A snippet from an upcoming piece…

The falling out of friendships, the always temporal and sometimes temporary nature of activist communities spoke to my own experiences of friendship break-ups, activist relationships forged and broken, miscommunications, flawed politics, exile and exclusion that characterizes my life and work within queer communities in London, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto.

Is burlesque just a fancy word for stripping?

As you know, I’ve joined the ranks of featured bloggers at Rabble.ca. Come and check me out there as I will be publishing exclusive content on both ye olde blog site, and ye newe conglomerate host. As always, please let me know what you think as ask:

Is burlesque a new-wave feminist performance or a throwback to a misogynist tradition? I try to pin down the pin-ups and find out if burlesque really is just stripping.

When Dita von Teese was asked if burlesque is just a fancy word for stripper, she replied, candidly, yes.

Often touted as the mother of a movement that has been lauded by fourth wave feminism as ‘liberating’ and ‘empowering’ for women, for von Teese to equate burlesque with stripping flies in the face of many of her female fan’s pro-burlesque arguments.

Burlesque is, for feminism, a controversial issue. Feminists of the anti-porn persuasion might argue that taking your clothes off in public means you are buying into the illusion that women only gain power through the lens of male objectification. Sex positive feminists might counter that by taking control of the ‘male gaze’ the burlesque performer is cultivating her* own subjectivity. As she determines what sexual  image she presents, she is the agent. The latter is the viewpoint of a fourth-wave feminist audience who are eager to claim that burlesque is anything but stripping.

My own view of burlesque is a bit more ambivalent. I don’t think burlesque is inherently feminist or inherently sexist. I have been to well-known burlesque clubs in London (the European one) and Berlin, where i failed to find much that is feminist in the performance. On the other hand, seeing performers with various body shapes and genders create performances around fraught subjects such as fat, eating and the politics of hair removal, I found their burlesque intellectually stimulating and 100% bona fide feminist.

© Sara Svartan Persson.Simson Petrol
© Sara Svartan Persson.Simson Petrol

Personally, I’ve found that the difference between a conventional strip and a feminist performance often lies in the appearance of the unexpected. As an audience member, I often find myself wondering if the performer is reproducing stereotypes of femininity, or exploring gender and making me see it in new, unpredictable, ways.

Another ingredient that can turn sexist assumptions on their head is the appearance of the performer. If she has a non-normative body or chooses to present it in a non-normative way, this can challenge the expectations of the audience and thereby convey a thought- provoking message. Performers with bodies that are culturally scapegoated, such as fat people, trans* folk, or people of colour can use these to present a new glimpse of what sexy can be. Performers with culturally “normative” bodies can present them in an unusual way (by strapping on a dildo, for instance) and thereby challenge our notions of gender, sexuality and a “woman’s place.”

It would, of course, take a PhD level of inquiry to explore the distinction between burlesque and stripping satisfactorily, and I just don’t have space to do that in 1500 words or less. However, it is safe to say that burlesque goes beyond a purely titillating performance when it is naughty in other ways. The radical nature of this burlesque lies in its cheeky challenge to sexist norms.

Now, if you’re a really radical feminist, you might be wondering “What’s so wrong with stripping, anyhow?” My, and most people’s, use of the word stripping implies a moral judgement. Stripping is for stupid women and those who don’t have any other choice. Stripping is a bad thing, a last resort.

For the purpose of the article (and perhaps because I am chicken), I haven’t been trying to make a moral distinction between burlesque and stripping. As Dita von Teese said, things are more messy than that, and where’s the fun in being PC anyway?

© Sara Svartan Persson/Simson Petrol
© Sara Svartan Persson/Simson Petrol

Many feminists’ desire to distance burlesque from stripping is symptomatic of the ideological messiness that von Teese argues is inherent to the medium. Not only is burlesque an art form, it also is stripping. Perhaps even the most radical feminists won’t be able to argue away the sexist conventions that are upheld even as they are parodied on the stage.

However there is a difference between burlesque and stripping. If for nothing else, the difference between the two can be boiled down to class. As my very wise partner said, burlesque is a privilege. And as I am very wisely going to elaborate, that means it is a choice. Every single burlesque performer I have met does it as a hobby. There may be a few well-paid professional burlesque dancers out there, but the majority do it purely for fun. I doubt anyone would perform in a strip club for free. Stripping is most definitely work, and burlesque is something only the privileged can afford to do.

As much as I would like to tie up the loose ends of this article in a neat little bow, I don’t have the recipe for what makes a burlesque performance feminist or not. As an amateur burlesque performer and a stringent feminist, I hate to hear that other feminists consider my performances inherently sexist. Although I agree that aspects of the burlesque tradition are sexist, I think these conventions can also be turned upside down to give the audience a new idea of what sexy can be. Burlesque, it seems, is hard to pin down.

N.B. I sometimes refer to the burlesque dancer as “she” in this post. I realize men, genderqueer and trans* folk can and do perform burlesque, but I have chosen to address the sexist dynamics of burlesque mainly in relation to its female, cisgendered performers.

Butch and Femme: a rant

Butch and Femme: the lowdown on why queer feminism is sexist. The below should be read in a Dan Savage-style rant with a lot of sarcastic emphasis and swearing.

A femme performer once said that butch and femme is the armpit of the world. By this, I understood that butch and femme is the sexuality everybody loves to hate on. It’s the scapegoat for why femme-on-femme or butch-on-butch or pansexuality is sooo much better. More radical. More enlightened. Y’know? Because butches and femmes who love each other are just imitating the heterosexuals! In this formulation, being into butch/femme is even worse than being straight because at least the breeders are doing it for realz!

Imagine my disappointment then to read her profess her tiredness of butch/femme via social media and the ridiculous responses to that post. Cue people calling butch/femme “socially constructed and limiting,” that butch/femme is a “category” from which others have chosen to “free themselves.”

This suggestion that butch/femme is socially constructed, that it is in a little brainwashed, pre-1970s birdcage of its own is really self-satisfied. It’s like, oh, you’re still doing that? Grrl, that is so 1950s! All the cool kids are doing this now.

But hey, I guess you don’t get to call yourself cool unless others are uncool.

As if other queers have reached this level of sexual enlightenment where we’ve somehow managed to distinguish between patriarchy and the personal. Between our selves and social attitudes. As if it isn’t fucking patriarchal to participate in a community norm that says all genderqueer / vaguely-or-explicitly masculine bois / trans men should only date other genderqueer / vaguely-or-explicitly masculine bois / trans men. Wow, apparently queer feminism is all about privileging masculinity and men now!

And, before you all jump down my throats, yes! OF COURSE I recognise there are multiple sexual expressions and this is OK and everybody is allowed to be different and THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I’M SAYING! Just leave me the fuck be! Don’t judge my sexuality. Don’t assume that you know more about me than I do. Don’t tell me what is better for me. You know what? That’s not an opinion you’re allowed to have.

I’m Not Leaving You!

Hello awesome people. Some of you have been asking me, since I left Berlin a few days ago, if I intend to keep blogging. And the answer is YES YES a thousand times YES! I have a lot of posts on the go and maybe even some new plans for the site. Keep tuned in…

But back to the most exciting news of today. Well, not new news. More old, but still definitely very pretty. For those of you who still haven’t seen them, I decided to post a small selection of the wonderful and beautiful photos of The Berlin Femme Show 2012. They are so beautiful, I want you to see them too! Check out the slideshow below. A.W.E.S.O.M.E.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Please don’t reproduce them without asking permission from the photographers Simson Petrol or Sara Svärtan Persson first. Slideshow can be viewed permanently under Performances tab.

I am on the radio!

Hey guys, here’s a bit of Sunday lazy listening for you. It’s an interview with the Dresden-based radio station, coloRadio, recorded last weekend at Ladyfest Leipzig. Thanks to Antje for interviewing me! We recorded at 2 in the morning outside a queer punk party after I had drunk a lot of gin, but I think I still manage to make quite a lot of sense. Click here to listen.

Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for my lowdown on the anti-sexism workshops I have run over the past few weeks. Yay for fem(me)inist activism!

Femmepowerment at Ladyfest Leipzig this Saturday!

Pertinent to that little article I retweeted which questions whether in-fighting hurts feminism, I am going to be giving a workshop about sexism within the queer community at Ladyfest Leipzig this weekend! Yay! This is a workshop for feminine queers to share the ways in which we feel left out of the left-wing queer scene and brainstorm ways to make it more inclusive. It’s all about fem-me-powerment and LOVE. I look forward to meeting you all! Workshop is in English with a German translator.

Scroll down to read all about it or click here for the info in German.

Feminist zombies take on the world

Sexism in the Queer Community – feminine queers only

Saturday 9th June, 12:30 – 14:00

Linxxnet, Leipzig

Have you ever felt excluded from the queer community because of your gender expression? Discussion-based workshop that aims to share experiences of sexism and form femme and queer-feminine community. I’ll also introduce my zine project on this subject and talk about femme activism. Open to all feminine-identified queers, of whatever sex or gender. Workshop in English with the possibility of German translation

What kind of man are you going to be?

At first I was going to address this piece only to the trans guys in our community, but then I realised that I experience this kind of sexism at the hands/eyes/unconscious of many queers. I don’t think sexism is 100% determined by your gender, and I feel just as excluded/alienated/stared-at-in-queer-parties by other women, gender queers, dykes and lesbians for the way I present. I feel just as unsupported by them, and also question how much they really would be there for me, a feminine woman, when I need them.

What kind of man are you going to be? Are you going to support me when I am harassed, or are you just going to stand idly by and let it happen? These were the questions yelled out by a friend into the late Summer night. We were sitting by the fountain at Alexanderplatz, bitching loudly about the femmephobia of the Berlin queer scene. A couple of wandering men approached us, seeing us as easy targets. We got rid of them quickly, loudly, aggressively. They seemed surprised.

My friend had just finished telling me about an incident in which she was harassed in a Berlin squat bar, and then blamed by other guests of the queer feminist party for ‘causing a fuss’ when forcibly evicting the harasser. Both of us were deeply frustrated with the failure of our fellow queers to support us when we are threatened. We felt that there was a hierarchy in the queer scene, which placed transmasculinities at the top, forcing transfemininities to the bottom.

Another friend of mine said that the queer trans men in Australia are much better at questioning the privilege their masculinity gives them in this sexist world. I know, of course, there are tonnes of lovely feminist men, trans and cis, out there who question male privilege. But, in general, Berlin doesn’t seem to be doing too well on that point. When queer masculinities are celebrated as the epitome of queer eroticism, when transmasculine queers takes up so much space in our bars and parties and forget to step aside for me, making me squeeze around the edges, then there is a problem.

(Why should they step aside, you ask? Because this world is really sexist. Because in every space I move in, on the street, in bars, in shops, discussion groups I am expected to step aside and make space for men. To give them priority, first word, right of passage. To automatically put them first and myself second. And I fucking refuse to do this in our queer spaces too.)

There is a tendency to self-satisfaction in this small community. We seem to think sexism doesn’t happen here. We are queer feminists, dude, we are so radical! But of course the patriarchy gets in here. It gets in everywhere. And even among self-declared feminists, masculinity is being celebrated at femininities’ cost.

I don’t think misogyny is inherent to masculinity. I don’t think that being a man or a masculine person makes you automatically more sexist than, say, a feminine woman. But I do think men are socialised to believe in their superiority. There is a lot of power that comes with taking up male space. And with that power comes responsibility. How are you going to use your agency? Are you going to help carve out a space in which femininities can also be respected? Or are you going to take advantage of your power, which always comes at femininities’ cost, and perpetuate the sexist status quo?

I think I have said this, like, a million times. Hell, I’ve written a whole thesis on it. Masculinity and femininity don’t have to be played off each other, like cheap adversaries; femininity the Tybalt to our lovely queer Romeo. In order to celebrate transmasculinity, you don’t have to reject me. You can celebrate muscles and ties and sexy bois at the same time as loving colourful feathers and cleavages and feminine flirtation.

Man, I get all into my queer utopias when I start imagining alternative definitions of masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, ones that don’t involve us saying one is bad in order to make the other seem good. Eat your heart out José Muñoz! Will masculinity and femininity, men and women still exist in this non-sexist utopia? Or will these identities automatically be destroyed when we break down sexist boundaries? Man, I hope not, or my whole erotic identity will be buggered. God, I love that play on gender!

It is right to celebrate transmasculinity and recognising its right to be celebrated at a time when medically transitioning is only just becoming possible. But there is a fine line between celebrating and fetishising. And when the sexist behaviour of individuals and groups is ignored and allowed because trans men can do no wrong, they are the epitome of the oppressed, the superqueers, then fetishisation is happening. I think that a lot of the dynamics I see happening here in Berlin are unconscious. I don’t think people are deliberately trying to exclude femmes or trans women or make us feel unwelcome. But that is exactly what is happening because there is an unexamined idolisation of transmasculinity.

So, I would like to address this question to all transmasculine queers in our community. It’s not only what kind of man are you going to be, but also what kind of queer, dyke, butch, boi, genderqueer…? Are you going to question your masculine privilege in our queer society or are you going to embrace it and take advantage of it at feminine women’s expense?

Queer vs. radical feminism, the hoedown

Honey, I’m hooome! Well, there’s no better way to kill your blog stats than by wandering off for spontaneous spots of meditating in the woods. Oh well, I’m sure all that good karma will mean I get famous in another life. So, where were we? Oh yes, ranting about queer feminism. Here it goes:

Is this really a hoedown? No it’s not, because a hoedown is a country dance, and no matter how many wonderful things you can do on the internet, you can’t dance on it (unless you jump up and down on your laptop, but maybe that’s taking things too literally). I just like using the word because it has ‘ho’ in it, and we all know how queer feminism has practically become synonymous with sex positivity, perhaps even too much. Anyways.

A coupla months ago someone misread my blog as an attack on radical feminism (it’s the subtitle). I was shocked, truly, because I have always identified as a radical feminist. What? I hear you cry? You? But you’re not a lesbian separatist into non-penetrative sex living in a commune in London! To which I reply, not I’m not. And do you know why I call myself a radical feminist? Because I always thought it meant just that; radical feminism.

I don’t know how I managed to miss this, but watching documentaries about the 70s Women’s Rights movement and reading all that feminist theory, I still never associated the term radical feminism with that movement. I always called those guys Second Wavers, or lesbian separatists (tongue-in-cheek with love and appreciation). I mean, yeah, they were radical feminists but so am I! Talking to my friends however, it seems I am the only feminist in the world who doesn’t have this association. Oh well. I always did have my head in the clouds.

Following this shockhorror moment I looked up radical feminism on Wikipedia, to try and sort out my confusion. The opening definition of radical feminism reads:

“[Radical feminism] focuses on the theory of patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships based on an assumption that male supremacy oppresses women”

And I’m like, yeah, I can dig that! I think patriarchy produces male supremacy which in turn oppresses women. Go radical feminists! Yeah! But then talking with a friend, they point out a general feeling from the queer feminist side that radical feminism is too hard on men and blames them for a fucked-up system which isn’t entirely their fault. And I think, yes that’s true, patriarchy isn’t wholly the fault of men, but by God do they participate in it and enjoy it! Then my friend suggests that queer feminists are so down on radical feminism because the latter is seen as a movement which fails to recognise plural gender identities. And I think, yeah, I guess I have this association too. I think of the failure of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to allow transwomen to attend, and how respected Aussie feminist Germaine Greer is so nutty when it comes to trans rights.

But then we come to queer feminism and my feeling that queer feminism, at least in Berlin, stands for values which end up reproducing really fucking sexist dynamics. I think of the vast femmephobia here, or the valorisation of transmasculinities at transfeminities’ cost and the fact that very few queers will stick up for women when we are sexually harassed. I used to call myself a queer feminist, but I don’t anymore, because I now associate it with traditional masculinity-is-better-than-femininity sexism. This is quite sad really, when you think about it.

The main problem I have with queer feminism is that it seems to think of ‘woman’ as an outdated category. That we are so beyond the boring realities of people being ‘men’ and ‘women’ and now live in a multiple-gendered world which makes these categories obsolete. But I wonder, why can’t some of the old stories about sex and the new ones about gender both be true? Why can’t both women and men exist, as well as other gender identities? Why can’t some people have an experience of being a man or woman which aligns with mainstream ideas about what they are, and some not? Some men really are fucking male and masculine and heterosexual. Some women are inherently feminine and attracted to masculinity. It doesn’t mean he or she is brainwashed. There are so many realities in this world that we can’t even begin to understand. And none of this, none of this, changes the fact that we live in a sexist world in which women are daily harassed, abused and murdered.

Queer feminists spends so much time fighting for the rights of transmasculine folks, that we end up acting out the same rejection of women that happens everyday, all over the world. Guys, WOMEN STILL EXIST! And our reality sucks.

Radical feminism also needs to remember that sexism doesn’t only affect women and to acknowledge that there are more than 2 sexes and genders in the world.

I guess in terms of my politics I have a foot in both camps. Like many ‘old-school’ feminists, I think there are inherent differences between maleness and femaleness that can’t be accounted for by cultural conditioning. I also think that maleness and femaleness aren’t determined exclusively by biology. We know very little about gender and it seems obvious there are more than two genders and sexes (aside: I remember with fondness a very special former colleague who instead of generally accepting that there are multiple gender identities, insisted that we can count them and that there are 58!).

I would like to find a feminist language that includes and argues for the rights and needs of everybody, even when those rights and needs are different. Feminism has to mean that we will recognise the different positions of women and men (queer or straight, trans or cis), queers, transmasculine folks, transfeminine folks, people of colour and from different economic backgrounds, religions plus many other positionings that I can’t even think of!

Ah, I guess this is what meditating does to you. It make you go all mushy inside and say, Guys, why can’t we all just love each other? Come on, let’s have a big group hug.

I know we’re very busy reclaiming a lot of words are the moment like, prude (yes I am fighting for that one) and slut and queer, but I want to add two more to the list: ‘radical’ followed by ‘feminism’ pronounced in a sincere, celebratory, non-derisive way. As a feminist I appreciate all former movements and see the flaws in my own. I know that my own feminism has some massive gaping holes, and I trust that we mostly all just have good intentions and are doing our best. I am also a perfectionist, and I want us to do even better. Yay radical feminism! Yay queers! Yay us!

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