“No, it’s hard trying to be a feminist while working as a bar lady.”
“No way, you’re just being used as entertainment behind the bar.”
“It’s just about your ability to separate your work from your beliefs.”
This is an interesting question. I stumbled across an article on New York Times by Brittany Bronson titled Can You Be a Waitress and a Feminist when I began my first long-term job as a bar lady in a local members-only club.
I had already tried the restaurant industry at a little deli in the town, but never returned for another shift after I poured a beer wrong (which is apparently worth being yelled at) and after having to balance four plates on my hands and forearms for 3 hours without spilling a drip of water from it. I quickly decided I wasn’t a circus balancing act and kissed waitressing goodbye with the dust from my back heels.
Money was dawdling into my wallet like tortoises and running out like hares. Bartending had always intimidated me as I had no idea what the difference between brandy and whisky was, or how to pour a beer right (as the waitressing experience showed me). But after hearing about the members club and being suggested by a friend, I was sold on the funny reason of them predominantly being Afrikaans. From not having my Afrikaans familiarity around me, or anyone to speak the language with, I was eager to work in this space and not only practice the language, but share the space of the culture.
Regular customers soon became like family; kind Oupa’s, drunk uncles, mischievous cousins; it was a male clubhouse and I felt like the lucky one who got to have a sneak peek inside sharing a beer and biltong. But with anything that becomes too familiar, guards and boundaries loose form and shape.
As regular customers became more like friends and family, and over-friendliness compensated the familiarity, jokes begin manifesting as ‘part of the gang’ humour:
“Don’t hold those bottles so close to your chest, you’re hurting the vitals.”
“Don’t be a bitch.”
“Give me a hug, give me a hug.”
“With a body like that…”
Can you be a feminist and a bartender? In a space where only females are allowed to work, and only men allowed to come in, is a sexist, unequal environment not already created?
Johnny Cash is playing in the background, brandy and cokes and quartz sit on the counter like a labyrinth. 5pm and the men are off work; electricians, mechanics, plumbers, lawyers, policemen, business owners, caterers. The diversity of personalities and contexts create a myriad of different encounters in the restaurant and bar industries. Some good, some bad.
As students mostly fill the waitressing and bartending jobs in Grahamstown, needing the money and working for low wages, the tip power dynamic is increasingly becoming the channel of superiority, and putting customers in a dangerous position of power over an economically and financially vulnerable individual, usually a woman – as they are more often hired for the job.
Danielle Durandt, an Honours Philosophy student and working in the service industry since 16 explains, “The way I choose to present myself in my capacity as a bartender is in no way whatsoever related to the way people are allowed to interact with me… I’m taking your small change because opening bottles and giving you alcohol is part of my job, and no matter how much money you give me, you’re not entitled to make any comments or assumptions about my appearance and the way I choose to present myself.”
The Protection from Harassment Act 17 does constitutionally protect people who experience harassment in the workplace, but many servers are beginning to take it in their own hands as empowerment to turn the tables on a patriarchal paradigm.
“Instead, engaging in the issue [feminism] with customers behind the bar and opening up their mind to seeing that as bartenders there is more to us than just ornamentation, I think we can be both feminist and bartender,” says Chloe Laubscher Jager, HKE Masters student.
As individuals take control of dynamics in this industry, a different interaction in the space is created. Durandt says,” I was propositioned first by a customer at 17, and have been dependent on male supervisors, managers and friends ever since to ‘rescue’ me in cases of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior… I’m tired of it. As a bartender, I’m learning to stand up for myself as never before. And while there’s rarely a night that I’m not made to feel uncomfortable at some point, I’ve never before been able to tell a man three times the size of myself that he’s an asshole until now… Being a bartender is one of the most feminist things I have ever done.”