Spaces of indulgence : desire, disgust, and the aesthetics of mass appeal
This dissertation examines the narratives surrounding spaces that represent a fantasy of democratized pleasure, power, and excess. In looking at the construction of the gentlemen’s club image, the promotion of Carnival cruise ships, and the discourse surrounding Red Lobster, this project explores the way different types of “indulgent” consumer spaces embody tensions between disgust and desire, and serve as examples of the way various anxieties and ideals are formulated and invoked as articulations of/contests over aesthetic meaning. By putting seemingly disparate types of consumer spaces into conversation with one another, this dissertation seeks to analyze underlying interconnections which would otherwise remain cordoned off in separate disciplines and within separate schools of thought. The upscaling of strip clubs into gentlemen’s clubs, beginning in the 1980s, reveals the methods by which so-called elements of disgust have been disguised, and in which aesthetic cues have been employed to minimize feelings of transgression and to bolster a sense of mainstream “normalcy.” Through downplaying elements seen as lower-class, gentlemen’s club owners have attempted to obscure cues of transgression in order to normalize zones of male power. The so-called downscaling of leisure cruising via Carnival Cruise Lines, from an elite option for the wealthy to a popular and growing mass-market vacation for all, demonstrates the desire for an aesthetic of fun and accessibility which meshes with late twentieth-century notions of Americanness as non-pretentious and playful. Carnival cruise ships embody an aesthetic of overflowing juxtaposition and freneticism which seeks to symbolically annihilate class differences and redistribute power. Lastly, the popular discourse surrounding Red Lobster and all-you-can-eat buffets reveals the way spaces of everyday life become fraught symbols of larger cultural tensions. Such narratives embody various concerns with and ideas about “middleness” and serve as barely concealed statements of disgust towards mass culture and abundance, and towards those who are perceived as somehow powerless. Overall, the tense relationship between desire and disgust that persists within American consumer culture reveals a conflicted relationship between access and excess, and demonstrates the way discussions of aesthetics reveal deep-seated views about class.