Here’s a world that’s hard to describe. Possibly the only postmodern non-patriarchal city-state on Earth besides Cristiania, Black Rock City is built and run by women and men. If not in race, at least in gender, BRC seems, to this writer at least, as equal a place on Earth as anywhere that’s ever been.
The American sense of freedom (and freedom to complain) lies at the heart of Burning Man. Sure, when the gates open, some media outlets gravitate toward boobs, painted boobs, and sparkly boobs — making BRC look like a giant strip club to the dude-bro Youtubing us from the flyover states. Fact tho: Everyone’s mostly naked because it’s hot, and because we can be.
In real life, people run this place. Women and men. Burning Man would be nonexistent without the Cacophony Society and its predecessor the Suicide Club, both of which were founded by an equal number of men and women. Burning Man’s LLC has always been equal gender-wise as well. The women have insisted on it.
When a majority of the population doesn’t feel powerless in some way, systems can thrive. There’s a larger rant about patriarchy, monotheism, capitalism, and two-party-system-government’s controlled effect of subjugation here, and/or the steady pressure of negative realism meant to demoralize the masses into feeling too powerless to take any action for change … but we’ll spare you it. However, the point can be corseted into this: Imbalanced power relationships keep capitalism humming at the expense of the user, while collaboration breeds respect, community, and anarchy (the good kind).
Women run the top echelons of Burning Man, along with the men. It’s a slight majority, even. That may be why this event is such a modern touchstone; a cultural breath of fresh air; something nobody can pin down but everybody likes to complain about and tear apart.
What’s more, so many people, justices, and injustices go into this dirt-rave production and its worldwide yearlong tentacles, we’ve collectively found the patriarchal idea of ‘leader’ or ‘figurehead’ to be outdated. We prefer leaderless, radical interdependence, and for our IRL bosses, we just defer to their individual ability, thanks. Lattices of benevolent dictators and dictatrices are welcome if they’re nice.
Through the decades (especially in the early times) there have been disagreements, unfairnesses, and creeper things that happened around us in the DPW, but at a fraction of the percentage they occur in the default world. Most DPW women will tell you nobody has ever taken the tool out of our hand. Mansplaining is socially illegal and, in the rare event it arises, it’s hilariously rebutted before spectators.
This change was so imperceptible over time, it took this writer 18 years of DPW life to even realize that’s what’s so refreshing about working out here. These men building Black Rock City, the men who respect women as equals and don’t try to vibe them off the forklift … they are the sexiest men alive.
Things haven’t always been so equal-feeling. In the earlier, grittier days of the DPW, our crew wasn’t only patriarchally-based — it was a slap-up sausage fest. Fledgling DPW women like this writer just happen to be attracted to traditionally dude-ish things like explosions, construction, heavy machinery, people with weapons and apocalypse skills, and a full-contact sovereignty lifestyle.
Over time, Burning Man’s traditionally most macho department has become a beacon for multitalented, alpha-level, overly-skilled women and the protective-fixer-type dudes who love them. Like moths to a blowtorch, seemingly every badass woman on the West Coast with a bent for — or proficient in — explosions, construction, and heavy machinery came a-runnin’.
Now, except for a male-dominated DPW council which is in turn run by a woman, we’re just about even-steven in representation. The old-world patriarchal types all went away or learned quick.
Some of them are still learning quick. If they enter our culture all sexist and old-world, commenting or ogling and elbowing barroom-style or chimping out like betas do, we try to let them figure it out for a couple tries before they have to pack up and skedaddle.
Describing the supported lack of patriarchy in the everyday functioning of a major event’s setup and strike is hard. Gorgeous women and men populate forklifts and kitchen equipment, none above the other, all working in an atmosphere of equality.
“I can say that of all the jobs I’ve ever had,” says StAbby (sign shop, line sweeps boss), “in this one I’ve felt the most empowered, been given the most responsibility, and been entrusted more than anywhere. They’ve put a series of failsafes in place that if anything f’d up starts to happen … I feel no matter what happens it could quite easily be taken care of. You’re given a lot of chances here. Most people make adjustments.”
Disrespect based on gender isn’t tolerated. Neither is sexual harassment, unless it’s a joke between friends, and then it’s pretty much the norm. Just like when you call someone “baby,” it’s all about the tone and context.
“I like being able to sexually harass men here the way they do me in the real world,” says Relay. “I hoot and holler and I like it and so do they.”
“I see just as many men as women in short skirts and booty shorts,” adds Two Cents. “I like that.”
As this writer is fond of saying, BRC is the only city on Earth where we, as women, could theoretically walk around naked, at night, by ourselves and feel reasonably certain nothing too bad would happen to us. Sure, don’t drink from any strange glasses, and maybe wear a knife on a string if you’re going to be nude all night, but you get our meaning. The default world is so bogged down in uneven power relationships based on the subjugation of women, nobody gets to do anything like that out in commodification-world.
There’s also DPW’s now-dissipated tradition of Ladies’ Night, which is too strange to try to explain again. It’s a mostly-dead party which pops up now and then secretly, but the larger point was, these men are confident enough to bend to the ladies’ will to wear dresses and makeup and look fiyah doing it.
It seems in Black Rock City we’re proving that leaderless society is a natural result of equality. Or vice versa maybe. The hugest power imbalance of all, consistently throughout human history, is between women and men. Out in this T.A.Z. experiment, there’s no deference to a boss, merely submitting to another peer’s expertise and agency. Few are the underhanded power-plays that aren’t immediately broadcast through the grapevine at DPW’s home bar.
Your word is everything out here, plus your character and integrity — not your might, your wealth, your physical assets, or your ability to manipulate or bully. Our world isn’t perfect, but underneath all the LEDs and explosions, Black Rock City is the most sane and balanced (and balancing) place many of us have ever experienced.
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