Burlesque — Helping or Hindering Women?

Image courtesy of http://www.wambamclub.com/

Once I’d exhausted the Kama Sutra (if one can ever exhaust the Kama Sutra), I moved on to the visibly, sultry, sexy space of burlesque. Burlesque is, at its essence, a striptease and it is also much more than a striptease.

I interviewed a number of burlesque dancers including Crystal Precious and Red Herring. Crystal was also hiphop artist and content strategist, whilst Red had opened up the School of Burlesque in Toronto. Both women were passionate and charismatic and seemed to be balancing a variety of different projects. They had a lot to say about their industry and there was a lot of opinion shared on the quality of various troupes. Red was my first interview and was pretty unimpressed with some of my questions (“what’s camming?”). By the time I Skyped with Crystal, I’d spoken to more burlesque dancers and had used that conversation with Red to build a framework of areas of explore. These women had packed schedules (apparently an occupational hazard for ambitious women in burlesque) and it was difficult to get their headspace for brainstorming on what a more constructive burlesque culture might look like. Red pointed out that she gets a lot of enquiries to collaborate from weirdos on the Internet and so in that first meeting — armed with nothing but innocent enthusiasm, I suspect I might have disappointed.

Over the past few years there have been some spectacular burlesque performances, where women have used their bodies in weird and wonderful ways:

The Doubt

I watch these videos and I think they are smart, cheeky and look like a lot of fun. However I remain a little conflicted about the women in this space, finding them enthusiastic to pour out perspective on their own rollercoaster rides into burlesque, lamenting the low bar for the industry (college girls often undercutting more experienced performers) and the constant fight to maintain support for diverse body shapes.

The burlesque community is arguably quite feline in its culture. Troupes can be tribal, with little central organisation, cooperation or collaboration. The experience of talking to these ladies reminded me enormously of the Neil Gaiman Sandman Sequence: “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.

(Spoiler: the cats must collectively dream the same dream to take back control from humans, but they can’t because all cats are a law unto themselves and thus fail. The end.)

I’ve been to roughly ten or twelve burlesque shows by now (an education still in progress) and have seen a broad array of women, body types and themes. There are some incredibly talented, creative, inventive women who are indeed a pleasure to watch on stage, but there are many, many, many, many more who seem to have happened upon burlesque because they have great tits and ass, which they are happy to jiggle in front of an audience. In Scotland, I took my parents and friends of theirs to a burlesque show in Dumfries (true this was an unusual outing). We thought it would be “something a bit different” and I’d always advocated that burlesque was more than the striptease. The evening was a disappointment, consisting of a series of quick strips by mostly skinny women. Comedy in the show was left to the host and two male acts, who were not stripping and presented routines which sat independently to the burlesque performers.

Dita Von Teese, arguably the most high profile burlesque performer in the world evokes somewhat of a Marmitey response in the burlesque community. You love her because she has done so much to raise the profile of burlesque. And the Martini glass routine. You hate her because she re-enforces the image of burlesque as an industry of, and for, perfect-looking women. And to be honest, she’s a bit boring (in interviews anyway).

Rewinding a little bit to earlier in this post when I mentioned a presentation we gave on our goofy story about a school for female seduction ninjas, we featured this clip from Dita Von Teese in the Art of Seduction. At the time I thought it was quite amusing, but confess that after watching it a few times, I felt a bit dismayed with some of the direction. Here goes Von Teese:

 “…everything has to look like you didn’t try, like you just are. And the lingerie is one of those things and that’s why you must wear it every day and enjoy it and wear things that fit you. So you’re like what? You know, you didn’t put it on for him and you’re not stumbling out of your bedroom like … hey… I put this on for you and posing.”

Lingerie is awesome. Yes. And it’s expensive and that’s a faff. And sometimes needs hand-washing — also a faff. It’s immensely tedious worrying about layers of personal styling on a daily basis when we have jobs and friends and families. We must exfoliate, wax, pluck, don fancy pants, do our hair, apply make-up and find clothes that are flattering, but not too revealing. We may be sleep-deprived and it’s all the energy we have to reach into the underwear drawer each morning and grab whatever bra, knickers and pants come to hand. It’s great that Von Teese is having fun exploring glamour and artificial beauty, but in order for women to pursue an agenda beyond their appearance, her recommendations remain impractical. I love dressing up in sparkly outfits and pointy shoes, I have a decent supply of fancy lingerie, but as I write this plain-faced, in leggings and a t-shirt, I also want it to be OK to be woman without make-up.

Von Teese goes on to say:

“The girl he never forgets is sexually knowledgeable. You should read everything you can about eroticism and sex and if you don’t want to do certain things, you don’t have to, but being knowledgeable is really important.”

As a girl who has been reading a lot about sex, it doesn’t feel like I’m on a path to enlightenment. There’s an awful lot of crap out there, most of it firmly positioned through the male lens. Even my Gran had read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and dismissed it as “rubbish”. And what is the point of seduction (for women) anyway, when we’re seducing men from their instruction booklet? It’s as if men’s seduction of women is through the male lens and then women’s seduction of men is also through the male lens. Surely if women are doing the seduction, the conquest should be to our advantage?

Out of interest, I wondered if anyone was recommending reading lists on sex, for women. If they are, their SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) sucks, I mean look at what I asked for and look at what I got.

Having approached burlesque because I thought it would be fun for women, in all their glorious diversity, to celebrate tips and tricks in beauty, posture, routines, body shapes and wooing men (or women), the more burlesque shows I saw, especially the cheaper ones that toured towns rather than cities, the less certain I became that burlesque as an industry was/is doing us any favours. I noticed an ex-girlfriend of my cousin’s had moved from ballet to burlesque, which I initially thought was a daring move. She’s also a stunning, young woman. Without doubting that she is an exceptional dancer, how much of the burlesque performance and lifestyle can be modelled so it is accessible to all women who want to feel sexy in their own skin. How many burlesque troupes thrive without conventionally beautiful performers?

As Meghan Murphy, writer and journalist, wrote on her blog:

“I have seen several burlesque shows in Vancouver. […] Hoping we would find all sorts of subversion, you know, challenges to gender norms, maybe some comedy, even remotely feministish. What we found was a stage and some women awkwardly taking off their clothes, with smiles pasted across their faces so we knew they were enjoying themselves. A man in a business suit ‘hosted’ the evening, and introduced all the ‘girls’. He remained clothed throughout the evening. A male MC was also allowed the privilege of keeping his clothes on. One after another, ‘girl’ after ‘girl’ got up on stage, unzipped her dress and, by the end of the ‘show’ was in pasties and a g-string, posing for a cheering crowd. Let’s play find the subversion! There is nothing new here. It’s just the same old thing. And I wasn’t having any fun.”

That said, women need to reclaim their confidence in the bedroom. We need an antidote to the plastic bodies we see on screen. We need to know we are attractive without Photoshop, with the lights on and without a camera poised above us for the most flattering angle. Fear of our imperfect bodies impedes libido, thus impacting the sex lives of both partners in heterosexual couples.

Burlesque is also a complex industry because of the diverse set of origins that girls arrive in the industry. Some women end up in burlesque through stripping and sex work, some — through camming, some arrive here because they took burlesque classes and some, as I mentioned above, arrive here through dance and the performing arts. There are women who do burlesque full-time, some — part-time as part of the“gig economy” and others for pleasure and pocket-money.

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