Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 2


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

Old and New Burlesque

The original period of burlesque occurred in America from about the 1890s to the 1950s.  In the irreverent, satirical tradition harkening back to fifteenth-century Italy’s commedia dell’arte, burlesque featured dancing, music, acting, and comedy that parodied high culture and society. In the early days, it was seen as essentially a more risqué version of vaudeville theatre.  In an effort to compete with high-quality vaudeville shows, burlesque incorporated striptease, something their “family-friendly” competitors could not offer (Fargo, 2008).  Even though striptease was not introduced until the second half of this burlesque period, by the end of the 1920s, stripping was the main draw of burlesque.  The rest – variety acts, comedy – were just filler (Baldwin 2004, p.9).

As burlesque became more salacious, it drew negative attention from the public, as well as the law.  The police frequently raided burlesque theatres throughout the 1930s.  When burlesque was outlawed in New York City in 1937, (ironically, New York City would later become a place of burlesque’s rebirth), it lived on throughout other major American cities and with national tours (Fargo, 2008).

Burlesque fizzled out in the 1950s and 1960s, possibly due to the increasing popularity of television.

One of the permutations of burlesque that did survive was go-go dancing in the 1960s, where women danced in cages or on stages, which eventually morphed into strip club dancing. Eventually, pornographic films and strip clubs offered full nudity, making the burlesque performances that had once caused a stir to appear quite innocent by comparison.  “By the early 1980s, the art of revealing a woman’s body had become more like a gynecological examination” than a sultry, suggestive entertainment.  Stripping was becoming “big business, not show business” (Fargo, 2008, no page number available).

The rediscovery of burlesque in the 1990s may have been due in part to the ‘cleaning up’ of Times Square by New York City officials, such as then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who closed down the neighborhood’s sex shops and peep shows.  Burlesque shows, which seemed higher class, rose up in their place.

On the heels of the swing dancing craze, “retro-lovers” were drawn to burlesque’s classic aesthetic, and a tattoo-adorned subculture sprang up around its reinvention (Baldwin, 2004, p. 18)  In 2002, neo-burlesque even found its way into mainstream culture when its icon Dita Von Teese, who was married to rock star Marilyn Manson, graced the cover of Playboy.

Why Bring Back Burlesque?

Michelle Baldwin (2004) states eloquently, though not with complete historical accuracy, “In what can only be described as a moment of collective subconscious, these young women, whose mothers had burned their bras, discovered that they actually liked their bras and thought they might look lovely covered in sequins, taken off, and tossed into the stage lights” (p.47).  Despite the fact that the ‘bra-burning feminist’ is only a mythical caricature that popular memory has drawn of the second wave feminist, Baldwin makes an interesting point.  Historically, burlesque had catered to a working-class male audience, and to stereotypical male fantasy.

“If early twentieth-century burlesque was ‘everyman’s’ entertainment,” Baldwin (2004) argues, “then new burlesque is ‘everywoman’s’ entertainment.  Women come to burlesque looking for what they think is sexy and what can make them feel like they’re sexy too” (p. 129).

What prompted this generation of women to take an interest in reviving the lost art of burlesque?  Perhaps, growing up after the sexual revolution, this generation was looking to exercise their newfound sexual freedom.  “Within the striptease routine, the power oscillates between the audience and the performer.  The performer can feel the power that comes from manipulating the audience with her sexual energy as well as knowing that their voyeurism is only made possible through her willfulness” (Willson, 2008, p. 138).

Nina Hartley – porn star, sex educator, and registered nurse, lists the many positive qualities of sex work.  While the term “sex work” more commonly refers to prostitutes, porn stars, and others that engage in actual sexual contact in their work, many of these attributes would seem to apply to burlesque:  “Enhanced self-image, sexual variety, creating a platform for my ideas about sex and society, creative erotic expression, exhibitionism, fantasy fulfillment, and economic gain.” (Hartley, 1997, p. 58).  Similarly, many dancers consider their work in traditional strip clubs empowering.  In my former career as an exotic dancer, I recall feeling an enormous sense of economic empowerment, and a certain freedom in rebelling against the unwritten ‘rules’ of society.However, the typical strip club does not put the dancer in control.  To the average club’s management, dancers are a dime a dozen, and are to be regarded with indifference at best.

Perhaps what taints strip clubs the most is the emphasis on monetary exchange; the woman strips, the man tips.  Because of this structure, both the dancer and the patron have a certain advantage over the other, and there is a constant need for negotiation that often threatens the pride of both parties and keeps them fearful of being ‘had.’  While new burlesque rarely provides the same earning potential as ‘stripping,’ it does provide a platform for mature entertainment in a more respectful, positive environment.

Jacki Willson (2008) asserts that “burlesque utilizes the controlled act of veiling and unveiling to question stigma, to question shame, to question restrictive disempowering roles and sexual, gender and class relations in society” (p. 131).

The new burlesque has many advantages over the type of performance available in strip clubs.  It provides a place for sexual expression on a woman’s terms.  The costumes are better made, the acts more inventive.  The audience is generally a mix of diverse, respectful men and women, often encompassing a full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identities.  The dancing is better choreographed and better performed.  The sets are more creative.  There are typically no greedy, pimpish managers.

Although for most new burlesque performers it will probably never pay the bills, without the emphasis on money the dancers are free to express themselves without compromising their self-expression.

Sex and the Modern Feminist

The term “postfeminist” has been used by some writers, implying that since the sexual revolution, feminism is no longer needed, and the generations that would follow would not identify themselves as feminists.  It was Rebecca Walker who wrote in 1992, “I am not a postfeminism feminist.  I am the Third Wave” (Walker, as cited in Buszek, p. 331).  Third wave feminists have grown up in a post-sexual revolution era, but there are still many of us dedicated to women’s freedom and equality.

Where does the Third Wave stand in terms of our sexuality?  For one thing, we are more vocally pro-sex; we don’t want to be denied access to our sexuality by social taboo or ignorance.  However, we struggle with the notion of ‘sexual empowerment’ and what it looks like in practice.  How public should our sexuality be?  How much attention do we want to pay to our appearances, and how much attention do we want to receive?

Our convictions here as a movement are fuzzy.  At a Women’s Studies Conference in 2007, Third wave feminist icons Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards gave a talk addressing such questions as “Can feminists wear lipstick?” and their answer was essentially that feminists can do whatever they want, that the movement needs and wants as many people as possible to identify themselves as feminists.  There is no need for anyone to feel excluded simply because they are heterosexual, because they get their pubic hair removed through waxing, or even because they oppose abortion.  It is true that every woman should ultimately make her own informed choices.  However, as feminists have long pointed out, ‘the personal is political.’

The personal choices we make take place within the larger context of a shared society, and our struggles can and should be shared.


pole dancer
pole dancer

The main criticism against sexualized displays of women’s bodies such as stripping and pornography is the ‘sexual objectification’ of women.  Anti-pornography scholar Robert Jensen (2007) provides a good definition of sexual objectification: “the way in which women’s full humanity is lost and they are reduced to the sum total of their body parts, and the sexual pleasure men get from that” (p. 112).  However, not everyone sees objectification as necessarily bad.  In the film A Wink and a Smile, burlesque performer Miss Indigo Blue states that as part of a process of “radical self-acceptance,” the burlesque performer “invites herself to be objectified” (Timmons, 2009).  Nina Hartley (1997) makes some interesting points in her essay “In the Flesh.”  She describes her process of entering sex work as an avid feminist, asking herself, “What were the gaps of logic in feminist criticisms of objectification and was objectification ever okay?… Could I defend my position with feminist philosophy and arguments?” (p. 57-58).  She explains how she came of age in the seventies, when “the received truth on sex was that men’s objectification of women was the root of all gender inequality… At the same time, other women suffered for never being the object of anyone’s desire” (Hartley, 1997, p. 63).  Hartley (1997) grapples with the problem of objectification reasoning that, “Since we can’t experience most people on deeper levels, everyone is, at least initially, an object to others.” (p. 64).

Though sexy media images, and even pornography are not necessarily bad, most popular sexualized representations of women strip away the woman’s personality, effectively reducing her to a pretty, but vacant body at best.

Alysabeth Clements (2009), author of the “Feminist Stripper” website, argues that it is acceptable for the woman to be invisible in a strip club because she is in the service industry.  However, such representations reinforcing in their male audience unhealthy beliefs about women; in the extreme they are likely to contribute to the incidence of violence and rape perpetrated by men who see women as less than human.

I do not propose that we rid our culture of sexual material, only that women be represented as whole, autonomous human beings.

Michelle Baldwin (2004) notes this distinction as well, commenting that “the burlesque performance is about sex and issues related to the body, but it’s not focused on the audience’s sexual gratification… it instead gets the audience members thinking about the entire woman and what she’s thinking, feeling, and creating, and the ideas around the act she’s doing” (p. 53).

Much of this gnashing of teeth over the issue of objectification could be avoided by observing a simple distinction: that to be the object of someone’s sexual desire and a sex-object are not one and the same.

When a woman is seen as a sex object, she has no agency, no voice.  She is not viewed as a whole person, which makes it easier for an abuser to excuse him or herself for mistreating her.  Alternatively, to be the object of sexual desire simply means that someone desires you, not that they devalue your other human qualities.  To make sure my point is clear: when a woman’s body is used for sex with no regard for her as a person, she is being objectified.  When someone is taken advantage of, or coerced into doing things she is not comfortable with, she is being exploited.  However, when someone looks at a woman and finds her sexually appealing, without losing sight of the fact that she is a real person and deserving of respect, she is simply being desired.

Writer Emily Layne Fargo points out that for the neo-burlesque performer:

sexual display is transformed from something ‘passive,’ where they offer their bodies up for visual consumption, into “a complicitous and reciprocal pleasure.”  The audience at a neo-burlesque show may enjoy looking at the performers; it may even turn them on. But the performers are looking right back, and deriving just as much pleasure from the experience. Neo- burlesque performers delight in “explor[ing] their very objectness,” putting into vital practice a statement made by Joanna Frueh in her book Erotic Faculties: “[a]s long as I am an erotic subject, I am not averse to being an erotic object.” (Fargo, 2008) (Frueh, as cited in Fargo, 2008).

Again, the use of the word “object” in this last sentence is not intended to refer to dehumanization of the “erotic object.”

Please check out parts 3-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!


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