On Subversion and Perversion: in passionate defence of burlesque

Posted: December 14, 2010 in Culture, kink, Psychobabble, Sex, Uncategorized

In response to this article, by a columnist I habitually agree with and for whom I have a great deal of respect, i became so angry in that fierce Somebody Is Wrong on the Internet (or worse, in the paper) way that you do, I was forced – at 1am! – to actually join the trollfest that is the comments. Ms Penny may be right about the film in question, I haven’t seen it, but given the extent to which it’s been condemned by contemporary burlesque performers, she’s not the only one hating it for precisely those reasons. Given her impressive journalistic integrity, her failure to engage with this surely fundamental point is surprising.

I’ve become very interested in the world of burlesque recently (as well as, y’know, my girly-pole-dancing past), and may possibly have in a moment of temporary and ill-advised abandon (as it happens, at the glorious Bar Wotever cabaret) agreed to contribute to the fabulous Lashings of Ginger Beer Time. Largely because of the joy which burlesque performers frequently take in challenging, deconstructing and undermining contemporary gender and sexual stereotype. Ruby Blues removes an 18th-century corset and gown, and then two enormous red feather fans, to reveal an eight-inch dildo, and spray champagne over herself and the room in parodic and paradoxial orgasm; a lady whose name i blush to confess I’ve forgotten retells the immaculate conception as lesbian erotic encounter;Ophelia Bitz bends gender and expectation as easily as she does her glorious voice; Dusty Limits turns ‘I will follow him’ from Sister Act into a sinister stalker’s anthem, neatly inverting gender role and orthodoxy as he does so. Lashings’ first London performance was picketed by feminists who thought just as Ms Penny seems to, and went away entirely converted. To suggest such artists are simply ‘a glib titillation parade, lapdancing with a retro aesthetic’ is both patronising and just plain wrong.

Ms Penny is undoubtedly right about the values of the industry that produced Burlesque the movie. But about the subversive, perverted, challenging, playful subculture it claims to represent? Hardly. As Ms Bitz pointed out on Women’s Hour only last week, there is so much more to burlesque than that film. Ms Penny makes the same mistake as Hollywood there. To conflate a Hollywood interpretation – the product of an industry often manifesting precisely the values she erroeously ascribes to burlesque – with burlesque itself, particularly in this country, is anathema to many current burlesque performers.

Most disturbing of all, to me, anyway, was the article’s concluding sentence: ‘If you want to feel sexy, have sex – and if you want to be empowered, join a political movement.’

With respect, that’s bollocks, to use a technical term. It’s possible to be manipulated into sex in all sorts of circumstances that are the opposite of empowerment – and if recent events are anything to go by, joining a political movement (eg, the anti-cuts movement) has left a lot of people (me included) feeling disillusioned, disappointed, disenfranchised and depressed. Not to mention, in some cases, with serious injuries inflicted by the much greater power of the state. To assert the simple act of having sex – willed or otherwise, respected or otherwise, with lover or partner or stranger or friend – with ‘feeling sexy’, or the possession of political impulse or thought with an ’empowered’ ability to act on or change the world accordingly, is oversimplifying in the worst way. To assume any mode of outward behaviour – be it sexualised performance or political protest -of necessity reflects or creates any kind of universal psycho-emotional reaction in any given individual is nonsense. And to deny any woman – in a world that’s still to a greater or lesser extent a patriarchy – any possible opportunity for authentic self-expression or any arena in which to challenge monolithic misogynist assumption seems shortsighted at best.

If you want to feel empowered, think about kinds of power you want to have and how they might best be achieved. Write, speak, find allies, discuss how desired changes could happen, or existing spaces of power be celebrated. If you want to feel sexy, consider what you as an individual find sexy and act accordingly. If that includes donning a corset and strap-on and giving an intensely erotic gender-, mind- and body-bending musical performance, so be it. I’ll certainly be in the audience, as analytical as i am aroused. And I’m far from being alone.

  1. Cas says:

    Like you I’d like to see more distinction between appropriated burlesque (stripping with tassels) and queering burlesque.

    As always, it seems like there are mainstream assimilating forces snapping at the heels of any liberation tactic. Except they’re not really at the heels any more; I think that most people outside of our queer subculture would now directly associate “Burlesque” with stripping, not subversion, and would be quite surprised if they ended up in one of the performances you describe above.

    Not that I’m arguing for abandoning the term. I’m a stickler for holding on to terms which are being marginalised or assimilated and tearing them back into queer hands where they belong.


    • Goblin says:

      Damn right. I thin one of my main points here, tho, is that the ‘stripping’ image is the erroneous one, not the queering, historically speaking, so for Laurie to adopt a contemporary misrepresentation rather than a historical continuity is less than helpful given the breadth of her audience…


  2. Denny says:

    Joining a political movement (eg, the anti-cuts movement) has left a lot of people (me included) feeling disillusioned, disappointed, disenfranchised and depressed.

    “You don’t protest for the present, you protest to frame the narrative of the future.” http://s.coop/6by


    • Denny says:

      That probably requires some of the context that was in my head to be actually in the comment 🙂

      What I was trying to say, via the medium of a nice quote, is that it’s a shame that you feel disappointed and disillusioned, because:

      * Your participation in the UCL occupation was one of the many things that contributed to my going to some of the tuition-fee protests myself. Not by any means one of the main things, but it was part of it. People I respect were in the thick of this movement, that always counts for something. Think about the impact your involvement may have had for people who were otherwise unsympathetic to the students, but who view you as a friend or otherwise respect your opinions.

      * The UKuncut movement is not over. I hope your involvement with it won’t end now that the tuition fees vote has happened. Despite my personal connection with that part of the anti-cuts movement, I probably have more sympathy for the EMA kids, and I suspect we should all have more sympathy for the many welfare-related cuts that are still to come. I’m also becoming more and more sympathetic towards striking workers the more I think about how these things all interrelate conceptually, and may join or support their picket lines in future. I hope that students and academics won’t abandon this movement now that their closest personal involvement has (more or less) finished.

      * Slightly grand phrasing, but; we’re writing the history of the future here. When people look back at this period in history, our protests will frame the government’s actions, putting them in the context of an unpopular and nasty ideological war against whole slews of the population, instead of them just being seen as a hard-headed practical solution to the global financial problems. I very much want history to view what the Tories are doing as being contested, not unanimously supported. What you’ve done already has contributed to the former view being seen and heard, it’s not all been wasted effort just because that vote went the wrong way.


      • Goblin says:

        Wow. thanks, hon, that actually makes me feel a lot better. No, i have no intention of abandoning my views, but without the occupation, it would be good if you could sugest other means of expressing them produtively. I do’t feel able to physically protest, sadly – i’m osteoporotic, and have ibs, and for me to be kettled, batoned or batoned would probably result in a number of broken bones (including spinal or skull injuries, as i doubt the police are careful) or, at the very least, considerable physical trauma. So I’m ot quite sure what else to *do* if not representation. I really value your comment, thank you, but any thoughts?


      • Denny says:

        Bizarrely I see a ‘Reply’ link under every comment except your reply to me, which is obviously the one I want to reply to. I’ll post it here instead and hope it ends up in roughly the right place 🙂

        How does research followed by summarising and dissemination of information sound as a route of involvement for you? I suspect you’d be good at it. The welfare cuts stuff in particular is being spun a dozen different ways by the government, with cuts on related benefits announced in different places, and various different ways of measuring the impact of the cuts used, and the cuts are quite complicated anyway as they’re applied at various rates over various periods of time. I’m pretty sure it’d be possible to boil all that info down into an article or a few articles which could be used to show the overall impact on various types of people in various areas, which could be used to show people who haven’t appreciated the scale of the cuts or their personal impact, or used by people who are protesting to give them more background knowledge of the cuts they’re not personally affected by.

        For example, when I was taking part in the Islington Vodafone protest last weekend, a lot of pensioners took a very ‘not interested’ attitude because they heard the guy with the megaphone shouting about student stuff – but I’m sure I saw various cuts to pensions (state and public sector) being discussed somewhere too. Didn’t know enough to confidently and quickly get the point across on the day though – a resource to prime people for those kinds of discussions would be really useful.


  3. Cas says:

    (forgot to click “notify by email” so I’m adding this comment to get notified of replies – sorry for the spam!)


  4. Azaria Starfire says:

    You have cheered me up. Said article and another by Miss Penny (Burlesque laid bare) left me feeling utterly disappointed by the media’s treatment of Burlesque.

    I have been discussing Art Form v Posh Stripping through facebook for the last two days.

    How refreshing to be directed to your response to the very same article that infuriated me.


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