Fatale Attraction- Is Burlesque Dead, or just Boring?
Nipple tassels making a kaleidoscope of colors and sparkles on a dressing table. Fishnet stockings flung over a chair back. Big fake eyelashes in little white boxes neatly stacked. Shiny high heels scattered about the floor.
It could just as easily be the backstage of a drag show, but no, I want to talk about burlesque for a bit. I doubt anyone isn’t aware of the trend that has, quite possibly, jumped the shark as a mainstream interest, having run the gamut from queer genderplay and comedy to exercise for bored housewives. Burlesque started out as something that turned social norms upside down and inside out, with satire of popular operas and well-known artistic works being the backbone of the performances. Bawdy humor and skirting just on the edge of what the censors would let you get away with was the order of the day.
When the revitalization of burlesque began in the mid 1990’s, parody, politics and playfulness were as important if not more so than pasties and peacock fans. Being thought-provoking was equally the goal as just being provocative. My girlfriend told me of a great performance she did involving her and her confrontation with a scale, stripping off clothes to try to weigh that bit less, til she finally kicks the scale over and, I think, smears herself in cupcakes. Or there’s the Living Dead Girlz, zombie dancers who rip out the hearts of their admirers and spew blood over their audiences. Or Miss Lolly Pops, who did a fantastic routine about voting that was both sexy and persuasive.
So then, what happened? With the release of the film “Burlesque”, that garish showcasing of Christine Aguilera’s flesh-I-mean-voice, has all subversive value been, dare I say, stripped from this particular bawdy performance type? Laurie Penny over in the UK seems to think so. “If the most empowering activity modern women can take part in is a ritualised form of the denial of sex, then we really have to question how far sexual politics have come after 50 years of feminism,” she says, adding “Call me an iron-knickered feminazi, but I’m bored of being sold weary, old-fashioned misogyny and told that it is new, ironic and empowering. If you want to feel sexy, have sex – and if you want to be empowered, join a political movement”.
In my perhaps already overly costumed, politically creative ivory tower of San Francisco, I can’t say that I’ve noticed burlesque having this same sequined swan song. I mean, just last week I was at the Lusty LadyKISSmas party, and enjoyed a routine with a pregnant Mary bearing her child (a dildo), assisted by a hot drag king Joseph with a strap on harness to the tune of “Like a Virgin”. A few months before, I saw an act involving a woman in a Luchadore mask, fisting a pinata and pulling out confetti, or there’s the queer Diamond Daggers, who explore and challenge gender in their performances. We have a monthly burlesque night in San Francisco called the Hubba Hubba Revue, and I’m constantly amused and impressed by the quality and creativity of the acts onstage- and the people involved (mostly women, but not all) seem to genuinely feel empowered- not because of the removal of clothes, or the exposure to the gaze, but because they’re in charge of how they perform, and what they get to do. Agency does tend to make people feel empowered, whatever they’re doing.
But that’s just San Francisco, right? Well, no. My experiences in London suggest that this also exists there- or it could. I’m part of a crew out there who runs a sex-positive event, and one of our big goals was to give edgy performers a place to debut and test out new work and ideas. We’ve always got more performers than we have space for, and why? Because we give our performers that agency.
And I’m not just talking about girlesque here, either. No, London has a blossoming boylesquescene that I found really playful and exciting- exactly what was being drained from female burlesque. The Male Tournament of Teaseshowcased some amazing talent, though I was disappointed to see that while the audience was 90% women, the judges were mostly gay men. And, just like with girlesque, boylesque has all sorts of body types too, from the svelte More-Or-Lesque boys to the furry, big-belliedBearlesque troupe.
One of Laurie Penny’s big issues with burlesque is that it’s all about tease and denial- “Since the dawn of time, women have been told that their most important social bargaining chip is the power to suggest sex and then withhold it, denying our own desires and manipulating the desires of men. There is nothing at all new about that sort of empowerment, and I don’t want my little sisters learning that artfully withholding intercourse is the best they can hope for,” she argues. But I think she misses an important point. Seduction in that way is not by any means the exclusive territory of women. Men all over have been learning about the same power of tease and denial viaPickup Artist books like “The Game” or workshops taught to men who want to learn how to flirt and succeed with women. The “Art of Seduction” is gender balanced in the lessons it teaches about how to seduce- not just as a rake or a siren, or for the purpose of sexual fulfillment, but also how to seduce an audience or as a politician. The desire to be wanted more than you want others is a widespread one, crossing gender barriers.
I suspect the issue is not with burlesque itself, or the people who watch it (pretty female-heavy, by the way), or the dancers involved- no, the issue is getting bookings. Boylesque can afford to be more creative because, well, they’re pretty unlikely to get paid much if anything for performing- it’s for the love of it. Women have to provide a boring (but pretty) product the consumer will buy if they want to stand out and get work. I know many women who do or have done burlesque who have loads of fantastic, creative, kind of messed up ideas that are challenging and different- but if they can’t get stage time to perform these ideas, no one ever sees them. Performers with disabilities, or plus sized performers exist, but only get booked occasionally compared to their able-bodied, fit counterparts. Unfortunately, people end up booking the same glitzy and vapid tits and tassels, because that’s what they think people want to see. Which is exactly what “Burlesque” the movie is all about- a fluffy, non-threatening version of what is, at its heart, all about subversion and giving voice against the upper classes. When have we needed this art form more, not just to give us a laugh and a flash of skin, but something to think about and a love for our bodies, however we look or how old we are?
As a feminist and a sex worker, it’s something I’ve struggled with myself- how can I maintain my feminist values while acknowledging that I work in a business that objectifies women? I like how one blogger put it- “in a culture that places so much value on appearance and makes women hate ourselves because of how we look no matter what we look like, isn’t it wonderful that there is an outlet for women to love our bodies?” Not only that, but why not submit men to the female gaze, I say! The dire situation with men and, say, sexy Halloween costumes is just a symptom of a larger issue- men are rarely encouraged to sexy themselves up, and there’s not much in the way of clothes to dress the guy who wants to sass up his wardrobe. I’m always horrified at how hard it is to find sexy men’s underwear that doesn’t involve some sort of animal-based novelty.
So. Has burlesque had the last, glittery nail hammered into its gold lamé coffin? Not necessarily. Like with Tinkerbell, maybe if we clap our hands for the performances we can believe in, if we fight to have subversive work showcased at our events, if we teach each other how to meld feminist idealswith our performances and we band together, maybe we can still save it. Sure, the film “Burlesque” totally fucked it up, but “Reefer Madness” didn’t exactly make a good case against pot, did it? Can we really expect Hollywood to reflect subcultural activities with any accuracy? Or, say, actual history?
I believe in femme feminism. I believe in male sensuality. I believe that sexuality, and the body, is political and that we deserve better.
And if burlesque is truly dead, may it come back as a glittery, bloody living dead girl.