After-Effects: The “Problem” of Dancers at a GDC After-Party

23 Mar

Like many other feminist scholars in games, when I saw the photos of the go-go dancers at a Microsoft after-party (thrown following a “Women in Gaming Luncheon”) I rolled my eyes, sighed, and thought “of course they did.” It’s a tired and much-revisited trope that launch parties, after-parties, and just parties in general in the games industry will have booth babes or scantily clad dancers.

And then I read “A Dancer’s Thoughts on Microsoft’s GDC Party.”

I have to admit—with something resembling horror—that I had fallen prey to the same kind of blind condemnation of the presence of the dancers that afflicts people who do things like demand that teachers to engage in burlesque on their off-time (using pseudonyms) be fired for indecency (which, by the way, is complete bull****). I dismissed the presence of the dancers at the GDC party as blatant misogyny while somehow completely forgetting that I have actually worked as a go-go dancer at a charity party wearing comparatively little clothing in comparison to what I wear on a daily basis.

And let me tell you, that was like a slap in the face.

So I’m going to go ahead and admit that my knee-jerk reaction to immediately be disgusted by the presence of dancers at the GDC after-party was wrong. It wasn’t wrong because I thought the dancers weren’t serious women (I didn’t slide that low). It wasn’t wrong because I thought that women who dance or strip or do burlesque or pole are somehow not classy (some of the classiest women I know do one or more of those things on a regular basis).

It was wrong because I automatically assumed a particular motivation on the part of Microsoft that may or may not have been a part of their decision to hire dancers. Here’s where intention is vitally important, and also where I have the sneaking suspicion that Microsoft probably was in the wrong, but not for hiring dancers to appear at their after-party.

Microsoft was probably in the wrong because of why they hired the dancers. What probably happened is that someone (probably straight, white, and male) decided that it would be “hot” to have women in bikini tops and short skirts to look at, because sexy women are what make a party. Such a motivation is misogynistic, sexist, and enormously problematic, especially if your after-party includes people invited to a Women in…Luncheon, as said women are probably going to be highly concerned about and sensitive to sexism in the workplace.

What would not be wrong is to hire dancers because dancers are awesome and they help make a party by encouraging people to dance, because watching them demonstrate their skill is appreciating their athleticism (which may in fact include their physiques), and because after-parties are all about dancing and having a good time.

As the article above notes, some people argued that having both male and female dancers would have been better likely would not have kept people from complaining. I do think having dancers of both genders would probably be an indication of a less sexist motive. I also think that allowing them to wear shirts would be an indication of a less sexist motive (although, yes, part of the aesthetic of dancers is being able to see their bodies move, and there are dances and performance types, like burlesque, where a lack of clothing is part of the point).

So I suppose where all this leads is to a reminder that a not insignificant part of feminism is the empowerment of all women to do whatever they do without fear of diminishment, condemnation, or dismissal, and that includes dancers, scantily clad or not. The women who chose to dance at the GDC after-party are not mindless icons of women’s oppression, any more than I—a card-carrying academic feminist—was an icon of women’s oppression while dancing on a pedestal, on a bar, or wearing a glittering bra and velvet booty shorts (yes, that happened, no, there aren’t pictures) any more than I am while doing aerial dance or even sitting in my office in corduroy pants and a very demure cardigan.

It’s also a reminder that there is nothing inherently bad or wrong about having dancers as a part of an after-party or having professional actors/models cosplaying videogame characters as a marketing ploy. The problem is systemic rather than specific, which means that a long tradition of exploitative behavior has led to an immediate reaction against such things, whether or not they are warranted by circumstance.

This systemic problem is that we live in a society which has spent the better part of the last millennium objectifying women and putting their bodies on display for the sole (or at least primary) purpose of fulfilling male sexual fantasies. This means, now, that when women engage in art forms which display their bodies, the automatic assumption is that they are doing so for male pleasure, which, in turn, leads to both anger (on the part of feminists) and the perpetuation of that same patriarchal culture. It’s very hard for women to engage in acts like go-go dancing, stripping, pole dancing, or burlesque without having to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of complicity and objectification.

All that said, it is worth remembering that circumstances are important. One ought to expect to see a lack of clothing at a burlesque review or a pole dance performance (or a strip show). One also ought to expect to see people fully clothed at a professional event (that is not a stripping conference or burlesque competition, at least). If one attends a professional after-party at a club, one ought to expect club attire to be appropriate, and one should expect dancers, although one may be justified in expecting that the dancers are more modestly attired than they might be at the end of a burlesque review.

There is also the question of how much agency the dancers had over their costumes. I will freely admit that I am not a tiny little girl and my body type is not what one might traditionally assume would be uncovered in a club situation (my biceps are, for reference, bigger around than my neck). Even though I have done it, I am very uncomfortable in traditional go-go wear, and prefer to keep things like my midriff and thighs covered. When I have worn smaller costumes, it has been with my consent and because that’s what the other dancers were wearing, but the person who chose those costumes was a dancer and not the company who hired us. If I had made a big enough fuss, I could have worn something less revealing. If a company (and I have no idea whose idea the outfits at the GDC party were) mandates skimpy clothing, then I have a much bigger problem with it than if the dancers choose the clothes themselves.

The conclusion to which this has led me is that, in general, we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to the people who hire dancers to show up at parties. We also ought to make sure that if we are ever in a position to hire dancers for parties that we do so consciously and make sure not to require them to wear (or not wear) clothing that makes either them or the party’s attendees uncomfortable.