Susan Meiselas - Carnival Strippers 1977 Radio Interview by Jo Blatti at WBFO, a public service of the University at Buffalo.
To hear the interview, purchase the book Susan Meiselas: Carnival Strippers released by Steidl which includes an Audio-CD with this 1977 interview.
Transcribed by Erica McDonald, 2009 and reproduced here for educational purposes with the permission of Susan Meiselas. Note: minor changes have been made for the ease of reading.
JB: Given that you've just produced a book called Carnival Strippers about the life on, on one end of the midway in county fairs, I guess mostly in the Northeast and in the South, how did you ever come to do this project in the first place? You spent 3 or 4 years...
SM: Summers. Really by accident. I didn't have a kind of concept of stalking the wild stripper...I kind of just tripped over it and it was something I was photographing, carnival grounds. I was with another photographer, it was kind of just to develop a typology of carnies, like, who are these people, what is this world. I traveled with him, with the other photographer, and we sort of slept on the grounds. We got a feeling for what the carnival show was like, and that was really the limit of what the project was until we came back. We went across country and then came back to New England and almost at the end of the summer there was this thing, this Girl Show, and it was just sitting there on the lot, a kind of a facade with glitter and lights and girls in bikinis standing on a ticket box and being pointed in reference to, and blasting music, and..(inaudible)
JB: There hadn't been any strip shows in the other carnivals?
SM: I'd never seen it. No, the only thing that they had was something called a Family Revue which is a striptease, traditionally with a kind of ventriloquy and magician in between...
JB: Kind of a Burlesque Show...
SM: Exactly and very much in that tradition and the Girl Show is just, is sort of where that tradition evolved, I think. As the oral history of the Girl Show goes, it began along that line, of women coming to the country, bringing the image of female glamour, as Patty references it in the book. She talks about how showing anything was considered extremely lewd and very courageous and only the best girl, the top girl, the star, could do it, could flash. You know, of any kind, and the flash really was very polite. I think slowly the demand has increased for more kind of participation by the audience, and a more, it's a more violent scene. And that probably says a lot about our culture. I mean you certainly see it in New York, that it's very out of control. You know, people sort of giving little squares of pink paper out on the street corners saying "$5 for a girl and a room." And, they're on every other corner in, in the 40s it's, it's wild...
JB: That's not for shows, that's for...
SM: That's private affairs, and you know, I think that you have to look at the rapidity of which that's happening throughout the country, probably.
JB: Is your sense that, that you got involved in photographing and in trying to understand the carnival girlie shows at a particularly critical time when things were changing a lot? And, are you talking about...
SM: Well, it's hard to determine that when, I mean, the oral history again says that sort of 15 years ago it made that transition from being kind of polite to more promiscuous.
JB: A chaste Burlesque to all nude dancing, and...?
SM: And audience participation.
JB: Kind of touchy-feely aspects...
SM: Yes, and that always varies depending on who the woman is who is performing and, you know, if a girl is "green" so to speak, she'll be more distant. If she feels, if she sees someone she likes she may or may not get more involved. I think it, it varies from show to show, from town to town as I said, you know the local leniency varies enormously. Police, depending on what their cut of the action is, may support it.
JB: Are all the shows protected or is...?
SM: Oh yeah, oh yeah....
JB: You have to....?
SB: The men in those communities know what is going on and the women don't. That's one of the toughest distinctions.
JB: That's one of the, I think as I told you before, that's one of the surprises for me, in this book Carnival Strippers...I didn't know.
SM: Well the tough part is that you see a woman and she's given her husband two dollars out of her own wallet to go in, or three dollars, whatever, and he goes in to the show and she waits outside the show for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, he comes out and he wants another two bucks to go to the next one down the line. And she looks up at the show and she says "Hmmn...well, they're not that great looking and they're no competition for me." Or maybe they'll, she'll be a little curious as to why those women are doing it. But basically she separates herself instantly from them, and thinks her husband is being conned, that he's a fool to pay three bucks to go in just to see this girl wiggle around. And, it's at that point you have to, I had to make the choice of to what extent, once they knew that I was connected to some extent with the show, I knew what was going on, when asked, what do you say? Do you tell a woman, you know, wife of someone who has gone in, what it's about? It's very tough.
JB: What kind of response would you make when someone asked you?
SM: I really asked them how much they wanted to know. I tried to, you know, I tried to explain, I mean I didn't know how much they wanted to know. That was the hardest thing.
JB: Did you ever tell...?
SB: People say they want to know, and then they know something and it's too difficult. It's just too difficult. And it doesn't tell you anything? In other words, she has to be in a whole other place and I think in terms of the relationship she has with her husband, I mean, her husband has to tell her. I wasn't interested in a sort of conspiracy of women. The irony that the woman on the stage and the woman in the audience were so separate was difficult to deal with. I really was hoping that if in any way they could unify, and even now, doing the book I mean I think women have a hard time picking the book up because it's confrontational. They don't want to know about the fact that that happens to women, that women choose to do that. It's a big gap but it's to me a terrifically important one to try and understand.
JB: Was it a really difficult thing to work with, some of the things that struck my attention most in the conversations which are included in the book with people who work in the shows, the owners, the managers, the women who strip and dance. I think the two things that struck my attention more than any others were, one statement, I guess it was in an interview with you in which a woman, a former stripper who owns one of the girlie shows, talks to you about the money, the physical money that people hand over to go into the shows, and says, you know you'll get these wet, crumpled up dollar bills. You have no idea how hot, and how wet money can be, as these people who have severe conflicts about, these male people who have severe conflicts about what they are doing, go in. And then, one of the men who kind of verbally exhibits the girls out in the Midway, and one of the girls in conversation, arguing about the sexual and the sensual aspects, he's saying "Well, we're marketing these women as sex symbols." and she's saying, as a vision of sensuality, and she's saying "I'm, they're two different words. I'm sexy when I'm in the shows, that's a dirty word. I'm sensual when I'm not working." And those two, two pieces of conversation just, were I guess the whole crux, the whole conflict of the book for me.
SM: Well, I don't know where to begin talking about that. I think that Patty, who's a manager, referring to the wet, crumpled dollars, there's a real truism. I think not just the guilt in relation to the wife, because I'm not sure they're functioning on that level. I think that one of the things that perpetuates that institution, the Girl Show, is a tremendous need which is unfulfilled elsewhere. And, I think you have to look at a lot of things to try and figure out why that is...
JB: Something that really struck me, reading this book about girlie shows that travel to small towns, across America, apparently largely rural settings, and all, you have all these words and pictures of that setting and then what the women themselves say about their lives. There seems to be, it seems that many of them came from small towns, that they have really strong social prohibitions about any obvious sexuality and behavior that women in their perceptions, growing up there, many of them discuss themselves as marked women.
SM: Already we're jumping. That reference is I think a particularly interesting one. Many of the women I interviewed in some way suggested that they had gained the term, you know, slut or whore when they were very young. I mean really- like Junior High, High School age, in which somewhere they were seen as being either promiscuous or just easy. And in the same sentence they would say that that was their reputation, they would say, "I was a virgin." And there was no way that they could deal with that, because they had presented an image that may have been the person they wanted to be, that might have been the person that other people wanted them to be. Hard to know.
And Lena talks about this and says how, I'm trying to think how the quote goes. She's really talking about, she had no women friends, and that she was attractive and she sort of was, she was a physical person. And so she liked hanging out with boys, she liked being daring the way they were, and she perceived the women were always whispering and cloistered and they weren't out there, you know, experimenting with themselves. She has her own stereotypes about men and women of that age, but whatever it was that, there was no specific event that happened to her. But a series of things happened in such a way that she became isolated from other women. And I'm sure that had a large part to play in, in the way her role, as it continued, being a stripper, which she sees as being as close to being in a male world as she can be as a woman. To choose to move in and out of a male world, to be able to manipulate men psychologically, she loves the power she feels intellectually over men at times, as well as physically. They need her. You know?
JB: I guess...yes. What I was trying to suggest in talking about the women coming from small town settings and going back into the, to the small, other small towns in the strip shows was that they were not separate. That they're all part of the same thing, going around and around.
SM: Well, I don't know Jo. I see it sort of different and maybe I'm still not understanding you. I was in a conference about a couple, I don't know, a month ago or something, which was sort of curious. It was in New York, it was open hearings about teenage prostitution and runaways, which is a severe problem across the country but particularly New York. And for the first time, sort of after all these years of, of knowing some of these women, I suddenly realized that they were runaways. Their whole experience, the way runaways are stereotyped in terms of their backgrounds, etc. And I was thinking of how the Girl Show really saved them in, from their plight, in other other words they fell into it in a transient period in their lives when they were trying to find what they were doing, they were totally, for many of them they were lost, kind of just straggling in. And I think of some of those same women getting locked into a city, I mean the Girl Show looks, is like a collective, a commune. You know, it's tame. I mean there is so much protection compared to where many children of, you know, I mean young girls particularly, are running. I'm more interested in why they are running. I really want to understand why they're running, I mean whether or not you look at education or family structures breaking up or work opportunities that are so limited, that's what I'm interested in and...
JB: And where do you, what kind of ideas have got about that?
SM: Well, it really comes from their words. Whether it's Shortie who says "I've worked in a sardine factory, and you know you just need to work there a couple of weeks to know that's not what you want to do with your life." I don't know what to say about that. At the same time it was hard for me to convince anyone, and Lena in fact has made this enormous jump in her life. She left school when she was 14, she got a high school equivalency, went back and got a high school equivalency, and got a scholarship to the University of Maine. And to me, it's an, you know, incredible accomplishment. And, when I ask her "Gee, how did you ever, you know, how did that happen?" she sort of laughs and says "Everybody goes to college." And it never occurred to me, you know what I mean, it's just so bizarre because I am sure anyone who is listening will not believe me when I say that, that's what she's doing, because they want to, I'm sure it's a sort of need to push them into holes like we do everyone, and try and understand them in such a way, sort of typecast and you know, qualify. It's really hard to do with this, it's a real...I, or maybe I'm resistant to doing it. I think it's more open than that, I think it has more to do with, maybe less to do with individuals and more to do with how they're symptoms and signals of a society that's really deteriorating.
JB: Is that your sense of what the Girl Shows mean?
SM: I guess, part of it.
JB: Do you think thy should exist at all?
SM: Well then you have to go back to the wet crumpled dollars, right? What's so powerful about being in the Girl Show is when you don't make judgement and when you sit back and just observe it and look at what it means to people in the moment that they're living in. It's extraordinary, the kind of human connection that is made in those very fleeting kind of instants in the back of the tent. I was describing to you a picture in which there's a, it's shot in the back of the tent, and the woman is holding the pole which holds the tent up, and you can see every muscle practically, tense, holding that pole for life. And then the rest of her is just completely fused as one with the man that she's with. And I think that's exactly what it's about. She wants that separation, but she also needs...she wants to satisfy, she wants to connect with the people that are in the audience too. And she needs that, and they need her. And I think you have to look at why, what's going on outside of that? And you know, there are some conversations with some of the men among themselves, and you get this, I feel, an enormous feeling that they're, the relationships they have are so closed that they share so few of their feelings and their fears and their fantasies. I mean, as a working woman, as a journalist they couldn't figure me out. They didn't now what I was doing there, you know? They never, they didn't know people in those kinds of roles, they didn't know women who were serious in that way.
JB: You're talking about the men in the audience.
SM: Well, the men on the carnival grounds in general. Or the managers, just in their lives they'd not come across women in those kinds of situations.
JB: And what kind of responses did they make to your request to hang around the show, and to photograph the show?
SM: Oh, well, yes, it was that thing in which they just ignored me, and then they, it went from everything to ignoring to pushing, to being pushed away to being seduced, unsuccessfully, obviously. But you know, "Let's have a beer." You know, "The Girl Show will go on, nightly, but let's you and I go off and let's talk. I want to know about you." You know. And I did want to know about them, so I mean there was a kind of exchange.
JB: A problem of being a participant and an observer at the same time.
SM: Right, right. And how far, where that boundary is very hard. Obviously when asked to participate and be a stripper I chose not to, and felt that it would be really destructive to my relationship with the women. I mean, they're too competitive and it would be impossible to separate that professional and personal role. But we, did we...? Where we started with the whole sex and sensuality, that's really something, that's enormous, such an enormous area. I mean, Lizzie says it so beautifully when she says sexy, being sexy is phony and plastic, it's manufactured in this society. Why? I don't know why it's so important. It's not that important to me in that way, you know? It's part of life, but it's not the most important thing in life. And I think many of the women feel that. That's why maybe they can say this is my job, I'm getting paid for it. And they have relationships with men, you know after the show that are their own, and they're private. They're not really exhibitionists, you know, they're not interested in that.
JB: Well I think that's the, I don't know, my own sense of the book was...to read the words of the women in the shows and think a lot, well not only about kind of social options and economic options and..., but the very, very kind of basic conflict that almost all of them express about stripping and dancing for a living, which is the kind of thing you were talking about, the power they have over men, and their enjoyment of it because that's that's one way you can really manipulate men, is through your own body. And on the other hand, a lot of them talk about quitting at the end of the season, every season, about not wanting the men who come to watch to touch them, and it seemed to me that a lot of what, not only the photographs, but the words in the book are about is, just very fine, fine ambivalence and irony, about what anybody's doing in the tent.
SM: Oh, yeah.
JB: At any time.
SM. Yes. I mean, when someone, when anybody starts a sentence by saying "I'm doing this for the money." What's that? I know when I say it I know what it means. Then there is someone like Larry, who is a manager who will say it's not the money, it's the life, and I also know exactly what he means. He means that he wants a wad in his pocket, he wants to live high and then live low. He wants to live by his passions, his own rules, his own determination, not being told by anyone what to do, how to do it. He wants to drive Mark 4, he wants to live in the Holiday Inn but have a whole other life, yeah.
JB: Although I notice that the three people, at least the people I notice in the book who talk about loving the life were two managers and one woman who thinks she might become a manager. None of the girls in the shows talked about loving the life that way, they talked about enduring it.
SM: Hmmnn…that's true. That's good, yes.
JB: Let me ask you one thing.
JB: And that is, in the preface to the book you say something that really struck my attention, and it made me wonder if, well it made me wonder questions about how, I mean we've been talking all along about how you see what you've done in recording the words and the images of people in the carnival shows, but you say "The recognition of this world is not the invention of it." Which seemed to me, I guess because the subject is women, in carnival shows, because the photographs and the interviews were done by another woman, because sexual and social roles are such a big question for all of us right now, it seems to me that this book could be taken as kind of a libel against women. And I'd like to know what your response is to that.
SM: Wait, wait a minute. A libel against women? Just clarify what you mean, I'm not sure I understand that last sentence.
JB: Well, I guess what I'm reaching for is, would the proper response be not to write a book and not to make photographs?
SM: Okay, okay...well, that's the question alright, I don't know. On one hand it's a journalistic question, you know, do you sacrifice the privacy of one for the public domain with the hope obviously that there's some value in doing that? That's a first question, I'm not real sure about that, first of all. We then get into the whole, the feminist position that women are using themselves as well as being used, as sexual objects. I guess I am in that realm of, if they're using themselves with some wisdom to what that conflict is, and what that struggle is, that's probably the most they can do. I really have a respect for confrontation, I mean that to me is what, that's the stuff that consciousness is made of, you know? I've always thought that it's experience that radicalizes people.
JB: Of course it's also the stuff that resignation is made of.
SM: Well it's that fine line, are they resigned or are they fighting? Have they been pushed out by society or are they pulling at something, you know, are they wanting something? Is it a choice, or is it that there's no alternative? I mean, all those questions twist in and out and I think I won't know a lot about that until you know, Lena's 45 and we see what she's done. She now says she wants to be a social worker and help kids who have been "abused and confused." Well, if she does that and this has facilitated and clarified for her what role she can play in life, I'll tell you, there's nothing else that would have.
JB: What, the experience of, of talking?
SM: Of going through what she's been through. No, not necessarily of my making the book of her, but, her experiencing...
JB: Not your...
SM: No, I guess to some extent I do feel that. I feel that for some, and particularly Lena, it allowed her to distance herself from what she was doing to the point that she could consider it, and just really, she may have said things to me that she even wasn't ready to say to herself and I think that facilitated again her increasing awareness about her own role, her conflicts about it. But that was the process of documentation. The book then becomes something different, and what the influence of that has been and will be in their lives, I don't know. And that's where, though they all were involved at some level, whether it be that they saw the contact sheets and edited or that they saw the book in dummy etc., I still think that to live with that after you've passed through it, is difficult. And to show it to your new husband, or your boss or your friends, or to not, is difficult. And that's what I'm mostly concerned about really, how they feel about it at this point. It's more important really than anything and...
JB: What kind of responses have the women that you photographed and talked with made to the book? I mean it's one thing to have your images circulated in small galleries across the United States...
SM: Right, exactly.
JB: It's another to have a national publisher...
SM: Right, exactly.
JB: ...selling your skin among other things.
SM: Yes, well...I can only think of certain, some people's comments. Patty for example, felt strongly that it was real, that it was honest and that it had to be done. She lived a life of that world, and she's just left it. And it's hard for her to read that book because it captures her at times, I think, confused, and also hypocritical, saying things like, Lena would have a debate with her about whether or not she needed to get stoned or drunk to work, and she would say she had to get, Lena would claim adamantly that she needed to be completely stoned out of her mind because she didn't know which end was up. Patty would say "You're not getting stoned to do your work. I've never asked you to participate in this way, I've never expected you..." Well, what could be a more absurd statement? It's understood that if Lena takes that job and plays the strongest spot in America where there are six Girl Shows competing, she's gotta compete. And Patty knows what that's about. And Lena knows what that's about. And their contract is an understood one, assumed. And for Patty to then say that is really cruel, to me, you know and to hear that dialogue just every time I read it, just, it's such a warping of the mind. It's so manipulative, and I think Patty reading that is, you know, it's difficult for her to face up to the fact that she said that and she's done that. At the same time, Patty's someone who is referenced in another place in which, a girl who really came to her with no shoes on, says "You're better than my own mother." And so along with the crumpled dollars Patty's imagery is, "What is a society doing to its children that these, this girl can think within one day of meeting me, that I'm warmer and I mean more to her than her own mother?" So she goes back and forth between a lot of roles, as does Larry saying that he's a father and a fighter and an analyst and a lover, and I haven't heard from any of the men managers. I've only heard from the women in the book, and I can only say that they like it.
JB: Hmmnn... Let me see if I can ask...
SM: Am I avoiding something that you're…? Pin me down, pin me down...
JB: Well you see what I want to get at...
SM: It's hard...
JB: When I asked you about invention and recognition you really, you gave a wonderful intellectual response. And I guess what I'd really like to know is about being a woman photographing a women's girlie show. I don't mean to say, you know, lay all of your...
SM: Right, right, well...
JB: ...life bare, but the relationships are clear in many ways. I mean the sense of how you knew people in the shows and what kinds of roles you all had in constructing the book in many ways. What's not clear is how Susan Meiselas went about doing this, and what she thought about what she was doing.
SM: Which was also intentional. I mean, I think I did by the way write an introduction which sort of went on for ten pages talking about day one on through various conflicts, really kind of like from field notes, anthropology style. And that methodology seemed absurd, you know? It seemed inappropriate. I really felt like if the book worked at all people had to think about what it meant to them, and maybe it's for us to talk about it now, what it meant to me. How do I sum that up quick? Jees. I was wrenched, I was wrecked. I uh, it affected my own relationships with men enormously, it was also like being in a locker room, though. And part of you, when you're in a locker room if you're an athlete and you know what that's like, you kind of, a lot of the hanging out and a lot of the energy between women has nothing to do with sex and being women even, it's just a physical connection you have. A lot of being there was about that time, that kind of a communication. It's hard to be a witness, you know, to something that's so cruel and painful and, I don't know what to say about it. It's just, it seemed more important to me that that be revealed to the world, to be considered, to be valued by other people as to why it was so important, both to the people who participated and the people that permitted it.
JB: Did you ever think about stopping, about going away?
SM: Going away, what do you mean?
JB: From the shows, stopping.
SM: I went away after every summer, and I vowed, I also vowed I'd never go back. I mean, it was excruciating however, to not go back this summer, which was the first summer in four, really four summers, because the first summer I didn't photograph at all. It gets in your blood and there is a connection that you feel to that world because you know everyone in it, but I also got to the place that I had to leave. I had to leave after 2 days. I started out not having to leave after 2 weeks, and then it would be a one weekend, which is a four day sprint, and then it would be one night and I could barely handle it. And then it would get to be that I just couldn't get myself to go. And I would somehow just not get there, you know, that kind of a thing. It was extremely difficult to push myself to deal with that reality and increasingly as I, as I knew the women better I wanted to be there with them but at the same time I, I couldn't handle it as well as they could. I don't know, I'm just thinking of that limbo state in which, you know, once I was there, I was with them. But getting there, I had to leave too much behind me, but I think that I also knew that I had gotten to a place where it had to stop. That I couldn't do it anymore, I just couldn't emotionally do it. And the most important thing once that happened, was at least to be able to maintain those relationships and sustain them in time over whatever period it would be. And in many cases that's happened, and that's what I really care about in the end, is that Lena calls me when she's taken her midterm and then says "I passed." you know? And...
JB: So it's really a process in which you...
SM: Growing old together!
JB: Yeah well, there's a real aspect of hit and run to a lot of documentary work , I think...
SM: It could never be that for me. I just, I could never, first of all it would have, I mean, I could never have done it. I just got too engaged in their own particular lives and, and I think that'll continue. I mean, I really assume that I'll know some of them for a long time to come. I don't know that I'll photograph their grandchildren, but...What will also be interesting to me is how their lives change and how they, how much...
JB: How yours changed too...
SM: How mine changes, but also how much they can manipulate, continue to manipulate their own lives, and that will reveal to what extent they were in control in this situation.