Is burlesque just a fancy word for stripping?

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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.

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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