When I first received the email warning me that a breasteraunt wanted to open in the middle of town, I snorted it off. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Like they’re going to let them do that here.” The almighty They—those who are not me. The bucolic Here—Evanston, Illinois, which boasts not only Northwestern University and some Lake Michigan shoreline but also, I’d wager, the most Whole Foods square footage per capita of any town in a thousand mile radius and a population that yes, by and large does think it’s pretty special, what with our diversity and community and well-preserved Victorian architecture. It’s the type of place where you have to have three hearings just to put up a fence in your yard, where you’ll get a visit from the city if your neighbors don’t like the placement of your garbage can. It’s a nuclear free zone. These alarmists leaning on the horn about the Tilted Kilt, sort of a Celtic-themed Hooters, and calling me out as a “Parent of Evanston” who should be concerned weren’t going to get me parading downtown with a bull horn: “What do we want? Tits covered! When do we want it? Now!”
The restaurant sounded tacky, but complaining about skimpy uniforms wasn’t my style—especially when the whole thing seemed hypothetical.
It wasn’t until last month, when the developer had applied for a liquor license and it seemed like an approval might actually come to pass, that I decided to pay attention. I looked at the Tilted Kilt’s web site and read about the controversy in news outlets, and it was the comments following the articles and editorials, as much as “The Kilt Calendar Girls” video that I clicked on, that actually got my ire up.
“Quit the elitist attutude because you are a woman and wake up and realize what century you are in!”
“If you have three kids and dont want to go there, DON’T GO….This is the US of A. You are a socialist and need to live in Old Russia, and keep your kids inside….”
“Grow up and smell the deficit.”
Being told I was stupid for questioning a business venture made me question it all the more. And what I found upon examination was a perfect circle of capitalist fucktitude→ The overdevelopment of Evanston’s downtown during the boom years, the evacuation of the older buildings and the bust’s resultant under-occupation of the new ones, the scorn and disgust for those who don’t see the vacancies as reason to do whatever it takes to attract new businesses and bow down to the almighty revenue, the call for personal responsibility in the face of any resulting issue or problem, and the fact that if the restaurant was a success, it’d be the male developers and investors who’d rake in the big bucks, while the young women who worked there would receive the same relatively shitty pay as any other service drone while having to continually invest in a high-maintenance look and run the risk, should the context change slightly, of being told that they flaunted themselves like sluts and so deserved what they got at the after-party or in the parking garage.
Even six months ago I might have believed, or wanted to, that last worry to be over-stated or far-fetched, but victim-bashing has been high-profile this spring. When the New York Times ran a story on the gang rape of an 11 year old girl, they famously included quotations describing her sexy, mature attire (which I had something to say about), and, more recently, a Toronto police chief told a group of women that if they didn’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Somewhat relatedly, a commentator on CNN gave a long diatribe about how parents shouldn’t let their kids dress like tramps, and the opinion went viral, appearing in countless blogs and being recommended by over four hundred thousand people on Facebook, including several of my friends.
Oh, yes, I decided. In this climate, I have every right to have an opinion about a sexual themed eatery where the “entertainers”—so-called to avoid sex discrimination suits—dress as naughty school girls. I have a responsibility to have an opinion about it. I know that according to the CNN commentator and the indignant righteous everywhere, I shouldn’t blame society for my parenting weakness, that it’s all on me, but come on, I need some help here. My three-year old is tripping over shoes that are a size too big for her as I type this because I could not convince her to wear anything else before we had to get out the door this morning, so I better take some preemptive action before I have a middle school principal reprimanding me for “letting” my offspring wear a plaid bustier to band rehearsal.
I clicked on the petition to deny a liquor license to the Tilted Kilt, and I signed it.
But when I scrolled through the dozens of the anti-Tilted Kilt comments on the petition site—well, I have a contrarian streak, and they gave me pause, too.
“Our children should never be exposed to this kind of establishment!”
“I do not want to dread walking downtown with my dauthers.”
“Please spare our daughters from this damaging model of sexual objectification.”
“There are too many diseases in the world already that have no cure! All because of SEX! Temptation creates sex, sex. Please do not allow this Tilted Kilt to take place!”
Hmmmm. What do we mean by never? By damaging? By temptation?
True, when pro-breasterant commenters suggested that instead of banning a tax-paying business from town parents should instead use the presence of the Tilted Kilt as a teaching moment, I didn’t relish having the conversation that quickly popped to mind. My son’s the oldest, so I’d have to deal with him first.
“Mom, I want to have my fourteenth birthday party at the Twisted Kilt.”
“Ah, man. Why not? Miles had his party there. You never let me do anything. Everyone has a bigger TV than us. I hate this family!”
“I don’t approve of businesses that train scantily clad young women of a very specific aesthetic type to offer sexual innuendo as they serve burgers. I believe this contributes to a climate of sexism—even to a culture of sexual violence. And although I know sexuality has been part of the marketplace since forever, I really think, as a young person, you should develop your own sexuality and discover that of others in a more organic, more egalitarian, less pre-packaged fashion.”
“Does that mean I should hide my search history when I look at porn on the computer?”
“I would appreciate that.”
“What about dad’s photography books?”
“Those are art.”
“Really? Even Tokyo Lucky Hole? Cool. Whatever. Paintball then.”
But would it really be that bad to have a masquerading tittie bar in town?
During my own adolescence, no one put blinders on me, and I don’t think I’m the worse for it. As a teenager, I worked in a diner for a guy who also owned the only strip bar in town, which was located in an alley a couple blocks away from the restaurant. (My friend and I were hired by him when he came through the car wash we were working as part of a school fundraiser—five bucks and you’d get your car washed by a gaggle of high schoolers in bathing suits.) Most of the bar’s dancers were imported to our small, rust-belt town; they came in on the Greyhound for week or two stints. When things were slow on my shift, as they often were, I’d sometimes be asked to use my parent’s Ford Fairmont station wagon to ferry the ladies between the restaurant and the seedy hotel where they stayed. Some of them were drugged and scuzzy. Some of them were nice, confiding or conspiratorial with me as I sat on the bed and watched them get ready. What stands out now is how pale most of them were; this was before tanning booths were ubiquitous, but just. Perhaps my own sense of self emerged intact because the women who came through on the Pittsburgh to Buffalo stripper circuit were not necessarily representing an ideal or upholding any rigid notions of beauty. I mean, for one thing, lots of them were getting around by Greyhound, OK? And reliable cars and tans weren’t the only things they were missing. There was no fake anything, to the discernible eye—the dancers had flopping boobs of various density; teeth that probably hadn’t been subject to orthodontia, let alone bleach; muscle tone that more often bespoke a penchant for cocaine or for chicken wings than a regimen of Pilates (or Jane Fonda’s workout, as would have been the case at the time). I saw that the men buzzed brighter around some of the dancers than others—I remember in particular a woman who looked like Crystal Gayle, with a tent of long brown hair and a Mona Lisa smile—but there was no one exact model. The quality of the most desired women was ineffable. Sometimes, running back and forth with coffee refills to a booth where some regulars were sniggering about something that had gone down at the club, I felt alienated by the presence of commoditized sex, and I was probably subject to a few more objectifying remarks than I would have been elsewhere, which could make me uncomfortable. Perhaps the environment did contribute to the feminist rage I’d be feeling a couple years later. But mostly I was curious. And generally I had a healthy body image, a healthy sense of my sexual self. I didn’t obsess about my imperfections, was vain but not encumbered by vanity. My feelings of sexiness didn’t lodge in the eye of the beholder or what I believed was seen there, and I was having a great time rolling around with my very nice boyfriend. If more than less, I basically wish the same for my own daughter.
But it does seem to be a different era. And yes, I do worry about how the image-onslaught of literally or figuratively photoshopped sexuality will affect my girl child. I do see the ways in which narrow standards of desirability can be warping to girls (and boys). For example, from what I gather, the ubiquity of internet porn has created, among other things, an expectation of what the ideal vulva looks like, a market for plastic surgery of the pussy. At my diner job, I had to wait outside the strip club when I was assigned to pick up one of the dancers there; I was never allowed in the door. But even if I had spent every shift with a front row seat at the rowdy bar, I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t have thought to criticize the appearance of my labial lips. Clicking through the girls competing to be in next year’s Tilted Kilt calendar, it’s amazing how differences are canceled. White girls, Asian girls, African American girls, they all start to look like a mass—the same shape, the same expression, the same presentation. It’s depressing to me. Deadening. I can hope that my daughter acquires punk rock sensibilities and purposefully chooses an opposite track—and my son too—but I’ll tell you what, I notice that even the counter-culture girls I see these days have brilliant white teeth and smooth armpits. I’d place a bet that they don’t have much pubic hair, either.
So, although I couldn’t heartily join in some of the most dramatic hand wringing about the Tilted Kilt, I left my name on the petition. And when the day of the hearing for the liquor license came, I watched it closely.
By this time, more than 2000 people had signed their opposition to the restaurant’s opening in downtown Evanston, and critics packed the hearing. Defenders also came out, representatives from the chain and the businessman and his wife who wanted to open the local branch. In the face of accusations that revealing costumes and the serving of alcohol increased the risk of sexual violence, the company argued that they do everything they can to protect their employees from being disrespected; that there’s no sexual innuendo in the menu or marketing. They essentially said that the web site is misleading, that the Tilted Kilt is a high-end establishment that draws people in with pretty women, yes, but that keeps them with a big beer selection and a plethora of even bigger TVs that all have the game on.
“And let me make it clear, the entertainment is not the young ladies and women that are working there as wait staff. The entertainment is that it’s a sports bar,” Carol Mengel, the businessman’s wife stated at the hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune.
A-ha! Reading that quote helped me put my finger on what was bothering me most. I was more offended by the boosters’ denial that the carefully casted boobilitious staff was not offering sexual entertainment than I would have been if reps had said, yeah, we’re selling sexiness—whoo boy, have you taken a look at those ladies?—and that’s just fine.
Because look, I myself like to be waited on by beautiful servers. Especially as I get older, I like it inordinately. And when I used to go to clubs, I was happiest when foxy dancers-for-hire were shaking it on a platform in full view, the less clothing they had on the better. Who knows where I’d be putting my dollar bills if I were a guy, and actively enticed. I’m not saying I don’t have reservations about sex work; I do, along with a lot of interest. But about the concept of pushed up, spray tanned boobs as functional wallpaper, I’m finding I don’t feel too ambivalent.
It’s not too far afield from the reaction I had when I first learned there was a service that hired out bikini clad-women as house cleaners. Strippers, prostitutes, masseuses, dominatrixes—I get why someone would do and pay someone to do all those jobs. But stripper/toilet-cleaner? That gets my judgment going: Ewwwwwww.
While still in college, I had a friend who started stripping at a little dive bar. After a short time, she wanted to see what else was out there in the world of adult entertainment, and I made the rounds with her. The only place I remember going into was a joint with the TVs behind the bar and the stripper stage to the patrons’ backs. In the afternoon, when we walked in, one tired woman in a fishnet body stocking with a couple of dollars folded suggestively against her belly whirled desultorily around the pole while two of the three patrons at the bar looked the other way, at the game. This made such a depressing impression on me that I can recall the image as if I’d just turned away from it. If you’re taking off your clothes and dancing, whatever else there is to say about the dynamic, attention should be paid. Tits-out waitresses running back into the greasy-floored kitchen to get another ramekin of mayonnaise while recreating men let out a uniform cheer at a ref’s call—I call that a poor use of youth’s voluptuous blossoms.
After hearing testimonials from both sides on the day of the hearing, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl delayed her decision about the Tilted Kilt, and the town had another week to question our views, comment on them, and berate the opposition. My own opinion was crystallizing, and, finally, I was putting both my feet down on one side of the fence and honing my battle cry: “What do we want? Reverence for the sexy! When do we want it? Well, it’s a goal!”
A week later, on May 2, the final verdict came in. Mayor Tisdale voted against the liquor license.
“We are proud of (our) diversity and are sensitive to anything that would stereotype or demean us,” The Chicago Tribune quotes her as saying. “The final straw was at the end of the liquor commission hearing,” she said. “I was given a business card from the owner that shows a picture of one of the entertainers — that is what the waitresses are called. She had no head — it was just breasts, a shrug shirt, a bare midriff and the kilt, that little skirt.”
Ah, Evanston. I knew They would never let that tacky shit open up in our town square. Good call.