Is Burlesque really a “platform for social commentary”?

A group of Burlesque girls got their placards out and went on protest in Edinburgh recently after receiving a less than complimentary review in The Scotsman.

Yet, the girls weren’t protesting because their show received a bad review, they were protesting because the review implied:

that if you were a burlesque performer you could not be a feminist

Sally Scott had tactfully suggested that the women’s expressions were like that of a  “blown-up sex doll”. That’s one way to ruffle the feathers of a bunch of burlesque ladies.

The performers, obviously not best pleased at being compared to sex commodities, said of the review:

It said we were somehow anti-feminist and conforming to sexism. We believe we are feminists. We are promoting this idea that a women can have brains and beauty and be proud of both.

This story jumped out at me because while I’m eating my cheese sandwich and reading the article on BBC News, there is a copy of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return to Sexism sitting in front of me at my desk. (weird!).

Don’t get me wrong… I’m only on page 9 BUT this exact issue is dealt with by Walter at the beginning of her book. She identifies us as living in a “hypersexual culture” that is “often celebrated as a positive sign of women’s liberation and empowerment.” To further her point she uses pole-dancing as an example:

the fashion for pole-dancing classes is talked about as if it were liberating for women […] Even occupations such as lap dancing and prostitution are now surrounded by this quasi-feminist rhetoric.

Burlesque has become increasingly popular in the past few years, but with its popularity it has become increasingly sexualised with many people now failing to see the distinction between burlesque shows and strip joints. On th other side of the coin, women actually enjoy going to see burlesque shows because it showcases real women with real bodies. Alex Proud formerly ran a burlesque show and says:

The performers don’t have bodies out of fashion magazines […] Women enjoy it because they see it as empowerment. It’s about them regaining their own sexuality and enjoying it.

Fair enough.

Yet while I think Sally Scott has demeaned these women in her damning article more than the burlesque has, in the wider context of things, her article does back up Natasha Walters’ argument that there is a tension between our overtly sexualised culture and feminism.

A Women’s right organisation at shot back at Scott saying:

Apparently Scott isn’t familiar with the plethora of politically savvy women who utilize burlesque as a platform for social commentary

Just because “savvy” and intellectual women freely CHOSE to partake in these professions, doesn’t make them a feminists. In fact, CHOICE is rarely ever free from any influence – are the women in these occupations being unconciously influenced by this “hypersexual culture” that Walter speaks off?

While I think sexual freedom and liberation is something to be celebrated, there is a danger that we might wake up one morning to find that our mates / sisters /daughters are aspiring to be glamour models / pornstars / pole-dancers / prostitutes… or is it already too late?

Back to burlesque. I’ve never been to a burlesque show myself so I can’t comment on it personally, although I do very much doubt it would leave me feeling depressed, supressed and ashamed…

(Despite what you might think of burlesque as an art form, you can’t knock those burlesque girls, there’s something noble about standing up for something you believe it, whatever it might be…)

what do you think?


2 thoughts on “Is Burlesque really a “platform for social commentary”?

  1. Speaking as a near-50 male, I confess to having NO IDEA WHATSOEVER as to where feminism is today. I have heard the same argument over prostitutes as with the burlesque performers: one group says degrading, another group says empowering.
    I was too young to really understand the Women’s Liberation movement of the 60s, but by the time I was in my late teens Australian feminists had become very hardcore. All men are rapists or potential rapists.
    Now it seems a woman can do just about anything and if she enjoys it she can call it feminism.
    Declaration of interest: I am a keen supporter of Gina Elise and her Pin-Ups For Vets Calendar. Gina is reviving the pinup style of the 40s and 50s, which is all about elegance with a little bit of tease. A very refreshing change from the standard internet fare which mostly qualifies as advanced studies in gynaecology, and has all the mystery of a steel cap to the groin.

  2. Aha, someone else who is starting to see the same stuff as I have! I would recommend checking out my recent article “Why the Burlesque Show Is (Almost) Over”, which i wrote for the commentary blog “The Thing Is…” The article actually covers and expounds on most of these points:

    As far as social commentary goes, the main statement on that in the article is, “Burlesque dancers…have a wall of separation between them and the audience, and have rigged the show to where the audience can only give positive reinforcement. In this environment, all the ‘power grabs’ and attempts and being ‘daring’ end up being, as Roger Waters put it, ‘the bravery of being out of range.'”

    We talk about the sexualization contest and demonstrate that burlesque is a problem to its own solution in that area, and also demonstrate that their “empowerment” is actually and ILLUSION of empowerment, not the real thing.

    I would also add that if you look at “Girls Gone Wild” or other photos and video of regular girls taking off their clothes and partying, that they will do a lot of the same exaggerated movements, make the same sassy “aren’t we so sexy” faces, and talk about how empowered they feel when they are doing it–this is documented a little better in Ariel Levy’s book “Female Chauvinist Pigs”. You look at burlesque dancers and they are going through a lot of the exact same motions, only in slightly different ways and a slightly different context. The similar patterns are unmistakable. The article states, “[T]he Neo-Burlesque Movement still buys into the Western Culture Sexualization Contest’s ever-present message that a woman’s value is primarily based on her performance as a sex object. Their sexualization of each other continues on, only in a “soccer mom” kind of way where everyone gets a prize.” Hope you enjoy and hope it helps!

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