“We independent women, some mistake us for whores
I’m saying, why spend mine, when I can spend yours?
Disagree? Well, that’s you and I’m sorry
I’m a keep playing these cats out like Atari.”
The first quote is from Chris Rock. Rock’s view is the conventional one. Stripping? Bad choice. You, or your father, fucked up.
The second is a lyric from the song Lady Marmalade. It captures something tough to reckon with for the anthropologist interested in contemporary culture. In our culture, there is, whatever the conservatives insist, no single grounds, no Rock, for criticism.
We can say stripping is bad. All but zealots are inclined to give over to the sneaking supposition that this is finally for the individual to decide. These people are the authors of their lives. What stripping or prostitution means, that’s for them to say (and us to find out). We can disagree with this as much as we want, but Lil’ Kim says, with aplomb, bordering on indifference, "well, that’s you and I’m sorry.”
This isn’t relativism. I am not saying that the individual has the right to create or insist on values of their own. I am saying the individual has something like rights of ownership and with those come rights of definition. They are who they say they are. They do what they say they do. Values may or may not enter into it. The prostitute may or may not care to make moral claims about what prostitution is and isn’t. But finally the locus of the meaning of “stripping” or “prostitution” is in the performance and the experience of the event. The actor decides, not the playwright, not the audience, not the theatrical tradition, and certainly not the critic.
My guess is that most strippers and prostitutes are not self possessed enough to exclude the conventional definitions of what they do. For some reason, I am pretty certain that there are some strippers and prostitutes who are plenty strong willed and self defined enough to insist on their own terms of reference. And to them I defer. Having to choose between my certainty and their certainty, well, they are inside the moment and they have the incumbent’s advantage. (And this is of course a recipe for that classical confrontation: the outsider who “knows” what stripping and prostitution is who finally confronts the practitioner off of whom moral certainties bounce harmlessly like so many stuffed animals. Hah, now where are you? (To be honest, my ethnographic research with these two occupational categories is non existent. But I have meant people off of whom moral certainties bounce harmlessly. I think anthropologists love these moments the way linguists love puns.)
We have lost control of this one. Polite society, church elders, teachers, artists, and other arbiters, they don’t get to say what a person is, what an action means. The right to create social identities, once the exclusive right of these several “mints,” has found its way into other hands. Try as we might we can’t get this cat back in the bag.
Crewe, B. and K. Nolan. n.c.,. Lady Marmalade. Additional lyrics by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink.
Chris Rock in Poniewozik, James. 2005. A Tale of Two Sitcoms. Time Magazine. September 19, 2005, pp. 67-68, p. 68.