Burlesque, stripping and feminism

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for BitchBuzz pondering whether burlesque was just about glittertits and sex. At the time, I was trying to decide whether or not to continue with it as a hobby, partly because of what other people perceived burlesque to be. I was surprised to discover that some people thought it was just “posh stripping” when I viewed it as something rather different.

To me, it’s a cabaret performance style which can incorporate any number or skills/talents. A burlesque performance can be comical, radical, theatrical or downright sexy. It can tell a story without words, parody famous people and events, or confuse and therefore encourage the audience to determine its meaning themselves. It can be challenging, subversive, satirical, glamorous or just plain silly. It can involve many types of singing, dancing or circus skills, and it usually involves a element of stripping and/or nudity. This is not what customers at your average gentleman’s club pay to see. They want to be turned on, but a burlesque audience wants to be entertained. Also, a burlesque audience often includes more women than men.

There are many more differences between burlesque and stripping. The most obvious one being that strippers pay the club in order to perform and then make their money directly from their audience, whereas burlesque performers are paid by the promoter and their audience buys a ticket to come and see the show. Burlesque is also performed by people of many different genders, ages and body types, whereas classic stripping is usually reserved for young toned people with a very specific look. It may not be art but burlesque is creative, and it allows the performers themselves to express themselves via their choice of music, costume and moves. Burlesque performers often produce their own shows and this helps to bring a community feel to the scene. When organising a show, for charity or for profit, performers look to those they have worked with before and loved. It is a often a more friendly than competitive environment, with fellow performers offering encouragement and cheering each other on.

All this means that burlesque appears to fit into the entertainment industry better than the sex industry, although there will always be shows/performers that buck the trend. But then, there’s that big ugly question that’s been bugging me for ages: Is burlesque feminist? As a performance genre I don’t think it inherently is, but there are aspects of it which align extremely well with many of my own feminist beliefs. It gives control to the performer, rather than the audience, and is far more inclusive than many other types of performance. It promotes confidence and allows the performer to convey whatever message they desire to their audience. So, after years of consideration, I have decided that it is definitely possible to be a tassel twirling feminist. What do you think? Why not come and join the debate at BurlyCamp on 19th-20th May. I’d love to hear your views.

Main and final images, of Miss Lolly Pops, by Laura Jung. Second image, of Honey Schnapps, by Echo Moss. Image of Doris & Enid, guest stars of The Rebel Rebels, by Geoff Matthews.

10 thoughts on “Burlesque, stripping and feminism

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  1. Burlesque artists are to feminism what factory workers are to trade unionism: some will align to their politics and discourse, while others will not. Even the most extreme working conditions won't make a worker join a union. Even the most pervasive, glaringly obvious questions about burlesque and gender will wash off many people's backs, unnoticed. Everything and anything can brew a feminist awareness`; choosing to pluck your eyebrows, having babies or not, going to Uni or working at Tesco… what interests me is to discover what trigger an awareness of feminist discourse, at any given time, in different places and under very different conditions.

    You are right in that burlesque “can” be feminist and empowering, but ultimately, anything we do can be. By the same token, nothing in itself has an specific inner quality that makes it feminist or non-feminist by default, be it doing burlesque or becoming a female Prime Minister. I'd loved to have read more in your entry about how you achieve this, how you express your own ideas on feminism in your burlesque act, because everybody's practice is, ultimately, unique. It would be very helpful to see “how others do it”.

  2. That's a very good point indeed. Very few things are inherently feminist including, as you point out, being Prime Minister (as our one and only female PM illustrated!). It's all about what we believe, what we say and how we act rather than the specific tasks we're undertaking.

    Personally, I don't really consider my burlesque acts to be especially feminist, although I campaign to win the right to vote in one, and am the equal of any (lazy) male security guard in another. It's more about the way I choose to perform. My friends and I choose the venue, plan each show, come up with our own acts/costumes/props and put any profits towards the next show. It's done for the benefit of no one but ourselves… although it's much more fun when an audience does show up and cheer 🙂

    Perhaps this could be the basis of another blog post?

  3. Yup. Although I have no personal experience of this sort of work, I've heard about the fee dancers are charged from a variety of sources. Wikipedia says: “In most clubs, dancers have to pay a 'stage fee' or 'house fee' to work a given shift. In addition, most clubs take a percentage of each private dance.” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stripper)

  4. It's understandable that venue will ask for a cut or percentage or fee, after all it;s a business and their are making a living form offering the artistes a good venue to work from.

    In regards to our one and only female Prime Minister, I was biting my tongue not to mention her!!!! She was always very dismissive of feminism, despite the fact that it;s tanks to feminism that she got her job. Just as Queen Victoria believed that women shouldn't be reigning monarchs. It's an odd world!

    Yes, I agree that it could be a good blog entry, I'm flattered that you found my comments thought-provoking. When is a job in the sex industry feminist? As somebody who produces porn for a living and appears in it, I wonder that myself every day!

  5. I shall definitely be writing another post on the subject. I like to keep mine short enough to hold my own attention span, so sometimes more than one post is necessary to explore topics. I may have to save Margaret Thatcher and Queen Victoria for future Feminism Friday posts 🙂

    I'm pretty sure that anyone can inject a bit of feminism into any job, if they aim to do things differently.

  6. I think it would serve everyone well to look into the history of Burlesque and where it ties in with Vaudeville and Music Hall. SO interesting.

    As a thespian I'm more inclined to include Burlesque in the genre of theatre and music than I am with stripping. But it certainly often has the eroticism of the latter. But still, I think you're right: it has a different intention and it does seem to be more about its process than its punchline (compared with stripping).

    I think you can definitely be a tassel twirling feminist.

  7. I agree with Itziko, burlesque and stripping are what you make of it. It can be empowering or oppressive depending on the surrounding circumstances. I know people who enjoy stripping, and I am glad they enjoy their work.

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