The following is an excerpt from Alicia Eler's new book Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent and Culture, which comes out Nov. 7 (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99). In the book, Eler, an L.A. Weekly contributor, takes a closer look at the newfangled phenomenon of compulsively photographing ourselves. In this section, a portion of the ninth chapter, she muses on an L.A. landmark that prohibits selfies: Jumbo's Clown Room.
Speaking of the production and consumption of (cis)female bodies, there are no selfies or other types of photography allowed at Jumbo’s Clown Room, a strip club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. I had driven by it many times while cruising through Hollywood, noticing the bouncer who eyed IDs at the door. The red-brick façade reminded me of how few brick buildings there are in Los Angeles because of earthquakes. There are no windows in the façade of Jumbo’s. There are no free shows for passers-by.
I initially resisted going to Jumbo’s. I had seen amateur burlesque shows in Chicago, at dimly lit dive bars on makeshift stages, and at storefront theaters squeezed between warehouses on diagonally directional streets. I didn’t want to pay an admission fee to see women’s bodies commodified, and then throw dollar bills at them, which felt even more demoralizing. Even though I am a cis queer woman, I grapple with questions of objectifying women. Also, why go watch live when this commodification is so readily available on TV, the internet and in porn? With all this screened play, why would anyone go see girls, like, real human beings, simulating what we are already seeing on screens all the time?
Jumbo’s was different from other strip clubs. Unlike the plethora of other XXX nude girl joints, which I noticed the most when I first moved to L.A., this one has been around since 1970, it’s not nude and it is burlesque. It is rumored that workers there are treated more ethically. As with any strip club, though, there are still plenty of dollar bills that patrons throw onto the stage, ready to be swept up after the dance is over. It’s the business of selling bodies, sex, desire, pleasure.
Curious and open to this new experience, I decided to go — but not on my own, of course. BFF Che Landon thought it would be hilarious to take our eight-months-pregnant-and-about-to-pop friend to Jumbo’s. What funnier place to spot a pregnant woman, am I right?? And who knows, maybe the baby would decide to make an appearance that evening!
There are no photos allowed inside the red-brick façade of Jumbo’s. A packed bar and a stage with a single golden pole erected into it sandwich the available seating area. A series of chairs lined the perimeter of the stage, just beyond the rail that separated the dancer and the audience members who have decided to sit right there in front of the stage and fling bills at the dancers rather than lounge on a black leather booth or on stools at a circular table further away. The bar that wraps its way around the stage is painted red and dotted with yellow stars. Mirrors line the back wall of the stage, the ceiling above the stage and another side of the wall adjacent to the stage.
No matter where you are sitting in the audience, you can see the dancer from multiple angles. Or you can just look straight ahead at her. There is no screen or screened bodies. Just sit back and look into the mirror — see yourself watching her, see her reflected back in the mirror, see reflections of bodies in space.
Sitting in the front row that night at Jumbo’s, I had the overwhelming sense that I’d experienced this dynamic before — this wanting to sit in the front row and look but not be seen looking. I turned to my left, watching as one of my friends gleefully dispensed dollar bills like a blissed-out bank teller to a happily receiving customer.
That’s when it hit me. I remembered this experience. My desire to look but not be seen reminded me of being at a comedy show and making the bold choice to sit in the front row, experiencing that same sensation — hoping that the comedian would make eye contact with me and single me out, put me on the spot with eye contact, but not actually acknowledge my presence. I was there to listen and be an objectified voyeur but not to be seen.
There’s another important element of Jumbo’s that I mentioned earlier but I want to reinforce. There are no phones allowed. No one can photograph the girls. They cannot photograph themselves, either. In essence, they are protected against the threat of social media and the internet. Their bodies will not exist in data form. Their essence will never leave that room. The memories of their bodies will exist only in the minds of visitors that evening, hundreds of eyes gazing in, skin-deep, on the surface.
They can only be seen directly, never in a meta-way or through a third-party app. They can only ever be performers and reflections in mirrors, various angles, ass, face, right here, right now.
Anyone seen with their phone out is reprimanded. I took mine out at one point just to check an app, and immediately a bouncer noticed and approached me, yelling: “No phones!” I was putting the phone away when the dancer onstage who donned an obviously sexy Halloween costume that included a fake bloodied sword moved toward me. I played along with her slashing role-play motion. Then she slunk off, dropping to the floor where she gyrated a while, then wrapped her legs around a pole, sliding up and down it until the song ended and she exited.
While she did this, I watched the mirrors. They created multiple reflected versions of her in this physical space, which replicated the infinite reflection of a sexualized selfie put out on the internet, available for anyone to see through the smartphone in their hands, a face appearing in the palm of your hand. Except instead of direct gazes and dollar bills landing on her as she moved across the stage, such a selfie would garner likes and retweets and comments, shares and often creepy @ messages. Every click is feedback, a like a reward. Every dollar dropped onstage is a monetary reward.
“The human reward system tends to be responsive to a variety of things that lead to a subjective pleasurable response,” says Dr. Mauricio Delgado, associate professor in the department of psychology at Rutgers University. “This includes the most basic of rewards such as food or money. This also includes more social rewards; things such as a simple smile, receiving compliments or feeling accepted by peers.”
I was thinking about this effect of the body and face as a woman’s first and last weapon in the digital age and IRL, online as a selfie-er versus in-person as a body. In both spaces, the body becomes not just a brand or a means of gaining social capital but a literal commodity.
I tell this story not to take issue with strip clubs, burlesque/erotic dancers or the act of voyeurism. My experience at Jumbo’s made me think more deeply about some of the recurring critiques of selfie culture, particularly those aimed at young women who find the act of selfie-ing to be empowering, experimenting with their bodies and sexuality in the way that they want to, being seen in the way that they want to be seen. It is empowering as a way to capture attention and to connect quickly, but it comes with the reality of literally releasing one’s selfie as data to the network.
Often, the young women who are purveyors of selfie culture replicate the same types of sexual submissiveness that wouldn’t be seen as “strong” or empowering at all. Women’s bodies are always sexualized. This becomes even more complicated within the realm of selfie culture, because while the image is of her and for her, it becomes something that is also consumed by others who see her as a sexualized object. It’s impossible to escape the gaze or the commodification of bodies under patriarchy.
The Selfie Generation Book Launch, Pop-Hop Books & Print, 5002 York Blvd., Highland Park; Fri., Nov. 10, 7 p.m. thepophop.com/events-1/2017/11/10/the-selfie-generation-by-alicia-eler-book-launch-fri-nov-10-7pm.