Has the shine come off burlesque as it mainstreamed? Chloë Emmott revisits her views
About two years ago, I wrote a piece for The F-Word, called ‘Can Burlesque be Feminist?’ I’ve been spurred on to revist the issue by an article in The Guardian by Laurie Penny, bemoaning the state of burlesque, questioning its feminist content and charting its shift from “social satire to simple stripping”.
I hate to admit it, but a lot of what Penny writes rings true. I have fallen out of the burlesque loop and I have become somewhat disillusioned. I have seen less innovation and celebration, and more plain stripping, albeit it in a nice retro outfit. However I don’t feel you can blame this on the art form itself. I sense a tragic inevitability of success in which any somewhat ‘underground’ activity becomes diluted to appeal to the ‘mainstream’.
Dita Von Teese, the Pussycat dolls and the ‘vintage’ look; these have all blossomed in popularity over the last few years. I fear people have got caught up in the excitement and have forgotten why women found burlesque such a refreshing change from the norm. It seems as if burlesque is quickly losing any associations with satire and this is a sad thing. Sometimes we need to get inside something to show it up. Burlesque could be perfect to question and distort our accepted views on what it is to be ‘sexy’, yet as it moves further into the mainstream and becomes little more than a fashion tribe I see these opportunities becoming overshadowed by what we are trying to subvert.
Penny quotes a director in her piece: “Act like you’re thinking about giving them what they want.” This quote is troubling: for me, burlesque was a rebellion against giving them (men) what they want. It was about doing what I wanted. A will to please others was not what brought me to burlesque, I was attracted by doing something to make myself feel good. I still believe there is a space for women to express their sexuality in a positive way and to be proud of our bodies and our sexuality.
I cannot agree entirely with the anti-raunch-culture camp, yet I must concede they have a point. To me, it is not about forbidding access to women’s bodies, it’s about us gaining control over our bodies and the access to those bodies. Yet in such a misogynistic society, this is something that is very hard to do. Even if an initiative starts by embracing women of all sizes, shapes and races, we are narrowed down to the thin and the white as soon as ‘commercial success’ beckons. I feel that by not acknowledging the role of society and the misogynist angle from which women are viewed in almost every angle of our lives, Penny overlooks a whole range of issues that affect not only burlesque but feminism as a whole. Burlesque cannot operate in a vacuum sealed away from the overwhelming prejudices and expectations of society as a whole. Piling these problems onto to burlesque when they are present across a whole spectrum of genres is not a fair representation.
Some of the most engaging and amazing performers in any art form will not get exposure because they are not sanitised. I did feel amazing during my classes, shimmying and shaking; embracing my body despite being told by society it’s never good enough. I really did benefit from my classes, I did gain confidence and I did feel it offered a platform for all women to express themselves; yet I do not feel this spirit of acceptance is currently displayed in the more commercial side of ‘burlesque’. The acts on show today often conform to the same standards of beauty as a dancer in Stringfellows or any other ‘mainstream’ club. However, there is space out there for genuinely subversive acts; I’ve seen some and I hope to see more. Despite my doubts and resignations the problems I have are not with burlesque per se, but its co-option by those who do not recognise its ability to subvert, to question, and who focus solely on its sex appeal. I suspect a lot of jumping on the bandwagon may be blurring the lines and causing us to miss the good there is. So while I feel disillusioned with burlesque, I do not see it as problem with the art form, but with the attitudes of some of those involved in it.
It is easy to get disheartened, but we must remember that there are people out there who do subvert, question and perform richly imaginative and individual routines. I just wish they got more show-time than the bland rent-a-corsets that seem to be taking over. While we can cry all we like about how you can’t just put on a corset and call it burlesque, a point which I agree with, we cannot ignore the fact that the wider public who may not be so well versed in these issues do often equate the two and that is where problems can arise. Particularly if you come at burlesque from a feminist angle, it is easy to see how one could be horrified by the prospect of self-identified feminists partaking in such things, especially if the less feminist side of burlesque is currently gaining more attention.
Penny, while highlighting many genuine concerns I also share, misses the point somewhat. It is telling that her problems seemed to stem from an outside promoter or director telling her what to do, while this may be the reality for some performers, a lot operate fiercely independently and relish the creative control they wield. In short, something that could happen to any performer, burlesque or otherwise. This may be due to a shift in power; the burlesque revival was, from my experience at least, primarily female-led, but perhaps now that more men have got in on the act, as bookers and promoters, for example, it has become more attuned to the male gaze. Add to that the sad inevitability that when someone thinks they can make money out of something the bland hegemony and ironing out of anything too ‘controversial’ ensues.
I find myself coming to the same conclusions as I did two years ago; burlesque can be a wonderful thing, but due to the nature of our society it has to be handled in the right way. When it’s good it’s very, very good, but when it goes wrong or misses the mark? Well, it can play further into the hands of Playboy and its ilk and go very wrong indeed. There is a need for an expression of female sexuality, but in a misogynistic society there are many fine lines to be negotiated and often we fall on the wrong side. If we are to blame anyone, it is not the burlesque artists who are trying to break the confines of what expression of female sexuality and who may sometimes fail, are but the society that constrains us all and that we are indeed all products of.