Titty bar politics

ONE of my favourite Sydney watering holes has decided to try to improve business by hiring half-naked bar staff.

It’s hard to miss the towering, new “lingerie waitress” sign out the front. But the drum-playing academics and pierced L-plate lesbians who usually inhabit Pub X still look shocked when redheads in rectal-floss G-strings suddenly materialise to make perky chit-chat over the free chicken wings.

Some unhappy customers relocate to the lingerie-less beer garden where it’s no longer necessary to navigate these unsettling representatives of modern womanhood with their big wide smiles, their big white teeth and their jiggly little bums like perfectly poached egg yolks.

Others take their beer-drinking business elsewhere. “It’s just embarrassing,” one purple-haired librarian says before moving on. “Titty bar staff are as anachronistic as the ladies lounge and the six o’clock swill.”

I, meanwhile, can’t help but wonder: Why is it so? Why, after all this feminism, would young women still choose this line of work? And who is making it worth their while?

In search of answers, I head off to Pub X to brave the sparkly thongs and greasy finger food alone.

The first thing I notice is that the singular grammar of the “lingerie waitress” sign is spot-on: there is only one, a tiny blonde who skitters about in stiletto boots and a lacy twin-set that looks like it retreated into itself after a traumatic tumble dryer encounter.

The second thing that strikes me is the heavy fug of working-class masculinity. There are big, thick men in all directions. Men in track pants and fluoro vests. Men surrounded by spent Cheezel packets and little pyramids of sucked chicken bones. Men who look like they’re yearning for contact with women yet still come to a place like this where they are surrounded by Escher-esque images of themselves.

Feminists are notoriously critical of testosteroned consumers of female T&A but these Friday night drinkers are hardly the evil geniuses of the patriarchy. Most spend more time watching the plasma screen footy than they do ogling the micro-waisted waitress. They all know the only reason she stops to flirt is because she’s paid to.

Topaz — not her real name, but you get the precious stones vibe — calls me “darl” and sits down to chat after I tip her a few lousy bucks for a free soda water.

“Jeez, I’m cold,” she says, shivering. It’s an icy, midwinter night and everyone but her is wearing maximum fleece. “Not that I should complain,” she continues. “I used to do housekeeping and break my back cleaning toilets for the minimum wage. Now I earn $40 an hour plus sometimes $100 in tips. You can also claim everything on tax. Well, not everything, obviously. But, you know, ya clothes, ya lip gloss, ya fake tan.

“And it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong,” she adds quickly. “Mum knows what I do and all.”

Topaz says now she’s signed with an agency, she also gets bookings for “privates”, serving drinks at buck’s parties and the like. “It’s fantastic, $130 for two hours in — get this — hot pants.” (The lingerie waitress equivalent of casual Friday clobber and apparently quite the rort.)

With new Australian research showing female earnings lagging well behind those of men’s in workplaces still festering with discrimination — chicks such as Topaz seem to represent both the cause of and the solution to the problem. It’s hard to imagine the push towards gender equality ever succeeding while women’s bodies are still objectified and commodified so much more frequently than those of men.

But if one is genetically blessed with the ability to earn five times the minimum wage simply by showing off one’s egg yolks, isn’t it the height of capitalist empowerment to just say no to the toilet cleaning?

Topaz disappears for the mandatory mid-shift change of costume and emerges in new underwear and a different hat.

She’s even more goosebumpy than before but the glow-in-the-dark smile remains on full wattage. “So, boys, are we all havin’ a good time or what?”

Everyone mutters politely in reply, but the truth is none of us is really sure of the answer.

- originally published in The Australian on 31-07-2008.

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