BGD interviews: Stevie Wonderland
We had a chat with Arun Malhotra, promoter of one of London’s biggest disco nights ‘Stevie Wonderland’, to discuss gender, sexuality and identity in the clubbing scene.
What is Stevie Wonderland?
Stevie Wonderland is a celebration of all things disco – the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, the dancers, the divas and the all music that went with it. We invite our favourite DJs from across the globe to come down and play their favourite disco, boogie, soul, formative house and everything in between.
We do about 10-15 of our own parties in various different venues, mainly across London, and also work with festivals and partner up with other parties. The parties can range from intimate 250 people capacity nights to warehouse parties with more than 1500 people and on a given night we can have anywhere from 1 DJ playing for 8hrs straight to 15+ DJs spread over 4 rooms.
And if you had to recommend a song for someone to listen to whilst reading this interview on gender, sexuality and identity, what would it be?
SYLVESTER – You Make Me Feel (Mighty real)
Not only is it a bona fide disco anthem, the artist Sylvester was a pioneer for the gay & gender fluid communities at a time when almost no one else in the music industry was openly gay and before terms like gender queer or non-binary even existed. He was out and about, shaking it in people’s faces.
Are there any headline observations on gender, sexuality and identity in the clubbing scene?
The underground clubbing scene was always a safe space for people on the fringes of society, whether that was homosexuals, African Americans and Latinos in 70’s New York and more. Disco music in particular has a very interesting history and has always catered to mixed sexualities, gender expressions, ethnicities and social classes. But mainstream nightlife in general definitely still conforms to gender stereotypes.
For instance, there are places like ‘Tiger Tiger’ or ‘Mahiki’ where the traditional, binary gender roles are still in full swing. Women might get in free, they might be expected to dress and behave a certain way. They are treated like a treasure and therefore objectified. The guys mindset is to then try and chat them up buy them drinks and so on. It’s the way people are used to behaving.
I would say that’s not as prevalent in our corner of club land. Especially in the way people dress and the way people act, there is a lot more gender blurring. People come for the music, they know it’s going to get hot and sweaty, so we don’t often get people wearing high heels for instance.
Disco has it’s roots firmly planted in queer culture and although we are not an underground party like the scene was back when people dressed radically and it was a hotbed for creative expression, but there is a lot less pressure at our parties to dress or behave in a certain way.
Are there any gender specific issues in clubs?
In one-way or another, gender has a big effect on an individual’s experiences within the club scene. For a start, clubs are a real hotspot of male privilege and men have always had it pretty easy. Due to human biology/inadequately designed toilets, urinal queues are nearly always non existent but queues for the girls bathroom can often stretch way outside the toilets and in a busy club it’s not unusual for a female to have to queue for 15+ minutes whereas a man can be in and out in under a minute. If I had to queue for 15 minutes every time I needed the toilet it would definitely affect my overall experience.
A much more serious issue is that in a dark, loud club, full of alcohol, lots of men think they can get away with inappropriate groping. Female friends still often complain about it, which you would think or hope shouldn’t really still be happening in 2018, but it does. The constant hassle from men trying to proposition them or chat them up is tiring at best and at worst can border on traumatic. Females have to deal with a lot.
What about gender specific issues in relation to the music?
From a promoter’s side, we are very aware of our responsibility to try and have an equal representation of artists on our lineups. It’s something we struggled with for the first few years, as being a disco night a lot of the artist we booked were older heritage disco DJ’s from bygone era’s like the 70’s and those guys were all men. It took a little while for us to realize that we have to do something about that and look a little further afield and outside the box in terms of our programming so that we could offer a more diverse line-up, which isn’t always easy but is something we feel is our responsibility. As promoters, we have a platform and can help to build the profile of female artists and minority artists. Aside from that, it is good for the energy of the crowd and the vibe all night to have a good representation. People want diversity.
In certain other scenes, like house and techno, there seems to be a lot more up and coming and bigger female DJ’s. Other promoters tell me that they can sometimes use the fact that they are women to request a bigger fee as they know they are in short supply and high demand. And whilst on the face of it that is good for the female DJ’s, it can also be a barrier to booking them.
Are there any clear differences in buying behavior among genders in the club?
Well, we don’t know how the money spent at the bar is split between male and female. That’s just not data that we are able to collect. But as I said, there is still an idea held by some people that men should buy women drinks, particularly as part of the courtship process. That’s more of an observation, rather than a fact. But I can tell you that we get a breakdown of ticket sales… for instance at our last party, 43% of pre sales were Male, 37% were Female and the remaining 20% chose to be ‘unspecified’. Now I don’t necessarily think that is because they don’t want to be identified as a certain gender, I think it is more that they don’t want to give away their data needlessly, but I can’t be sure.
What is your experience of the LGBT+ community in the club scene?
As I mentioned before, the underground clubbing scene has always been a safe space for people. And there are well-known LGBT specific nights such as ‘Sink the Pink’ and clubs like ‘Heaven’. But we have booked drag artists to perform live during our shows before. Which on the whole has usually gone down well but there have also been some negative experiences. We did a collaboration with another promoter a few years ago and we pushed to have drag artists performing on the stage. As the night went on, the artists started to get a little excited shall we say, they didn’t do anything outrageous, but were being slightly over the top and exaggerated whilst dancing with each other. The other promoters were appalled by it and felt like they were putting off the crowd, whereas I thought it was all in good fun and made quite a good stage show. In the end, I had to ask them to tone it down to appease the other promoters but I wished I hadn’t. I’m sure their reaction would have been very different if it was two females dancing together, which you do still see in places, but I guess it still splits opinion.