Monthly Archives: June 2015

Review: Striptease, the untold history of the girlie show

Book cover

Striptease the untold history of the girlie show

On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.

Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .

Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.

The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.

With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.

With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.

“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.

Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.

* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.

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Filed under Book review, Entertainment, Gender studies, History, Social History

Review: Slippery Tipples, weird and wonderful liqueurs

Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueurs.

Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueurs.

Joseph Piercy’s “Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueur” is another “booze book” that I picked up at Half Price Books. First published in the United Kingdom the book catalogs the odd liqueurs and spirits the author has found in his travels. Each entry is short and sweet, the author gives a short history of the product in question, describes its ingredients, gives his opinion of it, and lists a few drink recipes that use it. Although I doubt I will be able to find and try the more exotic liqueurs mentioned in the book I have already been able to use my new found knowledge of the Chinese drink maotai in a dinner conversation with two gentleman from China. It sparked an interesting conversation about Chinese drinking customs that was entertaining and educational. The book provided valuable fuel for cross cultural conversations.

I do wish that Piercy was better at trying new things. His descriptions of the drinks taste, some powerfully negative, most just negative, and his selection of poorly named and poorly conceived drink recipes are off putting at times and occasionally funny. I hope he was aiming for funny.

I would have to say that this is a book only for someone interested in learning a little about the various exotic alcoholic drinks available around the world and I would advise that person to borrow, rather than buy, a copy.

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Filed under Book review, Cocktails, Drink

Review: Unfair the new science of criminal injustice

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Unfair: the new science of criminal justice

Several years ago I took a class on social psychology and, after learning about some “classic” experiments and the damage done to the participants I wrote the field off as, well, evil. Adam Benforado forced me to rethink that with his constructive use of that science in supporting the arguments in his book “Unfair: the new science of criminal injustice”. Benforado is a law professor, after reading his book I have to imagine he is a good one. He is an insider and I expected him to be more supportive of the current state of the American criminal justice system than I am but, no, it seems that the view on the inside is even worse than it is from the outside.

Benforado divides the book into four parts. Investigation, where he looks at the victim, police, and the suspect. Adjudication examining lawyers, the jury, the eyewitness, the expert witness, and the judge. Punishment, both popular views and the real effects on prisoners. He explains what our system gets wrong and provides evidence to support his claims. In the final part, Reform, he discusses possible solutions to those problems.

Personally I am proud to call myself a bleeding heart liberal. I think that admission should lend a little credibility when I say that Benforado in not a liberal, bleeding heart or otherwise. Some of his major concerns are not wasting taxpayer money, convicting the right person and administering just punishment. I agreed with almost everything he said even some solutions that I believe to be beyond our current capability. Change the focus of our criminal justice system from punishment to rehabilitation? Not going to happen.

Blame and punishment is to deeply imbedded in our Judeo-Christian culture. When discussing blame Benforado said “When a dangerous virus overwhelms a town, causation is relevant, but blame isn’t. We don’t treat someone who has contracted Ebola or dengue fever as sinful. We get to work restoring the person’s health, preventing new cases, and trying to eliminate the root cause.” I am not so sure I can agree with that. I am old enough to remember when AIDS first made the news. It took an innocent child, someone who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, to slow done the blame the victim attitude. “Christian” preachers can’t resist the chance to label a disease as “God’s revenge” for sinfulness. We even blame the victims of natural disasters for causing the destruction through their sinfulness.

I have to recommend this book to everyone. If you live in the US it will help you understand how and why our criminal justice system is failing and if you live in Europe you can see what your systems are doing right. I expect to hear about this book quite a bit over the next year as Benforado’s suggestions are debated in the media.

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Filed under Book review, Politics, Science

Review: No Magic Bullet

book cover No Magic Bullet

No Magic Bullet

Allan M Brandt’s “No Magic Bullet: a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880” was first published in 1985. A new edition came just two years later, I have to assume that is because its topic was changing so quickly with AIDS becoming common knowledge. I imagine Brandt wanted a do over on what he had written about AIDS in the first edition’s introduction.

Very early in the first chapter Brandt explains that doctors at first thought that women were not affected by gonorrhea.  I was bothered by this not because I doubted it was true but because just a few pages earlier, in the introduction, Brandt wrote that AIDS was a disease of gay men without questioning what was considered true at the time. At the very least he should have mentioned that at one time gonorrhea had been considered the problem of only one gender. Why study history if we don’t use it to form questions about the present? Even in the introduction to the 1987 edition, when it was well known that there were multiple modes of transmission, he failed to mention the failure in physician’s reasoning in assuming venereal disease, any disease, is limited by gender by anything other than ease of infection. Did Brandt miss the similarity of the failed assumptions about gonorrhea and AIDS?  Did he simply choose not to mention it? I have to believe that if he had noticed it he would have mentioned it even if only to dismiss it as meaningless.

Brandt looked at only two parts of society in this “social history”. One made up of military and public health officials and the other made up of that large and vocal subset of the leisure class that makes everyone else’s behaviour their business, moralists. The military and public health professionals followed the science but often were forced to bow to pressure from the moralists.

The moralists clamor for abstinence before during and after World War I. They continued to clamor for abstinence before during and after WWII. They are still at it. Then, as now, they are only concerned with their version of morality and about other people’s behaviour, not their own. Brandt manages to overlook the opinions of working people, business men and women, minorities in regard to venereal disease. I was surprised that the book was from the 1980s and not the 1950s. People besides the powerful had their agency recognized in the 1960s, why not here?
Sometimes I feel I should make allowances for works of history that are as old as this, twenty eight years since the new edition, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Histories on on narrow topics like this are few and far between. Unlike books about Lincoln or major wars there is not a new volume on the history of VD being published every few months. A search of World Cat for the subject “Sexually Transmitted Diseases United States History” turns up only a few dissertations, several government publications that look like primary sources and Alexandrea Lord’s 2009 book “Condom Nation” which looks at government sponsored sex education from World War II to the present. Unfortunately this could be the go to book on social attitudes about VD for many more years. I hope a student interested in the subject gets creative in their readings and are able to find more than the two viewpoints Brandt offers on the subject.

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Filed under Book review, History, Medical History, Social History