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Burlesque: Meow of a Kitten, Roar of a Feminist

March 3, 2010


This weekend I went to see my first burlesque show.

A bit overdue, given I’ve lived in New York City for several years and enjoy seeing theater of all types.

Nonetheless, on Saturday night I gussied myself up and headed out into the slush for “Melody Sweets and the Candy Shop Boys” at Duane Park, a cozy upscale Tribeca restaurant.

It was a fun and strange experience overall.  While I munched on a beet salad, Melody Sweets opened the show with an old school croon and some bawdy jokes, followed by performer Gal Friday who stripped down to her pasties and thong.  Since our table was toward the back of the stage, I spent more time looking at another woman’s bare bottom while eating brussels sprouts than I thought I ever would.

Burlesque has made a comeback in the last decade, and Dita Von Teese – the picture perfect burlesque queen and Marliyn Manson-ex – is as much a role model for some young women as Britney Spears ever was.  I pondered the show over the rest of the weekend – was it objectifying women? Did I feel OK partaking, and even paying for it?

Well, I think it’s only partly objectifying to women, though mostly not, and in the end I did feel OK about partaking.  I thoroughly enjoyed the show.  There are numerous things about burlesque that make it an odd bird of contradiction and feminism.  Burlesque is at once romantic and un-romantic, empowering and objectifying, and funny and sexy.

While glamorous performers wear dazzling gowns and sing coquettish songs of a simpler time, that “simpler time” was well before the American women’s lib movement, where women were very often relegated to the home, and still considered play things or dolls in many ways.  Yet burlesque is very much rooted in comedy theater, and its satire and silliness is as self-aware and performed as its sexiness.  In its playfulness, it becomes an empowering art.  I wonder, can something so self-aware be that harmful to women?

While some would say it’s a fine line between a strip joint and a burlesque show (and in fact, in May a London council ruled that a neighborhood burlesque club had to apply for an adult entertainment license), there is much to separate the two.


Burlesque seems to draw its power and class from its ability to invent the jokes, not be the butt of them, and there is something truly powerful about the performer commanding the stage to spin the tale of her alter-ego, unveiling her body in story through the routine she’s created.

There is also a considerable “buffer” between the performer and the audience, unlike in commercial sex work or many strip clubs.

The burlesque performer spins a persona, dons a wig, and calls the shots.  We, the audience, sat mesmerized, collectively in a well-lit room that precluded the clandestine shame that often accompanies sex shows, and very well prevented the kind of abusive gaze we are so familiar with.

It’s fair to ask whether the same, pernicious and underlying gender norms drive both stripping and burlesque, and that is probably the case.  For an art to truly be self-aware, it must also be aware of the harmful cultural norms to which it is (“unknowingly”) subscribing.  But I still think it’s a powerful and plausible model of positive sexuality for young women today.

Instead of feeling as if I were witnessing a caged animal in front of seven hungry tigers, I felt exhilarated and inspired. And as someone who, like everyone else, has been bombarded with commercial images of “beauty” in the form of tan, large-breasted, silicone-sculpted bodies, burlesque is a breath of fresh air.  The look is wan and au natural.  Bodies are celebrated, not sold.

  1. Madeira permalink
    March 4, 2010 5:50 am

    As a feminist,an occasional burlesque performer and an ex-stripper, I do think burlesque is certainly more an art form than modern stripping, a burlesque performer does call the shots, she runs the show, but I don’t like the way you describe stripping at all, that’s not how it feels to be up there on stage, or even giving a lap dance. I never felt threatened, or out of control, or made to feel less than my clients. Really, burlesque elevates the performer, stripping, well stripping is providing a service, and often a different service than you’d think.

    The hardest part of stripping, isn’t vulnerability, isn’t being made to feel like less of a person (frankly I find that the people most guilty of dehumanizing strippers, other than mainstream media, are feminist commentators) isn’t being “sold” as you call it, the hardest part about being a stripper is seeing how sad your clients are, in many ways it’s more like seeing starving kittens than hungry tigers. These men are lonely, often they are old and single and crave companionship. I’ve had men buy a private dance only to start sobbing as I’m taking my top off, and tell me that their wife died that week, or that their son had terminal cancer, and they always tipped well. The role of stripper is not the role of some subhuman drudge, but closer to the role of therapist, we’re paid to understand.

  2. Jessica Mack permalink*
    March 4, 2010 7:17 am

    I definitely take your point, as I can’t speak to how it feels to strip, admittedly. I would say that, you’re right, not ALL strippers have a bad experience, but neither can you say that all of them feel in control or empowered. I think the experience is unique to each woman, depending on the story and circumstances behind it. I have been an audience member several times and I’ve noticed marked differences. Perhaps it’s not fair to contrast stripping and burlesque as so clearly night and day, but that both are grey…again, depending on the woman and the story/circumstances behind. I think it’s too easy to say that all stripping is empowering to women because it’s their choice (many times it is certainly not) and it’s also too simple to say that all stripping is degrading. It’s much more nuanced, and I really appreciate your input on that.

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