Saturday, May 30, 2009

What Really Grinds My Gears

Las Vegas is supposed to be the place where you get to misbehave and act outside of the limits of everyday respectability, without punishment. But do you really have all the freedom that you are promised as a tourist to Sin City? Just a brief look at its advertising and visual culture - - brochures, websites, billboards, commercials, tourist photos - -

reveals that the kind of entertainment Las Vegas endorses is specifically created to adhere to conventional notions of appropriate behavior for men and women. The idea that Las Vegas is truly the liminal space it's advertised as is highly suspect: it is merely an extension of normal, socially-constrictive space. As in everyday life, females are encouraged to become images devoid of content, a spectacle or sight to behold, while men are expected to consume these pedestalled images.

Popular images of women have become embedded in the collective social consciousness both in their consistency throughout time and within various media.
The ubiquity of such images attests to their long-term staying power, even if the general public does not actively agree with what the images signify. In his epic theorization of a media-based social life, Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes that all human and social life become appearance, and we are told repeatedly that what appears is good: “simple images become motivations of hypnotic behavior.” Hence, stereotypical images work on the human conscious at some level, whether it's encouraging impressionable youth to re-enact the images, or to continue sexist notions. Debord writes that the real world becomes superceded by imagery, and this process is closely related to the market-driven need to consume and want: "the fetishism of the commodity - the domination of society by 'intangible as well as tangible things' - attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality." Therefore Vegas is an exemplary microcosm of our spectacular society and its official tourism website,, is a microcosm of Las Vegas itself.

Consistent with Debord's idea of social life becoming subsumed by images, the site presents enticing appearances rather than the complexities of reality. The result of this spectacular approach is the continued cementing of gendered roles. Each reiteration of a stereotype makes it that much more lasting. Specifically, Vegas advertisements encourage women to perform as a spectacle. In Las Vegas as elsewhere, a woman is obliged to become a desirable object for visual and physical consumption. Gender theorist Judith Butler explains that the site of performance, the body, becomes the battleground for ideological and gendered behavior: “the formulation of the body as a mode of dramatizing or enacting possibilities offers a way to understand how a cultural convention is embodied and enacted.” Thus the body becomes a stage on which we play out the cultural dramas that society dictates.

This is clear in advertisements for Las Vegas. Under a pretense of tourist freedom of choice, essentializes woman to concepts such as pink, narcissistic, sexualized, or
wearers of high-heels. This becomes problematic for a tourist or society member when she is punished for not conforming in the manner of Foucault's biopolitics, whereby the body can only perform certain behaviors within accepted societal conventions. The essentialization of identity, therefore, affects individual behavior, limiting possibilities to a few constructed gender fictions so that individuals become no longer individuals but stereotypes, actors playing the same role.'s game feature, “Be Anyone in Las Vegas,” presents a spectacular performance space for tourists. It depicts a dark black and blue background featuring glimmering gold, blue, and rainbow speckles, maybe to evoke the club scene or dance floor.

Recurring throughout this well-designed advertisement, gold tones represent wealth and power, and aesthetically complement the blue background. This feature's facile distillation of identity creates an easy escape route to a new-and-improved You; "Be Anyone" simplifies images such that, as Debord writes, "they become motivations of hypnotic behavior." According to the website, you can “Be Anyone” by allocating 100 points to five attributes: smoothness, style, bravery, attitude, and creativity. The front page highlights “BE ANYONE” and “CREATE YOUR IDENTITY” the most, emphasizing viewer control and giving the user apparent power and the motivation to proceed.

The site's system for naming your identity provides sexualized stage names. Names such as Ginger or Thor reveal a media-inflected performative aspect to the process, since the name Ginger recalls Gilligan’s Island’s sexy movie star, and the name Thor recalls the pagan god of thunder as well as a superhero character. These characters align with existing gender roles - - woman praised for appearance and performance, man praised for muscle and force. The game experience allows the user to pretend she is the character of her dreams.

One such alluring identity the “Be Anyone” feature produces is the Underwear Model; its results page presents a slinky pair of silver heels below a bathrobe; these appear regardless of your selected gender.
This association of femininity with a scantily-clad body underscores the concept that women, not men, are supposed to be commodities and a spectacle. Although the website proclaims that this and other scripted characters are only for entertainment, at the same time, “Be Anyone” provides “everything you need” to perform your new identity - - including printable business cards and a certificate of achievement, a sheet outlining how you should act, and even a 1-800 number that plays your false company’s pre-recorded message. No disclaimer appears on the business cards, cheat sheet, or certificate, meaning you could hand these out in Las Vegas and people might believe you are the Underwear Model you claim to be.

Perhaps the adopting of alternate identities is so appealing that a person will be inspired to come to Vegas and role-play as the site suggests. One interpretation is that the website game is a rehearsal for the performance in Las Vegas. For example, the 1-800 phone message encourages potential models to go out to the clubs because the imaginary modeling agency is out there watching. With this monitoring in mind, we act as though we are being watched/we play to the camera in case it's there/we perform under the glare of society's panopticon.

According to Butler, the collective set of acts that our bodies perform maintain binary genders as cultural fictions. The process of performing these roles further reifies their supposed existence. She also reminds us that acts and conditions are linked, and while individual acts cannot institute real change, changing the hegemonic conditions can. Therefore, this website’s reification of roles for women as desirable, consumable objects, contributes to the existing acceptable discourse of female behavior and limits the possibilities for autonomy from these roles. and the marketing of Las Vegas present the notion that a tourist can completely recreate her personality, but the gendered and limited identities that advertisements present prove otherwise. This post was inspired by my 2005 Las Vegas trip with a friend who wanted to perform her gender as a spectacular commodity. A few years before the “Be Anyone” campaign came out, this friend already knew “The Look” of the Underwear Model: hands on hips, pouting, and occasional poses. While the social patterning of female spectacular performance exists prior to and its features, by advertising that anyone can become their fantasy in Las Vegas, the advertisement creates a false illusion of freedom and contributes to the further limiting of gender possibilities.

  • Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones, 392-402. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Debord, Guy. "Society of the Spectacle."
  • Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Las Vegas – Features -- Be Anyone.”
  • Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Las Vegas – Official Las Vegas Tourism Web Site.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Doing Something Real

"It never occured to him that what he considered unreal (the work he did in the solitude of the office or library) was in fact real life, whereas the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theatre, dance, carnival - in other words, a dream."

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p. 100.