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Penny Arcade: Sex, Performance, Politics

2012 August 14

Disambiguation: this article is about the performance artist Penny Arcade. For the gamer webcomic and its dismissive attitude to complaints about rape jokes from its readers, please see Penny Arcade.

Penny Arcade in front of her NYC cast of dancers. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for Time Out, shared under Fair Use guidelines

Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for Time Out(Time Out / Jeremy Goldstein / Penny Arcade)

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend, I recently managed to catch the end of New York performance artist Penny Arcade’s show Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! at the Arcola Tent in Dalston, London. That seemed like the right venue for it, with the tent walls, benches and tables it felt partway between cabaret and circus.

Normally, either of those words would have me running for the hills. My first boyfriend was a juggler, which after two years compounded my existing distaste for most forms of ‘fun’ and has left me with a severe allergy to audience participation of all kinds. For the record, I also dislike games, sport, karaoke, ‘street theatre’, children and dogs.

I decided to brave the striped tent of intense social awkwardness on this occasion because the friend who invited me has a similar outlook, so I could trust her not to shove me onstage. And also because the show is about sex and politics, two of my very favourite subjects.

Penny and her show

If you don’t know who Penny Arcade is, here’s her rather fascinating biography. And here’s a kind of trailer for the show from the Arcola to give you a flavour:

The video makes it look more raunchy than it really was – the dizzying, sexy, cabaret feel it tries to create was there, but I think my favourite bits of the show and the ones that have stayed with me are the points where the spectacle gave way to tenderness, solemnity and rage.

Penny Arcade employs stand up, memoir, satire, comedy character monologues and political rants to talk about censorship and sexual repression, class, sexuality, LGBTQI rights, HIV, feminism, gender, capitalism and Barbie.

There was also a lot of what other reviewers have apparently called ‘hippy stuff’ about there being one love and one hate and the importance of people breaking down the walls between them to work together for change. And a light sprinkling of green politics and anarchism.

It felt a bit fluffy, but the incredible passion, openness and warmth of Penny Arcade herself and her performance went a long way to breaking down my cynicism. Besides, in amongst the fluff were observations which hit home like a dart. On prejudice and discrimination for example: “They’re afraid of being it, so they want to make someone else it.” Yes.

Sexxxy dancing. Hm.

A mixed group of erotic dancers were onstage (and in the audience) most of the time, and Penny introduced them by name. As someone who doesn’t spend an awful lot of time in my usual life watching people dancing in thongs, it was an interesting experience. Safely bracketed by Art, and in the feminist hands of the show’s creator, I tried to honestly examine my own response to it without the fear of being complicit in exploitation.

It was sexy. Sort of. The thrustiness of the male dancers was just alarming, I found myself marvelling at it the same way I would watching a hummingbird beat its wings 80 times a second. But the women and the way they moved did flick my switches. Not much, but that could be because I was furiously analysing all my reactions as I had them, which is a bit distracting.

I’ve not got space here to go into my views on the sex industry (another day maybe) but they don’t fit comfortably into the boxes of ‘pro’ or ‘anti’. Early in the show Penny said she viewed erotic dance as the most powerful form of feminist expression because it was the only thing designed by women to control men, among the millions of things designed by men to control women. I don’t buy it. It worked for Salome, sure, but anyone else? If so, can one of you remarkable women please stop the government from renewing Trident for me please? BUT. That’s not to say it can’t be a form of feminist expression, and a powerful one at that.

The centrepiece of the show feels the closest to what I think of as performance art. A striptease with a US flag, performed by Penny Arcade herself while a video of Lenny Bruce’s famous rant about the illogical and repressive nature of US obscenity laws plays large in the background. She wasn’t in a spotlight, and whenever she received a cheer she would point at the screen to say ‘listen!’ It felt defiant but not triumphant, and stood out from the rest of the show as an act of resistance rather than a celebration.

Roll up, roll up

It turns out that Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! is now on at the Old Vic Tunnels in London until 1 September. If you feel that the sex industry and feminism are absolutely incompatible it’s probably not  a show you will enjoy, and yes, there were points where I felt a little uncomfortable. But any misogynists, homophobes, transphobes and racists who are reading – and I can only hope you’re here because you’re critically re-evaluating your opinions, at last – you will hate it. Let me buy you a ticket.

Things to read!

(Not all things I agree with or endorse but relevant and interesting. Also I’m categorically not a libertarian, ok? I’m Big State and positive liberty all the way).

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