as the Other Girl, it is time to dismiss her.
But Courtney refuses to be dismissed. People take her apart, try to pull her down, but she keeps coming up fighting. Keep putting the ugly insides in their face and eventually people are going to have to deal with it. Maybe they'll see that the ugly insides aren't so bad. After all, any number of prime-time TV shows are spattered with douche, tampon, and feminine ointment commercials, a constant reminder that women do have insides.
The Good Girl Who Says the F-Word,
or the Trouble With Liz
Everyone loves to love Liz Phair. Blow-Job Queen or no, she is rock's little darling. Why is little Liz so successful, so *popular*? Liz seems to have struck the perfect balance to please all — the perfect virgin-whore, the dirty-mouthed girl next door. She has the ability to sing lyrics like, 'I'll fuck you and your minions too' and 'I wanna be your blow-job queen' and still come off as coy, innocent, and *nice*. She plays back and forth between good girl/bad girl. I mean, we have to sympathize with someone who longs to 'be Six-foot-one instead of five-foot-two and loved [her] life and hated you.' While Liz could be criticized for playing the Good Girl/Bad Slut balance so perfectly, I think that the reasons why Liz has been able to maintain 'respectability' do not necessarily point to any problem with Liz personally, but to the gender system that she is trying to confront and tear apart.
Liz Phair doesn't appear to mind taking on the slut identity in the studio. And she apparently has the reputation of being something of an exhibitionist in her personal life, making out with her boyfriend in public spaces. But being sexual when you're with a man and being sexual when you're alone among strangers are not the same thing. When Liz is on stage, she is confronted with hundreds of anonymous males who wouldn't mind having her fuck them 'till their dicks are blue' — and at those times she seems less comfortable performing the slut identity. The sexual content of her lyrics and the role she occupies within them seem to embarass her. While on the one hand her songs seem liberating and confrontational, the fact of the matter is that Liz is still confined by the very gender system which she is trying to escape. She is most comfortable with her sexuality offstage; she really is a Good Girl. And there's nothing that a man loves more than a Good Girl who wants to be his Blow-Job Queen.
This is not to say that Liz's songs lack any positive value towards advancing respect for female sexuality. In fact, the songs are quite powerful and effective. But in order to successfully adopt the slut identity, a girl also has to adopt the armor and detachment that goes with it. If you are going to use your body and sex as a puppet, then you have to be able to pull back and play with it.
THE PUMP AND GRIND I CALL MY HEAD
— Courtney Love (Hole)
The trouble with Liz points to a serious problem with performative identities. If one adopts the identity of the slut for performance, how much of one's real identity becomes colonized by the slut? Take Courtney Love for example. With her history in the sex industry and the physical and psychological transformation necessary to perform her slut identity, the boundary between original identity and performance identity is almost absent. As much as Courtney theorizes about her sexual exploits in her songs and parodies gender 'sex' roles in her performances, she cannot erase her own personal history. Every time she enters the persona of the stage slut and enters the 'pump and grind inside [her] head,' she re-lives her past in the present and may well believe she's a slut in the present. Needless to say, this can have some unhealthy ramifications on one's psyche, emotional well-being, and sense of self. Hence, we hear tales of Courtney drunk and out of control riding the Fillmore Street bus in raucous sexual display and cavorting with the street dregs as her performance persona pushes her over the edge and into a deeper layer of her past 'slut' identity.
Likewise, as the performance slut puts out again and again on stage, the audience swarms back for more, like any good trick to his favorite whore. While some of the audience members are there to appreciate the theoretical value of the performance slut's sex act and to support her pro-feminist stance, much of the audience is there to partake in the forbidden, to experience the next new thing, to indulge his/her fantasies through the performance slut's sexual rants, and to experience the thrill of being face to face with that which they fear — female sex.
Ultimately, however, as long as female sexuality is feared and condemned, the performance 'whore' is necessary. She trespasses into the land of the locker room, excavates the slut from behind closed doors, and parades her for all to see. But is seeing enough? If responses to the slut figure exemplified in the performances of Courtney Love and Tank Girl are any indication, this is a difficult question to answer. We would like to believe that if people are forced to look at and listen to the slut, perhaps someday they will adapt to all her messy, unseemly sexuality, that they will be comfortable with women less deformed by convention. But unfortunately a slut is still easy to dismiss. To the less conscious, she is still an object to be purchased, scorned, and discarded when she ceases to satisfy desire. In this context, the slut herself risks believing that she is no more than the act she is performing. Until we reach a time when female sexuality is understood in a different context, the Other Girl will continue to be a problem. Where do we keep her besides on CD, video, and the stage?
Kim Nicolini was a teenage whore and wouldn't mind a book or record deal herself. Until she gets one, she will continue to write and perform hyper-sexualized poetry and deconstruct her body in art. She can be reached via e-mail at the following address: <email@example.com>