“I’m sorry Miss, but it is too early to order alcoholic drinks. You will have to wait until 10 am.” The passenger seated in front of me shakes her dyed blonde hair in mock amazement, responding to the polite flight attendant with a donkey-like “Hee Haw!” Her bray of forced laughter is repeated many times during the direct flight from Edmonton to Las Vegas. I find it rather annoying. “Well it’s my own fault,” I whisper to my partner, who is wisely equipped with noise cancelling head phones. “I am getting what I deserve for foolishly succumbing to the velvet-throated sales pitch of the Hilton Rewards promoter.” At 10:01 the eager blonde passenger shouts “Bring on the spicy caesars,” charging three expensive beverages to her credit card. Her lady friends obligingly gulp them down and immediately demand another round. They know the drill. For the next 48-72 hours, their designated role is to have fun—and to visibly demonstrate the having of that fun to the rest of the world. Then they will fly home, put on their pencil skirts, and head back to the mundane, soul-killing office jobs that they hate. Eventually, they will die.
During the next three days in Sin City, I run into these women again and again. “Look,” I say to my easy-going partner. “There is that same bachelorette party from the airplane. But now they are drunker and headed to the Thunder Down Under.” “No,” he corrects me, “that is a different group of women. One of them has brown hair. See?” But I don’t see. The 30 or so hen parties that we accidentally encounter during the long weekend are remarkably similar. Women in their late 20s or 30s with straight-ironed locks, heavy eye make-up, and strappy dresses loudly proclaim their presence. One typically wears a cheap crown and/or sash, leading the way onto the shuttle bus while clutching a tall Fat Tuesday’s daiquiri. The gaggle cutely produces a cry of “woot” every minute or so, as if following a script. I cannot help but feel a little left out, like the kid picked last for volleyball in gym class. Clearly, no one has bothered to send me the rule book of proper womanly misconduct. Perhaps I just need to watch Bridesmaids one more time?
“OMG FFG,” I imagine my readers thinking. “Lighten up bitch. Haven’t you heard of girls gone wild? And why did you go to Las Vegas anyway, to have intellectual encounters with learned book worms like yourself? Just slap on some lippy and hit The Strip like a normal person. Try a frozen pink lady drink and while you are at it put on some flip flops. Live a little.” Fair enough. What you advise makes perfect sense. After all, I accepted the essentially free offer to stay at the Hilton Grand Vacations Resort in order to relax, swim, and spend quality time with my witty man-companion. He was excited to play in a few side tourneys during the World Series of Poker and I chose the venue as a sacrifice for him, making the most of our upgraded “love tub” as well as the poolside area. I do not particularly like gambling, casinos, flashing lights, vapid stage shows, shiny things, or shopping. To be honest I fucking hate shopping, except when in fancy kitchen or grocery stores. But I enjoy travelling just about anywhere, even Calgary. And in the end Las Vegas did inspire me; it got me thinking about the gendered, class-specific, and racialized labour politics of this desert oasis, and of resorts in general.
Jello Biafra’s song “Shut Up, Be Happy” should be playing in the background of every Las Vegas venue, instead of Wilson Phillips. Here are some of its lyrics:
Use only the drugs prescribed by your boss or supervisor.
Shut up, be happy.
Obey all orders without question.
The comfort you’ve demanded is now mandatory.
At last everything is done for you.
Basically Las Vegas and other “exotic” resorts cultivate a sedated state of willing obedience, allowing their patrons to revel in comfort, briefly feeling like princes or princesses who are waited on hand and foot, in compensation for otherwise unsatisfying lives of wage labour and/or drudgery. Such zones of temporary “escape” are essential to the economy because they generate patterns of consumption and profit. More importantly, however, is the way in which they offer average people controlled experiences of naughty rebellion that ultimately enforce both conformity to expected gender roles and acquiescence to a system that has repeatedly disappointed them. No substantial life changes—such as leaving that dull job or mediocre relationship—are ever necessary. Stasis is ultimately achieved by repeated, regulated, and temporary holiday adventures.
The history of leisure is a fascinating one that dates from ancient times, but I think that nineteenth-century precedents are most relevant to this discussion. My arguments are summed up in a painting by Georges Seurat, now at the Chicago Art Institute. Best known for its pointilist style—the entire surface consists of small dots of primary colour which the eye combines to create a full palette—this large painting makes arguments about the proper forms of weekend behaviour during a period of expanding industrialization. La Grande Jatte was an artificial setting created near Paris to encourage lower and working-class people to spend their leisure time wisely. Not only should they recuperate from a long work week by relaxing in “nature,” alongside water and in the sunshine, but they should also imitate the habits of the well-dressed and rigidly constrained upper class people shown alongside them. However, such healthful imitation should take place only on Sunday, their day off. Other than that, they should shut the fuck up and get back to work. [Aside: So what did you do this weekend, adorable FFG readers? I saw Despicable Me 2 and wrote a pissy blog post].
The concept of leisure was an issue during the so-called Industrial Revolution, for wage labour had exacerbated the distinction between “working” and “not working.” Before that time the difference between the two activities was not always clear. During the early modern period, for example, many people lived and worked in the same setting, without set hours or time sheets. They often made products instead of selling their labour at an hourly wage. Once wage labour became commonplace, however, the category of “non-work” was a problem, especially for the upper classes and for employers (who were often one in the same group). After all, what would the disgruntled working classes do once they left their factories? Reaping little of the profits, these workers had no real stake in maintaining the status quo. Would they therefore cause mayhem, act in destructive ways, or (worst of all) foment revolutions meant to seize the means of production? One aristocratic response to such anxieties was the creation of enticing venues for spa-like relaxation and entertainment that would distract workers, while ensuring that they were rejuvenated enough to be productive during the rest of the week. By the late eighteenth century in Europe, wealthy reformers had funded public parks, libraries, and museums in the hopes of keeping the working classes on the straight and narrow. But even if some of those bad-ass workers insisted on drinking and partying instead of reading books, their behaviours were legally contained within regulated pub settings, with disobedient workers arrested for public intoxication or punished if they dared to “act out” at inappropriate times (ie during the work week or on non-holidays). The long weekend eventually became a permissive safety valve that kept everyone in line. Not much has changed.
Las Vegas is now the prime example of a recognized space of excessive indulgence and “bad behaviour” that is sanctioned and even enforced by social authorities. All resort locations function in this way, something I learned while visiting one for the first time last weekend. I paid for my accommodations at the Hilton in Las Vegas with my time rather than with money, agreeing to endure a two-hour sales pitch one morning. In the end, however, not enough Hilton representatives were available to give us the hard sell, and we were set free. After watching a ten-minute promotional video, my partner and I grabbed as many bags of free trail mix as we could carry and then ran giggling back to our suite. The film was actually kind of interesting, though, indicating that one could buy time shares in the Hilton Vacations properties, using them at any number of locations, including Mexico, southern France, and Rome. My privileged life became all too apparent when I realized that I had already travelled to all of the sites they advertised. Yet the promotional film was not addressed to me, for it relied on values and desires that I do not have. Firstly, it suggested that buying into the Hilton properties brought added value to popular locations because the resorts were standardized, offering the same high quality services and décor at each and every one of them. Secondly, the film pushed the concept of safety, and not just in terms of personal security. For the targeted viewer, safety clearly meant familiarity; it meant travelling without ever leaving their own homes, or departing from their comfort zones. I finally realized why some people would want to visit an artificial Paris while in Las Vegas. For them it is better, fulfilling their longing for sameness with only the slightest hint of difference. In contrast, I travel precisely to find uncertainty, get lost, learn new things, meet new people, and put myself in potential danger far outside the protective gates of a scripted resort.
Resorts are nevertheless contradictory spaces, for they must simultaneously appeal to the masses while suggesting an aura of exclusivity. Almost anyone can have access to a resort at some level, saving up their money for a vacation that is their due; after all, they work hard and deserve to feel special! Class distinction is thus potentially confused but also rigidly maintained within such settings by means of blatant hierarchical categories—consider the designations double diamond and elite—as well as by levels of service and luxury that necessarily increase with each new venue that is constructed. Racial hierarchies are also potentially undermined and reinforced in ways that I could not help but notice. The hallways and service areas of the Hilton Grand Vacations Club were filled with grateful, smiling servants, most of them non-white, especially the maids, butlers, doormen, and drivers. All the same, some people of colour were patrons, proving the truth of the American Dream in which everyone has a chance to pursue excessive consumption, overcoming the historical burden of racial difference through earning power and the economy, not political action. My temporary gated community was separated from the inferior spaces nearby, including the low-end Circus Circus casino and hotel, as well as the rather sad mobile home park in an adjacent parking lot. I openly admired the large Mexican families that walked over from these trailers carrying plastic bags full of pop and chips, waiting outside the gates of the Hilton’s pool until someone let them in. I always took pains to open the door, agreeing that they deserved to “live the high life” and grab their piece of the American pie. There is no harm in that, is there?
My efforts to create minor disruptions, to chat up the maids and waiters in order to understand what they thought of Las Vegas, how they lived there, and what they cared about were not very successful. A few of them expressed disdain for the culture of The Strip, claiming to avoid it like the plague. But in the end, I was just another privileged white lady who can go to resorts pretty much any time she likes. This privilege is part of the reason why I will never do so again.