Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 6

bearded lady

bearded lady

Author's note: If you haven't already done so, please read part 1 - 5 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

Playing Gender Roles

From its very first incarnation, burlesque has always played around with gender norms.  As Robert C. Allen (1991) explains in the seminal Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, “taking on the markers of masculinity, the burlesque performer was licensed to act in a very unladylike fashion” (p. 148).  He goes on to explain,

“Burlesque produced not the unproblematic sensual display of the ballet dancer but a monstrosity, a ‘horrible prettiness,’ that provoked desire and at the same time disturbed the ground of that desire by confusing the distinctions on which desire depended” (1991, p. 148).

This tradition can still be found in the burlesque performances of today.  UnAmerika's Sweetheart Karin Webb performs one strip tease in which she enters the stage in character as “Rico,” a mustached, swaggering male who smokes a cigar and directly addresses the audience with condescension.  Rico declares that anyone can do burlesque and decides to show the audience that he can outdo the female performers at the art of striptease.  He begins putting on stockings and high heels, removing his army jacket, tank top and jeans.  At some imperceptible point during the striptease, the lines blur, and by the time he has applied a wig and unwrapped the ace bandage from his chest, he has become an attractive woman.  As the viewer watches this performance, it goes from ridiculous, even grotesque slapstick, to provocative erotic display.  The performance challenges the audience to ponder their own reactions, causes discomfort and encourages questions.

By behaving in ways not traditionally considered feminine, female burlesque performers are “able to transcend the social boundaries of [their] own gender, and therefore to say and do things of which so many other women would not dare to conceive” (Fargo 2008).  For many, this is the exciting potential of resurrecting the art form.

The old-time “‘stars’ and ‘queens’ of burlesque were perhaps the first female performers to realize the influential power of the mass media as a tool for pulling in the crowds and promoting transgressive modes of ‘femininity’ that seduced and tantalized precisely because they broke existing moulds” (Willson, 208, p. 40-41).

In his book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007), anti-porn writer Robert Jensen asserts that the real problem with our society is masculinity itself.  He says that, “traits commonly associated with masculinity – competition, aggression, domination, and repression of emotion” cause them to subjugate women as a response to their own insecurity and fear of inferiority (p. 138).  For Jensen, attempts to reinvent masculinity in more positive terms will not suffice.  He radically asserts that masculinity should be “abolished" (Jensen, 2007, p.138-139).

After all, Jensen asks, doesn’t encouraging positive masculinity actually serve to keep men separate from women? And aren’t all positive masculine traits such as bravery or assertiveness simply positive human traits?  Jensen criticizes a campaign which used the slogan “real men don’t rape” on the basis that it “entrenches a commitment to masculinity” that assumes some moral or psychological difference between men and women, positioning masculinity as a biological trait rather than a social one (Jensen, 2007, p.145).  These campaigns don’t challenge men’s sense of themselves as dominant (Jensen, 2007, p. 146).  Even the seemingly positive masculine quality of protectiveness is steeped in patriarchy and control. As Jensen (2007) puts it, “Women and children don’t need to be protected by men – they need to be protected from men” If men want to help, he says, they should take their place within the feminist movement. (p. 147).

pole dancer

pole dancer

According to Jensen, while we can never rid the world of sex categories in the biological sense, we would do well to eliminate gender: the psychological and social differences commonly associated with one’s sex.  To be more precise, he does not take issue with the existence of femininity, which he doesn't see as causing harm to anyone, only with masculinity; however, he acknowledges that one would hardly exist without the other.

“It’s likely there are other differences rooted in our biology that we don’t yet understand… but making claims about deeper intellectual and/or emotional and/or spiritual differences between males and females based on those physical differences… should be quite controversial” (Jensen, 2007, p. 140).

The fact that our biological differences have allowed patriarchy to be constructed does not speak to our ability to “construct a society that mitigates the effects of such differences” (Jensen, 2007, p. 140).  He says that it is impossible to blame biology for the havoc wrought by men when patriarchy has been in place to explain their behavior the whole time.

Co-opting Masculinity

If traditional masculinity impedes the development of an equitable society, why are modern women trying so hard to be like the guys?  In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005), journalist Ariel Levy explores what she calls “raunch culture,” a climate where “women…make sex objects of other women and of themselves” (p. 4).  The popular Girls Gone Wild soft-core porn films are made by a traveling camera crew who visit college campuses and popular spring break locations.  For nothing but a Girls Gone Wild T-shirt, young women eagerly flash their breasts and engage in sexual acts with each other in the hopes of getting into one of the films.

Why do these everyday women want to be porn stars?  Some might say that in a post-Madonna world they are able to acknowledge their sexual appetites and indulge them.  They are sexually empowered, proud of their bodies, and want to show the world.  However, if the friend they are kissing for the camera was previously just a friend, and not a sexual partner, then it would seem that they are not acting out their own fantasies, but performing for some other reason; the sexual act is a performance, designed to prove their sexual adventurousness, or perhaps to render impotent one of the common weapons of patriarchy – sexual exploitation of women.  In other words, perhaps these young women are trying to convince themselves and men that they enjoy this kind of display in order to save face and avoid looking like they’ve ‘been had.’

Part of the reason for women to embrace what Levy refers to as “raunch” may come from this desire to co-opt patriarchal power and use it ironically, rendering it meaningless.  Metaphorically speaking, we women are invading the gentlemen’s club, putting up our feet, and lighting a cigar.  We have had the one-night-stands, and we can boast about losing the poor guy’s phone number afterward.  Just as Hip-Hop culture appropriated the word “nigger” and made it their own, “nigga,” girls make a joke of calling themselves and their girlfriends “sluts” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 210).

Unfortunately, these young women may simply be acting out old stereotypes while convincing themselves they have chosen these roles to avoid seeing themselves as the victims of a misogynistic culture.  Levy argues that these “Female Chauvinist Pigs” find it “cooler” to take a one-of-the-guys approach than to appear uptight, or admit to feeling defeated.  “Why try to beat them when you can join them?” Levy (2005) asks (pp. 90-92).  The women on the hit TV series Sex and the City frequently acted out modern women’s attempts to have casual, guilt-free sex ‘like men,’ and the results were often painful for them, because for the most part, they were not just looking for sex, they were looking for relationships.  It is time, Levy (2005) says, to admit that “The emperor has no clothes” (p. 197).  Instead of trying to be more like men, we should just try to be more like ourselves.  The medium of burlesque seems to provide an avenue for this because it does not cater to popular expectations of what is sexy, but allows each performer explore and express an individual statement.

Girls and Girly Girls

Among some of the “Female Chauvinist Pigs” Levy (2005) studied, she found that the concept of the “girly girl,” had an extremely negative connotation, and was regarded with contempt by some women (p. 101).  However, there are many third wave feminists who embrace their femininity.  In the seminal third wave text ManifestA (2000), Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote about what they called the feminist “Girlie movement.”  Although the term “Girlie feminism” has not become widely used, the characteristics they describe are familiar traits of many modern feminists.

As Baumgardner and Richards (2000) put it, “Girlies are girls in their twenties or thirties who are reacting to an anti-feminine, anti-joy emphasis that they perceive as the legacy of Second Wave seriousness. Girlies have reclaimed girl culture, which is made up of such formerly disparaged girl things as knitting, the color pink, nail polish, and fun” (p. 80).

This embracing of the “girlie” is only possible because of earlier feminist movements.  Women today have benefited greatly from the efforts of feminism’s First and Second Waves.  We can vote, we have access to birth control, legal abortion, and crisis centers, for starters.  Because of this, “Girl Culture assumes that women are free agents in the world, that they start out strong and that the odds are in their favor” (Ann Powers, as cited in Baumgardner & Richards, 2000, p. 134).

While Girlies are not ashamed of their femininity, they also want in on the territories of men such as rock and roll and yes, porn (Baumgardner, Richards, 2000 p. 80).  Richards and Baumgardner (2000) note that feminist publication Bust magazine, at the time only a “zine” in 1993, was printing “buxom images from vintage soft-core porn, images now in the control of women.  In Bust, porn was demystified, claimed for women, debated” (p.133).

They go on to state that “Girlie culture is a rebellion against the false impression that since women don’t want to be sexually exploited, they don’t want to be sexual…against the anachronistic belief that because women could be dehumanized by porn…they must be” (p. 137). The problem with Girlie culture, according to Baumgardner and Richards (2000), is that it is just a culture, not a political movement (p. 141).  There are still women’s issues worth fighting for, and not enough young feminists are organizing to promote the changes that are still needed.

burlesque troupe

burlesque troupe


Because sex has been so literally perverted by those in our culture who would use it as a tool to oppress, it is easy to write off public displays of sexuality altogether, but then we risk reinforcing the stereotype of the anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-male feminist.  We also miss out on a valuable opportunity to teach people that women are sexual beings and we are more sexually empowered than ever, and that it is not a certain low, ‘other’ woman who possesses sexual desires.

In the past, feminists were vocal about their positions on topics they felt passionate about, such as sexual objectification.  The feminist movement needs more sex-positive feminists to have an intellectual voice, to speak not only with passion but with rational debate. We need thoughtful analysis on the issues surrounding sexuality.

We must not simply react, turning away from feminism because we disagree with the views of our mothers’ generation.  We need to create a space where like-minded people of this generation can feel included in feminism too.

Puritan attitudes which make sex a shameful thing are dangerous to women.  We need to be willing to be seen as whole women, and that includes publicly acknowledging our passion for sex as well as our passion for feminist politics.

Collectively, feminists need to look at terms like ‘sexually empowered,’ and figure out what they mean.  One of the most important things that can happen is that we shift toward a concept of sexuality that recognizes the whole woman, her feelings, passions, and identity, rather than allowing women to be mute sexual objects.

Burlesque provides a venue where sexuality can be performed without shame in a woman-centered, non-exploitative environment.

Not every burlesque performance seizes on this opportunity.  Nor can every performance, no matter how well-intended, be guaranteed to deliver the experience to the audience that the performer envisioned.  No performer can know how each audience member will experience their art.  Modern feminism is based in individual choices and preferences, and new burlesque is just one of many ways we can make our voices heard.

Thank you for reading Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque.


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