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Art exhibit invites guests to step in the shoes of sex workers
Stepping inside the Marjorie Barrick Museum on the opening night of a new art exhibition, I’m immediately drawn to a wall lined with pairs of skyscraper-high heels.
Just looking at them makes my feet hurt.
But the display, a part of the exhibit Feminist Las Vegas, isn’t so much about the painful footwear as it is about changing people’s perceptions about the women who wear them.
The title, Feminist Las Vegas, is a loaded one. It runs the risk of immediately putting off those who are skeptical about feminism and its place within the Vegas community.
Then again, it draws a crowd of curious individuals, activists and people looking for a place to analyze the world creatively and critically.
Organized by Crystal Jackson, graduate research assistant at the Jean Nidetch Women’s Center and MFA graduate Laurenn McCubbin, the small exhibit houses a number of pieces ranging in different feminist themes.
“Las Vegas really embodies gender and sexuality in many ways, and so, to actually apply a critical eye to that as feminism does, I think is really important,” Jackson said. “As much as feminists might see Las Vegas as a really hard place to live in, it’s also a place where we have found voice and many of us have been able to thrive. I came of age here. I became a feminist here.”
The sexualization of our local economy juxtaposed with the city’s conservative politics is an interesting area of focus for feminists like Jackson and McCubbin.
McCubbin said she’s seen an ongoing disconnect between what happens at the university and what happens in the city. As a teacher, McCubbin said she’s heard stories of students who were fired at their jobs on the Strip for being five pounds overweight or have had a boss tell them they’re unattractive.
But the last straw and the impetus for creating Feminist Las Vegas, McCubbin said, was when Jet, a nightclub at The Mirage, held The Miss Butterface contest in September 2010. The reward for the woman “with the best body with the face that needs a little help” was facial reconstruction by television’s Dr. 90210.
“[I thought] ‘This is f—— ridiculous. We need to have a conversation about this.’ And so that’s what this is,” McCubbin said. “It’s a conversation.”
Striking up the discussion, McCubbin created “Please Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” an eye-catching display of high-heels worn by sex workers. The display is a reaction to an article published in The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2009 titled “Working girls: Las Vegas’ 50 most prolific prostitutes.”
“It was the lead story in the R-J … and they had the mugshots of all of these women posted on the front page [and] none of these women [had] been convicted,” McCubbin said. “The majority of the women that they put on the front page of the paper — with their name and ages and pictures — had been arrested for trespassing, not for prostitution.”
The high-heels span the colors of the rainbow, most with glass heels of at least five inches. Some of the shoes feature photos of the very women whose images were emblazoned on the cover of The Review Journal. McCubbin encourages people to look at them, hold them — even try them on for size.
“One of the things [people say] when they look at stripper shoes is ‘Oh my God. I could never wear those.’ And second is, ‘Can I try them on?’” McCubbin said.
Part of her display, she said, is to get people thinking about sex work differently.
“Could you work eight hours in these?”
She said she hopes that the display of shoes will get people to engage in a conversation about sex workers and that they will begin to challenge other assumptions made about sex workers and their trade.
For example, sex work isn’t limited to prostitution, McCubbin said.
“[It includes] strippers and dominatrixes,” she said. “The economy of Las Vegas really is intertwined with the sex industry.”
The rest of the exhibit ranges from oil on canvas to mixed media and more. It also explores the lives of feminists, queer people, sexuality and different cultures not typically acknowledged in the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas Strip.
“Las Vegas has a tourist based economy that’s based on the sale of vice and sexuality, but it’s not that it’s an actual opening up of sexual diversity and opening of sexual acceptance,” Jackson said. “It’s really just about [being] a sexual Disneyland.”
As for Jackson and McCubbin, they make the rules on their playground.
Feminist Las Vegas is an ongoing exhibit at the Marjorie Barrick Museum until May 13.