I am a burlesque artist. I like going up on stage and peeling off my clothes until all I am wearing are novelty pants and tit tassles. Call me an exhibitionist? I call it affirmation.
In my first post on burlesque, I suggested that, in a world which devalues femininity and women, using the stage to present your own image of femininity can educate your audience. You can choose what type of femininity you would like to present, and construct a particular dynamic between you and your viewers. By hiding and revealing parts of your body, you can tell your viewers where they are allowed to look, for how long, and in what spirit. I perform a slow, serious piece which makes my audience feel ‘awkward and sexy at the same time.’ It teases by inviting them to look (I mean, I am on a stage) while Lesley Gore sings ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and I undress shyly. My shyness contrasts with my black lingerie, nakedness and the lyrics of the song. I also perform a light-hearted piece called ‘Pop’ in which I cover myself in blown-up condoms (yes, condoms!) and pop them by rubbing them with oil. This conveys the safer sex message that you should always use water-based lube with latex condoms. Both combine traditional elements of burlesque (including retro music, vintage style and undressing) with more serious messages.
The past couple of days I have been reading Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. It’s one of the many feminist books my friend Robin gave me when she moved back to the US. My mission, as I accepted it, is to read them and then donate them to this queer feminist library. Yesterday I read a piece written by MTF drag queen Esme Rodriguez who said that the stage allows her to find the ‘freedom’ to explore ‘gender expression, gender identities and social justice.’ And I thought, yes, it’s like that for me too. For me the stage is a space to explore and to express my gender. And this is darn feminist.
I don’t think I have complete control over what my audience sees. For me ‘You Don’t Own Me’ is, when performed for a queer audience, me saying that yes I get to be a girly girl and strip and still be a fierce feminist, thank you very much, while other people see it as a celebration of polyamory. But I do think that Rodriguez is right when she says that drag allows her to explore both gender and social justice.
I recently performed at a small town in Germany (about 150 000 inhabitants), to a mixed reception. Some folks loved the show and others seemed a bit shocked by it. And I was shocked that they were shocked. I mean, I was just taking off my clothes. How would they react if they saw my burlesque colleague Rosebutt pull a golden chain out of her cunt?!
Someone I know, a butch and feminist, said that she didn’t like my show because she felt uncomfortable about seeing all that skin. She said the way she had been brought up made nudity a little taboo. Now, she is totally entitled to her opinion and maybe burlesque just isn’t for her, but I did think, really, is a semi-naked (still wearing pants, nipple pasties, oh, and glitter) woman really that shocking?
Sometimes I forget what a laissez-faire attitude to nudity I have. My parents are doctors and very factual about bodies. They wander around naked upstairs while getting changed or bathing. I talk to my Mum while she’s in the bath, and even though after a certain age it felt it a bit awkward to do the same with my Dad, he still leaves the door open. I always strip in communal changing rooms, because I can’t be bothered to be modest and I’m pretty happy wandering around naked in a German spa.
“watching burlesque you are no longer allowed to be a passive consumer. you are part of the process”
Now, I recognise that as a cisgendered white woman, it’s not very risky for me to take my clothes off in public. At least not in those spaces where it’s ‘allowed,’ such as at a burlesque show, in changing rooms, or at a sauna. I’m a bit fat, and stand out because of that, and I have a large tattoo, but both of these things are pretty ordinary, really. The risk for me to be naked is, in these contexts, fairly low.
So I’m gonna hazard a guess here and propose that this audience was uncomfortable with my nudity because they were made to confront something new. New? I hear you say. Erm, cisgendered pretty white woman taking off clothes, not exactly revolutionary, is it? I mean, Laura, we see images of semi-clad white chicks everyday! In adverts on the U-Bahn, TV, magazines, shops. It’s not exactly something you can escape. My reply is, yes, there are tonnes of images half-dressed girls around who may to a certain extent look like me (although at UK size 16 and age 28 I am way fatter and older), but these images are pretty flat. In lots of senses. These images don’t interact with you, with their audience. The intention behind them is to sell (objects, ideals, insecurities, you name it) and the girls in the pics aren’t the creators of the image. They may choose to pose for a particular ad, or as actresses they may love their work. But even Cate Blanchett, who is pretty kick-ass, is caught up in a world of Hollywood beauty standards and censored film scripts. Now, I’m not suggesting that the stages I perform on are in a queer bubble outside of this sexist world. To the contrary, I think the patriarchy (insert flash of lightning and evil laughter here) permeates everything. But I do think that my choices and my agency make a crucial difference.
“I set up a framework, tweak it a little and present it to an audience to see what happens”
When I performed in this town, the audience sat about 7 metres away from the stage. OK, I am terrible at judging distances, but if I had taken a running jump and hurled myself into the crowd, I still would have failed to land at the feet of the closest admirer. Sweet, shy, German audiences. During both of my performances I jumped down from the stage because, goddammit, I wasn’t going to let them get away with it. I’m was gonna force them to interact with me even if I had to sit on their laps! As it turned out, I didn’t need to sit on them, and getting some people to remove my stockings or help pop the condom-balloons got me much closer to the audience. Not only physically, but also in terms of the dynamic we were creating. The dynamic I wanted us to create.
So what was different about my performance? Every time we look at a semi-naked woman on a billboard we do so as consumers. Our look is elicited and drawn in in order to sell something else. Feminine sexuality is directed at a male gaze (idea they will desire girl = desire product) or female gaze (idea they will want to be girl = want product). Here the audience were undressing a girl who was right there and, apparently, enjoying herself! I made them pop my balloons and take off my stockings, get close to me and participate in the stripping performance. And that’s got to make you think. Watching this type of burlesque you are no longer allowed to be a passive consumer. You have to participate in the sexualisation of the woman. You are part of the process. And maybe this participation makes you think a little about looking. When and how we look and why. Yes, it is uncomfortable. It’s sexy and funny and awkward. It walks the line between a personal sexual encounter and the public consumption and commercialisation of femininity which as feminists we rightly find suspect. It’s ‘oh my god this girl is so hot and she’s right there and she’s flirting with me, but no it’s just an act is she getting paid for this I don’t even know her!’
“it’s a bit like therapy, really”
Coming back to my personal reasons for wanting to do this, I want to emphasise that, for me, performing burlesque as a feminine woman and as a queer is an act of affirmation. It’s yeah I’m hot and yeah you’re allowed to look at me, but don’t go thinking that I belong to you or that this is for you. You know we’re never going to see each other again, baby.
In Gender Outlaws the theme of exploration keeps recurring. What strikes me most is that each and every author is looking for or has found a space to express, explore and play with their gender. It can be through writing, negotiating the gendered language of the office, sex, role play or performance. They interact with another person or people in order to gain new perspectives on gender, new experiences, to create new things. It’s a bit like therapy, really. In my burlesque I do the same. I set up a particular framework (conventions of burlesque), tweak it a little and present it to an audience to see what happens. To see what we can make of it. I get to see a little more of myself through other people’s eyes.
It’s ‘hello’ and its ‘you don’t own me.’