A few months ago I was being interviewed as PA to a wheelchair-bound performer: physically disabled; vocally, artistically and soulfully very enabled. I’m nodding along to a précis of her extensive portfolio when she pipes up: “I also do burlesque.” What?! “Oh, yeah. I can work nipple tassels.” It’s not that disabled people can’t be sexy. It’s that burlesque isn’t sexy; it’s sexist. So why appropriate an “art form” that is retro-sexually oppressive?
The revival of cabaret entertainment has brought about a resurgence of burlesque. You’ll be hard pressed to find a trendy, themed club night without there being some burlesque act attached to the line-up, which you’ll also be expected to find harmless fun or risk being labelled a prude. Burlesque now pops up in mainstream bars and pubs, too; the cinema (lest we forget the colossal waste of $55 million that was the 2010 film Burlesque); TV (Christina Aguilera’s promotional performance on The X Factor is now infamous); and is tutored on many a hen weekend.
“Burla” means “joke” in Italian, but for whom is the joke intended? Don’t be fooled by the middle-class ruse of sophistication and creativity. I’m with Laura Barnett, who calls burlesque “stripping for posh people”.
The nudity in burlesque isn’t liberating; it’s sexually objectifying. Burlesque artists claim to enjoy their bodies on stage for their own sakes, but by definition the performance necessitates an audience to perform to, in this case, a titillated, heterosexual crowd. You simply can’t ignore the sexual politics at play.
Burlesque is aimed at arousing heterosexual men and encouraging heterosexual women to flaunt their sexuality for male approval. Through its burlesque classes, Polestars (actual name) promises to “build confidence” and “change the way you see your body”. It makes false promises because this so-called “confidence” is dependent upon heterosexist logic, trapped within a patriarchal system.
We learn sexual codes of attractiveness through our culture (there’s nothing innately sexy about a nipple tassel) and our culture remains male-dominated, female-oppressive. As a result, burlesque is about as empowering as the Spice Girls were. In fact the word “empowering” is inaccurately bandied around so much that I want to ban it from the English language.
Burlesque doesn’t enable women to love their bodies; it forces them to sexualise and objectify their bodies for others. Mainstream burlesque performers may not be size zero, but they still reinforce a type of sexual attractiveness that is unattainable for most women: curvaceous, but not fat, and radiant with porcelain skin. Indeed, there are racial implications here, as flawless, white skin is idealised, while black and Asian performers are notably absent from the burlesque circuit. Curvy has replaced skinny, but the principle of sexual objectification endures.
Dita von Teese, dubbed the “International Queen of Burlesque”, who began her career as a stripper, does not represent a natural, womanly body, but an artfully and artificially constructed one. She sees a dermatologist to maintain unblemished skin; dyes her naturally blonde hair black; had a breast enlargement at the age of 21; and wears a corset to reduce her already petite waist to 16″, to enhance those fake boobs and cut an hourglass silhouette.
The oppressive beauty myth is still being re-told and sold.
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