Cabarets: The Viewee

“I shut my eyes in order to see.”

–   Paul Gauguin


When my friend and I were stuck in an airport in Paris for around 3 hours, we decided we would do what we do best: annoy entertain each other. So what do you do for fun in a cramped place full of strangers? You make up stories for them, wild histories, tragic futures, Pandora secrets. We had grandma spies with ginger bloodlines, Romeo and Juliet scenarios where murder instead of suicide becomes the protagonist of the action and a whole bunch of run-away princes and princesses. And the more we looked, the less we actually cared to know the ‘truth’ of who A or B actually is and what they were doing there, in Paris, in the airport. We avoided situations where we would actually have to speak to our characters. We had created a fantasy world and we were determined to keep it clear from any blemishes of reality.

Last week I talked about the ‘view’ of the cabaret, the female performers in Cyprus. Today, I will switch the camera angle to the eye behind the lens: the viewee, specifically the men. Who are they? What is it about the women that attracts them? Can they be justified/should they have to be justified by society?

Most of the research done on the cabaret scene in Cyprus has focused on victimising the exploited workers forced into sex labour. Women who have ‘escaped’ the ‘prison’ of a cabaret/brothel, those ‘tricked’ into the business, held captive. The vast amount of stories covered in the media on these so-called ‘victims’ seems to aim more on pointing out the dangerous scene buzzing in the shadows of the quiet little island, rather than giving attention to the ‘saved’ individual. There is so much more I would like to say about the problems of this approach but maybe another time. Today, I’m focusing on the men, precisely because they hardly ever get attention, other than these huge monsters. Beauty and the Beast kind of thing-with a bit more beastination/violence/clawing than the Disney version.

First a mini history:

Cabarets weren’t always the brothel-like dungeon we associate with the c-word in Cyprus. Around 40-50 years ago, the cabaret was more of a burlesque scene, a place for family entertainment. (Burlesque? For a history and definition take a look at this article). The performers, or ‘entertainers’, would put on a show of dancing, singing and acrobatic acts for an audience consisting not only of men, but also women (and wives) and children. Certain men (probably those not with their wives in the audience) would still approach the performing females with proposals of drinks and dates that may possibly lead to something further. However, this latter was never as explicitly stated. Or bought. The interaction of viewer and viewee remained as something outside the brothel and not a transaction between cabaret management and the male patrons.

Then came 1993. We all know that the year I was born the world changed, most significantly because hey, it’s me but also because:

  1. The X-Files launched their first episode
  2. Nelson Mandela and South African President F. W. de Klerk awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  3. Cyprus passes a legislation, which  reduces the number of licenses issued to artists for any single cabaret from 25 to 13.

The Result of number 1 and 2 we probably all know. But after the event of number 3, cabarets can no longer financially viable to rely on the profit of performances. Cabaret owners begin to add ‘extra’ services, turning a family day out into something darker, cheaper (not in price but quality), more explicitly erotic. And the selling of the body of their performers is put on the menu.

Despite attempts of the government at the end of 2008 to stop the market of people by abolishing the ‘artiste visa‘, that had previously been used for bringing in women from abroad in the disguise of performers, this did not significantly affect the influx of the sex trade.

If there is a demand for something, there will be a market for it. Economics 101.

The demand came from  the purchaser of the product: the patrons, as they are called. Though it is not the individual himself that creates the demand but the culture that creates the potential for this demand. Philaretou, one of the few researchers who has taken on the task of investigating the male visitors of the cabarets in Cyprus, argues that the ‘machismo culture’ of Cyprus forces its male population to the labour of having to prove their masculinity. Playing/supporting football teams like a religion, avoiding the kitchen like the plague but excelling in grilling the best souvla in the village: all of these can be seen as examples of performing their masculinity. From a young age, weak masculine identities are punished (showing too much emotion) whereas as ‘generalized cognitive preoccupation and ideation for the pursuit of female sexuality, manifested through a recurring physical desire for indiscriminate sex with multiple partners.’

But it is not only having sex but of creating a theater of being desired by women, bringing attention to oneself both from the girls and fellow male patrons in the specific setting. In this sense, there is a propagation not only of a focus away from the person behind a woman’s body (outside and in the cabaret) but also a dependence of men on women to affirm their masculinity by the latter’s attention. A cabaret present a space where there is less potential rejection from the woman’s side if there is a financial bait hanging between the interaction. The men are also attempting to escape their reality or Reality with a capital R.

The man fantasises a life for the performer that is limited to the space of the 4 walls of the cabaret. The performer disseminates this fantasy because of the potential economic gain. The performer is no longer woman in the sense of mother/wife/sister but young untouched body by its blemishing social roles. Indeed, Wood in her article Working in the Fantasy Factory  relates an incident where men are actually disgusted if they discover the girl they choose is actually a single mother raising a kid. They expect a woman’s life to be limited to the stage and their fantasy. Unconsciously, they are dividing women into those inside a cabaret and those outside.

This is of course problematic for both men and women not because of their sole actions but because of the society that continues to proliferate these structures. Men forced to perform a ‘macho’ ethos in order to be accepted in a community. Women holding the responsibility of providing the confidence/masculinity to men whilst at the same time being dependent on them to affirm a femininity according to her occupied territory (in regards to whether she is outside or inside the cabaret). Relationships between men and women become a strained interaction. The man placing the woman in a specific role according to the options society gives him (either the ‘family’ woman or ‘wild’ woman) and a woman having to perform these roles exclusively. The woman in performing a ‘family’ role may shift her attention from man, leaving him vulnerable, unbalanced in his faith in his own masculinity and forcing him, due to the fear of the repercussions of society, to prove he is still desirable, masculine, macho by looking for it elsewhere. Their desperation in some cases manifesting in violent acts, specifically in the cases of rape.

And this whole interaction is being monetised by the management of cabarets. Suffering is such a great market. I mean just look at McDonalds.

My advice is that we turn away from blaming the men and concentrate on changing the ‘rules’, structures and expectations of society for the younger generations. How? Well that’s a topic for another day.


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