24 Feb 2015

Burlesque - empowering or problematic for feminists?

I got to thinking about cultural phenemona that regularly get condemned as anti-feminist yet are largely supported by women, when I went to see *that film* recently in order to review it. Sitting in the cinema on a freezing, windy, wet British Friday morning, I noticed that I was surrounded by women. Some couples, but the audience was at least 85% female, if not more. Women of all ages, from 18 to at least 65. Women of all races, all shapes and sizes, varying socioeconomic backgrounds, all united in a desire to see the film of *that book* and find out what all the fuss was about. Some might have been there for that sole reason, others because they genuinely enjoyed the book and thought they would enjoy the film. Those who were there with their partners may have expected the film to enhance their erotic life, or simply give them something to laugh about as a couple. Others, like myself, may have been there as cultural commentators (with admittedly a little personal curiosity thrown in), trying to report on *that film* in a way that avoided lazy condemnation, pearl-clutching or snobbery. I saw very quickly that it was going to be women who made or broke this film, and if this audience - plus the opening weekend stats - were anything to go by, women were going to make it a roaring success.

This made me think about how, despite their strength as a consumer group, women are still strangely often treated as a minority group, or a "special interest". When they do come out in force and make a book or a film a huge success, it's given a patronising label ("chick flick" "mommy porn" anyone?) and treated as a trivial, fluffy, empty-headed preoccupation. And, perhaps more disappointingly (because we at least expect sexist dismissal from the mainstream media), it's sometimes treated with disdain or outright hostility by feminists too. 

I talk at length in my review of *that film* about how I feel there is an elitist and prejudiced element at work in the feminist condemnation of F**** S**** O* G***, so I won't go on about it here. But I started thinking about the parallels when I went to a burlesque fair this weekend. There are a lot of conflicting feminist opinions about the modern revival of burlesque culture; some women consider it body-positive, sex-positive, empowering and female-focused, others consider it simply more sexist objectification in cuter clothes, and of course some view it as just a bit of fun. At the fair, though, what struck me was what a female-dominated culture this was. The stallholders were majority female, as were the attendees (I went with three other women). Interestingly, not all the performances were by women - I was pleasantly surprised to see a male pole dancer and a male aerial hoop performer in the pictures afterwards. But what the whole experience made me think was that anyone condemning this as women being objectified for male pleasure would be so off-base it would be laughable. This was very much a female-oriented event, run by, enjoyed by, and supported by women. 

Now, of course there are those who will claim that women have just been so brainwashed into objectifying other women that we don't even realise we're doing it - we are Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs made flesh, and are no better than the women who accompany their male friends to strip clubs in the spirit of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But when I was watching a size 16 woman in her 30s gyrate onstage in a spangly costume, I didn't feel like I was treating her like a piece of meat. I was aware of her as a person with a mind as well as a body, and very much aware that her performance was artifice - because it was so clearly intended this way. I was also aware that her performance was intended to be fun and humorous, and that the smile on her face wasn't trying to emulate sexual ecstasy, but was simply a cheeky grin. It certainly beat the furrowed brows, pouts and icy seriousness of other supposedly "erotic" performances I've seen, and reminded me of why I always liked the pin-up pictures one can find in the Taschen books filled with magazine covers called 'Wink' 'Titter' and so on - because the girls look like they're having fun. As someone who proudly owns a sailor playsuit and has been compared to a pin-up myself when I've posted pictures of myself in it, I can attest that it's not just a look either. It is fun to feel cute, to dress up, to feel colourful and sexy in a way that one still feels like one owns that sexuality. Yet as a feminist, you sometimes wonder whether it's OK to feel that way, or whether you should be trying to condition yourself out of it.

Burlesque performances are generally pretty tame compared to what you'll see in a modern strip club - I've not seen a burlesque performer strip below knickers and nipple tassles, although I'm sure some do, but the point is generally that it's about the art of suggestion so there's still likely to be some giant feathers or balloons in the way. Therein lies the fun - everyone in the room knows they're not going to actually see any pubic hair, or labia, or probably even a nipple, but we're enjoying the fiction that we might, and enjoying the tension that the performer is building up by teasing us with what's behind the sequins. Women and men stood and watched the performers, whooped, clapped and encouraged. It didn't feel sleazy or objectifying. It's also often forgotten that the art of burlesque didn't just use to mean 'stripping' - it also included acrobatics, tumbling, cross-dressing, skits and all manner of entertainment. The immediate tendency to focus on the nekkid-lady part of burlesque is a sad sign of the modern insistence on reducing everything to sex. I once saw a female burlesque performer dress up in a tux and do a Bruce Forsyth impression to Rizzle Kicks' Mama Do The Hump - how often does that aspect of burlesque get mentioned?

Still, as I put my pin-up-lady-themed mirror up in my bedroom, and my lady-in-nipple-tassles-and-knickers toothbrush holder up in my bathroom, I experience a twinge of feminist concern. Am I no better than the man slavering over Page 3, or leering at the women in Zoo? Am I just fooling myself that I'm more enlightened because I didn't mind the fact that the women I watched onstage the other day had rolls of flesh on their bodies, and parts other than boobs that wobbled when they moved - whereas those raised on a diet of airbrushed female bodies and porn would probably consider them unattractive and inferior? Who can say. It bothers me that there exists, in a movement supposedly supportive of female freedom to look, act and spend our money in whichever ways we wish, a faction that makes me have this very argument with myself. I also think this faction is operating on the often-mistaken premise that cultures such as burlesque only exist because of a (automatically evil) male desire to objectify and sexualise women. Based on my experience on Saturday, my answer would be - BOLLOCKS DOES IT. Some feminists will tell us that we've internalised male objectification of our bodies so much that we're now convincing ourselves that we're buying corsets or jiggling our nipple tassles onstage for ourselves or for fun, but that is, of course, just self-deception. We must be doing it because men told us or made us. 

Well, I don't know where those evil men were hiding on Saturday but they sure must have been well-concealed. Was one of them the very camp guy wearing make-up and dressed as a sailor: was he forcing my friend to alter her body when he laced her into one of the corsets he was selling, and is it worth mentioning he was also wearing a corset, as were several other men that day? Was another of them the petite, topless guy with a locked collar around his neck who was helping his much taller female partner run her stall? Were the dutiful partners following their girlfriends around as they excitedly scanned the stalls really calculating sexists waiting to reap the rewards of all this underwear their unsuspecting female partners had been duped into buying...and were they going to be disappointed if their girlfriends instead only chose to buy a necklace that said "FUCK YOU" (one of my friends' purchases from the day) or a cruet set that said "METH" and "COKE" (another friend's purchase that day)? Were the male performers onstage also victims of the patriarchy in some roundabout way, or interlopers here only to spy on all that exposed female flesh...even if it meant exposing most of their flesh too? 

I just didn't see anything to get one's spangly knickers in a twist about. I saw women running businesses, and other women supporting those businesses. I saw female friendships being formed and strengthened. I saw bodies being presented in a sexual yet fun way, and real bodies, bodies that made me feel good and less self-conscious about my own pale skin, my wobbly bits, my average-sized boobs, the rolls on my stomach. I saw a lack of fake tan, a lack of perfectly round breasts that stick straight out instead of being shaped more like half-moons and actually responding to gravity, a lack of underwear so groin-slicingly skimpy that retaining any of one's pubes would be an impossibility, and as a result of this, I felt at home. I felt comfortable. I felt like I saw my body and my sexuality more accurately represented here than I ever would see in the world of mainstream porn.

And next time I go, I'm wearing that sailor suit. ;)

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