CES holds itself out as a showcase of human innovation’s pinnacle, which is why it’s so funny that it occurs in Las Vegas, a place by and for the stupid. For one week every year, the vision of self-anointed genius is unleashed on a town that looks like it was built by a class of emperors who went insane in different but related ways. The jangling, blinking hotel lobbies are anthills of shame and achievement. What happens here either stays here or changes the entire world, maybe.
This town will not let you forget that it is for fun. I can’t find a book available for purchase anywhere in my hotel, although I’ve heard there’s a rare bookstore in The Venetian. My hotel room doesn’t have a desk, but it does have a leather couch that probably gets fucked on a lot, and several full-length mirrors, and a portrait of Elvis that’s all in black and white except for his mouth, which is red.
There’s no time to read, anyway, because if the ads on the taxi TVs and billboards and local media are to be believed, this town is constantly about 5 minutes from erupting into a full-on orgy. Not only is this town for fun, it’s for men. Ad Vegas is a world where every club and casino floor and bar and pool party is full of 25-year-old drunk girls who are having the time of their lives. They’re dancing in groups of two or three, sometimes even up to five. They’re thin, but miraculously have two perfect lumps of fat distributed exclusively on their chests. They have the same eye makeup and bee-stung lips. They’re white, but “exotic” white, like Armenian or Italian. It seems like they probably are wearing the same bra. Their smiles and asses are buoyant, their eyelashes glued on. They’re hot enough to be strippers, but they’re not. The ones who are strippers are really into you. Really! They have the same long thick hair, flipped to one side in a carefree manner. There are no bobs in Ad Vegas. Only boobs.
Real life is a little different.
Being a female visitor to Las Vegas must be strange enough during a regular week. During CES week, it’s otherworldly. When I boarded my plane in Phoenix, I gazed upon the majestic sight of the same page of the LL Bean catalog ripped out and placed in every seat. White man, button down, black puffy vest. They were all on their phones, and only noticed me when it turned out that I didn’t have anybody sitting on either side of me. A man sitting in the middle seat in another aisle asked if he could move into one of the empty seats. She doesn’t have to share her row! Unfair!
It’s strange how quickly one gets used to feeling like an endangered species. Right now, I’m in a cafe with about a dozen or so other people. There’s one other woman. This only registered when it occurred to me to think about it. It seems The Men have ditched their puffy vests for identical dark blazers. Innovators and disruptors sure do like to dress alike.
Last night, I spent a few hours shuffling up and down the aisles of another innovation showcase called PepCom. It was a tailgate-themed event, you know, because this whole thing is for men and it hasn’t made that point clear enough. Models dressed like cheerleaders displayed impressive facial muscle stamina as they stood there grinning for hours next to free chocolate bars and football-shaped erasers. Tables were spread with food one might eat at a tailgate. They have beer, but it’s trash beer. I can’t believe more of these manly men aren’t complaining about it. The cheerleaders looked like the women in the Vegas ads, the ones who want you to take a shot with them. An animated football would intermittently spiral across the expansive walls. All I could think about was how few of the people in attendance could likely throw a spiral, or execute a tackle, or explain to me what the secondary is. And yet, here they are, enjoying the spoils of having participated in sports without ever having to break a sweat.
I stopped in front of a booth hawking a new Virtual Reality headset that comes in several colors. No particular reason beyond simple self-preservation; at all times here in this city and at this event I feel like I’m on the verge of short-circuiting. I stood there and allowed my eyes to focus on something that wasn’t lit up or moving or making sounds.
The colored VR headsets looked pretty enough, Skittle-colored. In the display, men and women wearing the headsets were making the sort of face one might make on a roller coaster.
I turned to the male friend I was with, a writer for another publication. I told him it seems strange that the tech industry has such a hard-on for Virtual Reality when it seems like the last thing a woman wearing makeup would want to do would be to put a thing on her face. Doesn’t it get sweaty under a VR headset? Doesn’t it pick up foundation along the edges? Doesn’t it leave red marks on the face, or mess up her hair? I’d never put something like that over my face. Women know that the punishment they receive for acts of vanity pales in comparison to the social fallout they’d face if they shirked male expectations for how they’re supposed to look. If one of the cheerleader models had shown up to PepCom with her makeup smeared and hair mussed, she’d be told to fix it or go home.
Huh, he said. I’ve never thought of that.
I’ve been bouncing from hotel to hotel along the strip and haven’t felt like anything but a curiosity, an obsolete piece of technology like a fat TV. On casino floors, I’m regarded in the same way one might regard a man who is 7 feet tall, or a dog with a funny haircut waiting for the bus. Even the waitresses, beautiful and compliant in tight dresses and platform heels, barely get a glance beyond the requisite what are you doing here. I had a drink with a male colleague at the Paris and the waitress made a joke implying that we were romantically involved. I barely noticed Mark Cuban sitting 10 feet away from us in the crowd of men. I ran into an old friend and colleague at a bar at the Cosmopolitan. She and I greeted each other like the women in the Mad Max: Fury Road matriarchal motorcycle gang, with gratitude and grim acknowledgement of our dwindling foothold in this world.
It’s not that anybody here means any harm. Nobody has been rude or aggressive. Nothing about this feels dangerous. It’s just that most of the people present at CES, and thus cumulative character of the event and its periphery, never seem to have thought about women, in the same way a person might accidentally serve red meat at a dinner party without checking in to see if anybody is a vegetarian.
The only way the human brain can plow through the pall of bitter regret that sits over this place like Shanghai smog and is to be overstimulated to the point of distraction. Distraction from the fact that you’re about to cheat on your wife, or do some bad local coke, or eat an East Coast oyster in Nevada. That’s what the lights and jangles and pool party club ads and Celine Dion ‘My Heart Will Go On’-themed fountain show at the Bellagio are for.
But the distractions in the form of stupid indiscretions can’t drown out the feeling of never having occurred to somebody. That knowledge isn’t flashy and loud. It’s subtle and soft, quiet in a loud town and loud rooms.