Director Steven Antin’s attempts to differentiate between wholesome teasing and tawdry stripping have provoked objections from the neo-burlesque community. At stake: the definition of the art, the answer to the empowerment v. misogyny debate and whether or not anyone should see the film, says Taraneh Ghajar Jerven
When Christina Aguilera, playing a fresh-faced Iowan yokel with big city dreams, arrives in LA, she has no idea what burlesque means. Striptease? Satirical theatre? Song and dance? Her character’s confusion holds true for many, feminists included. Given that burlesque has been evolving since the 19th century, it’s not difficult to see why.
Steven Antin, director of Burlesque, thinks he has the answer. “I was inspired to steer people away from tawdry notions of burlesque,” he told the Los Angeles Times. According to Antin: “There’s a real misunderstanding of burlesque as a 20th century convention rooted in second-rate striptease.” He’s also quoted saying: “The original burlesque performances were musical, theatrical parodies and political satires.”
Unfortunately, Antin’s attempts to differentiate Burlesque from the burgeoning neo-burlesque scene – a risqué, tassel-twirling (link NSFW), shimmy-and-shake world – which exploded in urban areas in the 1990s, has angered the people whose creativity made his film possible.
When the modern burlesque revival began, it was fringe culture and it consistently involved some form of undressing, among other elements. Now that burlesque is wildly popular, a mainstream film comes along and redefines it, excluding the very troop and creed that made it fashionable.
Dr. Lucky, a long-time burlesque performer and faculty member at New York University, where she teaches the history of US burlesque, criticises Antin for restricting burlesque’s definition. Dr. Lucky asserts that burlesque is a fluid cultural movement and to confine it to a moment in history is disingenuous.
Dr. Lucky acknowledges the modern role of striptease in burlesque’s identity, as well as the satire from the performance art’s past. Burlesque can be both theatrical parody and tawdry feminised spectacle. She also points out that burlesque is historically a working class form of entertainment and categorises Antin’s film as an attempt to elevate burlesque’s background for marketing purposes.
Rachel Schteir and Nora Lee Frankel, both scholars of early burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, agree with Dr. Lucky when it comes to the role of stripping in burlesque. While the definition of burlesque is somewhat flexible, its common denominator requires some level of undress, performed with humour.
Antin’s film is set in the present day and the performers dance in a thrilling variety of safely-sexy costumes without ever getting down to the tassel-twirling and G-strings. But then again, in the raciest scene, Aguilera loses sections of a beaded pearl outfit an excruciating one piece at a time. She winds up coquettishly nude, yet completely concealed behind a giant feathered fan. One has to wonder if it was worth it to Antin to antagonise the neo-burlesque community, while including this form of striptease. Are pasties so different from feathered fans?
But while Antin attempts to build a precarious boundary between what he considers wholesome teasing and just plain stripping, some of Dr. Lucky’s claims are also hard to prove. Lucky accuses Antin of trying to class up burlesque. While Antin’s public statements do come off as an attempt to make burlesque socially acceptable, the movie doesn’t go there.
From the characters and the setting, Antin’s Burlesque is gritty, not highbrow or even middle-class. There’s no doubt that Aguilera’s character Ali is working class from the second she quits her job as a waiter at a down-and-out diner and heads west. Cher’s character, too, is far from snobbish. The Vegas diva plays Tess, a rowdy and profane self-made business woman who’s seen it all, done it all, and lived to sing “You haven’t seen the last of me” in a throaty warble.
Once Aguilera walks into Cher’s burlesque club, she’s determined to get on stage. But naturally, Cher is a seasoned sceptic and a hard sell. Aguilera counters with aggression, manipulation and above all persistence. She finally earns her way from bar staff to performer when Cher hears Aguilera sing.
Meanwhile, Cher’s lounge is near bankrupt; the performers’ glamorous costumes are falling apart. The underlying tension in the plot is caused by the precarious financial situation endangering everyone’s livelihood. Except for Stanley Tucci, who plays Cher’s gay BFF and source of all snide quips, the club employees are a tough-talking hard-drinking lot. At one point, Aguilera’s rival, played by Kristen Bell, screams that Aguilera is nothing more than a “slut with mutant lungs”. If that isn’t rough around the edges, what is?
As long as burlesque has existed, people have debated what it is and what it is not. When dissecting the shows by Lydia Thompson – the British performer credited with bringing burlesque to the US in 1868 – biographers view her performances as a parody of authority that used humour to turn convention inside out. Yet Thompson’s biographers also credit Thompson with shows that emphasised comedy equally with revealing the female form.
If historically it’s always been impossible to separate the social commentary from raunchy side of burlesque performance, why try? That’s Antin’s biggest mistake.
Fortunately for him, where his proselytising has failed, Burlesque pulls through. Some of Aguilera’s many performances are music video fluff. But most have elements of satire and sex. She sweetly trills a mockery of being a ‘good girl’ in the context of unrealistic cultural expectations. She belts out songs full of provocative double entendres. Her choreography is calculated and cheeky, if not edgy, creating a tension with her words. Acts by other performers also deliver. A trio of two incredibly flexible women and one short man tell a story that parodies sexual acts, using contortions and banana.
Of course, Aguilera’s remarkable lungs are on full display throughout the film. She has the vocal strength of a sonic boom; her pipes alone would bring a film audience. Her co-diva too is a strong pull.
Overall, Burlesque is entertaining: a tried-and-true plot line (aspiring show-girl tries to make it in the mean old world) spiced up with electrifying acts. The controversy over Burlesque isn’t about the plot; it stems from the effects of commodifying a specialty performance art. When something small becomes highly visible, the initial players lose control. Given that burlesque has been evolving and surviving for more than 100 years, this doesn’t seem wholly tragic, just natural. Most likely, the mainstream will move farther away from the creativity of the subversive performers, who will continue to do exactly what they’ve always done.
In one way, commodifying burlesque has an up-side. It’s helped to inform the debate about whether stripping in burlesque is empowering or misogynistic. The more popular burlesque becomes, the more women seek out classes and attend shows. It’s hard to call it misogynistic in this context, where women control their own experiences, performing for audiences that have a strong female presence.
Documentaries like On Tour and Burlesque Undressed chronicle the rise of burlesque and the women involved. The emphasis on humour while stripping, as well as the elaborate glamour associated with burlesque costumes, are a far cry from pole dancing in a bikini for an all-male crowd.
Further, male reviewers’ criticisms of Burlesque clearly indicate who is interested in the genre. In a smarmy soundbite of anti-woman and transphobic rhetoric, Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers so offensively says: “It could have been the 21st-century Showgirls. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. Instead, Burlesque, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera playing drag queen versions of themselves… is a bust that lacks the pizzaz and bugfuck nuttiness of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 trash epic.”
Sadly Travers isn’t the only male reviewer who cites Showgirls’ soft-porn as an entertainment benchmark, largely because of all the women-kissing-women scenes.
Critic Wesley Morris expands on the straight male response to Burlesque. He asks why the movie exists at all and answers: “To unite two generations of gay men, I suppose, to remind fans of both women that they still have it, to give the costume designer of Hollywood something splashy to do.”
Steven Antin may not wholly understand what he has created with Burlesque, but don’t blame the topic or the cast. If you’re interested in the genre, read about the burlesque stars of yore; consider catching some of the live modern acts. Get context. Then decide whether or not to see this film. Though Burlesque delivers, it’s just the most recent product in a long queue of good acts.