Four men stood on stage in New York's West Village last Friday evening, stripped naked and read works of literature. And not just any literature, literature by women: "Great" women. Or, as the flyer simply stated: "Naked Guys Read Great Women Writers."
This might be why Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own.
The naked guys defined "great women writers" for themselves, selecting their own passages and striping bare their sensibilities. Their choices ranged through time, genre, tone, and quality, skipping from Mary Shelley to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Sylvia Plath to Amy Sedaris. The men -- Tigger, Man Candy, Johnny Porkpie and Albert Cadabra -- lined up on a couch, centered on the tiny over-lit stage of the Houston Street bar, Madame X, waiting naked for their turn at the mic.
The Naked Readings idea stemmed from a group that desires anything but a room of its own. The Naked Girls Book Club launched the first "Naked Girls Reading" event in Chicago in March 2009. Since, the co-creators, Michelle L'amour and Franky Vivid expanded the franchise nationwide, spawning Naked Girls Reading groups in places like Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The East Village-based burlesque troop Pinchbottom runs the show in New york, where they have been staging readings devoted to "Tween Lit," "A Christmas Carol," and "Banned Books," since last October.
Why has this concept proved so popular? "Because being naked is no big deal," answered Johnny Porkpie, the self-appointed Burlesque Mayor of New York and the evening's MC. "And once you realize that, you focus on the words. Soon you get over caring about the naked bodies, you realize how intently you were listening to the words. Then it becomes a powerful experience."
One attendee, Tamara, who has attended every Pinchbottom reading to date "because of the literature" seemed to agree.
"I am reminded of works I mean to read but haven't, or things I want to revisit," she said, "And the rawness contrasted to the texts."
This powerful experience, however, was only shared by thirteen people last Friday -- a much smaller turnout than the usual 50 to 100 people who come to see naked women read, said Tamara.
Are people just more interested in seeing naked women?
Perhaps, if the bar's patrons represent wider public opinion. Downstairs the customers in Madame X were divided equally between men and women. When asked why they weren't planning to attend the reading, women politely explained that they hadn't heard of the event. Every man asked, however, cringed at the idea of looking at other men.
"That's kind of gay," sneered one. When asked if he would be more interested in Naked Women Reading, however, he laughed, "Maybe, but I'd rather not listen to readings at all."
According to the third-wave-feminist line of logic that fuels the Naked Girls Book Club, this pairing of nudity with reading is the ultimate emblem of empowerment. So much so that, at first, the organizers refused at first to allow men to read. "They were concerned it would come off like a parody," said Porkpie.
While the men themselves seemed very earnest, the readings, at times, sounded parodic. Porkpie intended to read Emily Dickinson, but she proved so moody and heavy and "just insufferable," he recounted to the room with an eye roll. He settled instead on Dorothy Parker's short story "You Were Perfectly Fine." Parker appeared repeatedly during the two hours, as did Amy Sedaris and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Albert Cadavar's summoning of Frankenstein's roaring inner queen ("Oh no, but I was toning myself down!" he mused, post-show), further nudged the evening toward camp. Satire, in part defined by discomfort and straddling of categories, dominated the evening, making it hard to tell where performers were obeying the conventions of an inherently parodic burlesque, and where the naked guys felt uncomfortable.
At times, though, this ironic tone highlighted a text's brilliance. Tigger's reading from performance artist Penny Arcade's Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! left the audience in paroxysms. Tigger trilled the accents, sliding in and out of different New York dialects as he shifted seamlessly between the savvy Madame manning the brothel phone and the numerous needy men dialing in. The ease of his performance suggested an easy familiarity. "I first worked with Penny Arcade years ago," he confirmed, "and she encouraged me. She prompted my move from formal theatre into burlesque. This play," he said, "made me the man I am today." At first, Tigger's naked body, complete with neon orange stilettos color-coordinated to his ginger hair, shone distractingly under the stage lights, but the night's premise ultimately held out: it turns out ginger pubes pale to nothing when faced with Arcade's whip-smart funny bitches, dykes, faghags and whores.
Man Candy offered the evening's most compelling reading. Forgoing the others' more theatrical flourishes, he padded to the microphone in skater shoes and socks before reading quietly and evenly from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. His passage featured Uncle Tom resting down at day's end to reflect on the Bible, but his reading rendered this most cloyingly pious (and, most agree, cloyingly racist) of American scenes subtly moving. The description of Tom's hot, heaving, tired and beaten black body settling into scripture coming out of Man Candy's slight, naked, white body evoked the physical brutalities of slavery more powerfully than Beecher Stowe's overwrought words alone ever could.
This cut to the heart of the evening, where what actually seemed on display, much more than women's writing - or the reader's naked bodies - was the tenuous and delicate nature of masculinity. Virtually all of the passages the men chose featured men: from Frankenstein, to Uncle Tom, to Dorothy Parker's mocking of the ways needy women hound men for affection, to Sylvia Plath's father, to Penny Arcade's brothel clients. The naked guys might have been reading from women, but they chose to read about men.
Perhaps the more audacious move might have been to have the Naked Guys explore glorified celebrations of masculinity -- Hemingway, Mailer -- while standing there flaccid, bedecked in jewels and elevated on neon stilettos. They might then have begun to confront the concerns the women voiced about inviting men into their Naked Book Club in the first place: do men grapple with the same burdens of objectification as women?
"I don't know, did you feel objectified?" Porkpie asked Tigger. Tigger, striking the right pitch of campy verve to deflate the earnest intellectuality of the question, rendering it beside the point, licked his lips and raised his brows: "Mmm, I hope so!"