So burlesque: tarted up stripping with feathers?

Michelle Mangal

Burlesque, burlesque, burlesque. There is glitter, feathers, sequins, tuneful singing and often some pleasing dance moves- what more could a person ask for? Plus, an attractive woman will inevitabily shed some of her outer garments to reveal a chock full of body confidence and some strategically placed nipple tassles. The audience understands that this is not a cock tease/strip tease but an artistic expression of female sexuality. I am not against women being burlesque artists or indeed burlesque as a  aesthetically pleasing performance, but I dispute the claim that burlesque is so far removed from plain ol’ stripping. As a feminist, I understand that women are free to choose how they use their bodies and that they are to be free of judgement for sexual or sexualised behaviour. However, why is stripping considered ‘sleazy’ or ‘demeaning’ and burlesque as ‘artistic’ and ’empowering’? Is it the patina of glamour that burlesque oozes? That women and men yearn nostalgically for an age when women wore stockings and basques and female sexuality was imbued with a supposed sophistication? Burlesque performances can be empowering for an individual, yes, but for women as a whole? I’m not so sure.

I have been to both a strip club and a burlesque night and there were some clear similarities. In the strip club, I paid for a beautiful, intelligent, body-glittered woman to remove nearly all her clothes. At the burlesque night, I paid for an admittedly much more comfortable and entertaining evening, albeit one where 10 beautiful, intelligent and beglittered women removed most of their their clothing. I’m sure that in both cases, the women were paid to perform. In both cases I went because it would be a novel experience and whilst I don’t judge the women that choose to strip or do burlesque, as a woman I think both are part of the commodified sexuality/gender inequality issue.  In a world where the naked female body is constantly objectified, it almost seems more powerful to keep your clothes on.

Furthermore, of the claim that burlesque celebrates different forms of female women, here in the UK, I do not know of any celebrated non-white burlesque acts and I am not convinced of the representation of women above a size 14. The lack of non white women in burlesque may be due to a mixture of alternative cultural norms or religious values regarding expressions of female sexuality. Fundamentally, I believe that the burlesque issue is that of class. Sociological analysis of contemporary burlesque will note that class interacts with burlesque in that burlesque is currently on trend in certain circles and, while there is little UK empirical data on the socio-economic background of contemporary burlesque performers , I’m willing to guess that a lot of UK burlesque acts and their audiences are middle class. This middle class validation therefore positions burlesque as a safer, more correct expression of female sexuality among feminists and women in general as opposed to glamour modelling or stripping.

Also I think it is interesting that burlesque also heavily uses traditional signifiers of bourgeois femininity to recreate the feminine ideal – gloves, corsets, stockings, pinned up hair, fans and so on. Gloves which were originally to keep a lady’s hands lily white and also  a signifier of wealth because she had servants to do her domestic work.  Corsets which controlled many women’s bodies and were to  ‘separate decent women from prostitutes’ and yet its restrictiveness caused many illnesses.  Hair that was pinned up because loose hair on a lady was unacceptable and only for children.  Many of these ideals were obliterated in the 1960s by feminists and yet are being recreated on stage and supported by contemporary feminists as a ‘feminist portrayal of women’s desire to be liberated sexual subjects and not just the objects of men’s gaze’.

Originally a means for lower classes to poke fun at the social norms of the upper class, I saw but a little of the humour and parody that is meant to define burlesque. I see burlesque as part of the same performance spectrum that includes stripping and it annoys me when people attempt to persuade me that it’s not because burlesque has a theme or historical provenance. Its historical provenance is  very closely aligned to stripping and some analysis of the origins of burlesques posits that it was a precusor to stripping. Stripping has a theme too- it’s called ‘Continuing to satisfying the Male gaze whilst also making ridiculous amount of money in the 21st Century’. I am aware that there is also male burlesque but having not seen any yet, I am not able to include it in this analysis. I guess what really gets my goat is the middle class denial of burlesque as a form of gender inequality and its similarity as a performance act to glamour modelling or stripping. 

So burlesque: tarted up stripping with feathers?

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Filed under Feminist commentary

8 responses to “So burlesque: tarted up stripping with feathers?

  1. Very interesting argument Michelle- I’ve not been sure what to think about burlesque, but your points about class are really interesting. It does seem to be a very white, middle-class activity. I’m also very suspicious of the supposed ’empowering’ aspects of it: if, as you say, it was originally a fun way for groups of people to send up the middle classes, and included many different acts by men and women, why has the stripping aspect superseded all the others? It seems like another way for women who desperately want to be objects of desire to present themselves sexually to men, under the guise of an empowering performance.

    Having said that, I hear that most of the audience members at burlesque nights are women, which certainly can’t be said for strip clubs…

  2. I think burlesque is simply seen as classier than stripping. How different it is in reality, I cannot say as I haven’t been to a burlesque show. From what I have been told, it is much more elegant.

    I’d be interested to hear about how male burlesque is received!

  3. Interesting – thanks for this analysis. You articulated some things I felt but wasn’t able to pinpoint.

  4. Rita

    I went to a burlesque club a couple of times in Cambridge. The audience was over 50% male. The only male act was a gay circus performer who was impressive for his skilled circus tricks, and kept his clothes on. The female acts, however… you can imagine. Vintage strippers… I was so disappointed and though I kept quiet, obviously wasn’t having a good time. My three male companions all tried to variously convince me, to which all I could say was ‘I came here to have a good time, not to watch my boyfriend cheer at a pair of fake tits on the make’. During said masculine cheering, I looked around the room. A lot of girlfriends looks all kinds of shades of unhappy. That is the view those white, painted, plumped up female performers must see. And obviously they don’t give a sh%t… so long as they get paid. I’m glad to say that club has since been closed down by the Arts Council.

  5. MM

    Reblogged this on The Cherry Tree and commented:

    An article I wrote on burlesque in 2012.

  6. BB

    Why don’t you ask someone who’s been people trafficked to work in a pole dancing bar what they think of burlesque? I’m sure the word “empowering” wouldn’t be first off their lips. Or are their feminine rights not as important as some posh bint with tattoos and a 50s hairdo?

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