Cultural Influence: From WOW to Watts

Jake Martin

While reading chapter four in “Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers”, I begun to see how the “girls” of the WOW Café Theater were very much influenced by the scene of what was going on around them. In the 1980’s the East Village of Manhattan was being engulfed in an anarchist and rebellious movement, and the punk scene had also burst onto the city’s streets. The women of WOW at this time were embracing this new attitude, mainly directing their thoughts and frustrations towards the way they were being discriminated against for being lesbians and women in general. The next big question is whether or not people, or in WOW’s case, a group of people’s actions and views are influenced by where they are living, or a cultural movement that is taking place around them. For instance, chapter four describes the women of WOW’s outlook of “forget what everyone else thinks about us”, and how not only the WOW Theater will strive, but so will the women and talented actresses who keep it afloat by attending it’s weekly meetings. Women were not being treated equally, as lesbian bars throughout the East Village were being shut down, gay bars in the West Village stayed up and running. This made the women of the WOW Café Theater feel that enough is enough. whereas most people looked at the punk scene in the Village as a bad influence the WOW ladies turned it into a totally positive influence, where they could rebel but at the same time accomplish what they wanted to accomplish: proving to males that female performers could and will be independent and free of male criticism. Chapter four talks about the WOW women’s can-do attitude, which immediately made me think about a time in history when the people were also influenced by a new culture.

The Culture was the new black youth culture during the race wars in America. This event was called the Watts Riots, taking place in Los Angeles, California, in the borough of Watts in 1965, directly in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. These riots ensued because the younger generation of blacks in the Los Angeles/Watts area brought forth the idea of fighting back against the discrimination towards them from the LA Police and city officials. The years of this discrimination from the authorities and whites in general changed the mindset of the youths into one that was very violent and full of hatred. The youth culture did not want to just deal with the unfairness like their parents had done and told them to do. Their parents told them that they would not be able to end the discrimination no matter how hard they tried. To me this would have urged me to fight back more and make my willingness to strike back at the people putting me down even stronger. So the younger generation of blacks in this area made it their duty to show as many other blacks that with enough people the discrimination could be stopped and numbers would overcome the authorities that they disliked so much. The riots lasted six days and led to the destruction of the borough of Watts. Many people were injured and 34 died. The police opened fire on the rioters after they set fire to buildings and threw rocks. A large number of the youth rioters rebelled due to the unfairness of the police, and the inspiration of a group of young black kids who said that the people of Watts needed to stand up for them selves and fight back. This is a case in which influences around people helped them to prove a point, but at the same time turned out to be a horrible tragedy. The point of comparing the two make sense, because in both cases the people involved in the matters were influenced by the culture around them. In the case of the Watts Riots it was the voice of the black youth influencing all other blacks to stand up against police because they were being treated unfairly. As for the brave women of WOW, they embraced the punk scene of the East Village and ensured the principle that they were not inferior and women deserved the same rights as men. I finish with the question of whether or not anyone else has encountered a time where they were influenced by what was around them?

In expansion and answering my own question I have a personal experience of my own where I was influenced by the culture around me. Some cases of cultural or local influence on people can be something that is not wanted and in turn makes a person stray off of a straight path or make a situation turn ugly, like in the case of the 1965 Watts Riots. Although the youths influenced in this event were standing up for themselves and believed that violence and rebellion was what they need to gain freedom from prejudice and suppression, it turned out to be more of a dangerous influence than a good one. With a lot of the city destroyed and in ruins it turned out that while they might have got their point across but it was not worth the loss of life and the destruction only worsened their poverty stricken residential areas. As for the case of the WOW women the culture around them helped them develop their creation of the WOW Café Theater into a peaceful place where women performers could prosper, or rather have fun while doing what they loved to do without suppression from the male sex. Growing up starting from the age of about three I have always been surrounded by the sport of ice hockey, and by surrounded I mean engulfed. My grandfather was an avid hockey player throughout his lifetime and studied every aspect of the sport day and night, he lived hockey and I can remember sitting on his lap listening to how passionate he would get during every second of a game on television. My grandfather’s son (and my uncle) is a professional hockey player and has been since I was little, so when I talk about watching a game on television it was most likely one my uncle Mark was playing in. I wasn’t more than three and a half when my family first laced skates on my feet and I can remember going to skating lessons with my grandfather, uncle, and my mom, who is also crazy about hockey, twice a week. It is safe to say that because of the influence around me I knew more about hockey before I could read than most people will know in their lifetime. My entire family breathed hockey and when you are only a young kid what else do you do besides watch how your family acts and try to be like them; especially me, a boy coming from a family who practically breeds hockey players. This influence was extremely strong on my life due to the fact that because of the hockey culture of family and friends around me, I had every resource to strive in the sport. I received the top equipment from my uncle and the best advice for improving from my grandfather who also practiced with me everyday in the street in front of my house by playing goalie and teaching me the weaknesses of a goaltender to strengthen my skills as a shooter. I cannot thank my family and the friends enough who brought hockey into my life because now, as I am more mature and think back on the trouble and hardship I could have gotten into if I did not fill my schedule with hockey I cringe. Even as I got older and was in high school although I still had a good time I played travel and high school hockey, which also kept me out of trouble and involved with school activities. I took the positive influence around me and devoted a large portion of my life to it.

This bring me to my final topic of the fact that most of the time the people or surrounding you are being influenced by are not always doing it on purpose and in some cases they have no clue that they are influencing anyone else at all. In the case of the WOW women I don’t think the punk scene in the East Village was taking place to ensure that the women performers from this area gained that can do attitude and the notion that standing up to suppression was the “new thing”. I also do not think that the Los Angeles Police Department realized that how they were treating the blacks of Watts would cause the black youths of this section of the city to start uproar. Nor do I think my family deliberately wanted to get me into playing hockey for their own benefit or influence me for anything other than to see me happy and successful. They only influenced me by surrounding me with the love and happiness I saw them share with each other when around the game of hockey. By observing and learning what makes the people around you successful, joyful, and passionate, the influence inadvertently throws itself upon you.

punk rock community

The producers of the WOW cafe came to a crossroads when figuring out which move was the best: continuing to travel in the form of festivals around the city or settling down and becoming constant. Some enjoyed the unpredictable scene of the sporadic festivals, but reality hit and money became an issue. Volunteers will only be generous for so long and inconsistency is hard to swing when the population of the volunteers were employed at other institutions (paying institutions, specifically). They took advantage of New York City’s diversity and liberalism with the festivals, attracting feminists and homosexuals from all over the city to relate and find comfort. Community was what drug these people out of their homes and to the confines of these festivals, and what better way to feel this sense by making it stable? They already have the acceptance aspect, being among people of different races and orientations. The diversity was welcomed and the attendees found much comfort in that. With a common community and membership showing up to the events, the organization was also prevalent.

The East Village, with its rather diversified cultures, was the setting for much of the WOW Café’s events. Coincidentally, housing was practical so they were able to start stabilizing at a rental apartment. To add to the ironic fortune, the WOW Café was able to use drug problems and the radical punk rock music scene surrounding the village to their advantage. The alleged dangers of the Lower East Side brought much attention to the area in which the WOW Café performed. The punk-rockers were even invited to participate in the festivals. What a marketing technique! Their scene was very loyal, causing much of their audiences to follow them to different performances. This brought quite the numbers to the festivals. These performers were among the plenty radical artists that drug audiences in to the performances of the WOW Café.

The company used several techniques to keep the idea thriving. They used one venue for all of the different performances. While this is chaotic, the people participating and witnessing found a sense of harmony. The chaos was centralized, which in turn brought loyalty and community.
-Courtney Schenck