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.

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The “being-together of strangers”

Chapter 4
Feminist Space and a System of Anarchy: The Storefront

Chapter 4 starts out with WOW looking for a permanent home. They talk about their festivals and the impact it had on women. These women had formed their own “city” in the lower east side. The city life was described as the “being-together of strangers”. These women came from all walks of life, but join together to experience each other as other, different, different from groups, histories, professions, and cultures, as they are externally related. WOW opened its doors too everyone. One woman, Heidi Griffiths, was quite impressed, “I came from this feminist place where everything was very button-down, and here was a place where you could be whatever you wanted. You could be a butch or a femme or a straight woman who was married”.

A great part of WOW is their membership. Showing up is the basis on which its membership was and still is built. Before every performance, a WOW member would ask if there was anyone who would like to join. Participants come and go, but there are approximately thirty active women in the collective at a time. WOW exists to given women a chance to take charge of the creative and operational process of the theater. It is essentially a “band of women bound together by limited opportunities and committed to cooperative labor as the means of creating them”.

Though WOW created a safe haven for these women, it was not always so easy for them. Their bars were shut down, discriminating against lesbians and still keeping gay bars open. Even so, they were empowered to push past the stereotypes and move forward as a whole. One of WOWs core commitments was to be a place where women could work out the dynamics of agency through whatever means. They were each encouraged to become their own leader and develop their own voice.

Not everyone’s experience was the same at WOW. One woman, Madeleine Olnek, had her play withdrawn from the lineup because she had engaged a man to produce it. There was also Shulman, who had much worse to say about WOW. Calling it a psychological cult, she did not agree with WOWs ways. Over the years many women have had their difficulties with WOW, but ultimately they found the collective worthwhile enough to continue working there.

In my opinion, WOW is a wonderful way in which women from all backgrounds, color, race, and sexual orientation can come together. Some of them don’t have anywhere else to turn, and WOW makes it easy for them to be accepted and loved. WOW was and still is its own community. It is a safe haven for all women, and allows them to express themselves through the art of theater. “Performing both its costs and possibilities, WOW had worked and played its heart out in ways that have been both painful and hopeful over its three decades”.

Camilla Vaernes

“…but some of us are brave”

The Women’s One World café, also known as WOW, is a place for women to express their opinions on gender, race and most prominent, sexual orientation. This troop of women set up shows at the speed of light each night to entertain their followers and new comers. They want to spread their opinions and show their lifestyle as a beautiful thing and not something that to this day is looked down upon.

I found it funny that they compared the WOW café to a carnival. From the very beginning it seemed just that. Most people go to carnivals for the attractions but mostly for the interesting people. This is exactly why most people come to the performances at the WOW café. They come to see the performers and watch in awe as they enlighten their audience on a subject uncomfortable to most.

Not only is it like a carnival to the audience but it is also a carnival to the performers. Backstage is a chaotic mess that miraculously seems to work for them. They move around often and make new rules on the fly. Most companies would never survive in that working environment but for some reason that’s the only way this company will continue with its success.

I really enjoyed the book title on page 92 that’s says, “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.” It then goes on to state “the urge for unity, wholeness, and belonging that community denotes underpins various forms of racial, ethnic, and economic chauvinism and segregation. Community and homogeneity, then, are two of the same coin. “ This quote is very important to our class because it touches on the struggles of inequality of women and their standings in the community, how different ethnicities have to fight to fit into society and how class is predetermined so people are predestined to stay in a certain social class.

-Emily Jordan

“a city of women”

“I’m spending my days and nights in a city of women,” wrote Barbara Baracks of the Village Voice. From the start of the WOW Cafes home in the East Village, it was more than just a theater. It was a community for woman of all walks of life. It is interesting to read about how woman were “spilling into the streets” and how the area was ‘like the town square of a blossoming lesbian village.” It’s incredible to imagine what this must have been like for women of the time searching for a place to call their home.

The crowds of woman at the WOW Cafe were extremely diverse. There were “middle-class women from the Midwest, working class New Yorkers, straight women, butches, femmes,” etc. What’s amazing about this is that no one was judged. Everybody was there experiencing the same thing and getting what they wanted out of it.

The WOW Cafe is truly a unique place being that it is run by nobody in particular. By helping each other out with shows and taking care of business at the storefront, the theater has stayed alive. Although there have been failures, it’s inspiring to read about the success that these woman achieved through much hard work.

“What I thought I was doing was falling in love,” wrote Holly Hughes. While some of the women at these productions weren’t even lesbians, most of them were having sex with each other. This was very radical in the 80’s. It was an “erotically charged atmosphere.” WOW has always been about theater, but due to the women bee free-spirited, there were much sexual acts going on as well. By having the doors open to anyone who wishes to come, the WOW theater has created a community and an experience for people of all walks of life.

A System of Anarchy and Acceptence

“WOW is a thirty-woman collective with no one in charge. More than a theater company, it’s a community. If you’re just interested in putting up a show, WOW may not be for you. Here you have to care about the collective.”

-Lisa Kron, 1990

The WOW theatre is a very progressive space, not only in the people who inhabit it, but the way it is run. WOW believes in a system of anarchy, where the only rule is to not follow the rules. Putting this belief in an average societal town may lead to chaos, but that is exactly the kind of effect that WOW hopes for. The definition of unorganized chaos. I think that this is a brilliant way to construct a small creative community of people. It promotes diversity and celebrates what some may consider as taboo. It also allows people to be as creative as they want to be at any given moment, which leads to better works of art and a happier work environment. You were pretty much free to be, at a time when women were told to follow orders and be submissive. That is what attracted a lot of women to the WOW theatre. They could come to meetings on Tuesday nights and be apart of something extremely unique. Although it was not always a jovial or healthy environment, it was always dynamic. You felt included under any circumstance and were treated as an important member of their small community.

WOW was not like any other feminist organization at the time. It was liberal in a time of narrow-mindedness. It allowed women of all ends of the spectrum to join in and did not discriminate for what they were or were not. The theatre and casting director, Heidi Griffiths, sums up the accepting brand of the WOW when she says “I came from this feminist palace where everything was very button-down, and here was a place where you could be whatever you wanted. You could be a butch or a femme or a straight woman who was married.” WOW was a place unlike any other in New York, or in America for that matter, and was an ideal place for women who wanted to celebrate difference in themselves and acceptance through the WOW community.