The Power of Exposure: Understanding the Discourses of Control in Striptease Culture and Beyond

In his 2002 book of the same title, Professor Brian McNair expounds upon what he calls “Striptease Culture.” This culture, coexisting with the significantly more debased pornographication of the public sphere, or as he calls it the “pornosphere” (McNair 383), provided a podium for showcasing and normalizing alternative sexualities and repressed sexual cultures. While McNair’s striptease culture expresses an almost Utopian view of sexual empowerment through the media, his analysis of sexuality exposes the capacity of the media to bring such subject matters out of the margins of society into the forefront of the public sphere. This power, which perhaps acts as the true democratizing force behind McNair’s striptease culture, can exist outside of the sexual sphere and give visibility to those voices previously unheard in the public domain. This “Power of Exposure,” while a dominant force for normalizing marginalized voices in the public sector, still is subject to the whims and discourses of traditional media outlets. It is these discourses that ultimately control the power of exposure.

After defining striptease culture, a complicated and abstruse term, it becomes possible to not only distinguish it from the pornosphere, but also to evaluate its capacity to democratize the public sphere. Close inspection of McNair’s text and current events, however, reveals other external forces that ultimately affect striptease culture’s ability to democratize.


Striptease culture is typified in various moments, such as a pregnant Demi Moore exposing her naked body on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. McNair states, tying the event to Moore’s personal promotion of her film Striptease, that her exposure “signalled a heightened mainstream interest in what had hitherto been perceived as the sleazy” (2089). It is notable that McNair introduces his concept of striptease culture couched between the pornographication of mainstream culture and the assertion of sexual-based gender roles. His definition of striptease culture consequently acts as a bridge between these two concepts. Moving beyond the titillation of the pornosphere to the assertion of gender politics, striptease culture represents a less marginal and more public space for the many examples of sexuality he provides.

McNair goes so far as to define striptease culture as “often the outcome of people who are… ordinary” (2029). Striptease culture is inherently “amateur” and arises from the masses whereas professionals represent much of the pornosphere. However, his first few examples of striptease culture, namely Demi Moore’s photograph and Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, point to an intimate relationship with celebrity. McNair admits that popular culture and celebrity culture had a “love affair with striptease” (2108) culture. Therefore, more than amateurish, striptease culture might better be understood as “seeing things which it may not be decent for us to see” (2501) and capitalizing on a veneer of the amateur and the ordinary to expose and authenticate previously marginalized sexual identities.
Furthermore, McNair expands his definition beyond the novice and sex to a multiplicity of forms of sexuality and gender. Striptease culture allows all segments of the public to talk “about sex and their own sexualities” (2049) with “words and images” (2053) without being “erotic, although they may well be about eroticism” (2054). Unlike the pornosphere, which focused purely on the erotic, striptease culture can represent sex and sexuality through a range of subjects from nudity and sexual acts, to issues of gender. This is because striptease culture, according to McNair, is a choice.1 McNair, in fact, distinguishes between the voluntary act of exposure and that of being exposed, describing forced exposure as “a kind of rape, in so far as its subjects are not volunteers, and their appearances in the public sphere are the end product of unwelcome journalistic violation of their privacy” (2119).

Because of this aspect of choice, while striptease culture may come from the same economical, political and cultural origins as the pornosphere, McNair argues that striptease culture conveys the “democratization of desire” (2029) in contemporary culture. It is a primary example of giving voice to those who were previously not able to proclaim their sexualities. However, the technology and method mediating “the striptease” certainly affects how “voluntary” such acts are. For instance, while some reality stars claim not to be aware of the camera, as did the Loud family in the proto-reality television show An American Family, other shows are predicated on exposure and confession, such as the popular Big Brother television series about which McNair writes extensively. Furthermore, emergent technologies, such as social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, as will be discussed later, present new forms of exposure. Particularly political scandals, ranging from the Clinton-Lewinsky affair to most recently Anthony Weiner’s resignation from Congress due to his flirtations and self-exposure on Twitter, demonstrate how technology affects both the means of exposure and the vulnerabilities to such exposure.

Striptease culture is a more fitting stage for the democratization of desire than the pornosphere, which is defined by the desire to arouse.2 As McNair notes, an equally important component of the pornosphere’s definition is that it exists “outside and beyond the mainstream to perform its function and retain its value as a commodity. It must present a visible violation of moral values and sexual taboos” (1463). By presenting that which is marginalized and taboo, pornography is inherently arousing.

However, this is not the intent of striptease culture. As a consequence, it works more intimately with the mainstream. Often this results in the co-mingling of professionalism and inexperience. Striptease culture, when deployed successfully, emits a feeling of “authenticity.” As can be attested by some of the most blatantly confessional reality stars, such as the Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the desire for sexualized authenticity is particularly evident. In Polizzi’s case, while her on-screen persona consistently discusses her own sexuality and her desire for sex, these confessions appear “ordinary” and authentic, in direct contrast to the pointed machinations of the pornosphere. Indeed, far from being presented as an object meant to arouse, Polizzi is ridiculed by others through such conventions as humorous underscoring and even mocking commentary. As such, she remains a sexual figure in the striptease cultural mode, without straying into the pornographic.
Despite their differences, striptease culture and the pornosphere are empowered by shared external forces. Both attract eager producers and audiences who “step forward and indulge mass voyeurism with confessional words and self-revelatory deeds” (2067), similar to the concept of scopophilia as deployed in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This relationship increasingly resonates with new technologies, such as the Internet, which has acted as both intensifier and locus for producers and audiences.

More importantly, these new technologies have been the impetus for increased exposure of previously “deviant” (2385) and alternative forms of gender and sexuality both in the pornosphere and striptease culture. While pornography exposes these taboos in order to arouse, striptease culture’s intent is to confess and unveil those sexual identities that are not promoted by the “parent culture,” which McNair believes still dominates the public discourse. In this way, both the pornosphere and striptease culture are capable of combating “male dominance” (2244) and help form new identities outside of the conventional parent culture, whether they intend to arouse or merely to engender others.

And it is the ability to confront the parent culture that is the essence of McNair’s argument. As he states, “striptease culture makes public that which has traditionally been restricted to the private sphere, and opens up a space hitherto monopolized by male, heterosexual elites to women, gays and other marginalized groups” (2467). What he sees as the strength of striptease culture, seemingly, is its ability to make things “better.” By exposing various cultures that might previously not have had voice in the public sphere, originally a concept constructed by Jürgen Habermas in relation to the bourgeoisie, McNair implies that it is the exposure of these unrepresented voices that gives striptease culture its true efficacy.

Furthermore, as much as pornographication is about marginalization, the “power of exposure,” which can be defined as the power to bring into view that which was once obscured or marginalized from the public sphere, is important because it normalizes that which it exposes through mainstream media. McNair focuses on various forces for normalization in terms of sexuality and gender. His views of homosexual culture are of particular interest when he traces the emergence and progress of the gay figure through the media, moving from obscurity to socially more accepted roles in music, art and film. McNair concludes “They have done this by making homosexuality more visible than ever before, and by allowing representations to become more diverse and representative of the reality of lived (gay) experience, in all of its flawed and imperfect complexity” (3362).

Equally important to the normalizing effects of exposure are the myriad forces that empower it. A multitude of forces, ranging from economic and political pressures to celebrity culture and demography ultimately determine the level of exposure within the public sphere.

In “Online Obscenity and Myths of Freedom,” referring to pornographic culture, Stephen Maddison directly criticizes people like McNair for promoting the idea of choice as somehow existing beyond economic factors. “The myth of sexual freedom obscures the operation of power… it proposes a technique by which individuals are induced to constitute themselves in approved forms” (Maddison, 25). He asserts that in all the examples that McNair cites, there are economic and other factors contending for power over the stripped image. From the website “Jennicam” to The Jerry Springer Show, the power of exposure is shared not only by actor and audience, but also by a number of other cultural factors. As Maddison ultimately concludes, “Porn is a business and porn production and consumption can never be separated from questions of economic power” (26).

McNair tacitly alludes to these forces throughout his explanation of striptease culture. Some of the forces vying for control, according to him, are “Promotional Culture,” celebrity, production, talent, audience and even academia.

The role of economics in the proliferation of striptease culture is also evident. Because people could profit from striptease culture and the proliferation of quality versions of a product, as theorized by Maddison, striptease culture gained prominence in the public sphere. Its elevated status came from the “additional factor of increased competition between proliferating television and print media channels” as well as “programme-making technologies such as light weight digital cameras” (McNair 2183). Still it seems obvious that such channels might control much more than just making something more popular.
The influence of “promotional culture” in exposing various sexual stereotypes was also noted by McNair in his discussion of the pornosphere. Promotional culture encourages the sharing of and knowledge about a marketed product (7015). McNair adds that as women, homosexuals and others who are outside of the parent culture gained financial security, they became an increasingly sought-after market. In his descriptions, however, McNair seems overly simplistic as he does not take into account demography, geography and other factors that might attribute to regional ads that promote one type of gender or sexual preference over another. This is perhaps seen in the use of nudity outside of the United States in advertisements. In the UK, as well as other European countries, such advertisements are present, whereas those same advertisers might discount the use of nudity in the US because of market conditions and legal restrictions. Consequently, promotional culture self-regulates based on what will sell and chooses what to and not expose in a particular area and demographic.

Also absent in McNair’s analysis is the celebrity culture that overlays and affects striptease culture. The concept of chic and how celebrities bare or portray themselves adds much to the public discourses on sexuality and gender. McNair alludes to, but does not directly address this connection in the second part of his work. His illustrations portray how the power of exposure as used by celebrities, be they characters (Jodie in Soap), actors/musicians or producers, helped normalize gay culture in the public sphere. By exposing and accepting alternative sexual identities themselves, celebrities and their culture allow for widespread exposure and normalization of various genders and sexual identities with both democratizing and marginalizing effects.

In terms of producers, actors and audience, McNair does not explore the motivations of these particular groups. Why an actor such as Neil Patrick Harris might profess to being gay after performing in a stereotypically homosexually positive culture like Broadway, while public servants like Jim McGreevey may choose otherwise, points to the various economic, social and cultural impediments present when choosing to reveal one’s sexuality. Furthermore, while homosexual culture or heterosexual acts and nudity may be seen more consistently as cultural norms, “queer culture” as advocated by Michael Warner, is still subject to many more obstacles in terms of its exposure. For example, someone who chooses to produce online television representing such queer culture will be significantly less “exposed” than someone on a national cable network. However, that person might currently find acceptance of his show on major networks, if he chooses to display monogamous homosexual couples that conform to heteronormative lifestyles.

Critical and academic reception, among other forms of audience reception, also influence what is exposed in striptease culture. These various discourses affect not only the level of exposure of a particular object/person/etc., but also whether or not the particular act of exposure is determined to be a democratizing or marginalizing force. Some of McNair’s primary examples, such as Boogie Nights and Showgirls, only reached the point of exposure because of critical reception and promotional culture, with the cache of celebrity-actors working in tandem. David Bowie was able to obtain notoriety as a sexually ambiguous pop star because of the celebrity culture of the 1970’s, as well as the audience’s reception. Even the magazine in which Demi Moore chose to exhibit her pregnancy, Vanity Fair, a publication with historical value and cultural cache, provided certain discursive power to her exposure.

Two examples, not included in McNair’s work, reveal not only the discourses at play in the power of exposure, but also the universality and widespread nature of such a notion.

The first, an article from The New York Times Magazine entitled “What Do Women Want?” is a more “democratizing” form of exposure of the roots of female sexuality as opposed to the expectations of the parent culture.

The second example, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out in 1997, presents an attempt to marginalize DeGeneres’ self-exposure.
Finally, a third study expands on this issue, exploring the emotional exposure on social networks outside the context of sexuality and gender.

“What Do Women Want?”:
The Power of Exposure as a Democratizing Force

Based on the work of scientists Meredith Chivers, Lisa Diamond and Marta Meana, author Daniel Bergner used The New York Times Magazine as a means of disclosing new findings on female sexuality. Breaking from the stereotypes inherent in the male-dominated parent culture, this article answered many unspoken questions about women’s arousal and sexual preferences. It even debated traditional heteronormative assertions of sexual identity, suggesting that women, unlike men, could be aroused by any person, male or female, while men tended to prefer one to the other. In order to support this, Bergner used a number of resources, among them the Kinsey report and Freud’s psychoanalytical work, along with recent research to explain the ambiguities of female sexual arousal. His ultimate goal was to expose “that, when it comes to desire, ‘the variability within genders may be greater than the differences between genders,’ that lust is infinitely complex and idiosyncratic” (Bergner).

However, a number of discursive forces gave power to this revelation. Specific choices allowed for this article to appear in the magazine, not the least of which was the characterization of the author himself. Bergner is described by the editors of the magazine as being both a “contributing writer” and the author of a soon to be published book entitled, The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing. By mentioning the book, Bergner is viewed as a reputable subject area expert. Certainly, if his revelations had been presented by a generalist or even another writer, they might not have had the authority and conviction necessary to legitimately disclose the information contained within the article.

In addition to the author, the other “characters” throughout the article revealing this new information are people of academic esteem. They are connected to “celebrity” psychologists such as Kinsey and Freud and are described as a diverse array of women, intellectually and physically. Hence, the writer is identifying them as the very type of females that might study women’s sexuality. For example, women like Chivers, “who favors high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses,” (Bergner) are described in such ways as to connote not just normalcy, but desirability for both their intellect and physical appearance.
Production and promotional clout related to The New York Times as a publication also empowered the information in the article. A newspaper generally considered “liberal” or “left wing,” The New York Times attracts an audience of the educated, liberal elite, who might be especially receptive to the non-traditional information presented in the article. Other news outlets, such as The New York Post or Cosmopolitan, could have potentially broached the information differently, but seemingly chose not to address it at all. In addition, such information on female sexuality might have been addressed differently depending on the particular era in which the research was conducted. In the 1960’s, Cosmopolitan was known for its “frank discussion of female sexuality” (McNair 632) and women in the work force; today, the magazine promulgates a somewhat more rigid view of female sexuality.

Discourses of scientific and current research are important in establishing the article as avant-garde and newsworthy. The information in the article is a revelation. Rather than expounding on the problems inherent in a patriarchal culture, “What Do Women Want?” criticizes previous studies of sexology, particularly those of Freud and Kinsey. The article does not criticize cultural trends, but instead addresses only new findings and changes in scientific procedure. In so doing, it does not actually critique the parent culture, but instead avoids full engagement with it and presents new information for the parent culture to use in the future.

The use of celebrity culture effectively contextualizes the events of the article. Bergner cites Diamond’s book, stating that “in 1997, the actress Anne Heche began a widely publicized romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions or relationships. The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man.” Also, “Julie Cypher left a heterosexual marriage for the musician Melissa Etheridge in 1988. After 12 years together, the pair separated and Cypher — like Heche — has returned to heterosexual relationships” (Bergner).

It was concluded that “female desire may be dictated — even more than popular perception would have it — by intimacy, by emotional connection” (Bergner). By invoking Diamond’s work, Bergner recognizes the research as the conclusion of a long study of female sexuality and uses celebrities as a means not only to contextualize its emergence at this time, but also of applauding what is being exposed. If successful celebrities are capable of such ambiguous sexualities, they are representative of larger populations of normal people who are capable of feeling the same way.

“What Do Women Want?” is as much subject to the forces that brought about its exposure as any results that may have come from such exposure. Ultimately this article and its subsequent impact exist partially due to economic and demographic choices and the use of science and celebrity to justify its arguments.

Ellen DeGeneres:
The Power of Exposure as a “Marginalizing” Force

It is surprisingly difficult to find those moments where the power of exposure in terms of striptease culture has acted as a marginalizing force. This alone is telling. When exposure is not forced upon people, as opposed to the recent political scandals ranging from Eliot Spitzer to Jim McGreevey, it can empower an individual, or as in the case of Ellen DeGeneres’ public coming out, may only temporarily marginalize the person who exposes her new sexual identity.

Certainly, Ellen’s decision to expose her sexual preference was an active choice. Ellen proved this by creating an orchestrated campaign, developed over half a dozen months, in which she alluded to her sexuality in magazines and interviews and about which she joked on her television show Ellen, culminating in the much hyped pseudo-event of her coming out episode. Her television show’s ratings soared as interest in her sexuality increased. The aforementioned episode capitalized on celebrity and promotional culture to a large degree, with the episode featuring a number of celebrities from Demi Moore to Billy Bob Thorton and perhaps, most notably, Oprah Winfrey.

Aside from the high media coverage, Ellen’s coming out was subject to numerous economical and political forces, with obvious support from ABC’s and Touchstone’s producers, who, along with Ellen herself were aware of the mediocre ratings the show had been drawing and the loss of sponsors. Producers and critics alike were aware that the historic event of the first gay leading character on television would cause a ratings spike due to the publicity of such an event. Ellen’s coming out also became the focal point of gay rights activists such as those in The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) who publicly supported the decision, as well as the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who famously renamed DeGeneres “Ellen DeGenerate” (Handy).

Within a year of coming out, however, Ellen’s show was cancelled. She quickly fell into moderate obscurity before reemerging a few years later as television host and judge in more “reality” based television entertainment. Today her daytime talk show still is in syndication and generally considered successful.

Ellen capitalized on celebrity culture, using humor and her television series as an outlet to disclose her sexuality. However, such careful orchestration suffered backlash from some audiences and critics. “Now the character Ellen is ready to announce what the world already knows,” (James) stated one New York Times reporter, criticizing the orchestration of Ellen’s coming out as “unsuspenseful.” Ellen’s marginalization resulted from her decision to expose herself. She was criticized for allowing her sexuality to too fully define her public persona. Ellen felt the show too controversial to be renewed (“‘Ellen’ is history, says controversial sitcom star”) and later, it was reported, that the show’s new focus on Ellen Morgan’s (as opposed to DeGeneres’) budding sexuality ultimately led to its cancellation (Tank).

While this marginalization may have altered her immediate professional future, it did not ruin her career. Much of the coverage around her notorious coming out episode revolved around the show’s quality, which was considered by some as a “‘Seinfeld’ wannabe” (James). The critics assailed Ellen, stating, “It used to be an unfunny show about a bookstore manager; now it can be an unfunny show about a gay bookstore manager” (James). Thus, the reasons behind DeGeneres’ temporary exile after her show’s cancellation are ambiguous and may have been due to the reception of the show over a number of years as much as it was about Ellen’s discussion of alternative sexualities.

Ellen’s resurrected career illustrates the acceptance of alternative sexual identities in the public sphere. Currently, particular forms of sexual identity, especially those that conform to heterosexual norms and monogamy, have not become detrimental to people’s careers when they have been exposed in the public sphere. This may have to do with the normalizing force of mass media. In this way, McNair’s assertions of the “democratization of desire” may have proven true.

Emotional Striptease:
The Power of Exposure Beyond Striptease Culture

Perhaps more injurious to careers has been those actions taken in social media and in the “Twittersphere,” where these same powers of exposure have been applied to emotions, rather than to sexuality, or in some cases, both. The result is a kind of “emotional striptease” culture laid bare in the digital world. Emotional statements, heretofore considered inappropriate for the public sphere, are divulged on the Internet, which can either normalize or marginalize their authors, depending on the particular emotions bared and the discursive forces surrounding them. The structures of media such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed a similar sort of audience/producer relationship that was seen in McNair’s striptease culture; similar external forces, ranging from economic to psychological, ultimately affect what exposed emotions are ultimately accepted or marginalized. What has made emotional striptease more injurious is that its power of exposure lies much more in the world of audience reception and celebrity than the traditional platforms of mass media.

The recent ousting of Gilbert Gottfried as spokesman for Aflac, the dismissal of John Galliano from his own company and even the resignation of Anthony Weiner are just a few examples of particularly volatile emotional statements made through Social Media in 2011 that had a marginalizing affect.

Although in Gottfried’s case, being fired for insensitive remarks about the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster may not end his career, his ouster from Aflac is notable because it occurred as a consequence of instantaneous public reaction surrounding his “tweets” about the survivors of the Japanese earthquake. His harsh comments appeared in direct contrast to media coverage of the disaster, which focused on the popular outpouring of sympathy and charity. An insult comic by trade, such commentary by Gottfried might be expected, but his choice to bring the comments to the public sphere via Twitter received particularly harsh public reaction.

Galliano’s anti-Semitic commentary and Weiner’s sexually explicit photography and flirtatious comments via social media and email both represent examples of emotional striptease. For these powerful men, their indiscretions were perceived and exposed against their will, through the use of technologies (YouTube and Twitter respectively) that were inherently built for public consumption. In both Weiner’s and Galliano’s cases, acts of hubris seem to have been committed and were broadcast through social networks and then magnified by the general media.

In some ways emotional striptease may be the newest terrain of violating notions of decency. Although emotionally volatile characters find outlet through social media, they still are subject to responses from the same discursive forces that affected the publication of “What Do Women Want?” and Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out.

Conclusion

Exposure bestows great power upon modern media, made only stronger by technological advances. At the same time, these disclosures are subject to discourses that govern what, outside of the parent culture, is exposed and to what degree that exposure will be accepted. While the power of exposure subverts the Utopian ideal envisioned by McNair’s concept of striptease culture, exposure is ultimately an effective means of expanding the public sphere beyond the male/heterosexual dominated culture that McNair believes is its core.

Since these discursive forces ultimately direct the power of exposure, change can only be achieved, albeit slowly, by those who are aware of, capitalize on and manipulate these forces. During the widespread political turmoil of early 2011 in the Middle East, the use of social media technologies by revolutionary forces was dubbed the “Arab Spring.” This movement was crystallized by its users’ understanding of social media’s technologies and potential. Their efforts exposed Americans to educated and democracy-hungry groups of Arab youth, dismissing stereotypes built into the parent culture and uncovering a multifaceted Arab world. Like McNair’s contentions about the advances of sexual identities based on striptease culture, such exposures not only encourage progress in the public sphere, but also ultimately can lead to significant, even drastic changes in our increasingly global society, which has the potential to become more interconnected and tolerant as these web-based exchanges and exposures proliferate.

Works Cited
Bergner, Daniel. “What Do Women Want? – Discovering What Ignites Female Desire – NYTimes.com.” NYTimes.com 22 Jan 2009. 25 July 2011.

“‘Ellen’ is history, says controversial sitcom star.” The Nation 28 Feb 1998 : C2. Print. 25 July 2011.

Handy, Bruce. “TELEVISION: HE CALLED ME ELLEN DEGENERATE?” Time Magazine 17 Apr 1997. 25 July 2011.

James, Caryn. “A Message That’s Diminished by the Buildup.” The New York Times 13 Apr 1997. 25 July 2011.

Maddison, Stephen. “Online Obscenity and Myths of Freedom.” Porn.com: Making Sense of Online Pornography. 1st ed. Ed. Feona Attwood. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. 297. Print.

McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Kindle.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975) : 6-18. Print.

Tank, Ron. “‘Will & Grace’ getting quiet approval from NBC.” CNN.com. 25 July 2011.

One thought on “The Power of Exposure: Understanding the Discourses of Control in Striptease Culture and Beyond

  1. […] recent appearance at the New York State Communication Association Annual Conference, I spoke about the Power of Exposure. I wanted to also include a long form presentation that I gave part of at the conference […]

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