Can burlesque be feminist?

A few months ago, I took the plunge and enrolled in burlesque classes. As a feminist I had, and still have, issues with the idea of the strip tease – however a friend and fellow feminist had told me how much she enjoyed it.

As a feminist I, of course, have issues with the objectification of women. I abhor the Playboy and lads’ mag culture. So why oh why did I go to burlesque classes, you might ask? To be honest I’m not 100% sure. “Why not?” seemed to be the pervading reason.

The issue of stripping and porn is one of the biggest grey areas in feminism today. There seem to be feminists with polar-opposite views, from Ariel Levy and Female Chauvinist Pigs to Scarlet magazine, Cake NYC and, well, burlesque.

My burlesque classes were a sisterhood of sequins

I feel that the issue of female sexuality and it’s expression in a public manner is one that, while complex and controversial, is one of the biggest issues of our time. I am not anti-porn. Porn and the sex industry can be horrifically exploitative, degrading and anti-woman, but it is not the concept of porn that is the enemy here, it is the execution. The fact that it is still essentially a male-run industry only exacerbates the problem.

Female sexuality has been denied and swept under the carpet for so long. While prudish Victorian morals do us no favours, neither does the objectification of women in lads’ mags. The problem seems to be a denial of female sexuality, an abundance of women representing what men want (or think they want) in a woman, and not enough women representing what they want and what they find sexy and empowering about themselves.

In contrast, my burlesque classes, run by the lovely Bella Besame, were choc-full of female energy, creativity and mutual support; they were a sisterhood of sequins.

Walking home, I noticed how my ‘fat’ thighs, stomach and bum wobbled – and felt so goddamn-sexy

One of the first things I remember from class was being told that any negativity regarding our body image was not to be tolerated and that burlesque was about showing off your beauty, whatever your size, shape or colour. It may sound trite, but, as a young woman who, no matter how hard she tries, cannot fully escape the pressure to be thin and ‘beautiful’, a message that left me walking home noticing how my ‘fat’ thighs, stomach and bum wobbled – and felt so goddamn-sexy – is one worth celebrating. We were not taught to please men, we were taught to enjoy ourselves, to revel in our bodies, to enjoy our sexuality, the thrill of the tease and the sensation of being in the spotlight.

In modern burlesque, or ‘neo-burlesque’, there seems to be an element of subversion, taking a form of entertainment that once played into the hands of female stereotyping and exploitation and reinventing it as something woman-friendly and empowering. This aspect of burlesque is highlighted well in the Women’s eNews feature Burlesque comeback tries to dance with feminism.

This article astutely notes that burlesque has a large female fan-base. This is what makes it stand out from the strip clubs that cater to lonely businessmen and stag dos. It’s women celebrating women. There is something, to an archaeology student’s mind anyway, of ‘goddess power’ about it, reminiscent of the old cult of Inanna, Isis and Aphrodite (my burlesque persona is ‘Inanna Amor’, as a vague homage to this). It taps into an appreciation of the female form and sexuality, without the seedy undertones of desperate men. Inga Muscio touches on this is the ‘whores’ chapter of her book Cunt: “When fully instructed in the art of sacred sexual power, whores are the people who can teach us all the stuff we grew up not learning about sexuality, our bodies and our innate sexual power.”

We should not totally discredit something that makes many women feel happy and confident about themselves

While burlesque performers are not on the level of sacred priestesses, there is nonetheless an undertone of sexual power of a uniquely female persuasion and a atmosphere of celebration. If anything we need to stand up there and say “look at us, we’re beautiful, we’re sexy”, instead of feeling the need to drop a dress size before we dare bare ourselves on the beach. Burlesque is also about fun. Most of the routines I have seen have been imaginative and often hilarious. I’ve seen a bemused Dr Who regenerating as a woman, a balloon popping tease and Eve eating the apple and loving it.

While I still hold a few reservations, and have no doubt that many see burlesque as exploitative and demeaning, I cannot bring myself to disapprove of something that let me celebrate my body and feel utterly at home in my skin. In these days of the ever-raging ‘size-zero’ debate, cosmetic surgery and surveys which constantly tell us how few women actually feel happy with their bodies. I think that we should not totally discredit something that makes many women feel happy and confident about themselves so easily, and we are perhaps missing some wider issues with how society views and expresses female sexuality by narrowly condemning things such as burlesque.

Chloe Emmott is a rather laid-back archeaology student, bassist and lover of sequins, feather boas and decadent glamour