Friday, May 04, 2007

Burlesque And Feminist Theory

I’ve been meaning to write about burlesque ever since I went to a show last weekend. It was actually a “graduation night” for the women of Burlesque University here in Washington, DC. I’d never heard of BU before, I was at Eastern Market (the weekend before it burnt down) and the woman who sold me a fabulous purse (do check it out the link) also convinced me to come to her burlesque show.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show that challenged me so much. Not that I didn’t have a blast, one thing about burlesque is that it’s not boring. And part of the appeal was simply the chance to see real women’s bodies, both their perfections and imperfections. Short of porn or actual strip clubs, how often do women gape at other women?

But when I say “it challenged me” I mean that in a good way, it made me think. It made me think about the different ways of interpreting the actions on stage, including a feminist theory perspective on burlesque.

For the actual show itself, there were seven women, plus the instructor, and each had a kind of “character” set; a prom queen, a “strict” scientist, a vampire-schoolgirl, a secret agent, and Marty McFly from Back to The Future. Some had more revealing bottoms than others. One wore a corset. The finale was always the exposure of their breasts covered with pasties.

One its face burlesque is proto-stripping. Burlesque was what stripping was a 100 years ago or more. Watching a burlesque show, particularly in a crowded bar full of women and the performers’ friends, is not the same as watching burlesque in the Moulin Rouge in 1910. Burlesque isn’t about blue-collar men trying to get their rocks off anymore. The modern version is “sexy” but I wouldn’t say it was exactly erotic. Maybe it’s the difference between titillation and arousal. Although I think some would disagree with me the sheer eroticism of the act is drained out in modern burlesque. What’s left over though is about performance and art. But it’s art that still ultimately involves exposure of women’s bodies. It’s the sexuality that makes it different from say, dance.

And maybe that’s the contradiction I’m grappling with. Burlesque is about being titillated by women, and in the modern era, its resurgence is about ordinary women who want to be seen as titillating.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be seen as sexy or owning your sexuality. I enjoyed the show and my guess is the women enjoyed performing. But they weren’t doing it for money (although there was a tip jar it seemed almost anachronistic.) Maybe burlesque is on a sexual exploitive spectrum with porn “Girls Gone Wild,” Mardi Gras and early Fiona Apple videos . Its not really exploitive except in the sense that its yet another convention that says “look at my body.” And it occurred to me there’s no male version of burlesque. Ultimately that kind of pissed me off the most when I thought about it.

Maybe I'll be able to compose my thoughts a bit better on this later because I do know about the huge debate in feminism about burlesque and stripping. Ultimately I would go to another show, but I can't get over the fact that on some level asking for people to look at you and be titillated is only empowering in the sense that you expect or desire to be judged on your sexual desirability. And I know that is a losing game to play.


Anonymous said...

i am going for an interview at a women's refuge later today. on friday evening i went to a gig that included a burlesque performance, and a staff member from the refuge was also there, and knew i was going to be interviewed. i loved the burlesque and she clearly decided to withhold judgement (ie she didn't applaud, but didn't shout either as it was a charity do i guess). i wonder how i will respond to the feminist theory question at my interview later today...

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