LEOTARDS IN THE MOMENT
According to the illustrious Adrienne Gunn, a leotard is just a swimsuit you can dance in. It's a simple one piece garment that covers the torso and butt areas (front and regular). It is beloved by dancers, gymnasts, jazzercisers, and figure skaters. And apparently, by current pop culture. Leotards are suddenly all over the place, from the Emmys to HBO’s new series, The Deuce.
Let's start with The Deuce, created by David Simon of The Wire, and starring James Franco in a double role as mustachioed twin brothers. The series is set in 1970s New York City, when it was a real cesspool of a city. It concerns itself with a wide variety of streetwalking sex workers, their pimps, professor fucking college students, good and bad Francos, porn creators, porn distributors, and cops. If you've watched The Wire, then you are familiar with David Simon’s mosaic approach to storytelling. We hear many voices and stories, and gradually meaning emerges. Well, hopefully. We are only three episodes in, so time will tell.
But the series is obviously dealing with sex. Sex for money, whether it’s a back alley bj or sex on film. Nearly every female speaking role is a hooker. Aside from the college student, the only non-sex worker women in the show are the waitresses at the bar Good Franco manages. This bar (actually a struggling Korean restaurant) is saved when Good Franco walks past a window display and has a brainstorm. He dresses the waitresses in leotards. All of the sudden, the place is packed the gills with hordes of horny businessmen, all there to ogle the women in leotards. In the second episode, Good Franco tells his brother in law, Frank Sobotka, about the leotards while Bad Franco listens in. Frank basically turns into a horny cartoon wolf, all but salivating at the thought of these women in leotards.
Bad Franco reminds him that there are strip clubs just up the street. “Yeah, but those girls are whores,” Frank says. The waitresses are honest women who are working an honest job, and leotards don't make them whores. Leotards make them sexy. They aren't taking their clothes off for money (as the strippers and the many prostitutes do), but they earn more money by dressing provocatively. Okay, okay: this is not a groundbreaking idea. It's seems as if Good Franco just invented the idea of Hooters. Waitresses aren't whores! We get it!
Fine. I got it too. It has obvious resonance with the Playboy Club cocktail waitress. Good girls in skimpy clothes are an aspirational item for some men: you can't buy it outright, but you can maybe tip your way into it.
I would be happy to keep it there, and I would have, except for the Emmys. In the opening number, Stephen Colbert sings about the power of television to take the viewer away from this horrible, increasingly fucked up world. It's all fun and games until the handmaids show up. As Colbert sings about the glory of a tv dystopia to help the viewer forget about the actual dystopia that is developing in real life, the handmaids parade two by two, in their red cloaks and white wimples. As they come on stage, the handmaids whip off their cloaks and reveal lacy red leotards. The sex in Hulu’s sexual dystopia is made explicit. The leotard takes us from subtext to text.
Of course, the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale are sexual objects within the confines of the world. They exist to serve as brood mares for powerful couples. But in Gilead, their bodies are tightly controlled and codified (as are all women in Gilead). Over and over, the handmaids are treated as sluts, even by the people that force them into sexual slavery. Handmaids are not allowed to be sexy, but the powerful men who own them do force them to perform sexiness in the state run brothel, Jezebel’s. In Margaret Atwood’s novel, one of the women who is forced to work there wears a moth eaten Playboy bunny outfit, complete with cottontail. In the TV show, we lose some of that to 2010s “sexy,” but there is the added twist of handmaid role play. As the main character sneaks through the hall, she sees a threesome featuring a man, a woman dressed as a Handmaid, and a woman dressed as a Wife. The Wife and Handmaid kiss, perverting the supposedly sacred Ceremony, as a room full of men watch.
The leotards on the Emmys dancing Handmaids offended me because they stripped the handmaids of protection. They are performing sexiness as they kick and twirl. It is the same dull thrill that sexy “anything” Halloween costumes offer: sexy maid, sexy nurse, sexy Southern sheriff. In the context of the Emmys, shown on national TV, the leotarded sexy handmaids diminish the work done in the novel and the TV show. The majority of the network TV watching audience does not know or care about The Handmaid’s Tale, but it was an odds on favorite to win awards, and did. So, to bring it to the audience, the writer’s room for the Emmys chose the song and dance number to make it palatable. As the leotard in The Deuce bridges desire from the whores to the waitresses, the leotard makes the seemingly unsexual handmaids into sexual objects.
Leotards represent an adolescent sexuality in men. They are naughty but not slutty, exposed but covered. They titillate but do not frighten. They make women into attainable objects. I’m sure there is potential to view them as liberating and athletic, but I would argue that in both contexts they are not meant to be read that way. Perhaps when the college student arrives at the bar in The Deuce, we’ll see what critique she can form. Perhaps. For now, they bear the tinge of teenage peeping.
Leotards had another moment during the summer, in the form of Netflix’s series, GLOW. Set in the 80s and featuring Alison Brie and Marc Maron, the series tackles the world of women’s “professional” wrestling. And what do those ladies wear? Leotards, mostly. Maron plays the director who is a cocaine loving skeeze. He is backed by a young frozen vegetable heir, played with a very confusing sexuality by Chris Lowell. Lowell is willing to throw his money at the women’s wrestling, and at first, it seems like he’s drawn to the sexual aspect of women throwing each other around. He is very young seeming--both visually and in attitude. It seems as if he is trying to put his own masturbatory fantasy on the television, to manifest physically what has been a turn on mentally for years. And Maron certainly sees the titillating premise of the show.
But, as the show progresses, I’d argue that the athleticism and humor of wrestling as a sport takes over. Leotards are the natural choice for wrestling, and the male wrestler one of the ladies studies (and then bones) wrestles shirtless in jeans. A key sequence in Lowell’s Malibu mansion revolves around the women dressing up and finding characters, as characters are key to professional wrestling. As they find their characters, the women begin to find their own power, which is manifested through their increasing prowess in the ring. Everything is fake, obviously some weirdos (like Andy Kaufman) find women wrestling sexy, but the skills the women gain are empowering.
I suppose it makes sense to talk about the male gaze here. GLOW flirts with the male gaze, but ultimately, I would argue that it moves passed it. Even Maron, initially involved only to get his time traveling incest movie financed, is swept away by the power of the feats the women perform. Professional wrestling is soap operatic, both safe and dangerous, and ultimately silly as hell, but GLOW manages to make it empowering, transforming Alison Brie’s self-loathing, unemployed actress into a strong woman who works to repair her relationship with her best friend. The women are performing athleticism, creating their stereotypical characters, but most of all they are bonding with each other. There’s not much room to perv out on them with all of that taking up space. The leotards allow them to inhabit space and become the wrestlers they are supposed to be.
Leotards are also very impractical outside of the wrestling ring. Although it’s not shown, all of The Deuce’s leotard wearing waitresses are having to strip naked to use the bathroom. On Broad City this week, Illana collided head on with the leotard problem when she went to a party dressed in one. Because she is Illana, she is hopped up on a lethal combination champagne, cheese, and cocaine, and when she sees her ex at the party with his new girlfriend, she shits her leotard. She also has ridiculous fake nails on, and so she is stuck in the leotard trap. The leotard’s stupidity as a functional garment takes center stage here. And outside of athletic pursuits, leotards are stupid at their core.
In the latest episode of The Deuce, good Franco consummates his flirtation with the college dropout cocktail waitress. She plays at being in control, but ultimately he picks her up and puts her on the pool table (pool tables take a beating in this show). He strips her of her leotard in one movement and she is naked. Good Franco stands over her naked body and unzips his pants. While she is splayed out, tits to the world, he fucks her from a standing position and reveals nothing. Talk about male gaze in effect. To be clear, the scene is completely consensual, but the speed at which she goes from clothed to nude is astounding. Maybe that’s really what the leotards are all about: access and vulnerability.