Joshua Kahn Russell
FROM THE WEB
Net Briefs 05-09
TMI at 30
John M. Laforge
El Salvador's Victory
Spies & Informers
Julia a. Shearson
Von Mises Rises
God, Guns, & Blood
GAY & LESBIAN COMMUNITY NOTES
Signs of Change
Savannah Schroll guz
The Black Vote
Herbert P. Bix
Nicolas J.S. Davies
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"Showgirls" and Cultural Change
I have never wanted to go to Las Vegas, ever. The entire concept of it—people losing their money in unbridled gambling, hideous conspicuous consumption, extravagant (although essentially tacky) hotels that ignore basic creature needs—strikes me as repulsive. Never mind that this is all going on when the world economy is crumbling. But, political resolve aside, when I was offered two nights at Caesar's Palace to see Bette Midler at the hotel's Colosseum Theater, I immediately said yes. Having written extensively on gay male culture I decided that this trip could be an anthropological look at the Divine Miss M and her 40-year journey from 1970s gay male icon to beloved mass culture diva.
At age 59, I seemed to be on the younger side for Midler's audience, which was, as far as I could tell, almost completely heterosexual, in contrast to every other time I had attended a Midler concert. Not that the Vegas audience didn't enjoy the show—they loved every song and dirty joke. Clearly, Midler's signature brassy persona and bawdy sense of humor have resonated with a far wider audience than the core queer group who helped make her a star in 1972.
On the surface, Midler's current show seems essentially the same. As she enunciates in the opening number, "The Showgirl Must Go On": "You came here for glitz, hits, and tits and we're going to give them to you." Backed by a leggy chorus line she dubbed "the Caesar Salad Girls," as well as her own back-up group the Harlettes, Midler ran through all of her most famous songs, including those from early in her career, such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "In the Mood," "The Rose," "Hello In There," and "When A Man Loves a Woman." But, by far, the most popular songs of the evening were the sentimental and culturally pasteurized pop ballads "Wind Beneath my Wings" and "From a Distance," songs Midler recorded in 1989 and 1990 when she was working on becoming more mainstream. She also inserted her usual stream of topical comic patter—Bernie Madoff and Sarah Palin jokes laced with irreverent observations. The finale included her famous Sophie Tucker jokes that were charmingly vulgar. This is the format that Midler has used since her earliest Broadway shows, such as the 1973 "Clams on the Half Shell" and which, with its vaudeville structure, edgy sense of humor, and alternative culture, has always served her diverse and quirky talents well.
Although some of this sexual material shocked audiences in the 1970s, it has now become so mainstream as to be conventional. Sure, popular culture has changed, but I'd argue that it has changed, to some degree, because of Midler. She has been, as a conduit of gay male culture, as responsible as anyone for the queering of America. Yet the fact that her entire act and persona emerged from a gay male camp culture seems all but forgotten.
This isn't her doing. Midler never hides the fact that her solo career started as a gay male bathhouse chanteuse or that her success has been fueled by gay male audiences. Historically, it is easy to see how this queer sensibility has shaped her art: the camp references, the use of female sexuality for aggressive humor, the recycling of old popular songs in updated arrangements, and the transgressive use of sexuality that runs through her show all resonate with late 1960s urban, gay male cultural preoccupations and norms. Midler's uniqueness in gay male culture is that she actually straddles a pre-and post-Stonewall divide. While the pain of a Judy Garland ballad or performance defined a pre-Stonewall gay sensibility, Midler took that material and made it aggressive and even political. No surprise she performed her song "Friends" at New York's 1971 Gay Pride Parade.
So why is Midler so popular with a mass audience that she can pack a 4,000 seat theater several times a week in Las Vegas in 2009? When she first began appearing on television in the early 1970s, some critics dismissed her as cheap camp, an off-shoot of what was understood to be a decadent and socially irrelevant minority humor that substituted parody for actual content, flippancy for a sustained vision, and mocked sex and traditional cultural values in ways that were considered anti-social and unhealthy. Not that they didn't have a point. Camp, which rose out of an urban homosexual experience of disenfranchisement, was all of those things. It gave a unique voice to men who had been outcast from "polite"—i.e., moral and righteous—society, thus allowing them to ridicule the hypocrisy of that society. Camp's emphasis on female sexuality, often at the expense of male sexual egos, was an attack on patriarchal attitudes about sexuality and gender. Midler's drawing upon this queer male culture and sensibility has worked for her because she has carefully gauged the shifts in public approval and sentiment without ever stepping over the line. In her earlier shows, when asked to tell a particularly raunchy joke, she would respond: "No way. I know just how far I can go with the American public."
This raises a question: has the world become so accepting of a gay sensibility that it now welcomes it with open arms? Politically, the answer is that homosexuals still face a wide range of social and legal discriminations. Sure, things are better these days, but there is still a lot of homo-hatred. There have been two important changes, however. The first is that homosexual characters and themes have become commonplace. Gay characters have been on such television shows as "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Films like Philadelphia, The Birdcage, Rent, and Milk are popular and win awards.
Second has been the influence of a gay male sensibility, a way of viewing the world, which has changed American culture. A more overtly sensible attitude about sex, a comic disavowal of traditional morality, an ironic understanding of social status and positions, and a flagrant, in-your-face approach to more "serious" topics all embody this renegade sensibility. The influence of this outlook on popular culture has been enormous. So much so that Bette Midler is now the toast of the most mainstream of mass culture: Las Vegas.
"The Showgirl Must Go On," is less about the showgirl as it is about the changing sensibility of the average American spectator over the past 40 years—consistently rejecting some of the oppressive paradigms of the past and embracing alternatives that give them pleasure and place them in opposition to more traditional popular culture.
Alas, this progressive move looks insignificant in the context of the consumerism and sheer Moloch-like capitalism that pervades Las Vegas, but it is important to remember that it is still a move forward. The emergence of a disruptive gay male sensibility—even when it is commodified—is evidence that when offered new ideas about sex, pleasure, and personal freedom, audiences may be tempted to embrace alternatives to mainstream patterns of mass culture.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.