Friday, September 17, 2004

As I walked around "Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile" at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I saw that I was not the only woman fascinated by these living symbols of Japanese cultural tradition and refined feminity. I spied other pretty, young women slowly wandering through the exhibit, alone in their contemplation of this alluring alternative world. I was immediately enthralled by the atmosphere of curious excitement as we each perused the beautiful art and read about the geisha way of life.

In my research, I found some intriguing parallels between the geisha and the dominatrix. The word geisha actually means "persons of art." Like dominas, they inhabit a secretive world on the fringes of society. They are entertainers for small, private gatherings and most of their clients are men. They are trained to excel artistically: at singing, dance, the playing of instruments, calligraphy and the art of conversation. They begin as apprentices, turning into full-fledged geishas once they have mastered the requisite skills and etiquette. They wear striking make-up, special kimonos and elaborate hairstyles unique to their profession. In fact, unlike the heavily layered gowns of courtesans of the Edo period (1615-1868), the geisha's kimonos were designed to allow for freedom of movement. In this way, the geisha was immediately identifiable as distinct from prostitutes as well as non-professional women.

Similarly, serious dominas also undertake years of ongoing training and typically are active seekers of experiences which broaden the depth of their knowledge. Traditionally, one would begin as an apprentice, switching or subbing to a mentor domme. Dominas undertake hours of practice with their various tools of pain and pleasure, often becoming reknowned in their mastery of a particular implement. A domme's fetish wardrobe -- with its edgy latex, vinyl and leather -- serves to differentiate them not only from conventional women but also from the soft and frilly fair more typical of vanilla escorts.

Geishas and inspired dommes spend a great deal of time refining their presentation, focusing on aesthetics such as the sound of their voice and the flow of their step. Many of the women in these paralell worlds consider themselves performance artists first and foremost.

And alas, both geishas and dominatrixes have been sorely misunderstood and maligned as women of ill repute. Though neither have sex with their clients, both have been misrepresented as prostitutes. For geishas, this mislabeling was largely due to the fact that when Japan first opened up to the West, untrained foreigners could not distinguish between the multilayered sashes and overgarments of courtesans and the more simplistic beauty of the geisha's kimonos. And certainly, a professional domina's need to advertise in venues alongside sensual masseuses and escorts can make the lines seem more blurry to the untrained eye.

On a sidenote, I read an article in issue 29 of WYWS While You Were Sleeping magazine about a freelance caucasian geisha in Japan. Her photos revealed a body adorned with tattoos and pierced nipples. Though quite a divergence from tradition, her look is apparently not an issue because geishas do not take off their kimonos. Interesting how this woman seems to represent a convergence of my geisha/dominatrix comparison.

Last tidbit - I heard Spielberg has optioned "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Me in Kimono-inspired Latex by Madam S.