Am I asking for it?

Part 2 of 2 on parties: norms in straight vs. queer spaces, how to create a safer atmosphere and is there such a thing as unspoken consent?

Last week, I was really enraged at the sexist dynamics of a party, which had advertised itself as a respectful, erotic place for people of all persuasions. I felt like the lack door policy, and the permission of cameras, led to a sexist dynamic of straight men in casual clothes ogling women dressed-up in erotic wear. I was frustrated that the organisers hadn’t reinforced their door policy and allowed people in who were not on the guest list. I thought they needed to take responsibility for the atmosphere of the parties they create and acknowledge where they go wrong.

The vibe of this party got me thinking about the difference between this, a mixed party for straight and queer people, and queer parties for queers. My experience of mixed parties is, sadly, that I often feel the ‘freaky queers’ are being objectified by the ‘normal’ straight people. I get angrily defensive of my people when I feel we are put on display for the titillation of straight people. When we are just expressing our freaky selves in an atmosphere that we assumed would be safe.

Although I have many criticisms of the dynamics of queer communities, I do think there are some things we do well. Although our attempts to talk about hierarchies and prejudices are flawed, at least we are trying to talk about them. I don’t like imposing a blanket ban on straight men from spaces, because there are some straight men I would like to flirt with. But last week reminded me of how blessed I am that I can sometimes go to a party where I can dress like a pretty slut, and feel safe doing that.

Slutwalk NYC 2011

Last week I promised I would answer the tricky question, ‘is there such a thing as unspoken consent?’ Hmm. I really do set myself up for challenges, don’t I? I don’t really want to discuss sexual consent here, but I do want to discuss the norms of queer parties. I appreciate queer scene attempts to cultivate a respectful atmosphere where people feel safe. I have seen this a lot in Berlin around the treatment of trans folks at FLT (Women, Lesbian, Trans) parties. In our invitations to events, such as on Facebook, we use the space to lay out rules; how we imagine the space is going to be. We suggest what kind of atmosphere we are trying to cultivate. There is a leaflet that sometimes circulates on Berlin toilet doors that is a guide to the respectful treatment of trans folk. For the alternative pride march in Berlin, a group of femmes also made a guide to respecting femmes for the Berlin community, which has a history of not being so hot in femme respect.

When organising The Berlin Femme Show 2012 I got annoyed at how fussy people were about photographers and wouldn’t let people photograph them, but now I understand it a bit more. I hate to feel put on a stage, my freaky femininity, eroticism or queerness there for the entertainment of ‘normal’ others. I feel this especially when I am not performing. I expect and want attention when I do burlesque. I also want sexual attention from other queers at parties. But I see now that things like a ban on cameras helps to create a respectful atmosphere where no-one feels like they are being the freak and non-consensually performing for others.

Two days ago, a pretty shitty incident happened outside a mixed queer/straight club in Berlin. The party offered free entry to Queens and Kings, and because I couldn’t afford the entry fee, I decided to get changed into my Queen outfit on the street. This involved taking off my jeans to reveal stockings, putting on high-heeled boots and taking off my top so that all I was wearing were sparkly tit tassles and a net cardigan. A Queen indeed. Unfortunately, some drunk teenage boys took my near nudity as an excuse to come right up to me and stare at me, make some rude remarks and try to grab hold of me. My reaction to this was violent. I told them to fuck off and went to kick them. They left me alone after this threat, but I entered the party feeling angry with them, and guilty at my own violent reaction. Luckily, a friend was with me and escorted me to the door; otherwise I would have been afraid I would be attacked outright.

Perhaps I was naïve. Getting changed on the street and not expecting any unwanted attention. I had just come from being on a drag and burlesque stage, where I performed topless and was treated with nothing but respect by the audience. I think sometimes I forget that Berlin isn’t this big happy queer play space and that some men, when faced with a half-naked woman, think it’s their lucky day. A perfect opportunity to … what? I have no fucking idea what goes on in their heads at that moment. I pride myself on my empathy – my ability to understand others’ points of view, especially when I don’t agree with them – but I can’t imagine those teenage boys’ thought processes at that moment. I think it’s something to do with being macho, being in a group and wanting to show off to their friends. I don’t think they are thinking clearly. I think they are being drunk, and hyper and talking about girls and then they see a sexy girl and they do something really fucking stupid. I hope they feel bad about what happened. I bet, on some level, they do.

These two recent experiences have left me feeling exhausted by the fight for my bodily autonomy in straight spaces, and grateful that queer spaces do exist where sometimes, just sometimes, I can be who I am and not expect to be attacked for it.

I would also like to talk about violence as a response to sexual harassment. My instinctive reaction when attacked is to yell, swear and hit back. I have beat myself up about this but found it affirming to hear two feminine, queer lady friends of mine talk about their own violent reactions to being queer bashed or sexually assaulted. One told me she will kick and fight back until she sees understanding in their eyes that they have done wrong.

I would be interested to hear about your own reactions to sexist, homophobic or transphobic violence. How do you react and are these reactions deliberate or instinctive? How do you feel about the way you react?

Peace out.

‘I wore a corset; he wore jeans’ A.K.A. Why do men assume I’m dressed for their entertainment?

Hey guys! So, some of you may know this already, but I have a one year working visa for Canadia! Woop, woop! This means that I will sadly be leaving Berlin in 10 days, forever and ever and ever. Until I come to visit at least. It’s truly been a blast being here. Truly. I think I will blog about all the things I have learnt over my past 2 years here and post it soon. However, first things first. If you haven’t seen me perform and you want to, next Saturday is your last chance! I will be doing a solo at Berlin’s Trash-Deluxe. Sneaky sneak preview: I will be doing something involving oil and condoms. Oh, yeah.

Now, back to business. In this, the first of two posts on sexual norms at parties, I describe my adventures at an erotic salon. I ask, what dynamics do we agree to when we go to erotic spaces? Who is doing the looking at these events and how do we negotiate consent?

Last night I went to an erotic performance party. All in all, I am really glad I went. I got to see beautiful women doing bondage play and hang out in a small studio, where they showed silent porn films from the twenties in the cellar downstairs (so tempting to make silly voiceovers). I drank absinthe with flaming sugar dropped into the glass and chilled with an ice cube, and ate poached wild peaches with whipped cream. All of these things were great. However, as the night progressed, increasingly more men came into the private party. I was irritating by the increasing inequality of the gender ratio and couldn’t quite put my finger on why this bothered me, until my friend observed that none of these men were dressed up. This despite the fact that the event was promoted with a specific dress code, and the majority of the early party comers were dressed in extravagant, salon wear.

The kind of canape you might expect at an erotic salon

The erotic salon dress code had inspired all the early comers to wear clothes that suggested fantasies of 1920s Paris: flapper dresses, braces and white shirts, large kohled eyes and sculpted hair. Yet, nearly all the men that arrived after midnight were dressed in normal, casual Berlin wear: jeans, t-shirts, business suits and black shirts. One man even wore a beanie (not sexy!). Increasingly, the earlier participants were pushed to the walls while drunken men laughed and gestured raucously in the middle. The atmosphere of erotic tension and decadence that the organisers had been so careful to cultivate was destroyed as I gradually felt less comfortable and more angry at the shift in the dynamic.

My friend’s observation made me realise that I wasn’t just angry because a mixed queer-straight party had turned into an average Friday night heterosexual party, but also because the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed.

As a promoter of themed parties, I know the importance of dress codes. Encouraging people to consider their outfits and dress especially for the occasion is an invitation to participate in the event. The sophisticated and sexy dress code for this party suggested that attendees would help to create the atmosphere of decadence, and were expected to participate in a respectful way, much in the same way as attendees of a sex party. Dress codes at sex and play parties are specifically necessary: tailoring your outfit to fit the event is a declaration that I am one of you, I am participating in this event; I am not merely an observer.

“the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed”

Now, to be clear, this was not a sex party. This was a salon for erotic performers to network amongst ourselves, while enjoying an atmosphere of decadence and some subtle titillation from the performances. Making out was OK, however any bondage or more intense sexual encounters that weren’t part of a performance would have to wait for a less public space. It was a guest-list only event, and the dress code suggested sophisticated and sexy with a hint of smuttiness. Corsets and feathers and top hats were great; complete nudity would have been inappropriate.

Although it is normal to pay to get into erotic parties, this one was free and was promoted as a networking event for erotic performers. To me, this reinforced the idea that it was a participatory event. It was not as if we were paying money to watch performers on a stage. The canapés were free, and the drinks were cheap. The performers weren’t paid, and we therefore owed them respect. Of course, you should respect any sex performer that you see. But I kept thinking about London and how expensive a salon like this would be there and I realised that when you pay a lot of money for an event, you do expect the performers to perform for you. The cigarette girls walking around selling something, and the burlesque women and MCs in their expensive outfits are, then, there to be looked at (but not touched). You are paying for that experience of titillation; an erotic service. But as an attendee at a private party I had not bargained for performing for a group of drunken heterosexual men. I would have liked to flirt gently with a respectful man in a top hat, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out.

The theme of the night was ‘don’t take a fucking picture of me, you jerk.’ I had to put my hand in front of the lens three times to stop a guy from photographing me eating. Another man sitting right next to us stared unblinkingly at my friend, as though she wasn’t really there, as if she were on a screen and he had paid to watch her. When he angled his camera at her face (he was close enough to touch her), I leaned forward and suggested, ‘maybe you should ask her before you take a photograph of her.’ It was only when I repeated myself that his eyes focused on me and realised that he was talking to a real-live human being and wasn’t going to get away with pure observation. He guiltily mumbled that he would delete the photo and soon afterwards disappeared into the crowd. The fact that he didn’t respond with a respectful, ‘I’m sorry, can I take a photo of you?’ but reacted as though I had shut him down, caught him in the act of doing something illicit, showed that he knew he had done something wrong.

“I would have liked to flirt gently, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out”

At queer parties, or mixed parties where queers feel safe, I often don’t mind women taking photo of me. But every time a man tries to photograph me, especially when he doesn’t ask and assumes that it will be fine by me – that I have agreed to be there for his sexual entertainment – I, understandably, get really pissed off.

My friends and I concluded that what we was needed, as well as a stricter door policy, was an awesome detector. Like a metal detector, but which could detect awesomeness in straight men and admit them accordingly. I, personally, hope that one of you guys can invent this for me. At least, at the next party I organise, I am going to make damn sure that I enforce the dress code!

Check in next week for part two on the norms in straight vs. queer spaces, how to create a safer atmosphere and is there such a thing as unspoken consent? 

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.

i’ll show you mine…

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.

French femme performer Wendy Delorme

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.

Miss Bourbon from Club Burlesque Brutal

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.’

tits and tassles

When I told people I had started doing burlesque performances, one of my closest friends told me she was worried about me. She told me that self-confidence had to come from within, and not from the approval of other people. Her objection made me think long and hard about the dynamic that happens when, as a feminine woman, I take my clothes off on stage.

My friend, let’s call her Emily, suggested that if you are a woman and take your clothes off on stage in a seductive way, you are somehow buying into sexism. You are encouraging other people to view you as a ‘sexual object’ and not a ‘real person.’ Of course I think many men’s sexist harrassment of me comes from this very same assumption. That when they look at me all they see is a blonde feminine white woman, and they perceive this as a weakness that they can attack.

“You could call it feminism with tassles on”

So, this is where things get tricky. Because even though we have all these negative associations with femininity, and female bodies, I refuse to accept them. I refuse to believe that men own my body. That when I undress I am always doing so for a male audience, a male gaze. I do own my body. And the assumption that many men make, that for some reason my dressing up, beauty, or even undressing, is for them, always makes me really really angry.

Going up on stage and performing for a mostly queer audience is an act of self-love for me. When I perform my beauty and sexuality onstage I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself. And this is a vision that I control. I decide what I will do, which parts of my body I will or will not reveal and how long the performance will last. I choreograph this presentation from the song choice to the dance steps to the rose that I hand to the lady in the first row. And in this sense, I am asserting my agency, my ownership of my own body. I choose how it is presented and how it is viewed.

I think burlesque can be feminist because as a performer you are in control of that sexual gaze. You decide to which parts of the body it is directed, for how long and how nude these body parts are. I think the best burlesque conveys a message while teasing at the same time. The climax of much burlesque is the ‘tit moment.’ The topless performer turns around and you see (giggle) breasts! But these breasts are still partially covered; the nipples hidden behind decorated pasties. The naughtiness of the boobies is emphasised by the fact that the nipples are never shown. You are allowed to look, but you don’t get to see everything. The titillation (awesome word) comes from this, ultimate, refusal to show all. I, the performer, am in control. Maybe this control over the audience’s gaze teaches us something about the way we look at women.

“I am inviting people to participate in a specific vision of myself”

I don’t think that I can say that all burlesque is feminist. I am sure there are acts out there and dynamics between the performer and audience that I would find sleazy and uncomfortable. Not all performers find power in their own performance, and maybe they have been coerced into performing for economic reasons, rather than their own interest.

But for me, burlesque has given me more space for self-expression. It has allowed me to explore and show-off my sexual femininity in a queer community which often devalues feminine women (more in another post). In showing or not my tits and other parts of my body, I feel that I am showing and teaching the audience about the complexities of looking at women. There is something very powerful about pasties. You could call it feminism with tassles on. Give ’em the old razzle dazzle, and they might just start to see your point of view.

So, here you go, Emily:

Ta Daa!