burlesque: sexy or sexist?

My response to criticisms of queer burlesque: fat, self-love and why it’s feminist to take my clothes off on stage. I am getting pretty good at exercising my intellectual muscles to argue with feminists who say doing this is inherently sexist, but I’d appreciate your input too. Any other ideas about why queer burlesque is queer, feminist and hot?! 

This post also addresses misogynist and homophobic hate and may be triggering.

So, I know I said I would be offering you a feminist hoedown this week, but I kinda got distracted by the arguments about the Femme Show. I’m gonna write something about radical vs. queer feminism soon. But first you get this lovely tidbit of my own feminism. Let me know what you think!

As a woman I am born ugly. In the eyes of patriarchal ideology, my body is scary in its fat abundance, its wobbly sensuality. So I starve myself and in the process make myself physically weak in order to try and grasp a power that will never be allowed to me. Of course, this power, which is also self-love, is always one stone away. ‘Just one stone thinner, and then I’ll be beautiful…’

I remember spending hours looking in the mirror just before I became a teenager. I would make faces at myself, tilting my head this way and that, to see if I could capture a ‘Hollywood’ face. Capture beauty just so. I found that if I raised my chin (so you can’t see the fat) and tilted my head slightly to the left, while holding my eyes wide open (makes them bigger) and slightly pouting my lips, I looked beautiful.

For much of my life, it was only through altering my body, either in poses in front of the mirror, or semi-permanently, that I could find myself beautiful. I would wear a prosthesis to make my boobs look more equal (one is bigger than the other) and, at my most ill, starved myself for half a year. Then, at my thinnest, I looked the most conventionally beautiful. I remember my uncle telling me in surprise how good I looked. I remember this because it was probably the first time one of my relatives called me attractive. At this time, aged 17, I was eating one apple, a bowl of cereal and a bowl of pasta every day. At a generous estimate, this is 900 calories a day. I was also swimming for half an hour every morning, exercising in my bedroom and not sleeping. I was, by medical and social standards, starving myself and going mad.

Fun fact: in The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that at Nazi extermination camp Treblinka 900 calories “was scientifically determined to be the minimum necessary to sustain human functioning.” Starvation rations for Jews in the Lodz ghetto in 1941 were 500-1200 calories a day. 900 is also the amount of calories allotted to patients in many U.S. weight-loss clinics. These facts speak for themselves.

Ten years later, I am pleased that, after years of working on my self-esteem, I can find myself beautiful. When I look in the mirror, instead of disappointment and crippling self-hatred, more often than not, I like what I see. At least, I like my face. I am working on finding the rest of my body, especially my fat tummy, beautiful, but I am making headway with that too. Yay me. This is the result of years of really hard fucking work.

The politics of fat for those assigned female at birth, combined with my own experiences of being raised, socialised and actively identifying as a woman, is one reason why I got so mad when, last week, some viewers of the Femme Show dismissed our performances as apolitical. Well, actually, it was one of many reasons.

As I said last week, we are told that as women we only have power by proxy. We only have power insofar as we associate ourselves sexually with men, and we are only seen as sexually attractive to men when we are thin. Now, I know many men find fat women attractive, and I love you back. So, when I say ‘men’ here, I basically mean something like ‘the heterosexualised male gaze.’ Hmm, feminist film theory 101. I am going to write about my use of the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in another post in the next couple of weeks.

Anyways. So, as women we are only seen as beautiful and therefore powerful when we are thin. This is why, when commenters on The Berlin Femme Show said that us taking our clothes off on stage buys into sexism and objectification, I thought they had missed the point of what we, as queer femme performers, were doing. In one of my first blog posts, I wrote how I find my own beauty and my own agency when I perform burlesque. As choreographer, I decide what vision of myself I will present to the audience, and therefore have at least some control over the way they see me. I choose what type of sexual woman they are going to see tonight. In a following post, I argue that this active engagement with the audience is different from the objectification and sexualisation of women that does happen in media everywhere, every day. Everyday objectification first classifies us women as silly little girls, good for nothing but fucking, then forces us to comply with this image by telling us that if we want even this little bit of power we need to fit into an impossible ideal of ‘beauty.’ Here, objectification and sexualisation are working to disempower women and keep us in our place.

But queer burlesque is different.  When I perform burlesque as a fat femme I am demanding to be seen as beautiful. I get my audience to cheer me, and if they don’t, I don’t take my clothes off. Affirmation of my sexuality and beauty is central to the performance. Standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexually attractive in a world that wishes we queers didn’t exist, and does everything its power to erase us, is both feminist and empowering. And when I say erase, I don’t only mean that mainstream culture tells us we are ugly. I don’t only mean that mainstream media either presents us queers as they wish we were or leaves us out completely. By erasure I also mean that every day queers are murdered, yes, killed, for not looking and behaving how we are supposed to as good ‘men’, ‘women’ and citizens.

This is the continuum of invisibility and its horrifying logic. It starts with, ‘femmes are letting the feminist side down when they show their bodies on stage’, goes through, ‘I wish they weren’t in our community’ and ends with self-hatred, self-mutilation, starvation, suicide and murder.

Now, I’m not saying that when someone criticises queer burlesque they really wish I were dead. But, for me, as a committed feminist theorist, I see the connection between other queers saying I can’t behave in a certain way, and patriarchal ideologies also saying I can’t behave in that way, and the misogynist and homophobic hate that is both the logic and the starting point for this way of thinking and that causes self-hate and death. Sexism is both the small (personal) and the big (global). It’s both me not eating and the global scale of daily violence against women. It’s fine if you don’t like my performances, it’s even kind of OK if you think I’m a bad artist, just don’t tell me what I’m doing is inherently anti-feminist.

As a burlesque performer, I am doing my best to claim my beauty for myself and my power as a beautiful person when the patriarchy tells me that as a fat woman, lesbian and queer I am inherently ugly. As I said last week, standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexy, when people in the queer scene would rather we femmes weren’t there, is political. Being naked does not mean you are buying into objectification. Queer burlesque is empowering. It is about claiming our own sexualities in a world which says they are wrong. Watching queer burlesque is an affirmation of queer sexuality.

I remember standing at the school gates, age 7, watching an outgoing classmate playing. I, shy and introverted, wished I looked like her, wished I was her. I already thought I was fat.

Further reading:

tits and tassles by me!

i’ll show you mine… also by me 🙂

Fat! So? by Marilyn Wann

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Call for Action Today!

Hey guys. I wanted to let y’all know about a really awful breach of human rights happening in Berlin right now. A father of an 11-year-old transgender girl has the authorities’ support to remove her from her mother’s home and place her in therapy (yup, that’s a mad house to you and I) until she returns to ‘normality.’ They will force her to grow up as a boy. I can’t imagine the psychological and physical damage to this child that will result from this action.

What you can do:

Sign this petition.

Go to this rally today.

Get informed by reading this article in English. I find it shocking, sad and depressing that these kinds of things *still* happen in so-called developed countries. Bleurgh.

On a happier note, I am very proud to be quoted in next month’s Hugs & Kisses magazine. This queer German mag contains an article about asexuality written by the amazing author of that zine on asexuality I wrote about. In fact, my most popular post on not wanting to have sex will be reprinted in the next edition of the zine. Yay for me! The article will also be featured in a new zine for queer youth in Berlin. More details to come sooooon!

Your sad and happy news for the day. Over and out. LTx

 

Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring

Why queer feminism is sexist, queer snobbery and, somehow, the Grand Prix.

Well, that was a bit ugly wasn’t it? All that fighting about the Berlin Femme Show. Meow, meow. I admit, swearing publicly on my blog wasn’t the best move, but it was the accumulation of years of femme hatred and misunderstanding and I was just sick of it and lost my temper. However, just like Nina Simone, I am a fluffy little kitten on the inside and I don’t want to be misunderstood. Oh well, on to the next topic.

Earlier this week I wrote a review of queer porno Mommy is Coming. It’s a pretty straightforward film with lots of sex and solid, quite funny, storyline. If you feel so inclined, I think you should go see it. However, something about it irked me a bit, and I’d like to talk about it more here.

The popularity of my post on hypersexualisation within the queer community obviously touched a raw nerve for many of you. A lot of you agreed that you felt pressure to want to and to have a lot of sex in order to fit in the queer scene. It seems, that in order to be a hip queer in the 21st century, you need to be very sexual and sexual in a certain way. I know that I’ve talked about the hypersexualisation of queer and the privileging of polyamory a fair bit already, but what can I say? I’m still not over it.

“Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach”

Last year I attended a zine workshop run by a friend. Each participant was asked to make a page for a collaborative zine for Lad.i.y.fest Berlin. We weren’t asked to focus on a particular topic, but given that this was a group of mostly queers at a feminist festival, nearly all of us wrote about our queer identities, which, of course, we probably all see as feminist. It was really fascinating to see a group of people, with hardly any prior guidance, all create pieces about their struggle to fit in the queer community and coming out as queer. One person wrote about feeling outcast as a bisexual, another a celebration of polyamory. I, of course, went on an angry femme rant. Diverse as they were, it took my friend’s perspective to see what all of these pieces had in common. She summarised – lifting her hand above her head – it seems that queer is an idea we think of as up here, and we – she moved her hand down to her waist – feel that we can’t get at it and are stuck down here. Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach.

This idea has stuck with me over the past year and come up again and again as I keep hitting wall upon wall within the queer community: femmephobia, the privileging of polyamory over monogamy, queer masculinities over queer femininities and BDSM over so-called ‘vanilla’ sex. Although we queers congratulate ourselves on living by radical ideas that eliminate sexist and patriarchal hierarchies, we too create hierarchies that cause us to push away individuals who don’t conform to our standards.

Can any of us, as queers, say that we feel 100% comfortable in the queer community? I certainly don’t.

Of course, I know that many of you lovely readers are super intelligent. I know that many queers understand that the queer community can never be a happy patriarchy-free bubble, because this is the world we live in. And the trouble with the patriarchy is that it gets everywhere. But I do think we rest on our laurels too much. We are a bit too self-congratulatory and too quick to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the queer bill.

Over the past few months I have come to distrust the phrase ‘queer feminism.’ In fact, when I hear an event described as queer feminist, I am most likely to grumble and not want to go. This is because the values I see queer feminism representing here in Berlin are actually ones that I find sexist. Queer feminism, has, for me, come to mean a party where I will be the only femme and I will be ignored. No one will hit on me and I will struggle to find anyone who looks like me. I’ll smile if I see anyone wearing a bit of make-up, a hint of colour. The only trans represented at these parties will be transmasculinities.

 “I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool”

When I came out for the second time as bisexual (I had come out as a lesbian before, and then promptly fallen in love with a guy), I did so not because I really felt bisexual (I thought of the guy moment as a freak accident rather than a possibly recurring event) but because it was the cool thing to say. As a girl, it was OK for me to come out as bisexual because that wasn’t seen as threatening to the heterosexist status quo. As a bisexual woman, I still had one foot in the hetero pond, and everyone knows that girls can’t really fuck each other anyway. It took a lot of courage, and it was a very slow process, for me to later come out as lesbian, an identity that I found fitted me better.

Later, moving to Montreal and getting my first taste of living within a queer community, I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool here too. Real queers have fluid sexualities and don’t focus on such unimportant things as gender. Real queers love the person, not the gender. It became very fashionable to say, “Man, I experience my sexuality as fluid” (except without the ‘Man’, because actually if you were cool you wouldn’t sound like someone trying to imitate a rap star from the 90s, like I do). I get the whole sexuality is fluid idea. My own sexuality has changed faster than a tyre in the Grand Prix and I don’t think it’s my job to dictate someone else’s desires for them. However, I don’t like snobbery and such statements, with their implied I’m-a-better-queer-than-you, really piss me off.

So, how does all this relate to Mommy is Coming and queer porn? In my review of the film, I noted that although it showed some fine butch-femme and butch-butch sex, its view of what ‘queer sex’ is still felt pretty limited to me.

As queers and/or lesbians, what you will, we are starved for representation in film. There are still very few films out there about us, and even fewer that don’t pathologise us completely in order to ease heterosexist angst about queers taking over the world. Mainstream films about us portray us as fucked-up power lesbians who have non-penetrative sex on flowery beds next to our teddy bears. So it’s not surprising that our community-made queer films tend to go in the opposite direction. BDSM, dildos, public sex and leather. However, just like being a lesbian is uncool, it feels to me like the prevalence of these types of sex and relationships in queer films show a one-sided view of queer life. They seem to be saying that this is the epitome of what it means to fuck and love as a queer. If you’re a cool queer, this is what you’ll be doing in your bed/dungeon/swing tonight.

As a reader commented on my latest article:

“In the same way rad fem lesbian separatism did a fine job of ostracising certain women based on an essentialist reading of bodies, I find that far too much ‘queer’ culture and porn is doing exactly this again under a different banner”

Thanks, supernaut, for summarising so well. It seems that, instead of living in a happy-go-lucky world free of sexism and social norms, we queers are enforcing social norms in exactly the same way as the big evil Patriarchy Dude does ‘out there.’ Queer films promote polyamorous relationships, public sex and BDSM as a privileged viewpoint.

Contrast this with the fluffy-bunny-rabbit version of lesbianism we see in mainstream L-films, and you get a kind of kinky devil versus innocent angel version of gay life. Queers are leather-touting bois, lesbians are asexual little girls. It’s pretty interesting that these two images mirror the virgin/whore dichotomy, (not to mention masculinities vs. femininities) right?

My point here isn’t to slate Mommy is Coming, or to write a harsh critique of the few queer and mainstream lesbian films we have. I just want to point out that, yes, we do put too much pressure on each film to represent how we live our lives, and, yes, there aren’t enough films about us. So, budding queer filmmakers, who’s ready to take up the challenge?

Did you like this article? Then stay tuned for: Radical vs. Queer feminism; the showdown, next week.

Trolls Attack the Berlin Femme Show

Sometimes I get so angry at the sexism I see in the world that it makes me just want to scream. This is the feeling I got when I read the sexist comments on Berlin queer mag Siegessäule‘s review of The Berlin Femme Show. The night was such a success with over 600 guests and 25 amazing performers. It really made me hope, just a little bit, that things might be looking up for femmes here in Berlin. The review was very appreciative and I was so proud of the amazing range of feminist statements our performers made: from body image, to trans identities, queer homogeneity to sex work. But no, apparently when you get a bunch of mostly feminine women performing burlesque, all we are doing is taking our tits out and being pornographic. Of course.

I mean, there is nothing political about a woman desperately breaking her diet by eating her cosmetics and then celebrating her fatness by dancing to Fat Bottomed Girls. There is nothing political about seeing fat burlesque at all, in a world which tells us we only have sexual power as women when we starve ourselves into thinness. There is nothing political about taking the stereotype of the housewife and using it to bake dreams of a different queer world and to celebrate all the feminists who have gone before us. There is nothing political about showing the thoughts of a sex worker as she strips and comes for a client, or standing up on stage as a transsexual woman and talking about the exclusion of transfemininities in the queer community. There is nothing political about standing on stage in front of a community who has done everything in its power to ignore you, discount you and keep you out and demand to be seen as sexual and queer.

Of course, all we girls are doing is taking our tits out and disappointing our queer feminist sisters, who obviously know a lot more about what it means to be queer and feminist than we do. Boo hoo fucking hoo.

So, I encourage all of you to read my zine which is now fully translated and consists of 80 pages of art about why, exactly, these kinds of attitudes are bullshit.

Mommy is Coming…

…to Berlin. Europe’s ‘queer capital’ hosts a new film that is definitely not your average porno. Mommy is Coming is showing at Moviemiento Kino until Monday 26th March.

I know, I know, I’ve been a bit awol recently. I blame all the amazing femme organising I’ve been doing. But, not to worry, I am now back in cyber world with a review of an awesome new queer film. Plus, expect updates on the Berlin Femme Show and pics soon! Now, without further ado, let’s talk about porn…

Last week I went to see a new queer porn film at local Berlin cinema Moviemiento. First aired at the 62th Berlinale this February, last week saw its official German premiere.  Mommy is Coming isn’t your average porno. It feels more like a story-based film, which happens to have a lot of hot sex in it.

To be quite honest, my expectations of queer films aren’t that high. I watch them for the affirmation I get from seeing my way of life up there on the big screen. I watch them because, finally, I can enjoy sex scenes without the dissonance of having to imagine a hot butch in the role of the guy on the screen. I also enjoy spotting the queers I have met in real-life on the silver screen (Gaymous!). But it is a familiar complaint among dykes that I know that films about us are often not very good.

Our community is starved for attention and representation. It’s a long-running joke among lesbians that films about our lives are generally below standard. If they’re a mainstream film they generally feature slim, white, feminine lesbians exchanging chaste kisses and having oral, non-penetrative sex. Sometimes a finger or two works its way into the lover’s vagina, but God forbid that sex between women involve anything as exciting as a dildo or other sex toy! While, of course, lots of women do enjoy this dynamic, it’s certainly not the whole word in queer eroticism.

U.S. Comedienne Margaret Cho on her first time with a woman

Watching lesbian movies as a baby dyke I was seriously unimpressed. Is this what my sex life as a lesbian was going to be like? Was I supposed to roll around in not-very-excessive ecstasy while another girl went down on me to bad indie pop? Maybe it would be better to be straight after all? At least then I would get some motherfucking penetration!

When I think of the mainstream, accepted representation of lesbian sex it makes me pretty mad. I am convinced that the cutesie, ‘oh look they’re really just kittens’ (it’s all that rubbing) sex scenes serve to ease cultural anxiety that women might not need a guy to fulfil their erotic needs. If there’s no cock involved, then it’s OK. Because we all know that what a woman really needs is a good fucking. I remember one of my friends saying to me that she would be a lesbian if she wouldn’t miss cock too much. And you know what, at the time I thought she had a point! Who wants to be a dyke when it means all you get is some light kissing and frottage?

I know it’s been said to death, but 2010’s The Kids Are All Right is a perfect example of ‘it ain’t sex unless there’s a – biological – cock’. This romantic comedy about a lesbian couple’s relationship to the sperm-donor father of their children was portrayed in mainstream media as the pro-gay film of the year. At last, a positive portrayal of ‘normal’ lesbian love. Erm, no! The only hot sex scenes in the film are when Julianne Moore cheats on her partner with the sexy, irresponsible sperm donor. I mean, who wouldn’t choose Mark Ruffalo on a motorcycle over neurotic Annette Benning in a sweatshirt? Juli gets to do it doggy style several times with Mark, but the only time her and Annette even vaguely get jiggy with it, it’s a fumble under the covers with a vibrator while watching gay porn. Even this ‘happy’ couple need to spice up their boring sex life with some good old cock. The fact that the lesbians in this apparently pro-lesbo film need to watch gay porn in order to get off says everything you need to know about what we think of lesbians and sex.

But maybe there’s another way of looking at The Kids Are All Right.  It’s no coincidence that Mark Ruffalo on his vintage BMW bike looks like more of a dyke than businesswoman Annette Benning. Annette portrays your mainstream, trouser suit-wearing lesbian who can’t really get her girl off in bed, while Mark emanates the raw sexuality of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. And what does James Dean look like? Why, of course, a butch dyke!

Dykes on Bikes: James Dean vs. Mark Ruffalo

I remember watching a film about butch masculinity a few years ago which made a pretty convincing argument that famous Hollywood stars like Dean and Marlon Brando have the same kind of masculinity as butch dykes. Unfortunately I can’t remember its name, but its message (and the homoeroticism of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock) really stuck with me. As a teenager I was obsessed with the young Leonardo DiCaprio and I have since noticed that a lot of our Hollywood heartthrobs look like boyish girls. Think of the babyfaced beauty of Robert Pattinson in Twilight with his pouty red lips and smooth skin. It’s exactly the kind of beauty I see in butch women.

So maybe virile Mark Ruffalo with his cheeky charm and motorcycle is some kind of unconscious representation of butch cock? Without wanting to get too queer film theory on you, this idea leads me back to Mommy is Coming. Mommy is Coming is definitely not your average queer film. Its actors are ‘real-life’ queers and have pretty varied genders. Not only do I, lucky girl, get to see some butch-femme sex, but there’s also a pretty hot butch/transmasculine threesome and the whole film is permeated with the kinky dynamics of BDSM. This queer porno definitely doesn’t buy into mainstream ideas about lesbian sex, thank God, and manages to combine romance, hotness and sexual exploration in one fiction film/porno bundle.

It’s true that Mommy is Coming is made for a relatively small audience. I can’t imagine it getting the relatively mainstream distribution of romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein or the ‘lesbians are psychopaths’ Hollywood hit Monster. And maybe the fact that it is aimed at a specifically queer audience gives it more freedom. It’s not trying to appease cultural anxiety about queers, in fact, it’s probably trying to do the opposite. But it is a relief to walk into a cinema and see some sexy queer sex on the big screen for a change.

So, maybe we should make Mommy is Coming required viewing for all the closeted teenagers out there. We can show them that being a lesbian, or trans, or queer, isn’t always about gentle patting between floral sheets, but can involve some pretty mind-blowing sexual adventures. I know that I would have appreciated someone telling teenage me that there was more than one way of having queer sex. It would have saved me a lot of anxiety about my future sex life and maybe I would have jumped into my new queer life with more sexual abandon. Seriously, someone needs to destroy these stereotypes and Mommy is Coming is a step in the right direction.

Mommy is Coming is showing in Berlin for one more week only. Go see it at Moviemiento, Kottbusser Damm 22, Berlin-Kreuzberg. You won’t be sorry!

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Stills from the film

Femmes hit town in less than 48 hours!

Yes, that is my tabloid story for the day. It is only 2 days until the Berlin Femme Show 2012, and boy, have we got a show for you! Not only do we have over 20 (!!) performers including burlesque artists, poets and musicians, we also have 4 fantastic DJs!

Event photographers will be the fabulous Sara Svärtan Persson from Bend Over Magazine and Simson Petrol! Now even more updated! Owing to Hye Barnet’s hair catching fire, our new co-host for the evening will be Siegessäule Drag Queen 2011 Kay P. Rinha ! Expect some bilingual banter between Kay and Mimi.

And now for some pretty pictures! Taken from the Berlin Femme Show 2010, these are a subtle hint at Thursday’s delights to come.

What: The Berlin Femme Show 2012

When: 15th March

Where: Lido, Cuvrystraße 7, 10997 Berlin

Doors 19:00

Spoken word show: 20:00

Cabaret: 22:00

DJs & Dancing: 00.30

Cost: sliding scale €4-€8

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News will return to normal in 2 days.