Sunday, July 6, 2008

Never Piss Off a Stripper: the ethnography of reality television

Lisa Wynn's article, "What is a prostitute?" from American Sexuality Magazine (a publication of the National Sexuality Resource Center) is making its rounds of the Anthro blogs this week.

It started at Culture Matters, made its way to Antropologi and was cross-posted at Alternet where there was some mildly interesting follow-up discussion. The article was a relatively casual musing on the use of the label of "prostitute" in Egypt. Not surprisingly, from the anthropological point of view, the label is not easily applied for the simple case of "sex for money". Rather, the term represents a complex judgment by Wynn's Egyptian informants and friends as to a woman's behavior and appearance relative to her social position. Wynn indicates in the follow-up discussion at Alternet that she believes interesting comparisons can be made with American beliefs and terminologies (whether the English-language term "whore" works as a substitute, for example)--although, in the article, she is quick to point out that her own initial judgment of the use of the term was filtered through the American lens of payment made for sexual services rendered.

I wonder if she has ever watched Rock of Love on VH1? For the last two semesters, my classes and I have been discussing the phenomenal success (it was the most watched cable T.V. show of 2007, I believe) of this reality, dating show whose stated goal is to find a woman who can "rock the world" of Bret Michaels, the apparently follicly challenged, bandanna-wearing lead singer of the '80's hair band Poison. In on-going class discussion my students, much like Lisa Wynn, have explored the terminology, philosophies, and judgments of the contestants on the show and our own reaction to them. For example, in both seasons of the shows, the female contestants have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing which women are truly "there for Bret". Quick and harsh judgments are levied against those few contestants who question whether Bret would meet their needs. My students became quite adroit at guessing who would be the next aspirant to be eliminated based on the "not there for Bret" criteria. I wish now I could replay those discussion with a new twist. The application of the term" ho "(16 pages of definition at the Urban Dictionary): its meaning and the circumstance of its use on the show.

Most of these discussion were very useful. Not only were students active and engaged, it allowed them to think for themselves; to engage with anthropological ideas in an arena where they felt competent. And you know, the shock value of the discussion, actually, worked in my favor. It was artificial, to be sure, but it still had the feel of the "exotic". It was not your usual academic discussion and it took them out of their comfort zone in all the right ways.

My happiest moment came, however, when I did one of our discussion wrap-ups. In my years of teaching, I have learned to always end any free-range discussion with the phrase. "What did we learn?" The response by one of my young men? "Never piss off a stripper!" His mother would be proud.

BTW: Season One is out on DVD.

Updated: Anthro Blog Contest Followers, Part II of this post (with the actual tattoo reference) can be found here. So, keep reading.


L.L. said...

Lisa Wynn here -- No, I have never even heard of this show, but now I'm going to have to check it out! Thanks for a great idea for an anthropology teaching tool.

Pamthropologist said...

Season three is set to begin in America next week and my semester starts a couple of weeks after. We will see if "students" continue to watch.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I was going to say something similar, for a practical reason, I read your blog at work sometimes and to have photos like that pop up without warning is a bit incriminating for me. Although I can see your point in using them too. stripper birmingham

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