The healing powers of Gloria Gaynor


By Pip Hinman
and Karen Fredericks

Penny Arcade has had her share of romantic traumas, but she has found the antidote. Once, following a particularly nasty break-up with an emotionally crippled boyfriend, she and a 21-year-old gay friend happened upon a bargain-priced cassette of Gloria Gaynor's disco hit, "I Will Survive" in a dusty discount bin in a suburban chemist.

"We played it 22 times during the drive back into New York City", she tells the audiences during her show, Bitch, Dyke, Faghag, Whore! (currently playing at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, then at the Universal Theatre in Melbourne from March 30 to April 17), "and I was healed!".

To demonstrate the healing powers of this disco classic, Penny and her team of erotic dancers invite the audience onto the stage to boogie away their fears, inhibitions and romantic disappointments. The night we were there, ex-treasurer John Kerin was in the audience and refused to dance. Perhaps he is beyond help.

Like Gloria's disco anthem, Penny Arcade is a tonic for the soul. From her opening routine about prostitution as an economic, not a moral, issue ("We're a conservative bunch of women") to the appeal for unity she delivers stark naked in the finale, Arcade cuts through swathes of pseudo-moral crap, both from the right and the fake ("politically correct") left, to deliver her message that "love will conquer fear".

"This show is not about sex", she told Green Left Weekly. "Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon [pro-censorship feminists] and the far right are obsessed with sex. I am not."

In the lift on the way up to Penny Arcade's hotel room in the Cross, we wondered what to expect. Would Penny up close be as liberated as Penny on stage? She greeted us at the door in her bra and leggings and, before we had settled down, she unwrapped and popped in a tampon, flashing us a mischievous grin. Penny isn't the sort to hide anything.

Bitch, Dyke, Faghag, Whore, she says, is inspired and informed by her own life, and she's certainly had an interesting one.

In the 1960s she was a Yippie, a member of the famous Youth International Party, and a co-conspirator of now legendary figures such as Abbie Hoffman and Andy Warhol. She threw stones at the cops during the historic Stonewall riot; in fact, she says, she and her peers rioted at every available opportunity. "That's the context of the Stonewall riot", she reminded us. "It didn't happen in a vacuum. The village [New York's Greenwich Village] was on fire every night."

"It amuses me when these white-collar gay and lesbian movement leaders refer so nostalgically to Stonewall", she says. "Stonewall wasn't a white-collar event, you know. There were drag queens with eyelashes out to here, big bull dykes, faghags like me. Today's white-collar types won't let 'people like that' go and represent them in parliament. But the white-collar types wouldn't have fought the police in the Stonewall riot. They wouldn't have had the guts."

What really gets up Penny's nose about the politically correct white-collar brigade (both "gay liberationist" and "feminist" varieties) is their separatism, their exclusivity and their inability or unwillingness to relate to working people.

She sees economic and class issues as the key political questions, not "all this theoretical crap about the 'male gaze' and 'objectification'". Such concepts mean nothing to the majority of people, she says, "but you can ask an Aboriginal woman out in the middle of the fucking desert whether she believes women should get equal pay, and she'll say, 'Of course'".

Not surprisingly, some of Penny's most ardent critics are not the moral right (they won't touch it, she says) but the white-collar feminists and the politically correct.

One particular sequence, "You can never get the support of lesbians if you sleep with men — unless you're battered", has been attacked by some critics in Sydney as "anti-lesbian". In the performance we attended Penny addressed the question directly, welcoming the "dykes with a sense of humour" she always gets to her shows.

"I don't tell people to laugh at that line", she says, "but people do laugh, out of recognition". She believes that her bisexuality means she gets a lot more criticism, from politically correct lesbians than would 'real' lesbians doing the same lines.

Much of Arcade's work is inspired by the late Lenny Bruce, a comic genius whose knack of using common language to puncture pomposity and immoral pseudo-morality is echoed throughout Bitch, Dyke, Faghag, Whore. Just as Bruce sought to disempower the racists with his "Nigger, nigger, nigger" routine, Penny Arcade also wrests a weapon from the hands of the moralists, left and right, with her proud declaration that she is a bitch, a dyke, a faghag, a whore — and a feminist.

When Penny strips at the end of her show, she does so in front of a video of Lenny Bruce talking about the meaning of "obscenity" under US law. "The reason I use Lenny's rap on obscenity", she says, "is because of its clarity. I don't think anyone has gone beyond Lenny Bruce."

We asked her how far things had come since Bruce was hounded to his death for using words the US establishment deemed "obscene". She replied, "No distance at all".

"In America censorship is at an all time high. There are books being pulled out of public libraries every day. Judy Blum's children's book, Dear God, It's me Margaret talking, has been banned from school libraries in over one third of America because it mentions menstruation! That's bizarre!"

To Penny Arcade, menstruation, homosexuality, sex, love, nudity and disco dancing are as natural as breathing. In the world she envisages you can pop in a tampon or deliver a speech in the nude, in any company. With those little issues out of the way, the working class is free to deal with the real divisions in society. We found her show a little microcosm of what might be.