“Customers can go to many places for wings and beer, but it is our Hooters Girls who make our concept unique. Hooters offers its customers the look of the ‘All American Cheerleader, Surfer, Girl Next Door.’ The essence of the Hooters Concept is entertainment through female sex appeal, of which the LOOK is a key part. When you are in the Hooters Girl uniform you are literally playing a role; having been cast for that role, you must comply with the Image and Grooming Standards that the role requires.”
-From HOOTERS Employee Handbook
“All American Girl: A girl who tries her best in all the aspects of life, is a great and supporting girlfriend for her man, blond, blue eyed, long hair, gorgeous, cute, sexy, and caring always. The all american girl is what every man wants.”
-From urbandictionary.com, “TOP DEFINITION: All American Girl”
“To challenge the regimes of representation that govern a society is to conceive of how a politics can transform a reality. As this creative struggle moves onward, it is bound to recompose subjectivity and praxis. More often than not, [this struggle] requires that one leave the realms of the known, and take oneself there where one does not expect, is not expected to be.”
-From Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s When the Moon Waxes Red
Do you know the etymology of the word hooters as it refers to jugs? I didn’t till I earnestly, and ethnographically, began looking into hooters and Hooters.
My research took me to Saturday Night Live’s digital transcript archives. There, I found that sex symbol and comic Steve Martin pioneered the mammalian use of the term. In a monologue that aired in 1979 titled What I Believe, Martin asserted a creed. He stated, “…And I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, wholesome and natural things…that money can buy. And I believe it’s derogatory to refer to a woman’s breasts as ‘boobs,’ ‘jugs,’ ‘winnebagos’ or ‘golden bozos’…and that you should only refer to them as ‘hooters.’ And I believe you should put a woman on a pedestal…high enough so you can look up her dress.”
This monologue led to the hooterfication of American tits and what I like about the use of the word hooters to denote chestnuts is that it opens with the sound of who. As a refresher, who means what or of which person or persons, and I like to think of the who in Hooters as a reference to subjectivity. To whom the hooters belong. That there is a who attached to the hooters. No one is simply hooters although the male gaze might construct the feminine as such.
Woman as hooters:
The male gaze is efficient. It can simplify even further:
In search of the who in hooters, I decided to milk my exploration of the male gaze by developing and executing a performance art piece at the eponymous restaurant. I call it Hooters Performance I, and I performed it on the sexto de Mayo at the Hooters located closest to me, at 90 Aquarium Way in Long Beach, California.
Hooters Performance I involves both a layering of the gazes and a war of the gazes. A lone American woman (me) penetrates a theatrical space (Hooters) capitalism built for men to openly and patriotically ogle the “All American Cheerleader.” The lone American woman positions herself at the heart of this theatrical space and turns it into her own panopticon where she watches men watch women. In this regard, Hooters Performance I creates a gendered mise en abyme, a theatre within a theatre that is erected not through my presence but through my gaze, my queer oculesics, my watching in a place where men pay for women to embody a hyper-Americanized and tacky AF variation of Laura Mulvey’s to-be-looked-at-ness.
When I station my queer American body at Hooters, amidst men of various rank and height, I upset the establishment’s standard commercial transaction. A bitch pays to man-watch. This is not unlike the bird usurping the role of bird watcher. I am the dodo holding the binoculars upside down. I am the blue-footed booby peering at Charles Darwin. It’s necessary to invoke bird watching here.
To prepare for Hooters Performance I, I slid on a tank top, tattered overalls, a hoodie, and rasta-colored Vans. Lol. I cruised to the restaurant just shy of noon. I blasted Cheryl Lynn’s Got To Be Real. The song put me in a very Paris Is Burning state of mind. It also made me contemplate whether or not my destination was real. How real is Hooters? If Hooters isn’t real, then what is it?
These questions will be answered. Hooters Performance I is about getting answers.
Arriving at the seaside, I parked my Honda, walked through the lot and stepped onto the pavement leading to Hooters’ front door. A white dude uniformed in black was standing in my path. He sucked a cigarette. He growled, “Hey, I’ve seen you here before!”
“Yeah,” I affirmed. “I brought my uncle here for his birthday.”
“Are you here with him?”
I looked around to indicate that I was alone. “No.”
The man introduced himself, explained that he was Hooters’ MANager, shook my hand, and looked me up and down. “You’re a very beautiful girl,” he growled. “I’d hire you but it would take a lot of makeup to cover those tattoos.”
I laughed out loud. My tattoos were 100% hidden by my hoodie. He must have remembered my body, and the ink trapped in my skin, from having male glazed me while I was there with my uncle.
The MANager accompanied me to the restaurant’s entrance. He chaperoned me across threshold, and thus, jacked up my intent of entering Hooters alone. “Where are you sitting?” he asked. “A table or the bar?”
“Okay,” he growled. “Your first drink is on me.”
Again, the MANager undid the commercial aspect of my performance. His offer to pay for my liquor reasserted a standard, heteronormative transaction. One that cummodifies cooch.
I traipsed through the high-ceilinged restaurant, past large screens broadcasting various sporting events, and perched on a high chair towards the front of the bar.
The MANager whispered something to the bartender. She bounced over to me and said, “He says the first drink is on him. He never does that! He must be in a really good mood. Do you want a menu? Are you gonna order food?”
“Yes,” I answered. She slid a menu in front of me and I pulled a leather bound journal out of my tote. This journal was a prop I brought for note taking. Taking field notes on men watching women was part of the performance.
I opened the journal. Clutching a pencil, I wrote, “FIELD NOTES: Birdwatching.”
I scribbled about my encounter with the manager and added, “I’m the only woman sitting at the bar. Both bartenders are blond. Guy next to me is nervously shaking his leg.”
I was supposed to be watching men watch women but I stared at a family seated near the bar, to my left. They were maybe Polynesian, a young man and woman with two little girls who kept getting out of their seats to play and a newborn swaddled in pinks. The man cradled the infant in his angularly tattooed arms, bottle-feeding and rocking the thing.
I turned to look at the four Latino-looking dudes sitting at the end of the bar, to my right. One was curiously watching me write. The guy sitting next to him was watching a bartender bend and pour ice.
I ordered chipotle honey chicken wings (I know, gross) and beer. I watched and listened to the Latino-looking man to my right order bone-in wings.
Double entendres are everywhere at Hooters.
I watched men lackadaisically watching this, that, and the other. And by other, I mean woman. They would stare at a bartender for a few seconds and then stare at the large screens broadcasting men and balls. They would stare at their phone screens and then stare weirdly off into space, at a melancholy place I couldn’t see. The men’s attention seemed constantly split yet localizaed: butt/football, boobs/goal, legs/fries, thighs/ranch dressing, boobs/napkin, chonch/golf.
I stared at the middle-aged white man sitting alone at the bar across from me.
He was staring into the melancholy void. I felt like I was staring at a redneck Sartre.
Hooters is a sad, boring place to go by yourself. Its especially sad if you’re a performance artist.
In front of me, a bartender was shoving dark green limes into a silver machine. She lifted its lever, squeezed, and pressed. Men turned to stare at her peninsulas. Hips, butt, and thighs jiggled. She bent. Blonde hair flew and moved. Limes fell in pieces. Pale hands scooped the wedges and dropped them into a bucket.
A ruddy, blue-eyed dude materialized at my side. It asked, “May I take this seat?”
I nodded. He sat to my left.
A bartender set my chicken and beer in front of me.
I said, “Thank you,” unzipped my hoodie, took it off, and set it on the counter.
(Was that rude?)
I gnawed my wings. I dipped curly fries in cummy ranch dressing. I chewed and washed down a mouthful of meat with hops that my vagina had earned me. I quit watching men. When you stop looking at something, it stops being. The men stopped existing. My narrative arc became fueled by a carnivorous conflict: woman versus chicken.
When I looked up from scarfing, my conflict switched. The four Latino-looking dudes were watching me. I wanted to watch them back with the same expressions they were wearing, they were gazing at my cleavage with interest and intent, but there was no way for me to return this localized look. There was no part of their body that I could make the target of an overtly lustful stare which would match theirs. There was no way for me to visually tango with them. I was failing at improvising a meaningfully matching gaze. I felt gross in a familiar way that seems second nature. Undressed and slapped by an invisible dick. That slimy feeling that’s embarrassment creeping into consciousness coated me. I felt like the biggest boob despite being the most mannishly dressed woman at the bar.
The blue-eyed dude began talking to me.
He chatted about his work, tour bus repair. The more he chatted with me, the less the other men watched. I got the sense that they perceived me as in the process of being colonized.
I pointed out to my new friend that I found it funny that there were so many families having lunch at Hooters. I gestured at the dining area. About half of the patrons in it were families. Each of these families had a baby.
“I didn’t think Hooters would be such a popular destination for babies!” I howled.
I looked at the entrance. Baby strollers were lined up near a cardboard cutout of a bikini-clad Hooters girl.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I’ve brought my son to Hooters before, he’s twelve, but I think that’s more appropriate than bringing a baby.”
“No!” I asserted. “Bringing a baby is more appropriate. They’re who boobs are for.”
The dude laughed. “I think you may have a point,” he said.
I almost snapped, “I know,” but being a bitch was not part of my performance.
I paid my bill, shoved my props back into my tot, and slid my hoodie back on. I zipped it up, essentially breastplating my hooters. I said boobye to the tour bus repairman and walked through the main restaurant, towards the strollers and door. I didn’t glance back at the bar.
I entered Hooters accompanied by a man but left alone. My solitude felt whole and right.
In contemplating the emotional aftermath of Hooters Performance I, I realize that Hooters is what Martin Esslin called the Theatre of the Absurd. About this form of theatre, Esslin wrote: “…in a dream, quite clearly, the rules of realistic theatre no longer apply. Dreams do not develop logically, they develop by association. Dreams do not communicate ideas; they communicate images.”
In this somnambulist context, Hooters is a theatrically constucted dream site. It’s a tacky man’s American dream. In it, man is encouraged to gorge. Hooters girls function as his subalterns. They may talk, in fact, they are encouraged to talk, but they may not Talk. A Hooters girl will not speak of her period, her headache, Susan Sontag’s grey streak, her first grey hair, or the run in her pantyhose. She is going to talk to you, the dreamer, about your favorite football team. She is going to compliment the picture of your son that you show her as you skip past pictures of your wife. The Hooters girl is going to laugh at all your jokes, even the puns, toss her hair over the shoulder closest to you, and smile.
She is the sweetest dream in polyester.
Esslin also wrote, “…while most plays in the traditional convention are primarily concerned to tell a story or elucidate an intellectual problem, and can thus be seen as a narrative or discursive form of communication, the plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are primarily intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form.”
In this context, every day at Hooters is a poem. As a daily poem, Hooters captures a state of being. This is the state of being an object, or subaltern, without wings. Wings surround the subaltern, she might even be wearing a panty liner with wings, but, ultimately, these wings are not hers. Furthermore, unless she’s bleeding on them, wings are fried and battered. Honeyed and chipotlaid. Men eat these things which represent flight. They suck the marrow out of these things which represent departure. Wings are dead. Mutilated. The goose is cooked. Escape is, symbolically, impossible. The restaurant functions as birdcage.
Hooters knows it’s theatre. The HOOTERS Employee Handbook explains that “Hooters Girls are to be camera-ready at all times. This is show business, just like the modeling industry.” Their investment in the absurd, or boobsurd, is evidenced by this command, again from the handbook: “SMILE!!! A big smile is an important part of the Hooters Girl LOOK and your stage appearance.” Convince the dreamer that you enjoy wearing grotesque pantyhose while delivering plates of chicken to slack-jawed dudes fantasizing about the skin beneath the hose.
It’s like the premise of a Camus novel.
Succinctly and hotly absurd.
But Hooters is pro-woman.
They fed mothers for free this Mothers Day.
This is my mother.
To work through my feelings and give a voice to the abject nature of the “Hooters concept,” I created several abject California girl pin-ups. The Hooters subaltern speaks through her degradation.