Tuesday, February 15, 2011

American Burqa: a Night Out on the Jersey Shore

There is a place where women are forced to dress all alike. It's a kind of uniform of submission: all women are forced to wear this uniform or be shunned, whether they are young and shapely or middle-aged and chubby. Black is the preferred color, though this is not rigidly enforced. What's going on inside a woman's head, her own vision of who she is and what she thinks and what she wants is irrelevent: individuality and freedom of thought is suppressed and propaganda carefully herds women to a standard of sameness. If you think I'm talking about the Middle East you're wrong. I'm talking about Friday night on the Jersey Shore; Atlantic City to be precise. Perhaps I need to get out more, though: I'm thinking it is possible that the horror I witnessed is common throughout suburban heterosexual nightlife. Perhaps in news coverage of the Egyptian revolution you have witnessed the clucking tongues of baiting neocon pundits worrying about whether Islamist activists will somehow hijack the revolution and force Egyptian women into forced modesty. Well here's what I've realized: the concern of American culture for the fate of women in predominately Muslim countries is nothing but a big-fat crocodile tear, because American women, especially young ones, have already been sent down a path of objectification and posed hypersexuality every bit as dehumanizing as what some claim has happened to women in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

There's something fascinating about Atlantic City. The combination of wishful thinking and seediness is honed to a fine edge. The casinos are full of people and yet they're not doing great financially, just as most people spending time there -- me included -- are calculating the enjoyment of the place not in massive gambling winnings but in whether the time was worth the price. We spent a night there this past February weekend. The worst of the winter seems to have passed for now and the indoor social life of the casinos seemed to be jumping. Atlantic City isn't the setting for the MTV "reality" show The Jersey Shore, but it's in close proximity to that show's location, not only physically, but spiritually.

We arrived on a Friday night, just as the crowds seemed to shift from elderly retired people to young adults out to party. As I and my companions sat down for a late dinner we realized that practically every woman we saw was dressed identically: in uncomfortably high heels, and shockingly tight shoulderless cocktail dresses coming down a barely calculable measure below the crotch. These dresses were all about ass threatening to burst out of tight confinement. We began to play a tasteless game we called "hooker or slut." Of course there was simply no way to tell. These women had been completely absorbed into the aesthetic of prostitution.

As we walked around the casino it became almost absurd. Small groups of identically dressed women only occasionally in the escort of calculatingly-casually dressed young men moved about through the halls from bar to gambling room to club. I never saw one try to sit down, I can't imagine what would have happened to their dresses if they tried. At some point I looked at three women leaning over a counter: all had identical hair and makeup as well, the same cut, the same strange-looking false sunstreaks dyed into identical patterns. I realized that while most of these women were young and fit with curves that successfully filled out their tight little dresses, I was also seeing older women or women without such studied bodies who couldn't quite pull off the look but were doing their best to try. Sleeves and leggings accessorized those who feared the exposure of a little flab or wrinkle.

Now granted as a gay man I don't spend a lot of time staring at women. But I don't think my horror at what I saw was driven by prudery or disdain for female sexuality. In the uniformity of what I saw there was something so forced and un-sexy about the professed sexiness of the uniform. All of these women might as well have had signs pinned to their waists saying "you can almost see my vagina." Their outfits pulled attention away from their faces and turned them into automatons of base male gratification.

So when the media shows excessively veiled Muslim women in its condescending or fearful tone, I now have to ask: do you want women to be free to express their individuality? Their sexuality? Or are you just complaining that you can't ogle the flesh of these women? Is the issue the right of these women to live their lives in the way they choose? Or is the complaint that these women might have secret inner lives that are not available to your observation?

I think if I was a woman and a Muslim I would not choose the extreme forms of Muslim hijab like the burqa or abaya. And I do understand that in our harsh world, excessive hijab can be a form of oppression. And I think if I was a young woman looking for love, or for fun, on a night out on the town in a New Jersey beach town, I would not choose to make myself uncomfortable and identical to all my friends. But the choice is not really between covering up and dressing like a prostitute. This is a false choice: a false choice that the women of the Jersey Shore are apparently unable to see.

I was reminded of my visit last summer to an Orisha ceremony and to two jazz concerts in Brooklyn, all of which I described on this blog. At the Santeria ceremony, attended by people of every imaginable race and ethnic mix, the women radiated beauty and strength and individuality and even sexiness. Gay and straight women alike projected a spiritual centeredness and pride. Hair was worn naturally, sometimes very short or in locks. Clothes were not flashy, but neither were they shapeless potato sacks. Some wore African-inspired finery but everyone projected her own being. At the jazz concerts, the overwhelmingly African-American crowd ran the gamut from young to old. There was certainly flashiness there, but the fashion was consciousness and self-empowerment. If there was flirtation it was chosen, rather than a blatant neon sign of objectification and neediness.

It is not the lack of modesty that concerns me, nor the display of sexuality. It's something else. Oh I hear a voice in my head that sounds like the mean old man telling those darn kids to get off his lawn in some early 1960s youth culture flick. But I don't think what I was seeing was youth rebellion; on the contrary, I think it was the fruit of some kind of media hypnotism. To me it looks empty and false.

I miss feminism: when women were empowered to make choices for themselves, to be freethinkers, to be unabashedly sex-positive. Those tight little cocktail dresses strike me as the Burqas of our age: prisons of subjugation and objectification. I've read Middle-Eastern feminists criticize the abaya and the burqa because a woman must spend so much time hanging on to her clothes she couldn't possibly work at a physical job and must therefore change her orientation to the home. And so it is with crotch=length dresses: how can one even think if all one is doing is ensuring something won't pop out?

Bad television like "The Jersey Shore" is good for a laugh. But I'm starting to think it's not so funny. What happens when life starts to imitate this terrible, demeaning "art"?

(Atlantic City booty photos by me. Sorry for using your butts to make a point, ladies.)


  1. No time to really pour over this but my first reaction is that I agree with you completely. Will say that I tend to think of this as the deluded life of the squares. Constantly tightening and adding to their own chains. I go into places like casinos (especially Las Vegas) with the understanding that I am in squaresville or enemy territory. Also, I don't feel that there's anything prudish about objecting to the pornification of society. Maybe more later. Bed time for me.

  2. I have never seen the Jersey Shore, real or on TV - sadly Snooki has graced my view somewhere. But I'm not sure it's just in Atlantic City, the young (naturally very pretty young girls) get sluttier looking everyday. They don't seem to possess any desire to be themselves or individuals - content to run with the pack distinguishable in their attire.

    I guess if you are hitting the casinos you are old enough to be on your own, but I see many kids - high school age dressed like 'working girls' and I wonder if their parents have blinders on when they see them leave the house.

    I had to laugh at your remark about sitting down. One Halloween I squeezed into a fringy-flapper dress - all was well until I sat down, then the dress disappeared on me. lol Spent most of the night standing up, never again. I can't imagine doing this every weekend!

  3. @Jon: "Pornification of society." I'm gonna use that! Atlantic City is a bit of a guilty pleasure...and only three hours away. I went to Vegas once and had fun, but it sure is a big pile of plastic everything.

    @Annie: Snookie!!!! Even Obama mentioned her at a press conference or something, didn't he? Oh for when famous people actually had to do something to be famous.

    You know I don't exactly have a problem with sluttiness per se, just the laser-like focus on sluttiness to the exclusion of everything else. Like thinking.

  4. I'm of another generation Ish, and have to admit "slut" was never a positive word, though I am sure there were occasions when people would have thought that an apt word to describe me. Though I always felt I had far too much class to ever quality for slut status.

    I had to do a little research, and if you look long enough you can come up with a definition that you can agree with.

    "from the book The Ethical Slut, the term has been used as an expression of choice to openly have multiple partners, and revel in that choice: "a slut is a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you." A slut is a person who has taken control of their sexuality and has sex with whomever they choose, regardless of religious or social pressures or conventions to conform to a straight-laced monogamous lifestyle committed to one partner for life. The term has been "taken back" to express the rejection of the concept that government, society, or religion may judge or control one's personal liberties, and the right to control one's own sexuality."

    And in the light of the above definition, I am proudly a slut!

  5. Oh Annie I wanna be just like you when I grow up.

  6. Oh man, I tried to write this long reply and gave up and deleted it. The problem, as I see it, is not tight little dresses versus burqas. The problem is squares and their unconscious acceptance of commodification of everything versus conscious people making individual decisions as to how they will express their sexuality. And I'm sorry but the whole casino scene creeps me right out. Little black dresses signal a willingness to participate in a hierarchy of commercial transactions that substitute commerce (the free fuckin' market) for genuine sexual freedom. Fits in nicely with the bullshit promise of quick and easy money which in turn fits in nicely with the concept of licensed scams as "capitalist freedom". Oh fuck me, I'm sounding like a French leftist intellectual from the '70's but I don't know how else to say this. I hate casinos because they, in every way, reproduce the dreary grind of everyday life. What I really hate is that, they actually sell that dreary grind back to us as "fun".
    When I say "signal a willingness" I am not referring to conscious decisions. I'm talking about a complete submersion in the anti social, anti human and anti woman world view of "the market". I'm not hardly living in a cabin in Montana. I don't make my own clothes or even grow my own vegetables but I try, in whatever ways I can manage, to resist quantification. Did I just make any sense at all?

  7. Yes Jon you make quite a lot of sense. Those are some important reminders.

  8. I think that there is a big difference between the two 'uniforms' you describe, ish. The burqa is, though extreme, a religiously imposed requirement. In many instances, women who do not abide by the rules of the burqa can be arrested, raped, or killed in their home countries.

    American women - the ones you describe - however, do have a choice. Certainly, there is a socially imposed obligation that these women feel, but it is by no means a literal life-or-death situation, and I tend to think of it as a type of Darwinism:

    It might make me sound shallow, but as a heterosexual man I am completely unattracted to the women you describe, precisely for the reasons given: they all look the same and seem to not really have much personality. And I think that if they choose to more or less advertise it, then, pragmatically, it makes it that much easier for me to avoid them. Am I horrible for having that viewpoint? Probably, but at least I'm honest about it.

  9. freebones I take your point. But I think it's actually far muddier a situation. How many women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan choose the abaya or burqa to protect themselves from unwanted attention? How many women in the U.S. who don't play dressup games are shunned, insulted or professionally punished? I guess the bottom line of my comparison is not strictly literal but an observation about power.

  10. Freebones, It's not as though patriarchy enforced by violence only exists in the Muslim world. It's also not as though all women in Muslim countries are following local interpretation of Islamic rules of modest dress out of terror. You've heard the phrase "provocatively dressed". Provocative of what? I've certainly heard the words, "She was asking for it."
    Conversely, I've known women who lived in the Islamic world who described a feeling of freedom because it was not their life's work to meet the sexual expectations of men. They see Western women as imprisoned by male sexuality and denied their humanity outside of a life as a sexual object. I don't think either culture has it right. It seems to me that true sexual freedom includes the complete and unquestioned right to say yes or no.

  11. i agree, i just don't think the underlying assertion that american women on the jersey shore have it as bad as women living under strict islamic fundamentalism do is very palatable. at least, the 'dangers' experience by american women are far less with regards to rejection of patriarchal conventions.

    certainly, there are grey spots. i appreciate your insight, by the way. this blog is one of the highlights of my day.