The Strip Club as a Simulacrum
Ethnography | Participant observation | artifact analysis | qualitative analysis | Presentation
This project sought to elucidate the structure and function of the strip club in society through ethnographic fieldwork, theory proposed by Foucault, Baudrillard, and Barthes, and critical analysis. The structure of the strip club is an illusion - a simulacrum - that perverts and exaggerates the realities of the society outside the club. It is a hyperbolic version of society, where the power that men hold over women, the commodification of sexuality, and fluidity of feminine identity are dramatized and performed. The existence of these concepts in our everyday society fuels the simulacrum structure, and the activities in the club that are encouraged and allowed to exist subsequently legitimize the power disparity between men and women in everyday society.
Prompt: Conduct ethnographic fieldwork and establish the underlying structure of the particular situation with relation to society.
With Tony DeMarco, Martha Kramer, Jenni Zhu + Ali Lanz | University of Minnesota | Instructor: Diana Dean | Timeline: 4 weeks
Understanding the Problem
We conducted ethnographic interviews and participant-observation to gain insights into the viewpoints of dancers, patrons, and other employees, as well as get an illustrative idea of the space and how people interact in this reality. We spoke with and observed dancers, bouncers, managers, the DJ while embedding ourselves in the space. We took notes and a few pictures, but pictures were not allowed inside the club without express permission for each image.
Analyzing the Space
The physical environment of the club had a strong effect on how we were able to access each of the actors at the club. When each actor was inside or outside the space, their demeanors changed. The dancers spoke with us most freely outside while they smoked cigarettes, and the bouncers spoke with us about inner workings of the club and even lawsuits when they were outside the space, but inside no one broke character.
We also analyzed the images and ephemera from the club. The free pass we all received depicted the women as consumable, as food, and with photoshopped features. The signage all played to maleness and power, with advertisements for "giant hot dog buffets."
Interviews showed us several different types of personalities. There were dancers who believed in their own power over men, and those who were just there for the money. Patrons were sometimes looking for a girlfriend-like simulation, while others were there for bachelor parties. The complexities of the interactions and expectations were exaggerated versions of reality.
Michel Foucault's philosophy of power relationships and exchange, Barthes' theories about performativity, and Baudrillard's definition of a simulacrum all informed our analysis of the club. We determined that although there were "discourses of resistance" from the dancers, the club itself upheld the expectations of the patrons and reinforced the power hierarchy between men and women outside the club. The blurring of performance and reality within the space was the most salient aspect of the structure of the strip club.
Looking to the Future
Understanding that the physical environment had such a major effect on the performance and behavior of all the actors associated with the club, it would be interesting to explore new ways to design strip clubs to be more positive, safe spaces.