Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Technically Speaking

Or, East meets West in another cultural head-butt.

I posted a comment on Leesa’s blog awhile back which Prata found not to his liking. I think he objected to the statement itself, while I was focused more on the use of the language. I started to discuss the matter with him, but then I realized I could cheat and get a quick post out of the situation, so here I go. I’ll start with the full quote, which is from Roger Ebert’s review of Memoirs of a Geisha:

“I know, a geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is ‘not technically a prostitute’ is a prostitute. As dear old Henry Togna, proprietor of the Eyrie Mansion in London, used to cackle while describing to me his friend the Duchess of Duke Street, ’Sex for cash, m'dear. That's my definition.’"

I have to agree with his assessment that anyone who argues that they’re technically not something is in fact that very thing in every way that matters and is playing that most American of games, “Let’s ignore the point and quibble over the label instead.” It’s like those bizarre twists of corporate logic wherein they give a person a longer title in lieu of a raise. “Technically, I’m not an accountant. I’m a Fiduciary Engineer.” To me, whenever I hear a statement prefaced with the word “technically”, I immediately think “whatever follows is going to be a load of BS.” I’ve heard strippers make the claim “I’m not a stripper – I’m a dancer.” They should have used the word “technically” so I could immediately identify their statement as crap instead of later when I discovered their professional dancing involved a runway with a metal pole and a g-string.

So here’s the problem – to the best of my limited understanding, a geisha actually isn’t a prostitute, by which I mean their job does not involve an exchange of sex and money. Notice I didn’t need the word “technically”. From what I’ve read, geishas are girls and women trained in the arts of dance, music, and light conversation and are professional entertainers. True, they are mostly used to entertain men, but I don’t think the entertainment involves any sexual favors. Anybody who knows more than I do about the subject, please leave a comment. And that means leave a comment if you actually know what you’re talking about. Don’t bother me with anything you’ve seen in an American WWII movie. I already know the Western conception of the geisha – flowery silk kimono, hair piled on top of her head and held in check by some oversized knitting needles, pasty white makeup straight from the kabuki theatre and, yes, a glorified prostitute.

Roger Ebert claims to know some of the Japanese culture based on authentic Japanese movies (of which, Memoirs is not one – looking for J-culture in this movie is like discussing military tactics with Captain Kangaroo), but he doesn’t know they aren’t prostitutes. I blame their defenders more than his ignorance. When some fecking uptight Americans started claiming the whole movie just venerated prostitution, the people defending the geisha invariable made statements including some variant of the phrase “Technically, a geisha is not a prostitute.” Technically, I’m not a prostitute – I’m a database administrator. Defending the geisha in that way is tantamount to defending me to the people who think I’m an idiot by saying “Technically, Grant’s not an idiot. He’s merely stupid.”

With friends like that, the geishas don’t need enemies. As it happens, I would be more than happy to defend and take care of any who have need of a big, strong, dumb redneck.

Damn. Now I wish they were prostitutes.


GirlGoyle said...

If you were a cannibal, what would you wear to dinner?
A tux made from human skin and entrails....you one of those guys...puts the lotion in the buck'et?!

What was your initial questions on the Geisha? I can't even begin to answer in an educated manner. I watched memoirs in hope of understanding the concept better (and avoid reading the book cuz i have no time) and came to the conclusion that they are a high class and well educated hookers. Sooo....sorry I can't help.

Seven said...

I agree completely on the 'technical' discussion.
Try adding my 2 favorite 'watch-out' phrases together:
"Technically speaking, let me be completely honest with you."

As far as Geishas, I have noticed that they never interface with my life, so I guess I just don't care. Technically speaking anyway. And also just to be completely honest with you about it.
Which of course leaves no room for being incompletely honest.

PBS said...

I've read that book "Memoirs of a Geisha" but not seen the movie. The book was interesting. Technically I'm not slave labor here...

Kira said...

I think we need to all chip in and sponsor a geisha for Grant and see what happens. Then we'd know.

Prata said...

You know, the idea of geisha being prostitutes stems I think from american sailors (to a greater or lesser degree) who met prostitutes which dressed similarly to geisha. A geisha has her obi tied in the back, and in the height of their culture and in the waning of their culture (present) wear a traditional hair style that is unique to them (the same way that the hakama of the samurai were unique to them, which by the way the hakama are from the cavalry soldiers who wore hakama to keep branches and what not from tearing their legs up while riding)
Prostitutes whom the soldiers met with dressed in a similar manner and some even wore paling make-up, but this is because japanese culture was very persistent about paler skin being more beautiful. Prostitutes tie their obi in the front and typically were more ornate. Geisha were not nearly as colored or ornate as prostitutes. Geisha == refined, prostitute == sexual entertainment. Maiko however, bear more colors and ornate head dressings like clips and pins and what not.

Memoirs of a Geisha the movie, as Grant, you point out and I agree with entirely, is not a place to be looking for historicaly accurate and truthful information about j-culture and the geisha lifestyle.

Girls that were sold into slavery were not geisha, they were either servants or prostitutes.

Geisha are not and never have been prostitutes.

And no I wasn't enraged man! It's a very interesting discussion, even though you cheated and made a post about it lol

BBB_0202020 said...

i liked the memoirs of a geisha, and im still not sure if they were prostitutes...ummm interestng

patti_cake said...

I know nothing of geisha's so cannot add to this oh-so-cranial-challenging post

SJ said...

There's only one way to find out if they exchange sex for money. Got any tickets to Japan that you can spare?

Grant said...

girlgoyle - initially I used the Roger Ebert quote to raise the question of our use of language, that "technically" is a red flag. This post came because others didn't like Ebert classifying them as prostitutes when they don't exchange sex for money - that's just a Western misconception. I think Memoirs (the movie) paints them as high class hookers, but I've heard that movie doesn't reflect reality or history but rather Western stereotypes.

rick - I had to train myself to quit saying "Honestly" because I learned so many took it as a flag that I was lying, even though I used it in a manner that made it interchangeable with "I tells ya." As in "Honestly, the world will soon be overrun by Giant Atomic Chickens in accordance with Satanic prophecy."

pbs - from what I've read about your job, you can drop the "technically".

kira - I like your thinking. Actually, if you can locate the right woman for me, I'll foot the bill.

prata - thanks. I had read that some geisha were sold into the practice pre-WWII, but that child-selling was abolished, at least to legitimate organizations. Also of interest, I've read the modern geishas have organized and formed unions. There's a picket line I'd like to see (and snuggle with).
BTW, the waitresses at Umezono tie their thingy in the back, so can I treat them as geisha? Which I guess means I shouldn't offer them money in exchange for sex. Looks like I've been overtipping.

tigerkiss - I think the movie painted them as high class prostitutes in a culture where they were esteemed, but the movie is prettier than it is accurate.

patti_cake - your homework assignment is to find a geisha and ask her, and also get me her phone number and/or e-mail address.

sj - rather than fly that far, I think I'll just proposition the waitresses at Umezono. Keep an ear open for the Face Slap Heard 'Round the World.

Tracy Lynn said...

Being a geisha requires years of training and apprenticeship.
And because of the confusion of soldiers after WWII, they became synonymous with hookers.

You should actually read the book, it's quite good. Not as flamboyantly wrong as the movie, and with much to recommend it.

I learned about them from a TV show on the history of Geisha, I can't remember the name now. Plus there was one Western geisha, a woman from America who trained in the arts in the 70's, I think.

Angie said...

I always wondered about Geisha v. prostitute...so I looked it up. They don't shag their customers but they can if they want to as long as they don't do it in the context of being a Geisha. I'm still confused.

I think you're just going to have to gain first hand knowledge...and report back.

Anonymous said...

you're so funnny you make me laugh...

this kind of argument arises with anything based on a foreign culture.

Ignorant and uptight people protest with the wrong ideas. Even more ignorant people - though maybe less uptight - defend with the wrong words.

Neither party really know what they are talking about - and end up squabbling over words instead of issues...

what are we reduced to?

Eternity said...

I had a comment in mind, but then lost it by the time I finished reading the others.

Ayako said...

A few centuries ago, you can distinguish a Geisha and a prostitute from the way that their Kimono's tied. A Geisha will have her Kimono tied in the proper way with the Obi knotted at the back and formally, while a prostitute's one will be backwards with the knot at the front (go figure). There were also differences in the hair styles and the various ornaments that they were allowed to have in their hair to enable that distinction even more. =)

SJ said...

I think Geishas must have come in all shades and types. There must have been the few "high-class" geishas with clientele that included some of teh richest men in Japan. There must have been a few not so lucky or not so talented geishas geisha wannabes who were just prostitutes.

annush said...

YOu know, two years ago my family took a little field trip to Japan and I remember that one of my brothers was hell bent on finding a Geisha so he could ask her that very same question: are you, or are you not a prostitute? Eventually they had the chance to find one and after a $1500 diner bill he had neither an answer nor did he get sex out of it. Quite unfortunate.

Avitable said...

I would compare a geisha with a high-class escort. Someone whose role is to entertain and be company for someone who will be paying a lot of money. Sex is not part of the equation except in a few situations.

Is an escort "technically" a prostitute? Well, they're not performing sexual services for money. They're performing social services to please one person for money.

patti_cake said...

If the geisha ties her obi in the back and a prostitute ties hers in front, must be for "easy access" that little contribution was entirely unhelpful wasn't it? :(

Prata said...

Technically...I'm not an idiot...go figure!
And yes my man, you've been overtipping, I know a couple of girls that you could tip fairly lightly and they'd be happy to serve.

Of course technically they aren't hookers, it's called dating these days and they are rather fun to be around. They aren't japanese though. Mostly vietnamese and chinese. ^_^

Which brings me to my next question. Isn't dating a form of prostitution?

Grant said...

tracy lynn - I'll check out the book. Thanks.

angie - I think we've decided that geisha does not equal prostitute, but I think a little first hand experience with both is called for.

fatty - reminds me of the protest Avitable posted about today. Wealthy, spoiled American college students eagerly protested Coca Cola claiming them responsible for people killed by guerillas in another country, although they couldn't say why Coke was at fault.

eternity - curse those others for discombobulating you. :p

ayako - I definitely need to go to Japan to see for myself.

sj - as I understand it, geishas had to possess a certain beauty and grace to be allowed into the training. Some probably washed out and became prostitutes.

annush - I think if he paid $1,500 and got no sex, that's your answer.

avitable - some escorts are prostitutes as they use the service to find clients for their real profession, but I think your comparison of geisha to non-hooking escorts is probably correct, although I get the impression that geisha are more for home / restaurant / bar entertainment than going out to shows and stuff.

patti_cake - actually, I thought the exact same thing. :)

prata - that's why I've never had a problem with prostitution. I'm going to pay for the sex one way or another, be it cash, drinks and dinner, my soul and dignity, etc.

hellbunny said...

I don't know much about geishas and ive never seen the movie or read the book.I was under the impression they were high class prostitutes but i might be wrong.

ManNMotion said...

Who is Roger Ebert?

Grant said...

hellbunny - it's a common Western misconception, not limited to just the US or North America. I understand the Europeans make the same mistake.

mannmotion - he's a movie critic, the fat half of the former Siskel & Ebert (as opposed to Siskel, the deceased half). He's now partnered with Roeper (Ebert & Roeper - he gets top billing now).

Ayako said...

Grant: I don't think modern day pros wear Kimonos on the job anymore..o_O hehe...

Kerry said...

I want a kimono, but Im worried now i would tie the obi in the wrong place and create an embarrassing situation for myself..sigh.

Liz said...

Reminds me of the phrase “I don’t mean to be rude, BUT” Which always means you are indeed about to be rude. Another favorite of mine is “I’m just saying” added to any statement. It apparently disqualifies all liability. Example:

Grant, maybe you should revisit the yellow fever topic again, I’m just saying.

Grant said...

ayako - bummer. I like the kimonos.

kerry - try one out and if people start offering you money for sex, you'll know to move the knot (unless the pay is better than your current job).

liz - that reminds me of people who start a sentence with "Okay, what's the nicest way I can put this?" They've already failed by that point.