The male gaze and the Chippendales

‘Welcome to your fantasy’ is a new podcast series, exclusive to Spotify, where historian Natalia Petrzela goes into the unbelievable true story surrounding the creation of the Chippendales. The podcast itself is a well-researched true crime story, but the discussion about female sexuality and the implied female gaze that comes with an all-male strip show is just as interesting.

The Chippendales, if you don’t know, were the first all-male stripping company. The club started in the 80s and became such a phenomenon that the dance troupe toured, make best-selling calendars and eventually became an American household name.

The early success of the Chippendales was widely accredited to Nick de Noia, who was previously the award-winning producer of a kids tv show. De Noia was described by other men to Petrzella to have an uncanny, supernatural ability to predict women, resulting in the success of the company. If you’re sceptical that a man has such an insight into the female gaze, you would be right to be. Candace Mayeron, manager of the Chippendales from 1982 to 1988, reveals that Nick didn’t have a sixth sense, he just listened to women. Mayeron also talks on the podcast about how the dancers would actually harass the audience by pulling down their tube tops, until she told Nick that this was maybe not a good idea.

The Chippendales originally tried to argue that they were moving forward women’s equality by embracing the sexual revolution. In actuality, it was three men who don’t really care about women, but they did want to make money and saw a gap in the market.

While the show may have been great theatre, I would venture to say it doesn’t sound like a terribly sexy sight. Michael Rapp was one of the biggest Chippendale dancers and his routine was called ‘The Perfect Man’. The routine, unbelievably, was a very elaborate Frankenstein situation where Michael is unraveled at the end, and dances in gold hotpants. At the beginning, the club even had a dancer who wore a flasher costume – which also, seems more funny than sexy (if being flashed can ever be funny).

The contrast of the mundanity of ‘regular’ strip clubs to the Chippendales, to me is part of a wider conversation about the normalisation of the male gaze. If we think about the film and TV that we all consumed as kids, teens, and young adults – most of it is made by men. Only recently have male romantic leads in film and TV been written by women. So, it makes sense that women very quickly pick up and internalise what they are shown is sexy, and women understand the male gaze from very early on as a result. Whatsmore, traditional strip clubs are made by men for men, to my knowledge, although I’ll admit I’ve never really looked, there are still very few strip clubs which cater to a female audience – let alone ones owned by women.

The show also goes into what it was like for the dancers to be treated like sex objects, and the mental toll it took. Originally, the dancers were told to give kisses to audience members (the dancers were also ordered to chew peppermint gum, for the full Chippendale experience). One dancer talks early on in the podcast series in an interview with Petrzella about how the experience affected his ability to have sex, process love, and process his emotions.

This was perhaps the most interesting because although as a woman day to day you may not have to kiss strangers for money – you are still likely appealing to an internalised male gaze on a quotidian basis. How does my hair look? Is my outfit okay? Has my makeup rubbed off? In contrast, it was only by stripping in front of hundreds of screaming women that these men began to become exhausted by objectification.

There are toxic body standards for men just as there are for women, but I don’t think they’re set by the female gaze. In fact, I don’t think the female gaze exists yet – I certainly don’t think the Chippendales caters to it if it does.

Featured image by Camilo-Jimenez on Unsplash 

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