Stripper on the courthouse steps
The first fête de village which M. attended in France shocked him deeply. It was a small rural town in the Tarn, much like the one where we live now, and the one where we were last night – a sleepy farming village. But at one point on stage there came a stripper in full Dominatrix fetish gear. She quickly lost her spiked black leather brazier, after a short provocative dance, and from the happy rural family audience she began to pull men – husbands and fathers and boyfriends – to the stage and mock-bind them with rope to a straight chair. Then she would wiggle and shimmy around her “victim” in symbolic domination scenarios, teasing them with her breasts and whip and other gear, with a fully nude upper body.
Everyone was laughing and having a good time. The men on stage were red as beets but enjoying the attention. The families gathered around chewed their barbe-à-papas nonchalantly, taking pictures with cell phones.
“The children!” M. thought, nearly melting away in shock and shame.
He loves to tell the story to this day, more than a decade later. How could such a thing be done in front of children and no one seem to mind? And didn’t these village women feel jealousy or at least revulsion at their husbands and boyfriends and sons so publicly gratified by a stripper, and in front of the church house, no less. The courthouse, too.
But no one else did mind. It was just another night of the small-town annual celebration, another stage show with a little racey edge thrown in. No harm done. The next act on stage was a 1950s doo-wop gig with Elvis Presley coiffs.
Things are different in France. The place of women is different. The perception of the naked body is different. And certainly attitudes toward human sexuality are different.
Dance with a faceless woman
M. is shy in public, at least at first. It’s a strange kind of shyness because you can throw him into a cocktail party or even riding a bus, and he will retire to his wall and observe silently, but on the other hand he can make slick professional presentations effortlessly to a thousand people without blinking an eye. It’s a special kind of introversion that is utterly suspended on a stage.
I guess I have always been attracted to show people.
That is how we met Jean Biche, a show person. I was a fan online already (Jean Biche translates to John Deere, by the way, so how could I resist?) and out of the blue one summer he wrote to me, a stranger, from Belgium to ask if he could come stay with us for a few days for an appointment in Toulouse. Never shy, always game, I said immediately, Yes, of course. We’d be honored.
And then these years later he came again to stay for a gig in our region last week. This time his career had grown and he was the feature act.
Now, we had seen these posters out on country roads recently that said “Plastic Queer” and pictured a young half-naked longhaired guy draped in an American flag holding a fake oozie and wearing a motorcycle helmet. We had thought the rural French must not fully understand the sexual connotations of the English word queer, or maybe it was a concert poster for an edgy European rock band, for whom it did not matter. It turns out it really was an ad for a local festival of queer art, all connotations withstanding, and guess who was the star attraction: Yes, our houseguest, John Deere himself.
At the start of the finale of the festival on Saturday night, just before Jean Biche’s star performance, two women (visual artists Red Bind) moved out into the audience dressed in black ballgowns with long trains. They were dressed for a formal soirée, but then they fastened red dog collars around their necks and attached themselves to each other by those collars with a wide red ribbon about 4 meters long. Then they wrapped their heads in red scarves so that their features were covered, no face, no hair, just blank red balls where their heads had been, their identities erased and mute, unable to see or speak.
They felt their way toward each other using the cord like a lifeline, embraced, and slow-danced as ballroom music began to play. The trailing loop of red ribbon and the long black trains of their dresses encircled them, binding them together, necks and feet.
As a second song began, they disentangled themselves slowly and turned away from each other. They extended their hands in front of them like caricatures of sleepwalkers and began to walk toward the circled crowd in two different directions. The ribbon that connected them soon became tense and pulled their necks against each other’s yearning persistence. Their sliding strides were brought short and they began to choke, trapped by the neck from going further as the music played on.
Eventually after an uncomfortable period of watching them struggle, a woman from the audience figured it out and rushed forward, threw down her backpack and clasped hands with one of them to take up the slow dance. Then another woman came forward. And the two couples danced much as the women had together. Now the trains encircled each partner, but the ribbon became a tug of war and finally entangled both couples. The song changed and the faceless women bowed to their last partners and looked for another.
Each song they changed partners, seeking blindly into the crowd with arms outstretched, ready to embrace someone new, straining on that red ribbon that bound them, until someone else took their hands and began to sway to the music. Children, old men, dandies, bikers… the crowd took turns waltzing them slowly in circles, becoming entangled each in turn.
M. sensed an opportunity and, because he knows me better sometimes even than I know myself, he didn’t let it get away. He niggled and persuaded, “Come on, this was custom-made for you… you need to do it,” until I gave in and stepped out from the audience, positioning myself to dance with one of the faceless women. I could not help but notice the similarity of his persistence in eroding my resistance – tension against tension in our coupling of opposing forces, because I felt that I did not need to dive in personally in order to understand what I saw, and he insisted that at least one of us should – was not unlike the taut red cord that choked both dancers in a tug of war of equals by the neck.
Despite the festive atmosphere, the woman I clasped hands with was stiff and unalive. I had not expected that. She did not speak at all, and though we were in an intimate pose, I did not feel I could speak to her. We swayed not like dancers but like zombies, like cadavers. She was performing, making a point. It was not a dance foremost, but a symbol. I found the train of her skirt entwining my legs as we turned slowly in one direction, the red sash that connected her to her “sister” twin across the dancefloor also wound around my neck and that of the other new partner.
But were we partners? Or their victims. Or their beards. Or even their pupils. If I had not danced with her myself, I would not have grasped half as much of the symbolism. This was participatory art. To observe it was not enough. You had to engage personally to understand it best.
Two faceless women bound by a cord summoned strangers out of the audience to dance through a song, but never broke their connection to each other, nor revealed their true identities to their partners, not even to each other.
I barely got to experience this, as I was the last one to dance with one of them before the music stopped and they took a final bow. I would not trade that memory for the comfortable security of never having stepped out.
I am very glad that M. knows me so well.
Opposites, or full circle
Then Jean Biche came on stage and illustrated that same sexual miracle of France as M.’s first fête de village: That in a town of 1,000 people nestled in the hills of the agricultural Tarn, there could be a celebration called Plastic Queer, for which the villagers worked all year. There were placards placed (without defacement) in small towns and along country roads all around.
The weekend of the festival the atmosphere was much like any other fête de village. There were sausage vendors and tents, music systems, a stage, volunteer families hosting the artists with a week of room and board, a couple of thousand people attracted over several days.
In this case 6 village houses were outfitted with various artistic installations – it was almost an hour drive to take in all of the far-ranging exhibits: A pool lined with underwater drawings; an abandoned farmhouse staged with live birds and plucked feathers spilling over the furniture under giant photos of carnage (carnage which spookily had been photographed in the same spot, with the same wallpaper as background); effigies of sequined Inquisitors
standing in the woods, straw spilling from beneath their particolored robes; a film of a naked man singing a contorted Ave Maria while turning somersaults in a bubblebath which was projected inside a children’s tree house; another farmhouse which you could not enter but around which you had to seek out unmarked pinhole views to peek into – a keyhole, or chinks in the brick, the sliver view through a barn door left ajar – to see holographic vignettes of an ordinary woman during her everyday tasks, parking the car in the garage or doing the dishes or shelling a bowl of peas, while flanked by ghostly spirit acolytes veiled in designer scarves, like false-feminine spirits that either guarded her or threatened her depending on your point of view. Interpret as you will. The extraordinary thing was that it was there, in the Tarn, in the middle of nowhere, a celebration of queer artists hosted in one of the more rural places imaginable.
And that is how our own dear Jean Biche came to be featured as the grand finale on stage – an au courant urban club diva from the north descended to our sleepy bucolic everyday. He, as a film-noir she, rose glittering on the stage as the sun set on Saturday night. He sang his reportoire of dark ballads, dusky cabaret mixes set to abstract projections.
Slowly the fabulous silver dress was shed, falling to the floor, leaving the stark rigid infrastructure of his girdle, his bodice, his angular bra, his extraordinarily high heels, laying bare the artificial contours that made him a “woman” in society’s eyes. In this final immodest exposure he coyly mimicked an innocent blush, as if mocking his audience for tacitly believing that we were discovering anything new or embarrassing. We ourselves were the embarrassed naked ones. He had led us to exactly where he intended: The tension of seeing and being seen, of gratification and shock, amply played out on stage.
It was a very high-brow sort of drag. Some of the symbolism of his audio-visual spectacle was clear: Headlights of cars coming toward you, butterflies set strategically on naked bodies. But other parts were more enigmatic: His own imposition of light only on certain parts of his body, the spiral of psychological visual tests in the background, sometimes flames raging around him, a bout of false hysterics, assuming the position of Wyeth’s crippled Christina on the floor as gigantic women’s breasts swayed as a projected landscape behind him.
And here’s the thing: People were eating sausages. Smoke from the nearby grill drifted across the stage. The village post office sign presided over the stage. There were at least 30 children lined up in the front row sitting cross-legged, rapt in attention. Elderly farmers and their wives had reserved tables and were eating dinner al fresco through the show. The church steeple was silhouetted against the sunset. The local Committee was proudly filming the stage for their archives, another successful fête in the village. The staid old Mairie had been draped in large banners that read “Plastic Queer” with that strange American-flag-caped daredevil brandishing his plastic oozie, front and center. The ancient street names had been temporarily plastered over by new street names honoring literary feminists. A local vintner was selling his organic wines by the bottle to the other side of the stage. People were talking in groups ignoring the show, or making goodnatured catcalls to the stage, or holding up their cell phones to take selfies with the performer in his bra and corset and platform heels.
All those elements which with just a subtle twist could be made to explode with rage against each other were there gathered peaceably for a party.
It was all so completely normal. And this kind of normal is the alter-image of ISIS, I thought, the opposite of the unified morality of a totalitarian theocratic state. This is what democracy and a common interest in the public quality of life can do.
And then I thought, no. It’s more subtle than that: This is also the alter-image of the United States, which is not actually opposing that radicalism in the East, but rather balancing it as an equal, almost cooperative, “moralizing” force. America’s apparent polarity against its nemesis has put it in a place not far from the enemy at all. They share much in common, a mutually contrived chokehold of faceless extremes, one might even say.
And morally speaking, in the realm of individual liberty and freedom, they are both over there, while we, in one sense in the middle, are actually at the opposite extreme.
We choose which direction to push as a society, and though the tipping point is a fine line, it is a decisive one. Something very subtle is the difference, but that small difference, that small reservation of judgment, that small willingness to live and let live instead of to punish the “sinner,” that small willingness to step out from bland safety as a spectator and become a real grappling participant in the risky dance, is amplified as it moves outward in rings, until you get this: Jean Biche on the stage, and me dancing with an anonymous woman, learning about the construction of the feminine inside ourselves, and a weekend of installation art bringing to the deep agrarian backwaters of France a night of sophisticated urban cabaret.
Now that is certain Americans’ greatest fear, that someone will do a drag striptease on the courthouse steps and no one will rise to oppose her. That children will be “converted.” That the unifying institutions will crumble, subverted by too much freedom, too much diversity. But in another more just and democratic society, such events do not define us any more than a corset makes a man into a woman, or a mastectomy or breast implants makes a woman ultimately either free or bound.
Did we get the full message of the Plastic Queer festival? Only the children will be able to tell us for sure, in a decade or two. Afterwards they played laser tag around the stage like it never happened, while we adults mingled with the performers and discussed the challenging art which we had just seen.