Neo-Burlesque and Feminism
I’m Darlinda Just Darlinda I’ve been performing burlesque in New York City for almost 5 years. With a degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology (an integrative degree of theater, new media, film, video and radio) I found myself directing plays that had sexuality as the reoccurring theme like “The Vagina monologues” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I was living in Monterey, California in 2003 and my roommate went to Tease-o-rama in San Francisco. Tease-o-rama is a burlesque convention that happens almost every other year; it brings burlesque performers together from all over the world. My roommate went and told me about the individual acts that she had seen, I was blown away. I loved that burlesque integrated sexuality, comedy and storytelling all in a easy to understand, 3-5 minute package. I left Monterey with a Burlesque going away party and moved to New York to follow my dreams. So I’ve been performing burlesque in New York ever since!
To speak of Feminism and Neo Burlesque I’m going to define the terms as I interpret them.
My definition of Neo Burlesque is the combination of classic burlesque striptease, performance art, and various forms of dance, satire and comedy sketch.
Feminism is the equal right of all genders to achieve goals, live in peace, and the respect for all humans regardless of gender. To be a feminist is to be aware of those rights, understand that we have choices in life, and work toward implementing them in our society in daily life or political/ performance based action. My mother was part of the feminist movement at UC Berkley in the 1960’s; she raised me to believe that I can do what ever it is that I choose to do in life regardless of my gender. She even told me NOT to shave my legs. Well how do I live my life as a feminist? I wear a bright orange spandex outfit to a speech at the University of London, not all feminist wear Birkenstocks. I wear Birkenstocks AND high heels! I have a day job at a women owned and operated education based sex toy store. I am an active member of the New York City Burlesque community. I have made a choice to live the life that I live.
As to weather the “resurgence of burlesque [is] a continuation of the exploitation of women’s bodies or is it potentially part of a new feminism?”
The resurgence of Burlesque is not exploitative when the producers, performers and promoters are willing and inspired to participate in the said show. Shows can be exploitative when performers don’t understand their choice to be in the show, if they are made the brunt of the joke, if they are continuing a stereotype.
Neo Burlesque can be a part of the new feminism if the performer is participating with intentions to comment on the situation at hand. Julie Atlas Muz performed her act “You don’t own me” at the Miss Exotic World 2007 competition. This was her last act as the reining 2006 Miss Exotic World. Her act entails being blindfolded and tied up in roped and escaping to the song “You don’t own me.” I perceived this as a statement about the Miss Exotic World Pageant and women’s freedom. I don’t think that the pageant is exploitative, but the competition can create an imbalance in the way that performers normally support one another in the burlesque community and can feel restrictive in it’s competition.
One of the things that is unique about Neo-Burlesque and Classic Burlesque (burlesque performed until 1960 and 70’s) is the acceptance of performers with different bodies. If their body is different from the societal/popular norm Performers can be acting as a feminist by the mere act of having their bodies on stage. The late Heather McAllister the creator of Fat Bottom Review in San Francisco, a fat positive, queer burlesque troupe, said, “Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.” This is predominantly why I am a burlesque performer, from day one I saw how female audience members reacted to my body in a positive manner. They saw my 5’4″, size 12, 36 B, 160pound body and immediately identified, they had a positive reaction because they saw themselves in me. I am by no means a supermodel, but According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average U.S. woman is 5′ 3.7 (162 centimeters) tall and weighs 152 pounds (69 kilograms), so I’m almost average!
If burlesque had never died out and turned into strip the strip clubs as we know them today. I venture to say that the bodies would look less like Dirty Martini and more like Paris Hilton. As burlesque has become more popular in the United States we are also seeing a resurgence in mainstream performance venues producing shows like 40 Deuce and The Pussy Cat Dolls, the performers in these troupes are definitely carrying out the mainstream body image. There is lots of money behind those shows, and women with mainstream bodies have a better chance of participating in shows that generate larger revenue.
This can be frustrating for me, because as-it-is now there is not a venue for me to participate in the mainstream burlesque world because of my body type and my body type is almost the American average. This is a catch 22 because if I joined the mainstream burlesque world, I wouldn’t get to express myself in the manner that I do, because with mainstream comes a lack of political commentary.
The New York Burlesque scene is full of performance platforms for women to comment on social and political issues. Though this can depend on the show, if you are performing at Corio (a dinner club), the producer is more interested in classic Burlesque, if you perform at the Slipper Room (Burlesque night club that has shows Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), the audience is more into something entertaining rather than political and they are often drunk, so a political piece might not be something that they absorb.
There are shows that are specifically dedicated to social and political commentary.
Bad Ass Burlesque is a monthly Burlesque show that takes place at the Bowery Poetry Club and has done a Bush Bash for the past few years as part of the July show in conjunction with the fourth of July which is the American day of independence. I have done a couple of acts which bash bush, mainly they are comments about abortion and how Bush is threatening the women’s right to choose, tonight you see one of these acts.[This is the description of the act that I did. The act is to Blood Sweat and Tears “You have made me so very happy” I enter as a buxom blond with a long red evening gown, blue gloves and American flags everywhere, my smiles are endless and it appears that I am a proud American. I do a classic strip tease and the juxtaposition of what follows as I strip is my smiles turn to nausea and my blond wig comes off as do my pasties and g-string. I pull a picture of George Bush out of my vagina and with shock and horror I rip it up. This act explores the thought of the government in my vagina. Why must abortion be a political issue? Why is health care not available to everyone? How really horrible it is that the government IS in my vagina! If you click this link you can see pictures]
Within the New York, San Francisco, and Seattle Burlesque scene, there is definitely an opportunity for queer, trans and men to be involved. This depends on the venue and show. I think you will find that in Los Angeles, California. The look there is definitely very classic and glamorous. In New York we have more of a performance art aesthetic so there is an opportunity for queer and trans folks to perform. I am not transgender so I don’t know the experience of every transgender performer, I can only speculate.
Rose Wood is transgender although in both 2006 and 2007 she was put in the “Boylesque” category in the Miss Exotic World Competition. So there is still some segregation of gender in the burlesque community at large, where if you have a penis you are a boy and if you have a vagina you are a girl. My view of gender is fluid and for a lot of transgender folks who choose not to have any surgery or take hormones this is segregation of what gender is, can be trying.
There is a place for men performing, but Tigger! Mr Exotic World 2006 says that Burlesque is a women’s “sport” and a male performer must tread lightly and respect the female space. I think the idea of respect is awesome and that there have been male performers where you get the feeling that they just want to be backstage with the naked women, and their desire to perform is not as strong. So it’s all about intention and realizing that you can become part of the burlesque movement, but must also be respectful of that movement.
This awareness is important for all genders involved in the Burlesque movement if one has the intention to realize that they are making a statement, it’s about being aware of your actions and understanding that you have a voice in the burlesque movement and it’s your choice to use it!