When I told people I had started doing burlesque performances, one of my closest friends told me she was worried about me. She told me that self-confidence had to come from within, and not from the approval of other people. Her objection made me think long and hard about the dynamic that happens when, as a feminine woman, I take my clothes off on stage.
My friend, let’s call her Emily, suggested that if you are a woman and take your clothes off on stage in a seductive way, you are somehow buying into sexism. You are encouraging other people to view you as a ‘sexual object’ and not a ‘real person.’ Of course I think many men’s sexist harrassment of me comes from this very same assumption. That when they look at me all they see is a blonde feminine white woman, and they perceive this as a weakness that they can attack.
“You could call it feminism with tassles on”
So, this is where things get tricky. Because even though we have all these negative associations with femininity, and female bodies, I refuse to accept them. I refuse to believe that men own my body. That when I undress I am always doing so for a male audience, a male gaze. I do own my body. And the assumption that many men make, that for some reason my dressing up, beauty, or even undressing, is for them, always makes me really really angry.
Going up on stage and performing for a mostly queer audience is an act of self-love for me. When I perform my beauty and sexuality onstage I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself. And this is a vision that I control. I decide what I will do, which parts of my body I will or will not reveal and how long the performance will last. I choreograph this presentation from the song choice to the dance steps to the rose that I hand to the lady in the first row. And in this sense, I am asserting my agency, my ownership of my own body. I choose how it is presented and how it is viewed.
I think burlesque can be feminist because as a performer you are in control of that sexual gaze. You decide to which parts of the body it is directed, for how long and how nude these body parts are. I think the best burlesque conveys a message while teasing at the same time. The climax of much burlesque is the ‘tit moment.’ The topless performer turns around and you see (giggle) breasts! But these breasts are still partially covered; the nipples hidden behind decorated pasties. The naughtiness of the boobies is emphasised by the fact that the nipples are never shown. You are allowed to look, but you don’t get to see everything. The titillation (awesome word) comes from this, ultimate, refusal to show all. I, the performer, am in control. Maybe this control over the audience’s gaze teaches us something about the way we look at women.
“I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself”
I don’t think that I can say that all burlesque is feminist. I am sure there are acts out there and dynamics between the performer and audience that I would find sleazy and uncomfortable. Not all performers find power in their own performance, and maybe they have been coerced into performing for economic reasons, rather than their own interest.
But for me, burlesque has given me more space for self-expression. It has allowed me to explore and show-off my sexual femininity in a queer community which often devalues feminine women (more in another post). In showing or not my tits and other parts of my body, I feel that I am showing and teaching the audience about the complexities of looking at women. There is something very powerful about pasties. You could call it feminism with tassles on. Give ’em the old razzle dazzle, and they might just start to see your point of view.
So, here you go, Emily: