Thursday, August 10, 2006

Coturnix on Sex, part II - The Hooters Conundrum

Purposefully written to provoke.

Abel PharmBoy of Terra Sigillata asked:
Can Hooters support the fight against breast cancer all without being perceived as capitalistic, misogynistic, or otherwise demeaning to women?
You need to read his whole post to see the context, i.e., exactly what kind of sponsorhip for exactly what kind of breast-cancer research. Definitely something that could be, if done carefully, be done in good taste, with the cancer folks dictating, for instance, exactly how the sponsorship would be done, the slogans, images, etc.

PZ Myers is, essentially endorsing any means of getting more money into research, with some caveats:
I'm of the opinion that we ought to get every penny we can from them, but stop short of giving any hint that we actually endorse their business…although I'd wonder if even asking them for their assistance is granting them respectability, or if acknowledging the assistance of Hooters would turn a serious event into a joke.
On the other hand, Shelley Batts is firmly against:
I'm of the opinion there is no way to turn Hooters into a charity bastion. I completely expect them to turn breast cancer awareness into a "Save the Whales" level fiasco, prompting wealthy men to save the endangered Great Tit. I can envision the t-shirt campaign now: a tight white middrift with the word "Save Me" in a thought bubble eminating from the bosoms. Hellz no.
There's more. This was just the most colorful paragraph.

All three bloggers received quite a lot of comments, quite interesting in their own right, leading to many interpersonal misunderstandings. After musing about this for a couple of days, I think I figured out the source of such misunderstandings: different people were talking about different aspects of Hooters.

Some were talking about the corporation, some about a particular franchise, some about management, some about employees, some about customers, and some, importantly, about the symbolism of the word "Hooters" in today's landscape of cultural discourse, i.e., the "code word", what Hooters is supposed to represent even if it is not spelled out in detail in a conversation.

Let's look at each of those separately, before putting them all back together again.

The Hooters corporation

This is a big chain of restaurants. It operates just like any other business. They found a niche, they have a product to sell to that niche, and they use every corporate trick on (and off) the books to minimize expense and maximize profits. They peddle food, beer and the allure of sex. They are quite open about it. Once in a lawsuit, they used the "hooters refers to an owl" defense, not because they thought anyone would believe it, but because the law is often based on literal reading (you all remember the definition of 'is') so they tried to get off on technicality. It's just a lawyers' game, not in any way an attempt to hide that they sell sex - they are ah-so-open about it.

Halliburton sells death.

Also, the Hooters-style sale of sex occupies a very specific niche. They do not want to compete against strip clubs, or pornography, or prostitutes. They are not keeping their waitresses dressed because they are afraid to make them take the tops off. The type of sex they are selling is exactly the type of sex they want to sell - that is their niche and they have cornered the market there - the "cheerleader" allure. Not all sex is hardcore.

Phillip Morris sells death.

The individual Hooters franchises

Every franchise owner is different. Every town is different. The surrounding culture is different. It is to be expected that every Hooters franchise is different - some much more raunchy than others. The menu, the beer, the music, the "look" of the waitresses, the strictness to which they adhere to the famous handbook ...all that will be different between a Hooters in rural Alabama, a Hooters in Portland, OR, and a Hooters in Japan. Which one have YOU been to? How does that color your perceptions of the establishment?

The management and the employees

As with the franchises, they will reflect the local situation.

The customers

Again, it will vary, but not everyone coming in is a lecher, or a frat-boy, drooling at the sight of a female form.

The Symbol

This is what many commenters - especially those who attacked Hooters and were against its sponsorship of cancer research - were refering to. In many ways, "Hooters" has become a symbol of the patriarchy, of a particular way of demeaning women. The symbolism is in many ways deserved. That is exactly what they are selling. Quite openly. But, as it often happens, the complete story is not so black and white.

It appears to me that none of the commenters who attacked the Symbol ever set a foot inside a Hooters restaurant to see for themselves. They attacked a Symbol ferociously. One commenter (who was actually all for taking their money for research) even thought that the waitresses there were topless! No, they are not.

Let me backtrack a little and put in a few cents of personal experience. For a couple of years, a Hooters restaurant was the only food establishment within miles of where I was teaching. On some days, after four hours of talking energetically (and, being a perfectionist, not being able to eat before class out of apprehension), I was just too hungry to make it home to eat. So, not being able to stomach Taco Bell food (the only other food in the vicinity), I went to Hooters. Trust me, the first time around I was quite nervous about it, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worst, mainly because all I knew about Hooters was the Symbol.

Anyway, for a couple of years, I'd make it there perhaps twice a month or so, sometimes more often, sometimes not going in for months - but often enough to be recognized as a "regular". It was usually at an odd time (like 3pm) on an odd day (e.g., Monday or weekend), so it was never very crowded, which means that I perhaps never saw how rowdy the place may get at night.

I thought I'd use the opportunity to learn more and to do a little informal study of the culture of the place. I asked the same set of questions of every waitress that ever served me a meal. And I observed the people around me. What did I find?

A couple of times I walked around the parking lot and counted bumper stickers, always getting roughly the equal number of Bush and Kerry sticker-counts.

The restaurant was mostly populated with families with children, couples, and small groups of soldiers. There were a couple of sleazy-looking guys (usually quite old) sitting at the bar as well, but I never saw one do anything bad. In other words, it looked just like any other restaurant-bar. And the same kind of music.

And the same kind of food - not better not worse, not more or less expensive. The wings are far too greasy for my taste, but philly, burger, grouper and quasedilla are quite OK. When I actively seek a place to eat well instead of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, I am not going to start looking for Hooters, of course, but it is not as bad as some people say (again, I believe they never ate there, they just heard the gossip that the food there is bad) and in a pinch, it will do quite fine.

Only very few of the waitresses conformed to the Hooters stereotype - the thin, athletic build with big boobs. Some were fat, some were super-skinny, most just normal. Many were flat-chested. All too young to be seriously attractive to me.

Most of the waitresses were students, majoring in everything form nursing to zoology, and one even double-majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. They are smart women.

A few are young (married, unmarried or single) mothers, who, after wild teenage years decided to take control of their lives and work their way through community college.

As far as I could figure out, not a single one of them was an ex-stripper (I know a much nicer restaurant in town which employed several ex-strippers) - another stereotype held by people without first-hand knowledge.

About a third of the waitresses were Democrats, a third Republicans, and a third did not care about politics at all. About half are religious, about half do not care about religion at all.

I asked them about the atmosphere there and the potential problems. They work there because they get twice as big tips as anywhere else. After a day or two on the job, they completely forget to be aware of eyes trained on their asses. They say that most customers are really totally normal and cool. They feel as part of a team, working together to feed the customers and earn their tips, and at the same time conspiring to milk the occasional pervert out of his money and laugh afterwards.

If a customer gets too offensive, the waitresses may switch tables amongs themselves - a younger, more timid waitress gets replaced by a more experienced one who knows how to put the guy in his place with a smile and still part him from his money. Sometimes they work in pairs and put the guy through the machine. And they fully enjoy their power. If nothing else works, they tell the manager who gives the guy a spiel and, if neccessary, escorts him out of the establishment. Again, a scene that can happen at any bar.

What did I do while there? Watch tits and asses? I usually read the newspaper, ate and left.

Of course, this may be a relatively nice and tame franchise. I heard that the other Hooters across town has events, like bikini carwashes, beauty contests and mud wrestling. Perhaps that other one is much more rowdier. Perhaps that owner picks girls that do look like a stereotypical Hooters waitress. I don't know.

Certainly this frenchise owner in Alabama is a scumbag (and the manager and the waitress he fired are NOT). So, your experience may differ.

In any case, as a whole, as much as Hooters brand is about selling sex, from what I could see first-hand, neither managers, nor waitresses, nor most of the customers really bought into it - they treated is as any other family restaurant. A place in a good spot where there is no other food around. I feel more comfortable there than in some more hyped establishments in town (I mean restaurants - I have not visited a strip club and do not intend to ever, so I can retain my own biases and stereotypes about strip clubs and can yell in blog comments against them).

So, yes, the corporate idea is to sell sex. Like Maxim. It may work in some places, but in others, it is just another restaurant. It makes money for the company, so the bosses do not care how it does so. It is in a way a spoof and a put-down of misogyny - "we get money out of suckers" - and the waitresses are in on that plan, not the slaves of it.

So, I'd say - get their money for cancer research. They have given for it before.

Now let me hear the feminists in the comments....

(Cross-posted on A Blog Around The Clock - go check the comments)