Posts Tagged ‘burlesque’

In the interest of full disclosure

Posted: April 19, 2011 by Rogue Nova in Sex-Positive Feminism
Tags: ,

Regarding burlesque and feminism.

I stand by my original statement, that burlesque can be feminist (just as it can be not feminist) and that the writer of that original blog post I was riffing off had not seen the right burlesque shows.

Apparently she’d seen shows like the one I just went to. Because, let me tell you, had I not been going to Screaming Chicken’s shows for a while now and knew what burlesque could be, I would have written off the entire damn artform after seeing Naughty and Spice’s second birthday bash on April 9th, at Nanaimo Centre Stage.

Let me say right now that the performers were not whom or what I take issue with. The women (and man!) on stage were good, and while not all of their pieces may have been socially-conscious, they were not offensive or appropriative. Quite possibly the best performer was Infra Red (the newbie of the troupe), whose dance about the sensuality of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich refuted ideas that women cannot be sexy and eat what they want.

No, my problem is not with the burlesquers and brolesquers of Naughty and Spice. My problem is with their “host”. Oliver Clothesoff.

He is the most misogynistic, objectifying, privileged, lousy excuse for a host that I’ve ever seen. By the end of the night I wanted to claw his eyes out, or watch him spontaneously burst into flames.

Problems with Oliver’s “hosting”:

  • he confuses the ability, as host, to be rude and crude with making sexist, demeaning jokes and treating the dancers like your own private harem.
  • he’s never danced burlesque before, so there’s no sense of equality when he’s introducing the dancers.
  • he made a rape joke.
  • he repeatedly holds up stereotypes of gender roles and gender essentialism during his bits, even though burlesque is an art form where gender-bending and defying gender roles is part of the norm.
  • this didn’t happen during the show I saw, but he talked about an audience participation bit he did at another show, where he pulled a girl up from the crowd and made her dance burlesque. This is never acceptable. Dancing burlesque is not an easy choice to make for everyone, and it’s not a decision you can make under the pressure of a hundred-plus eyes staring at you sweating under full stage lights. Talk about coercion. He then went on to say that because this girl later joined the troupe and was performing her debut performance that night that he had “molded a burlesque performer” with his “bare hands”.
  • he made a rape joke. 

I repeat that last point because it’s important. In the time I’ve been watching burlesque I have never witnessed such insensitivity, such disrespect, such blatant misogyny from a host.

To contrast, the hosts of Screaming Chickens are completely different. Usually they’re dancers in the troupe already, so they know what it’s like to be in the vulnerable position of stripping for an audience. They rotate the hosts — the first show I saw was hosted by The Professor and Dr. T, and since then I’ve seen shows hosted by Violet Femme, April O’Peel, Connie Lingus, and my boyfriend, who doesn’t really have a burlesque name but is generally called Ogre — so that there’s some equality. No one has more power over anyone else because no one person is the host all the time. SCTS also uses co-hosting for every show I’ve seen. This is important because one host can be the straight-man while the other is wild and crazy, and they keep each other in check. It makes for a better show.

I’ll note right now that three of the hosts I’ve mentioned were men. They were not sexist, demeaning, or objectifying in their hosting. The jokes they made were at each other’s expense (another reason you should always have a co-host). And the audience participation they did never required people to do anything that could be severely triggering onstage in front of a bunch of people. It, of course, was sexually themed, as the entire show is, but done in a way that wouldn’t make people uncomfortable.

The closest you could get to seeing a semi-objectifying joke was when Ogre said “Hee hee. Boobies.” during his intro of an act — but as the character he was playing was that of a literal caveman who had been thawed out in Violet Femme’s backyard (reference to an old Brendan Fraser movie if you caught it), I don’t think the argument holds much water. And no, I’m not just saying that as his girlfriend — I call him on sexist comments more than anyone else.

The point here is, I may have been a bit spoiled in my burlesque watching with the Screaming Chickens. And I have a feeling that if you’re writing about how burlesque hurts the cause of feminism, you haven’t seen SCTS.

I still believe burlesque can be feminist, and even if a burlesque act isn’t feminist and is just some fun on stage, that doesn’t make the performers any less feminist. Every choice that I make may not be a feminist choice, but that doesn’t detract from my being a feminist. (It’s not like hit points in a video game. “Patriarchy uses brainwash, making you think you want to take your clothes off on stage. It’s super effective and you lose Feminism Points.” Yeah, no, that’s pretty far from reality.) Also, I refuse to believe my choices happen because I’ve been “brainwashed” by the patriarchy. I want to dance burlesque because I actually study theatre history and I like the art-form. Not because the patriarchy has “convinced” me to “objectify myself”. (Also, it’s not possible to objectify yourself. The term is an oxymoron.)

However, now I have seen the darker side of burlesque — the side that could actually hurt feminism. Please, if you happened to watch that show, or any other show with Oliver emceeing, please please please don’t think that’s indicative of burlesque as a whole. He is a black spot on the face of a theatre genre I love.

I will continue to watch and enjoy Screaming Chickens, and I will continue to work on my own routines and perform as a solo artist until I am able to join SCTS next year.

As for Naughty and Spice, if the troupe wants to get an all-over positive review from me they need to ditch their host and get someone who’s actually funny and not an asshole.


This started as a comment on another blog.

A comment on another blog that didn’t get posted, because I wasn’t smart enough to get what the poster was saying — or so her story goes. Whatever. I’m posting it here now. Because honestly, I think it needs to be said.

I consider myself a burlesque performer. Ok, so I’m not involved in a troupe formally, and I haven’t really been doing much between my 3 or 4 jobs and full time school, but I am putting together sketches, costumes, dances, audio tracks, and basic ideas. And I am involved in the burlesque scene by virtue of my partner, who helps out with a Vancouver burlesque troupe, and just by virtue of loving it so much that I go to shows and then help clean up afterwards.

I’m also a feminist. Up until now I didn’t see much conflict between these two things, but the light: it has been shown to me. Apparently one can’t be a feminist and a burlesquer. Can’t, capital C, CAN’T. It’s impossible.

And while your post does show what burlesque performers think about burlesque, it lacks a feminist analysis.

Ok, maybe that doesn’t say it’s impossible to be feminist and burlesque. But it sure as hell implies it. (For the record, the above quote was not directed at me — it couldn’t be, for my post was not approved.)

Now, don’t get me wrong — she has some good points. We do need to be critical about what exactly we, as burlesquers, are upholding when we do our acts. We need to be conscious of it. We also need to pay the bills, and sometimes — sometimes that means sacrifice. Bums in seats is the first rule of theatre — and you’re always going to get bums in seats for a strip tease. Hard-hitting political commentary or lampooning? Not so much. It’s a certain demographic that the more political, artistic side of burlesque appeals to — and in order to make a living, you must appeal to more than one certain demographic. You must be broad.

And, you know, up until seeing her response to my post (which she didn’t approve) I was rather willing to cede those points to her. But apparently there’s such a fear over at that blog about dissenting viewpoints that she couldn’t even let my comment be seen or read by anyone else.

I’m a fierce believer in owning your words. My comment policy reflects this. This is part of my feminism. I can’t hope to fight against oppression if I allow censorship.

So in the interest of not being censored, I am going to reproduce my comment for you here. You can see what was so scary to read over there. And then I’m going to make a few closing comments and post this blog, and then you can make comments of your own. Sound good?

Ok. So I didn’t really tackle anything really big there, even. I shared personal experience. Experience from a two-decade career in theatre that has ended because I was tired of the sexism. A career that I fled for burlesque because of the latter art form’s lack of sexism.

(At least, how I’ve experienced it in Vancouver. I do think that the structure of the art form itself lends itself to a less patriarchal epistemic system — there is no hierarchy. It’s a group of women who make up their own sketches and put them together into a show. There’s a real sense of community building in a burlesque troupe.)

You see, to me, what this whole post really just stinks of is sex-negative, everything-that-pleases-men-is-bad feminism. It’s still feminism; I won’t try to redefine the word because I don’t like what some feminists say. But it’s crappy feminism, in my point of view.

“Freedom from the patriarchy! Freedom for women! But only if they don’t want to strip, because stripping makes men happy and that’s bad! Also, women only think they’re empowered if they strip! The patriarchy has just brainwashed them into thinking that. They’re not really empowered, they’re playing into the hands of the patriarchy. High-necked collars for feminism! Wooo!”

This is such an old argument it’s downright boring. Not any less insulting, however. When you state that women are doing things because they’ve been brainwashed by teh ebils patriarchy, it takes away their self-determination, their autonomy. It disempowers them. It does what they’re claiming burlseque is doing.

Burlesque needs serious examination, it’s true. Like everything else, it’s become mainstream, which is steeped in cultural norms — patriarchal ideals about women’s beauty and worth.

But if burlesque needs serious examination, so does reality TV, and webseries, and shows by Joss “I’m so fucking feminist” Whedon who really just shows women who can only be powerful if they’re fucking supernatural, for gods’ sakes. (Exception being Zoe.) So does theatre (especially theatre), so do movies, so does every other form of entertainment we have.

And yes, that examination is absolutely necessary and absolutely useful. If we do not examine ourselves and our actions we will never improve, as people.

But just because burlesque needs examination does not mean it’s un-feminist. It does not mean that a woman dancing with pasties or tassels on while lampooning some common cultural myth is objectifying herself (which, again, you can’t do by virtue of the word’s very definition). It does not mean that you cannot be a feminist and a burlesque performer.

It also doesn’t mean that everyone has to like it. Ok, fine, you feel uncomfortable at burlesque shows. Your choice and I’m not going to hold it against you. But using that discomfort to spin it into a long tirade as to how burlesque is anti-feminist and “upholding the male gaze,” whatever the fuck that means, and objectifying and a whole host of other Ebil Penis Patriarchy Ills — that is what we call sex-negative, and I’ll go so far as to say anti-kink as well. Doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist. It just means that, in my opinion, you’re a bad feminist.

Nothing personal.

-The Fierce Femme