Burlesque evokes a repressive past, not a liberating present

Last Thursday, a number of female scientists stormed out of the dinner of a government- funded conference on climate change. They were outraged at the choice of a scantily-clad, all-woman burlesque troupe that included one performer covered with balloons that conference participants were invited to pop – as entertainment.

For the academic who drew the news media’s attention to what one attendee frankly described as “a mess”, the problem was clear. “This is … supposed to be a gathering of scientists at a government-sponsored event in an already male-dominated industry where it is hard enough for a woman to make inroads.” Her comments implied that in this context, there was little that was amusing, and much that was damaging, in the raucous display of semi-naked female bodies.

The fishnet-stockinged troupe leader Rebecca Gale, a.k.a “Miss Kitka”, disagrees. Gale claims that burlesque is not “as degrading and as backward leading for women” as its critics claim. Not only had she invited some of the “ladies” to pop her balloons, but the show’s emphasis on tease rather than nudity, and the fact that all the performers were neither 18 years old nor “blonde with big boobs” proved its non-sexist credentials.

Gale might also have pointed to the history of burlesque as further evidence as its right-on credentials. Originating in the early Victorian era when tensions between the aristocracy and working-class were high, burlesque saw performers in outfits considered inappropriate for polite society mock high-brow entertainment forms as opera, Shakespearean drama, musicals, and ballet. However, just before the crackdown in the 1930s that saw the genre disappear, burlesque had been reduced to little more than strip shows where young, rural, poverty-stricken gals got their kit off for money. Revived as part of the retro- craze of the 1990s, its continued flourishing at the start of the 21st may be attributable to the rise of “raunch” culture.

Is burlesque sexist? While there is little doubt that on some issues we can agree to disagree, I’m unconvinced this is one of them. This is because like the charge of racism, sexism is not a trivial accusation, but a highly charged moral one that stamps “oppressive” (burdensome, arbitrary, unjust and/or tyrannical exercise of power) on the accused. Those making such accusations, in other words, have an obligation to believe they have truth, not just opinion, on their side.

If any form of sexual entertainment is deemed inappropriate at all serious work-related events, than in this context burlesque – as well as pole and belly-dancing – stands condemned. But if burlesque is not just sexual but sexist, than like minstrel shows in which white actors blackened their faces and lampooned stereotypical depictions of blacks, its suitability as entertainment in any context must be questioned.

With all due respect to Ms Gale, it is unclear to me why the fact that female audience members received the same number of invitations to pop her balloons defends against the charge of sexism. Would anyone seriously argue that because the mothers often wrapped and unwrapped the cloth that crippled their young daughters’ feet, that the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding was not gender-based oppression?

And while many of us applaud the expansion of forums in which female physical types other than young, blonde and busty are sexualised, amending this aspect of our culture’s eroticisation of women does not necessarily, or on its own, empower us. As well, while the ways in which women are constructed as hot or not matters, it must at least take equal place beside the important feminist goal of defending a woman’s right to occupy public space and garner public respect regardless of whether men find her horny.

Of course, for some women, the infiltration of burlesque, belly-dancing and other traditional womanly arts is proof-positive that we no longer need to worry about this problem. Who else but women supremely confident that they are taken seriously as citizens and fully-rounded human beings at home, at school and at work would dare to reintroduce dress and dance forms that throughout history has been emblematic of the highly constrained ways women had to arouse recognition, interest and approval from men. Surely, some young women may feel, the creation of a world in which women are free to introduce the all-too-human yen to be seen as desirable in their everyday persona, without fear of misogynist stereotyping and career death, was what the feminist revolution was all about.

Well, wresting our fair share of financial and political freedom and power from men in order to gain greater control of our lives was in there, too. And while some burlesque performers defend the female nature of the sexuality expressed by the genre (more foreplay, less in-your-face T & A) there seems little that’s new in either the glitter and tassel of the cleavage-focused costumes, or the manner in which the performers strut around in them. Real sexual freedom, notes author of Female Chauvinist Pigs Ariel Levy, requires us to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture" – of any era I might add – “holds up to us as sexy.”

There’s a time and a place for everything, and that includes feeling sexy and finding someone else hot. Burlesque had its time and place, too. The challenge for contemporary women is to find ways of being “sexy” – of inviting desire and desiring – that do not call on gendered stereotypes from an unequal past, nor succumb to a market-based universalisation of desire.

Publication history

Burlesque evokes a repressive past, not a liberating present  The Age