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.