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Burlesque and feminism: It's complicated

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Penny insists most burlesque is now naught but “misogyny in a tasteful package of feathers”.

Co-opting feminist rhetoric

Ariana Barer thinks burlesque needs to really invest itself in subversion for it to operate within a framework of feminism. She has debated burlesque's connection to feminism with her peers at The F Word radio show, ever since a disappointing exposure to the Vancouver scene.

“If it presented challenges to gender norms like women in strap-ons, or women menstruating, or over-the-top representations of masculinity and femininity,” she told me, “then it could be like drag and call attention to the constructed nature of gender roles, while still being funny or entertaining or sexy.”

“I have also heard of genres of burlesque like gore-lesque that interrupt the viewers’ pleasure of consuming nudity by including lots of blood and guts.”

These more extreme modes of communication are what Barer thinks is necessary for burlesque to justify the scene's frequent use of feminist rhetoric – words like “empowerment”. Otherwise, it's merely co-opting.

After all, women taking their clothes off is not seen as “unlady-like” anymore. Instead, it's what women are expected to do.

“What does empowerment mean in this context? Does it ask us to just go along for the ride, smile, and participate in our own objectification?” Barer asked. “Choice isn't a fabulous feminist ideal in and of itself when the options we're expected to choose from aren't ideal.”

“Buying into the same heterosexual male fantasy of sexiness just makes everyone feel like they can belong in it if they buy the right book, classes, lingerie, heels, feathers, pasties, and glitter. Choose plastic surgery, feel empowered. Choose this cardio strip class, feel empowered.”

There seems to be an unwillingness to look critically at many of society's guilty pleasures. Indeed, more than two burlesque performers who agreed to talk to the VO about the art form's relationship with feminism backed out upon screening the interview questions.

Photo of unnamed local performers by Christopher Porter on Flickr.

Is the medium the message?

What Barer finally stressed was that burlesque seems to have splintered into two disciplines since its inception: the alternative, more underground kind of burlesque, which stays true to its roots of political and social commentary – the kind that is much harder to find – and also a more mainstream kind of burlesque.

This mainstream strand is more interested in titillating audiences than making statements, and its representatives are generally white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, and the otherwise conventionally attractive.

For example, the representatives of the ever-popular Vancouver International Burlesque Festival almost uniformly fit these criteria, despite the medium's history for including queer, racial, or differently-abled identities.

This lack of interest in intersectionality can lead to the popularity of very problematic performances – the Opium Den Show by burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, for one.

It's also worth noting that the current president of the VIBF is Blue Morris, one of Lotusland’s only male burlesque dancers. Previously, he has said on his blog, “It's important that burlesque remain primarily in the control of women or the art form could change drastically.”

At the end of the day, like in all forms of expression, it's the movers and shakers who determine what kind of dialogue occurs when the lights go on, as well as the subjectivity of each spectator.

As put by Delilah Dare, “Burlesque is not inherently feminist, no more than writing is, drawing is, or blogging is. Each is a medium, but each can be used to make a feminist message.”

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