Friday, 15 May 2009

Burlesque laid bare

For your delectation, for your deliberation, more of me writing about feminism and my fucked-up adolescence for the Naugriad (they have now corrected 'mysoginist' in the crosshead, joys!).


  1. Phhhhhh....

    Don`t like it, don`t do it.
    Simple, innit.

    Why does everything anyone does have to be a viewed as a substitute for political and social power?

    Why is it better to judge someone on the basis of their thoughts rather than their beauty?

  2. False eyelash consciousness, I call it.

    You are bound to face a certain amount of indignation from burlesque performers for having written this piece. You're right in almost every respect, though.

    I have yet to meet an ex-stripper who doesn't thoroughly regret having been one.

    From what reading I've done, the evolution of the term "burlesque" along with "charivaris" and - my personal favourite - "skimmingtons" in English popular culture is an interesting one, especially in relation to the claims of modern performers that it has deep roots in a tradition.

    There's a long section about it in Vic Gatrell's 'City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London'.

    A burlesque in the Eighteenth century was an impromptu street gathering and procession, associated with satirical performances, mock elections, public nudity ala Lady Godiva, and - more often than not - brawls.

    It had its roots in the much older "bread and circuses" traditions of local dignitaries paying for the booze and entertainment at public fairs and feast days. This was effectively a means of social control. It showed the mob who was in charge in a community, that they were benign enough to allow people to take the piss out of them every once in a while. It also provided a way for everyone to let off steam.

    There's a parallel with the "anti-masque" tradition that Ben Jonson channels in his play "Bartholemew Fair" and the mechanicals' play in 'A Midsummer Nights Dream': of commoners being granted permission to mimic, and satirically portray, the social order, in the face of authority.

    Burlesques were gradually banned in Georgian England, because they were disorderly displays of immorality that distracted people from work and worship. The use of the term went indoors, first into the tents of traveling performers, at country fairs and circuses, and then into the music hall.

    It has always been a term associated with an oblique form of social control, but one that isn't necessarily sinister: the people in charge allowed themselves to be made fun of, and often in a lewd and scurrilous manner.

    This was still a predominantly agricultural society, where people were used to seeing animals having sex in fields and generally had a much more sanguine attitude to sexuality.

    Once it left the street or sideshow and became a music hall turn, the term "burlesque" stopped being associated with performance that was improvised and in any way politically satirical.

    What we are left with is a mechanical depiction of sexuality as an unironic exercise in personal branding. The only important message that is being imparted is that we should pay attention to the performer.

    You hit the nail on the head when you say: 'The sexual tease is always a ­substitute for real personal and political power. In this ­respect, at least, contemporary ­burlesque is true to the spirit of the Victorian ­music hall, which plays on what historian ­Gareth ­Stedman Jones calls "a culture of ­consolation"'.

    The disappointment for me with contemporary burlesque lies in its subliminal association with the 1950s, and an asthetic of corporate advertising that is contrived and joyless rather than improvised, social and fun. It's about gaining an advantage, exclusive rights, the possibility that you might be able to sleep with the woman on stage...

    Ghastly old cliches about performance that - in this day and age - you really would have thought people could get over, including performers themselves.

  3. Lecherous Lout15 May 2009 at 07:23


  4. What do you think of male strippers, Laurie? Like the Chippendales and the Dream Boys? I once went to a hen night and the girls in the audience fondled, massaged, masturbated and even fellated the naked performers in full view of everyone screeching and baying like Baccus' bacchante! They did pretty much everything but have full penetrative sex with the men.

    What's your opinion on that kind of behaviour?

  5. Burlesque stripping, like lap-dancing, is about performing – rather than owning – your sexuality.Yeah.

    Was there any one moment that led you to that conclusion, or was gaining awareness of it more of a gradual process?

  6. Just read your piece in Grun; anyone who can use Stedman Jones for their case is to be applauded.

  7. Also, @Tim:

    You're the first person I've encountered outside Obscure Academia to talk about charivari. Kudos. Although I hope your degree's been more useful than mine.

  8. I don't know much about burlesque but take your description of the average show as read.

    The question that arises from this article for me is, couldn't your analysis equally give rise to a call for a more radical kind of socialist feminist/queer theatre or performance art, which revives what was best about early burlesque but politicises it more? It seems to me there is potential for a feminist version of the approach that draws on Brecht or Artaud, say.

    In fact a quick google reveals that there has already been work done in this area:

    In fact I know from your twitter that you are working in alternative theatre at this very moment. So it seems strange that this article feels like an admission of defeat or withdrawal from the cultural sphere in favour of a feminist activism which could only be 'political' in a more traditional sense (marches, petitioning parliament, etc).

    Sorry if that sounds harsh - I like the fact that the final paragraph includes a constructive moment, but I just wish that positive analysis extended to performance as well.

  9. Interesting Penny. Very good piece apart from a line or so in the final paragraph.

  10. I have always enjoyed burlesque more than (the idea of) basic strip shows, precisely because it involved more thought-provoking pieces as well as the flash of naked female flesh (and male flesh, in some instances, now). Indeed, there clearly are still troupes who perform in that milieu.

    But I agree with the conclusions of your Guardian piece, and the point you made there that that isn't the norm.

    In almost any of these types of form, there will always be those who transcend the "lowest common denominator", but the majority stick with that, because it's what sells most tickets/CDs/DVDs.

  11. I'm wanking over that now. Fucking delicious!


  13. @ Anonymous

    I've seen them, sport, and... well... they're kind of small to be honest. If Penny had only eat her green when she was young all parts of her would be bigger!

  14. Shut up, guys. Don't make me come down there.

  15. Yes, little girl.

  16. Excellent article Penny, I caught this in the G on Friday.

  17. As a woman who enjoys burlesque as a hobby, I felt SO PATRONISED by this article. How dare someone I have never met try and tell me that I don't care about equal pay or women's safety!

    By the way, in the class I go to, we don't strip off any more than gloves and boas. It is nothing like lapdancing. Not that I'm expressing an opinion on lapdancing.

    If an actress were moaning about wanting to get more serious roles, there would be criticism of her agent or of Hollywood scriptwriters or whatever. Not a wholesame condemnation of films, or plays, or TV drama. This is so over the top.

    I enjoy my hobby. It is good exercise and I enjoy dressing up. It has given me confidence. I know that is a cliche, but burlesque (and being told to stick my bottom out) really has made me stop worrying about whether my bum looks big in a particular outfit. I don't think all women would enjoy burlesque and I am not naive enough to think it will change the world.

    Burlesque is not some misogynist sham.

  18. VR - truth hurts, doesn't it?

  19. VR - I second that. Why do you need approval of how you look?

    You may think you're a feminist but the point of this article is to challenge the tedious orthodoxy that burlesque is a blow for women's rights.

    Your need for external approval comes a long way down the list of feminist priorities.

  20. Sorry, Anonymous, what do you mean "truth hurts"? I am sure Ms Penny is telling the truth about her personal experience. However, that does not give her the right to make unfair generalisations about other women.

    I do not know why you think I "need approval of how I look". It may sound trivial, but I used to worry about how I looked in particular outfits and now I do not. I probably look just the same to everyone else. It may be a coincidence, but since I started at burlesque class, I have also been challenging some of my worries and phobias.

    I did not claim that burlesque was "a blow for women's rights". I am not seeking to change the world via my hobby. That does not, however, give Ms Penny the right to assume I don't try to change the world. It does not give you the right to make patronising comments such as "you may think you're a feminist". I know I'm a feminist.

  21. If you women all got laid it would do you a power of good!

  22. Laurie, as someone also involved in the show you refer to, I have to say my memories are quite different.

    As they moved venues, the managers decided to focus on putting on a more "professional" show. I can see how you would interpret this as you did, in being a change to a sexier, content-lite show, however, I was told (and personally believe) that they simply meant they wanted the dance acts to be better dancers, the singing acts to be better singers, etc. This was clear in the later shows.

    I'm not sure if you came to any of our shows after the change in tone, as I know you weren't involved any more, but most (if not all) acts were still not simply about turning people on. For instance, we had sword swallowing, and a really creepy stripping plague victim.

    I take the points you are trying to make and I think it is easy for performances that have a sexual nature to be emotionally challenging for those involved. However, your article seems to read as though you were coerced into taking part and that is not my memory of the situation.

    I'd also feel much more comfortable if you'd specified in your article that you were 18 at the time you're talking about. You refer to yourself as a teenager, which, of course, you were. However, it gives the implication that you were younger. Of course nobody knows everything about themselves at age 18 (if they ever do) but you were at least a legal adult.

    There are many issues involved in burlesque that you touch on, such as why people want to be in these shows, and how you can challenge sexual stereotypes by being sexual. I do not think that these are simple issues and I do not think all burlesque is great. However I do think you are to a large extent misrepresenting the specific example that we were both involved in.

    My own experience was that the team were supportive of each other, and though I was not an on-stage performer I never witnessed anyone being persuaded to do anything they weren't comfortable with. Naturally people were nervous beforehand and many were concerned about their weight or appearance, but not particularly more than in other (fully clothed) plays I've been involved with.

    I also agree with you that class often plays a role. In some ways, I feel this is an advantage for burlesque simply because middle-class people such as you and me are privileged enough not to need to strip for money, and so an element of coercion is removed. As such their motives are internal - whether it is from their desire for attention, desire to be viewed sexually, or something else. Whatever reasons they have may be good or bad but they are, at least, their own. I don't know that you're reasons were for being involved were that healthy - you seem to be implying they were not - but you did at least make your own choice.

    I've probably rambled enough now and I should be working, but mainly I wanted to say that I don't think you represented the show fairly. I'd have commented at the guardian site but it said comments were closed now.


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