The Functioning of West Village bar, Cubbyhole, as a Queer Space

by Brie Roche-LIlliott and Olivia Creamer

Professor Portwood-Stacer

The Functioning of West Village bar, Cubbyhole, As a Queer Space

The view of Cubbyhole from outside, 12th St.

The view of Cubbyhole from outside, 12th St.

Upon entering the poorly lit bar, nestled on a corner of the West Village between brownstones, Cubbyhole is quite obviously queer. It’s not just because of the primarily female clientele, the rainbow kites and banners hanging from the ceiling or the gender neutral bathrooms that Cubbyhole is different from a standard dive bar; it’s not so much what they’ve added to their space that queers them, but more like what they’ve subtracted from the typical bar experience. Cubbyhole is widely recognized as a gay or lesbian bar, but we sought out to identify what specific aspects of Cubbyhole distinguished it as a queer space, and how that queerness was represented in media. The official Twitter of Cubbyhole reads, “Lesbian and Gay, Straight Friendly, Neighborhood Fusion Bar, Anything Goes. Anyone Welcome.” But how exactly, does Cubbyhole support its claims? Even though Cubbyhole is a physical space, it still relies on the internet and media, both within the bar and online, to create its queer identity.

In order to get a first-hand understanding of Cubbyhole’s importance, we set out to examine Cubbyhole on two different nights over the course of approximately ten hours. Each night we were accompanied by various groups or individuals, to see how that affected our experience and how Cubbyhole might function differently depending on time, day and our own presentation. Our first night was Friday, April 25 from 8pm to 1am. We went with a group of three other college-age girls, who all present as typically feminine, and who are all straight. When we first arrived, we were some of the youngest people there, with most of the clientele resembling professional women in their early to mid 30s. By 11pm most of these women had left, and the crowd slowly evolved to a much younger, rowdier one, primarily women in their mid to late twenties. The bar was packed with people from around 9pm on, and consisted of a few older gay couples and young gay boys amidst the lesbians of a range of gender presentations. While the older couples and groups were more reserved and didn’t socialize much outside of the group they arrived with, the younger crowd was much more outgoing and interactive.

Inside Cubbyhole on Friday night

Inside Cubbyhole on Friday night

Top 40 pop hits played loudly throughout the evening, and we noticed that the crowd interacted with the music, singing along to most songs. Cubbyhole has an electronic jukebox with an unlimited vault of music, yet consistently the most played songs are Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, LMFAO and other contemporary, mainstream pop stars. This normative soundtrack seemed to go against the general aesthetic of the bar, which in other aspects is so queer. By playing so exclusively pop music, Cubbyhole became less queer than it might have otherwise, if more alternative music or music by queer artists, such as Tegan and Sara, had been playing. The crowd enjoyed the music, and indeed were responsible for playing most of it through the jukebox. As we observed the crowd, we discovered that very few people had their cell phones out, amongst both the older and younger clientele. The friends we were with usually go to bars that attract a straight clientele, and they were the first to notice a huge difference with cell phone use; at the bars they usually go to, the majority of people would be on their phones, whether texting, on social media, or taking photos, but at Cubbyhole almost no one was. Perhaps it’s due to the energetic atmosphere, but the crowd at Cubbyhole seem more interested in interaction and meeting people than Twitter updates. The 12-inch TV at the end of the bar has RuPaul’s Drag Race on without the sound, but no one was watching.

Rodriguez discusses discursive spaces, a place where people can come together to talk about issues that are relevant to them, and as a result become “sites of knowledge production” (Divas pg 5)[1]. Cubbyhole becomes a discursive space both for queers and heterosexuals as it creates linguistic codes that are unique to a queer bar and create different aspects of the environment. It is these linguistic codes that become a way the women hit on each other   It is linguistic codes that allow women to make their interest in other women clear, or for gay men to enjoy drinks with their friends, or for straight women to have a good night out, without, supposedly, the hassle of being hit on by guys. The location, however, is essential to the meaning of these codes, which are not limited to language. As cubbyhole functions as a queer space, a look exchanged between two women likely has more sexual intention behind it than the same look would in a straight bar. In the same way, if a guy hits on a girl at Cubbyhole, it will not be met in the same way that it might be in a straight bar. On the first night we went, Brie was aggressively hit on by a man, who persisted even when asked to leave us alone. We continued to explain that this was a gay bar and we were queer and uninterested. He only left when a large group of women walking past us out the door saw what was happening and told him to leave. This man was not a part of the linguistic codes and rules of the space that everyone else was following, and as a result did not respect the space or the identities of the people there.

The second night we went was on Monday, April 28 from 6pm to 10pm, during the bar’s weekly Happy Hour. This time only the two of us went, and it was empty when we first arrived, a few pairs and small groups scattered around the bar. Just as in the first few hours the Friday before, we were the youngest ones there, but on the Monday the crowd did not change much. The clientele was mostly more butch-identified women chatting with the bartender. There were also a few heterosexual couples who drank in their pairs and groups in corners, and put on music like Death Cab for Cutie and John Legend. Compared to the long lines for the bathroom and squeezing our way through Friday night’s crowd, Cubbyhole seemed deserted on Monday. The tv, still on silent, was on ABC News. Overall, the space was calmer, and different expectations therefore existed. On the Monday, it would not have been appropriate to play Katy Perry and sing along, just as on the Friday, it would not have been appropriate to play John Legend and sit quietly in a corner. After a couple of hours, the lights down and the bar still quiet, the bartender announced a round of free Cosmo shots for whoever wanted one, and then went outside for a break, leaving the bar unattended, something that she never could have done on the Friday. The quiet music and serious TV was a constant reminder to the clientele that this was a different group of queer people than the group on Friday night.

Cubbyhole is easily one of New York’s most famous and popular gay/lesbian bars; people from all over the country visit it when in New York, as some sort of mecca, and the reviews online show a range of clientele and experiences. With over 200 Yelp reviews, Cubbyhole has earned 3.5 out of 5 stars and some rave reviews about everything from cheap drinks to music selection to aesthetics. Most online review sites identify Cubbyhole as a lesbian bar despite being “open to everyone,”[2] even website GayCities says, “ladies are the belles of the ball.”[3] But not everyone has had a positive experience at Cubbyhole. Most of the negative reviews aren’t related to the queerness of the bar or its clientele, but rather focus on the size of the bar (it’s too small.) However, there are a few that specifically address sexuality. Sasha M. says, “want to feel weak, crowded, and unimportant? Do you like being stared at by hungry lioness lesbians? Behold THE CUBBY HOLE,”[4] implying that the space while queer, might not be so different from the typical bar pick-up experience. Mike W., a middle aged black man, who complains that for the second time in two months he was refused entry; despite their 4am closing time, Mike says, “I was completely ignored, so when I finally asked if I could have a drink, at 3:15am, I was told that the bar was closed.”[5] Instances like this call into question whether Cubbyhole is as accepting of non-queer individuals or non-female individuals. Perhaps, even, race is a factor, as something that we noted when we went both nights was that the clientele were largely white.

The ceiling decorations inside Cubbyhole.

The ceiling decorations inside Cubbyhole.

The distinct differences between the two nights were obviously a result of the day of the week, but the atmosphere and acceptable linguistic and nonlinguistic codes were cemented by the music that was playing and the clientele. Cubbyhole’s online presence, both in the website maintained by it’s own website and the reviews posted by customers on other sources, shows explicitly that it is for queer people. As a non-normative space, it is necessary to make that clear online, so that it’s identity as a discursive space for queer people is apparent even before someone arrives at Cubbyhole for a night out.

[1] Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Divas, Atrevidas, Y Entendidas.” Sexual Cultures: New Directions from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. New York: New York UP, n.d. N. pag. Print.

[2] https://twitter.com/CubbyHoleBar

[3] http://newyork.gaycities.com/bars/438-the-cubbyhole

[4] http://www.yelp.com/biz/cubbyhole-new-york?hrid=seI1W_SjkOftxan3GcsBdQ

[5] http://www.yelp.com/biz/cubbyhole-new-york?hrid=I9m4w255Jw1abXV9rJgutg

 

How Queer is Blue? Lesbian Commodification and Sexualization in “Blue Is The Warmest Color”

www.indiewire

In 2013 2013, French film Blue Is The Warmest Color was breaking news after its success at Cannes Film Festival. The newest piece from well-known director Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is The Warmest Color is a three-hour long adaption of author Julie Maroh’s graphic novel. At Cannes, Blue Is… was awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or, split between Kechiche and his lead actresses Adele Exarchopoulos (“Adele”) and Lea Seydoux (“Emma”), for the first time in history. But despite its positive reviews, Blue Is… received hefty criticism, primarily enraged feminists and queer viewers for its graphic lesbian sex scenes. Critics of the film argue that Kechiche’s depiction of young lesbians is offensive to women and queer/lesbian viewers alike. While I think that Blue Is… tells a beautiful narrative of coming-to-age and young love, I think details in Kechiche’s portrayal commoditizes both lesbianism and the struggle of self-identification.

         Blue Is The Warmest Color centralizes on Adele, a fifteen-year-old that is perpetually unsatisfied; unsatisfied by food, her peers, her teachers and her boyfriend, until she meets Emma, an older art student. After a fleeting love at first site on a crowded street, they meet again in a lesbian bar, where their relationship proceeds rather normally, if not a bit quickly. They hang out as friends, resulting in Adele being typically outcasted by her friends, who, in a heated scene immaturely ask her, “so you eat pussy now? You a lesbo?” before calling her a whore and saying, “whores like you are into ass.” Soon after their first time sleeping together (the infamous ten-minute long sex scene that has Idaho furious), they move in together and the years pass as they settle into a seemingly normal relationship. It’s only after Adele’s infidelity and subsequent brutal argument with Emma that their relationship falls apart, never to be fully mended.

Emma and Adele's "love at first site."

Emma and Adele’s “love at first site.”

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There is nothing inherently offensive or problematic about Blue Is The Warmest Color, and much of Kechiche’s filming is both beautiful and poignant. The issue begins with Adele, the true protagonist struggling to identify. The narrative of discovering one’s identify, sexual and otherwise, is retold frequently, but in Blue Is… Adele’s sexuality is first approached as a problem to be fixed; we briefly see Adele’s unsatisfying sex life with her boyfriend, who she unenthusiastically reassures “it was great.” In Lynne Joyrich’s description of this technique, “sexual indecision is treated in such couch terms”(Joyrich, 27), as if it needs treatment. So when Emma and Adele have sex for the first time, it’s like a cathartic, almost spiritual experience for Adele. Their sex is graphic and messy, yet pure and loving. The scene seems to be intentionally relatable and encouraging; Adele seems to have accepted herself and found someone to satisfy her.

But the other problem with Adele and Emma’s sex life besides it being portrayed as the solution to a problem, is the cinematographic way that Kechiche shot the sex scenes. In many ways, the techniques used during those scenes seems to commodify “girl on girl” maneuvers to appeal to heterosexual men, and normalize the behavior as “sexy.” We are supposed to be understanding this relationship alongside Adele, but in these moments we are removed from her, and instead it feels like, what Maroh described as, “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease(Dargis). Even the lead actresses said in interviews about Kechiche that, “most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful,” (Stern) and “it was kind of humiliating sometimes, I was feeling like a prostitute,” (Aftab). Much of those ten minutes is spent on the girl’s “O-faces” and close-ups of their rear ends. To many feminists and queer/lesbian identifiers, techniques like this seem to over sexualize female sex in a way that is not reciprocated with gay, male sex. This differentiation perpetuates the stereotyping of female sex and partnerships as both temporary and more importantly, pleasing to heterosexual men.

Adele and Emma's intense first sexual experience.

Adele and Emma’s intense first sexual experience.

An example of the "O-face" to show female pleasure.

An example of the “O-face” to show female pleasure.

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Another issue with Adele and Emma is the gendered normalizing that exists both as individuals and within their relationship. Adele is depicted as very much a child; physically in the way she wears her hair messy and her rosy, baby-like cheeks, sexually in her timidity around Emma, and emotionally in her multiple crying scenes and unshakable attachment to Emma after they break-up. Emma, on the other hand, is confident in herself, her sexuality and her art, and is seen as sort of sexual teacher to Adele. Not coincidentally, Emma is labeled as the more masculine, definitively gay, while Adele is never identified as straight or gay, but remains feminine. When her school friends see her with Emma and accuse her of being a lesbian, she loudly and defiantly denies it, but when she meets up with Emma long after they’ve broken up, Emma still asks her, “any boyfriends? Any girlfriends?” Her sexuality remains ambiguous.

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Adele's shy innocence contrasted by her overt sexualization.

Adele’s shy innocence contrasted by her overt sexualization.

The associations of Emma being gay and therefore aggressive, more experienced and sexual, sympathizes Adele as the confused, straight girl. Emma is kind of treated as a source of enlightenment, but through heartbreak and pain; Emma’s angry abandonment after Adele’s infiedlity causes us to villain-ize Emma and understand their relationship to be educating, but ultimately destructiv. A phase. In this way Emma is characterized perfectly by Joyrich’s description of enlightening sexuality in film, in which homosexual secondary characters, “we may never know too much about…but they have wisdom that other figures lack” (Joyrich, 30). In the last few minutes of the film we see Adele at Emma’s art show, talking to a male friend she met years before. They flirt and there is an implied connection between them. She leaves abruptly and he unfortunately runs after her in the wrong direction. There is an indication that Adele is back to being straight, like Emma is the exception to the rule. This further devalues female-female relationships because as Gross points out, “the visible presence of unapologetic lesbians…undermines the unquestioned normalcy of the status quo and opens up the possibility of making choices that people might not have ever otherwise considered,” (Gross, 16-17).

Emma and Adele's fight resulting in their breakup.

Emma and Adele’s fight resulting in their breakup.

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For many, the release of Blue Is… was an indicator of the improvement of queer visibility in popular culture. The problem is that neither the director nor main characters seem to interpret it that way. Seydoux said, “it’s a film about love. I don’t really think it’s a film about homosexuality—it’s more than that,” (Stern) while Kechiche justified criticism saying, “do I need to be a woman, and a lesbian to talk about love between women? We’re talking about love here…absolute, cosmic,” (Romney). While it is an improvement in queer visibility to have a three-hour film about a female queer couple, and have it so highly regarded, it’s at a disservice that it trivializes both lesbian relationships and self-identity.

Despite its absurd and unnecessary 179 minutes, I enjoyed Blue Is The Warmest Color. Some of the aesthetic direction was breathtaking and the acting phenomenal. But the issues are with the assumptions and misconceptions it perpetuates in bother gender and homosexuality/queerness. In efforts to normalize homosexual relationships, Kechiche objectifies two young, beautiful women and their bodies to make their relationship overtly sexual. While sexual exploration is an important part of youth, he exaggerates it in a way to discredit the seriousness and longevity of their relationship.

By Brie Roche-Lilliott

What Does a Lesbian Look Like? Analysis

In this video, Elizabeth Wilson discusses how lesbians dress has evolved from 1800s to present day and how this has affected their social standing. Wilson discusses how certain lesbian dress goes against norms set for women in society, such as wearing trousers in the 19th century and a lesbian couple who dressed in riding outfits as everyday attire. Women eventually had to give up trouser wearing (temporarily)  because of a lack of respect from men, but by the 1960s/’70s androgyny became a positive, erotic identity for lesbians.

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An Yves Saint Laurent design from the 1960s.

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The 19th century couple WIlson discusses in her video.