Part 4: Pole Dancing, Power Dynamics and the ‘Male Gaze’

If you have been reading my Academic ‘An Art Historian’s Perspective’ blogs then welcome back! If you missed the first three installments then you can catch up below:

Part 1: The Aesthetics of Acceptable Sexy

Part 2: Cults of Superiority

Part 3: The Nude vs Naked in Pole Dancing

I mentioned in Part 3 the idea that power dynamics are essential in how we perceive and analyse nudity. I didn’t have time / word count to go into depth into this concept, so I wanted to unpick it in a blog of its own.

As I explained in my previous post, our understanding of the ‘nude’ body versus the ‘naked’ body impacts our judgement and opinions of women in particular, especially when it comes to dance, art and sensual expression. Bodies that are perceived as ‘nude’ are tasteful, artistic and therefore morally OK, whereas the ‘naked’ body is considered crass, inappropriate and therefore morally wrong. Clark wrote about this concept back in the 1950s, and a LOT has changed in the world since then. Despite the fact it is now 2017 and Clark is as outdated as period belts and trouser presses, the ideas he discusses still inform social opinion around nudity and art to this day.

Interestingly, Kenneth Clark described nudity as empowered, transgressing the immorality of the naked body to transform it into art work. Whereas nakedness is vulnerable, there’s an implied helplessness that Clark feels exists in depictions of the body as ‘naked’. This power dynamic is a really interesting discussion that I wanted to delve into a bit deeper, especially since female empowerment and the sex industry have changed dramatically in the interim. So, let’s get started…

What is ‘the gaze’? Or more specifically the ‘male gaze’?

The ‘male gaze’ was coined by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975 as a way to describe the ways in which arts and literature often present female subjects from a masculine view point. The female body in particular is often an object for pleasurable consumption for the male viewer, artist or writer, rather than an authentic, fully-realised representation of an individual. She serves a very specific purpose, and that is the entertainment of men.

For many years the ‘male gaze’ was used to critique the fine art and film industries, as well as representations of sexualised women in media and the sex industry. For example, films were overwhelmingly shot from a straight male perspective (and they still are) – female characters are often there as simply eye candy or plot devices, rather than characters with flaws, personalities and character development. Photographs of women often focus on their ‘parts’, zooming in on specific features and framing the photograph around sexualised aspects of the female body. The woman is presented exactly how you think she would be when written by and for men. She is often one dimensional.

And yes, this theory is very useful, and it has many fantastic applications. I would never discount it as a theory entirely. It was an important part of my own journey on my Art History degree, and it helped me tremendously to start critically analysing the culture around me. However, it also has its limitations.

So, what’s the T?

The way in which theorists discussed power dynamics during this period was very binary. The sexualised woman was always the ‘passive’ / submissive subject, whilst the audience / voyeur was always the ‘active’ / dominant (and presumed straight male) presence. This suggested that every sensual or sexual representation of a woman was a result of the ‘male gaze’, that women could not be sexual or sensual without it being a direct representation of patriarchal oppression or submissiveness. The power dynamic was reduced to a one-sided view point that was steeped in moral judgements and negativity towards sexual expression.

This theory ignores non-binary genders, non-heterosexual orientations, and presents sexual expression as an essentially negative thing.

This attitude is why you still have feminist groups campaigning to shut down strip clubs, and who are more than happy to publicly speak out against pole dancing in all of its forms. That says submissive women are indoctrinated. That asserts that women who wear makeup are ‘bimbos’. That ‘I’m not like other girls, I’m stronger, more intelligent, I would never degrade myself like that’. It is precisely because of this concept that sexy pole is critiqued on an on-going basis as ‘damaging to women’ and a symptom of patriarchal oppression, because many many women still believe that in order to be empowered you also need to reject anything that that is overtly sexual.

How does this relate to Kenneth Clark?

As discussed in my previous post, Kenneth Clark’s concepts around nudity still inform our impressions of cultural products to this day. Nudity is ‘elevated’, whilst ‘nakedness’ is vulnerable. The interesting thing here is that this theory also assumes power dynamics, and projects them upon the female subject. The nude female subject is ’empowered’ because she has been made into High Culture and fine art, whilst the naked female subject is vulnerable and dis-empowered because her body has not been ‘elevated’ in order to suit high cultural tastes. This along with the ‘male gaze’ assumes that any woman who doesn’t explicitly meet a certain social criteria of ‘acceptable levels of sexy’ is dis-empowered, and therefore a victim.

A contemporary dancer in a leotard is an artist, whilst a stripper in a leotard is a victim of the patriarchy.

We are too sexy and therefore we are crude, morally bankrupt, or exposing ourselves in a way that reduces our cultural value or worth. Patriarchal cultural concepts of acceptable representations of nudity have collided with feminist theory, to present women as victims to sensuality and sexual expression, that it is never their choice.

No one wants to be a victim, whether it is of slut shaming or to ‘social conditioning’, so they continue to see explicit representations of sensuality and sex to be negative, regardless of which angle you look at it from.

How does this impact how the general public view Pole Dancing?

Pole dancing that is more fitness based, contemporary / ballet dance based or considered ‘Pole Art’ is ‘safer’. “The dangerous sexual ‘male gaze’ isn’t here, folks! No one is wanking over my top knot and practical sports attire!” Removing the sex communicates that this practice is not only acceptable to those who see sexual expression as dirty and morally wrong, but also that it is acceptable to those who are critical of any practices which may appear to be for the titillation of men. This artistic pole piece doesn’t appear to be a conscious effort to fulfill a masculine sexual fantasy and therefore it isn’t victim to the over-sexualisation of the ‘male gaze’.

In the pole world we see no problem with stripping down into our tiny pants and dancing around in our 8 inch heels (for the most part), and although we are overwhelmingly an accepting bunch we can still fall victim to some of these attitudes towards the naked body and female sensuality. We still have people who see sexy style, not just as ‘distasteful’, but also as actively damaging to society and to women themselves. To YOU sexy pole is of course for you, but to the outside world they believe you are doing it because you have been conditioned that way.

You may have been presented with the following statements / questions if you have talked about stripper style pole dancing:

  • “Oh, I bet your boyfriend loves that! Do you give him private shows?”
  • “I could NEVER be a stripper, I would feel so degraded.”
  • ” Why do you have to wear the slutty shoes? I think it just makes women into sexual objects.”

All of these statements assume that pole, and of course stripping and stripper style, is 1) always and directly subject to the ‘male gaze’, and 2) that the ‘male gaze’ is always the active powerful participant, and many times, inherently damaging.

Of course, there are aspects of the sex industry and stripping that ARE damaging to women, but the damage isn’t innate to the work or act of stripping and sex work itself. These are bigger issues related to male entitlement, rape culture and sex worker dehumanisation. Being sexual does not dis-empower you, being raped, assaulted, mistreated and undervalued make you feel dis-empowered.  The fact that we have been programmed to see nakedness and sexual expression, as inherently ‘vulnerable’, ‘cheap’, and ‘dis-empowering’ means that individuals who are vicitimised as a result of being ‘naked’ and sexual are blamed for their own vicitimisation – “Why don’t you just quit stripping? Don’t you know that groping is just part of the job?”, or, “People are going to think you’re a slut, that’s just the way it is. And besides, you aren’t exactly representing women very well are you?” You are not seen as empowered for dancing naked, but quite the opposite. You may be seen as brainwashed, silly, uneducated or an ‘attention-whore’, because people assume that you are either so thirsty for the ‘male gaze’ you will do anything for it, or you simply don’t know how to ‘better yourself’ out of it.

But, real talk here…

This is also why many sexy pole dancers tout their version of sexy pole as ‘amazing and empowering’, precisely because they create an off-set between ‘pole dancing’ and ‘stripping’. They perform as women for women. They talk about how they ‘could never get naked for a man in a club’, and variations on this theme. Of course, that’s completely fine. I LOVE dancing for women, and probably would hate to dance for men because most of them are trash and the industry has many flaws that need addressing. I’m privileged enough to make that choice. But, these statements also reveal a sense of cultural superiority and an engagement with the concept that female sensuality, when subject to the ‘male gaze’ or within that power dynamic, is always victimised and therefore always wrong or immoral.

So, we DO need to educate the wider public that sexy pole isn’t always for the ‘male gaze’ and that we are perfectly happy and fine dancing for ourselves, for our pole friends, and for our appreciative pole audience. But, we also need to check ourselves. Are we buying into victim rhetoric? Are we off-setting our pole world from stripping because we don’t want to question our own attitudes towards sexual expression? Are we willing to take what is comfortable, and great, and easy from strippers, without actually helping them out with any of the shit?

We all know how amazing sexy pole makes us feel, how much confidence stripping (in or out of the club) can give us. We WANT all this. We TAKE all this from the strippers. And what thanks do we give them? We erase their contributions to pole, we say ‘I think everyone should do what what makes THEM happy’, we say ‘If they hate stripping so much they should just quit’. It is time to stop making these power dynamics black and white, and start seeing the grey areas. It is time we start working to end the stigma towards sex workers and strippers, and give a little back.



The next blog in this series will be discussing one of my very favourite subjects which is ‘semiotics’. In the mean time, drop any questions you have in the comments below xxx





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