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

13 thoughts on “burlesque: sexy or sexist?

  1. Nadine Lantzsch

    Sorry, but this is awkward. you wrote:

    “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.”

    Despite of your text, a comparison to your own eating behaviours/disorders with nazi victims, sitting in extermination camps, working for 12h per day (and more), threatened with death, murdered, tortured is nothing than ignorant, belittling and bullshitting. don’t know, what this has to do with your other claims in the text, has to do with queer-/feminist perspectives on bodies, burlesque and (queer) nakedness.

    sorry and then you tagged this with “fun fact”… boah i’d rather puke right now. and it doesn’t make a difference, that naomi wolf had that “facts” in her book about beauty norms and you cited this here. please think about it twice in the future, before you compare sth. to some group’s experenciences, you will never have.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hey Nadine, thanks for the comment. I did wonder before posting whether that was OK or not. You obviously say not and I am listening 🙂

      I agree that making comparisons between eating disorders and the compulsory starvation of women, and the Holocaust is potentially problematic. Maybe it doesn’t work in my text and I need to think about whether I can defend it or not. But those lines are an almost direct quote from The Beauty Myth and I think that in Wolf’s text they do work because they illustrate the extent to which contemporary women’s experience is horrific. I am not sure about the use of statistics in my reply to you, but I think a loose comparison can be drawn between the genocidal logic of patriarchy which wills women (in the developed world) into nonexistence through compulsory starvation, and the genocidal logic of Nazi anti-Semitism which murdered millions of Jews. They are different types of hate with some similar effects. I am not trying to say that, ‘oh my experience of eating is like living in an extermination camp.’ I would never, ever think or say that.

      Of course, you may say that comparing one type of hate crime to another is wrong. That the experience of Jewish people should never be taken out of context to illustrate a point about contemporary women’s experiences. Maybe this is me being non-Jewish and blind, but in the sense that it makes a shocking reality clearer I think the analogy serves a purpose. Its shocking nature draws attention to another shocking form of extermination which is happening to women right now.

      I can, however, defend my use of the words ‘fun fact.’ This, in the way it sounded in my head, is ironic and it is the intention of this phrase to acknowledge that nothing about this fact is fun at all. That this fact is, in fact, horrific. I was hoping that all my readers would get that! I think sometimes these misunderstandings come from speaking different languages.

  2. Laura,
    I’m utterly dumbfounded that you even need to defend your performance at the Femme Show as political – how could a woman owning her own body and having control over her sexual image on a stage not political, inherently in a world that wishes to control that?

    Arguments that say that burlesque is inherently sexist perform a violence on women the same as the rest of society – it is putting a restriction on the freedom of sexual expression of someone else’s body.. a woman’s body.
    It’s enough to drive me to tears, really. By choosing to evaluate your performance as anti-feminist and sexist they are playing the same heteronormative game as the rest of heterosexist society. This assumption says that a woman’s body, naked, dressed in lingerie, or anything ‘sexy’, must be for the objectification and satisfaction of the male gaze. What kind of feminist analysis is that?! Where is the emancipation of a (might I add, QUEER) woman’s body, and her sexual autonomy from heterosexist assumptions that it must be for a man? Gosh, this is exactly why burlesque is political!

    I’m tired, and have so much to say but I’m too exhausted… but Laura, great post.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Don’t cry, Molly! With the power of words and the internet we will stage a revolution to convert all those fake feminist to our true cult. Cue evil laughter now: ahahahahaa!

      Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk that caffeine this morning.

    2. GG

      I tend to think the secret in these cases, when deciding whether something is truly sexist or not, is to ask: do men need to do this?

      In the case of burlesque and even queer burlesque (which I do view as more interesting for challenging social expectations about image), the answer is no.

      It’s easy to confuse problems regarding the self-esteem of individual women and problems with a patriarchal society. Ultimately if the author does not feel confident in her own sexuality without having to strip for the baying male public then that is her problem to sort out, not societies. All she is currently doing is propagating the assumption that women only gain power and confidence through the use of their body rather than those ‘unseen qualities’: intelligence, humor, resilience.

      Men, as most men will agree, are not fussy. A naked large woman is titillating, just as a naked small woman is.

      Society needs to take note however and change the factors that caused a young woman to feel that this was her only way to take power. The answer is not, however, a glorified strip tease.

      1. Lipstick Terrorist

        Hi GG,

        I respectfully disagree. The sources of women’s – and individual’s power – don’t only lie in the intellectual and non-corporeal qualities that you mention such as ‘intelligence, humour, resilience.’ These are qualities that I value highly. But a woman’s sense of connection with her own body, her sexuality are also equally important and necessary to live a full life. If strip teasing in an environment she is comfortable with help a woman to connect with her body and sexuality, as it did me, it can be amazingly therapeutic.

        I am also suspect of feminism that says all public female nudity and female sexuality can be dismissed as ‘objectification.’ We need to value non-intellectual and corporeal qualities, which are dismissed as ‘female’ by traditional Western philosophy, as well as traditionally ‘male’ intellectual qualities. I strongly believe that we can come to realize our own power only by living fully embodied as well as intellectually satisfying lives.

        And, as a queer and celibate woman at the time of my burlesque, I wasn’t stripping to attract a male lover, or any lover. I was doing it to heal my own relationship with my body, and it really helped.

      2. Cyn

        To be clear, I was agreeing with GG… I see burlesque as yet another obstacle on the road to gender equality, and unfortunately women are doing this to themselves. Men, and some women, will continue to treat women like meat as long as there are women serving themselves up in this manner. Their need for validation is costing the rest of us OUR freedom from oppression. Personally, I find that incredibly anti-feminist.

      3. Lipstick Terrorist

        Hi Cyn, To me this sounds like another rape apologist-style argument. “If the women didn’t dress/act like that, she wouldn’t have been attacked.” I absolutely disagree that acting in a sexual and feminine way and undressing onstage is inherently anti-feminist. Women’s bodies and sexualities ARE constantly being controlled and I see designating some behaviors as anti-feminist complicit in this as a form of misogyny. It also reminds me of some feminists of the 70s (and now) who think that wearing make-up and expressing femininity is anti-feminist. Femininity is not a patriarchal construct. Neither are women’s bodies and sexualities. We should stop treating them as such

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  5. anon

    Just because the crowd cheers for queer beauty doesn’t mean the act is feminist. If anything, in the context of patriarchy a cheering crowd would mean that you are being compliant with patriarchy. A booing crowd that hates your performance would be a better indication that the act is feminist. A queer burlesque show is only slightly more subversive than a hetero burlesque show( not at all subversive); while a lack of burlesque is the most subversive of all.

    Patriarchy has channels carved into the territory of sexuality so that the flow of social approval takes paths that are supportive of the system. Patriarchy carves paths into the social field as well as the individual. Women in patriarchy are only ‘approved’ into power so long as it is through objectification. Women are only “affirmed” in their beauty when they are compliant with the male gaze (or at least partially compliant via objectification). Individuals internalize these flows and they become what is “liked” and “enjoyed” by the individual, but the desire for these acts was mapped outside the individual and before these individuals were even born (by the social system of patriarchy); What was originally a channel carved by men for men becomes women’s own desire, which is one of the strongest psychological mechanisms patriarchy has developed because it wears the mask of individual agency. It hides the whole social system and turns it into a question of what this [decontextualized] individual “likes”.

    Your feelings of affirmation are real, the problem feminists have lies somewhere else: We don’t like that these feelings were only possible through channels patriarchy has pre-established to maintain its order. Continuing to flow through patriarchy’s channels, even as queers, is not feminist.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      I read this comment several times and am still finding it difficult to unpack. I disagree with you, but am happy to host your opinion on my site. I do take exception to the exclusionary ‘we’ of your ‘feminists,’ as many feminists, like myself, find some burlesque/stripping feminist.

      I think the feminism of some burlesque lies in the empowernent of the performer, the performer and performance addressing norms in patriarchy, whether than be safer sex or problematizing the gaze. I think if we were to shy away from all practises with a patriarchal history/foundation, we wouldn’t be able to leave our bedrooms.

      Oh wait, but we live in accommodation rented/bought under a capitalist, patriarchal system! Exiting that system is impossible.,

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