Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 1


Honey Suckle Duvet and other performers in Boston's Holiday Burlesque show: The Slutcracker.

Dear Readers,

I wrote this piece and took the accompanying photos for a research project while completing my degree in Women's Studies in 2009-2010, therefore some of the research is out of date. I've been wanting to share it and decided to do so here on my blog.

I've abridged the piece slightly and broken it up into sections to make it a little more digestible.  I've got a short version of "Why I love Burlesque" planned, but in the meantime -- here's the long version!

I hope this sparks your curiosity about burlesque - if it does, be on the lookout for a burlesque workshop series with yours truly coming SOON!!

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque

Most people would not make any distinction between the neo-burlesque movement that is gaining popularity all over America and the type of performance done at a typical strip club, perhaps imagining slightly better-made or more retro-inspired costumes.  You might be surprised to learn that today's burlesque is closer to ‘fringe theater’ than it is to stripping.  In fact striptease, though often a part of burlesque, is not all there is to the art form.  Historically, burlesque has encompassed many types of performance.  It was originally a more adult version of vaudeville, and the many traditions used included music, dance, acrobatics, pantomime, drama, comedy, clowning, and more.  This tradition carries on to this day, making burlesque difficult to define, but it is characterized by the use of comedy and political satire, sometimes with racy content, and often including striptease.

Many performers and fans of new burlesque find these performances empowering, even feminist, because they allow women to publicly express themselves sexually, on their own terms, and often in ways that subvert popular expectations.

In twenty-first century America women struggle with cultural expectations that are evolving, and at times confusing.  Compared to women in previous generations, we have overcome many obstacles that traditionally kept women from experiencing independence and equality; however, as double standards loosen, as women gain autonomy and freedom, our society still reflects lingering discomfort with women’s sexuality in general.  Sadly, sexually empowered women seem easier for society to deal with when they are treated as objects (less than human), than when they are given a voice and social power.

A few years ago, 18-year-old Jesse Logan took her own life after being labeled a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’ when she used her cell phone to send her boyfriend a topless photo of herself, which he later distributed to other students at their school.  Though her parents and the media blamed the tragedy of Jesse’s death on the problem of ‘sexting,’ (a word used to describe erotic text or picture messaging via mobile phone), her suicide was probably more directly caused by the problems of bullying and shaming (Celezik, 2009).  Jesse was bullied for acting on perfectly natural sexual desires.  Teenage sex is nothing new.  Unfortunately, the considerably pronounced mistreatment of teenage girls who act on these desires is nothing new either.  Since the days of the Puritans, our culture has punished 'sluts.'

Feminists may espouse differing opinions on specific issues, but most would agree that feminism is an ideology defined by its support for the fair treatment of women in society.  If this is so, why doesn’t everyone, especially women, proudly call themselves feminists?

Some would chalk it up to apathy.  Although modern feminists do seem more personally motivated and less politically oriented than feminists of previous generations, there are other reasons for the unpopularity of the feminist label.

One of these barriers lies in feminist stereotypes that many find unattractive.

The feminists of the late sixties and early seventies had a colossal task trying to create new possibilities for women outside the traditional role that Betty Friedan referred to as ‘happy housewife.’  These radical women questioned the status quo and rejected institutions that did not serve their interests.  Sometimes they rejected the things associated with traditional femininity to help promote radical social change.

The image of the unfeminine feminist persists, and it can scare away women who wish to be identified with traditionally feminine gender traits.

Today, the essence of porn shows up everywhere in American culture, and women’s willing participation in this trend of sexualization has prompted some critics such as Female Chauvinist Pigs author Ariel Levy (2006) to conclude that women would currently rather exploit themselves than admit defeat at the hands of an ever-dominant patriarchy, (a word used to describe a male-dominated social system).  These critics say that today’s young women are selling out rather than fighting for their rights the way past generations did.  However, it is not necessarily the culture or media that have caused these women to embrace seeming self-objectification; it may instead be the new-found sexual freedom, the waning of Puritanical values that causes these women to choose sexual self-expression.

In addition, we may need to revisit the concept of objectification and stop using this as our rote response to all things sexual in our culture.  Rather than continuing to condemn sexually explicit media, we might embrace opportunities to publicly honor our sexuality, and the re-emergence of burlesque seems to provide an outlet for this.

Others disenchanted with traditional second wave feminist politics are those who espouse ‘sex-positive’ or ‘pro-sex’ feminist values.  Carol Queen defines sex positivity as the recognition of sex as “a potentially positive force” in people’s lives (Comella & Queen, 2008, p. 278).  Sex-positive feminists are generally seen as “Less academic and less theoretical than the anti-pornography group,” drawing their convictions on the premise that they do not wish to be censored or have their sexual behaviors proscribed for them (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 179).

I embarked on this research to find out why I, and many other educated feminists were not only un-offended by burlesque, but in fact attracted to it.  My attraction to burlesque left me conflicted.

As a ‘classically trained’ feminist scholar, I felt there was something hypocritical about being drawn to something that on the surface seemed un-feminist.  However, my previous experiences working in strip clubs, the work of burlesque performers I had seen and read, and my collaborations with burlesque performance troupe Iron Heart Circus left me wondering if feminists were mistaken about the issue of objectification.

Perhaps some types of bodily display could be feminist and empowering.

Jacki Willson took on the issue of objectification versus empowerment in the new burlesque movement in her book The Happy Stripper, but was ultimately unable to resolve the debate.  “This is a tricky issue… The system both empowers and exploits,” Willson (2008) writes in her conclusion (p. 174).  It seemed that this movement needed a more definitive stance than this.  Willson’s (2008)problem with burlesque is that “Without being coupled with an ironical, critical or reflective questioning of sexual power, erotic display risks falling immediately back into unchallenging, stereotypical ‘off the shelf’ readings of female sexuality – vulnerable, silent and fake” (p. 148).  When I began this research, I feared that despite my fondness for burlesque, this was probably the case – that it did tread too close to the line between sexual freedom and perpetuating stereotypical notions of women as sex objects.  Having researched the matter, I have now put these fears to rest.

Research Methods

To get to the root of burlesque’s potential as a political art form, I thought it best to speak directly with performers about their personal politics.  First and foremost, why did they choose to perform burlesque?  Did these women self-identify as feminists?  Did their personal politics, feminist or otherwise, inform their work?  Was exploitation or objectification ever a problem for them as performers?  Did they see burlesque as empowering or dis-empowering, and could they convincingly defend their positions?

I conducted qualitative interviews with five neo-burlesque performers: Boston solo artist Honey Suckle Duvet, Carrie Tyler and Crissy Trayner, co-founders of New Hampshire’s Iron Heart Circus, and UnAmerika's Sweetheart Karin Webb and Jill Gibson, burlesque and drag perfomers, and co-creators of Axe to Ice Productions, a Boston-based company which puts on cabaret and burlesque variety shows.

My other research included participating in rehearsals and performances and writing new material with Iron Heart Circus.  I also attended and photographed numerous burlesque performances by various artists, and informally interviewed burlesque fans and performers including members of the Boston Babydolls and the cast of Boston’s “Holiday Zeitgeist Spectacular,” The Slutcracker.

Please check out parts 2-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!


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