Cultural Appropriation in Burlesque: What is Harmful, and Why?

Hello readers. My name is La Viola Vixen, an Australian burlesque performer based in Berlin.

I am writing this from the perspective of an individual who represents the majority of the burlesque community because I am white, privileged, young, female and able-bodied.

Those words and their truths reflect that we have a lot of work to do if we want this to be a truly inclusive and safe performance community for all. I know that I do.

Someone told me that the minority is often only heard when the majority speak. This is a truly sad and terrifying concept, but now I am calling on the majority to do better as allies when it comes to cultural appropriation in our industry. Why? Because there are real people being hurt by these actions. These same people being hurt by our choices have already done far too much emotional labour trying to make us understand their pain.

 

Lily St. Cyr
Lily St. Cyr

 

In Berlin I am a producer of The Berlin Burlesque Week, The Sunday Soiree, and the Shimmy Shake Show. I own the Shimmy Shake Berlin Burlesque School, and I previously owned The Berlin Burlesque Academy and Bombshell Burlesque Academy (in Australia). I am also a full time international burlesque performer.

The reason i am saying this is not to promote myself but to put this in the context of being written by someone who is responsible for booking a large amount of burlesque performers on stages in Europe, and because of this is witness to a F*CKLOAD of burlesque. And we’ve been having some trouble over here in Europe with this topic.

Writer Maisha Z. Johnson defines cultural appropriation as when ‘members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.’

When I began burlesque in 2006 there was a very different climate when it came to our influences. Social media was new and there was not a huge amount of information at the ready when it came to the politics of this industry. There also wasn’t a lot of education on the possible harm of cultural appropriation. Because of this, we took our influences for burlesque in the same way that one might select a Halloween or fancy dress costume.

There was little consideration in the ways of possible harm and hurt that our choices might cause.

Historically burlesque has always done this. It was a parody on society and so it would seem reasonable to assume that it was just as acceptable to choose to do blackface in an act in the golden age of burlesque as it was to do it in the minstrel shows that existed at the same time. A time that has passed, a time where very real racism and xenophobia was legitimised by mainstream society and governments.

 

Vintage styling not vintage values.

Zelia Rose

 

Other cultures that were just as ‘borrowed’ from in these harmfully racist times included Native Americans, Asian cultures, Indian, Tiki, Polynesian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, African, etc.  Basically, we saw all minority group iconography as being there for our muse due to their ‘exotic’ or perhaps ‘savage’ qualities.

Maybe it was not always intentionally racist or xenophobic in the past, but rather a deep fascination and appreciation for what was exotic and different to us. It may have seemed a loving tribute to dress in their costumes or religious symbols and perform using the stereotypes of these ‘exotic’ characters that we had access to.

 

We no longer live in a time where a POC Performer should be labeled as ‘exotic’. This term stems from an era where Western society was colonising the East and mowing down any real form of culture they encountered and did not make the effort to understand.

Elsie Marley

 

In the 2010s we continued to pay our ‘tributes’ to these cultures by dressing as them. But then through media, especially social media, the lived experiences of the human beings who are members of these cultures began to filter through. They have asked us to STOP!

They were not being honored but rather mocked and hurt by our actions. We were jumping around on stages in manufactured stripper versions of their cultural, spiritual and even sacred garments – not only that, but sexualising them and then getting paid for it!

 


 
HOLY SHIT! That was a hard pill to swallow! Hang on? Does that mean that half of my shows that were designed to pay respect are in fact causing harm? Yep. What will I do with my favourite act and costume that I have spent years working on and paying for?
That is totally up to you!
Option A
  • Continue to perform this act. It hurts people. They don’t want you to do it. You’re mocking someone who is a minority. You’re making money stripping out of someone else’s cultural garb which you have no relation to and they are telling you they don’t like it. You don’t care.
  • Keep using your white privilege to tell them that their voice doesn’t matter. We’ve been ignoring them for centuries, so why listen now?
  • You like your costume and act more than you care about people’s feelings.
  • Find one person from this entire culture/nation/religion/race to give you permission to keep appropriating all of them. ‘See! It’s fine. I have one person from this marginalised population’s permission to keep doing this.’ Never mind the multiple voices of the people that don’t like it and are harmed by this.
  • Just straight up refuse to accept that you could possibly be wrong because you’re a nice person who does lots of nice things and so are your mates who have blackface acts. They just love Nina Simone so much that how can painting their face to look like her even be bad? (Nina Simone would certainly tell you).
  • Refuse to restrict your artistic inspirations because art is free and shouldn’t be restricted by hyper-sensitive-political-millenials-who just want to red tape everything: aka, people who give a f*ck and people who are being hurt by your less than impressive ‘free art’ choices.

 

OR
Option B
  • Check your Privilege
  • Throw it in the bin.
  • Give it to charity.
  • Pull it apart and use pieces to make something new that doesn’t cause harm.

It’s a hard pill to swallow and it is totally up to you. It’s your choice what side of history you want to be on. There are very good reasons to reconsider, but no one can force you to make this choice.

 

They are also getting back up from their friends and fans so have had no reason to turn around into acceptance that cultural appropriation is NEVER okay and that they need to learn and change their work.

MisSa Blue 

 


 
Some examples of costume or act theme choices that are considered harmful:

BLACKFACE

Brutally racist. Totally unacceptable.

Here’s an excerpt from Huffington Post:

Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes … the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.’

But you should already know this, and if you don’t, please do yourself and everyone else a favour and Google it!  Just please, if you are Caucasian, do not. paint. your. face. black. ever. This one is a HARD LINE.

 

 

Judy Garland - Everybody Sing 1938
Judy Garland – Everybody Sing 1938

 

How are modern incidents of blackface part of our conversations on empowerment, body positivity and feminism? Black women can’t wash off the black – why should you even get to try it on for three minutes?

Scotty the Blue Bunny

 

INDIGENOUS NORTH AMERICAN & CANADIAN FIRST NATIONS PEOPLE

Survivors of colonisation, currently struggling to keep their women safe and alive. Their traditional dress was once banned by colonisers; they weren’t allowed to wear their own clothing, and were in fact murdered for wearing it for decades. Now they are forced to see someone in a knock off war bonnet from a Halloween store? It makes a total mockery of the pain and suffering that they are surviving.

We are showing total disrespect by making our own versions and putting (feathered war bonnets in particular) on the heads of women on burlesque stages – in fact on anyone who has not rightfully earned this sacred garb.

War bonnets are reserved for Chiefs traditionally during war and and, still now, sacred ceremony. If you were/are an Indigenous performer, you would certainly know better than to wear one of these because of the great importance of this headwear.

This also applies to ‘Pocahontas’ costumes, etc. which totally sexualise the women who are currently in a state of danger because of the West’s popular sexual fetishisation of them.

These are people who have been through hell and their voice is more available for us to access now. Look it up. These voices ask us to stop hurting and to begin listening and supporting. Your ‘tribute’ to their culture is hugely problematic and painful to these real, living humans.

Straight in the bin.

 

The Native American war bonnet is a good example of this – it has been and is being used by people as a ‘cool accessory’.

When in fact (from Wikipedia):
‘War bonnets (also called warbonnets or headdresses) are feathered headgear traditionally worn by male leaders of the American Plains Indians Nations who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe. They are seen as items of great spiritual and political importance, only to be worn by those who have earned the right and honour through formal recognition by their people.’

Evilyn Frantic 

 

ASIAN TRIBUTE COSTUMES

Yes your ‘Asian Doll’, ‘Geisha’, Sakura, Ninja, Opium Den, etc. is not safe either! Yellow face and Western fetishisation with ‘Exotic Asia’ has existed for a very long time, and while not every single person might feel uncomfortable with it, a lot do. It has done harm and continues to so.

There can be grey areas here, because in Japan there are situations where you are totally invited to wear a kimono by a Japanese person. If you learn burlesque there, then you will likely be taught how to strip out of a kimono! The trouble starts when we are outside of the majority, when the Asian population is the ‘other’ in the place that we are appropriating them. There has been a long and painful history of Asian women being trafficked in the sex trade and forced into marriage in the West, as well as serious issues with racism.

 

Kitti Kar's 'Geisha' act.
Kitti Kar’s ‘Geisha’ act.

 

The West and western history and media has created a sexual fantasy around Asian women which can be dangerous to perpetuate in places where they are the minority.

Unless you’re in the country of origin of your act’s inspiration and directly being invited to use a national costume, then I would suggest just leaving this alone.

Additionally, the commonplace mish-mash clusterfuck costume of a Chinese parasol with a kimono, Thai fawn-lep on your fingers, and geta sandals on your feet, really just shows zero cultural knowledge and is all round offensive to anyone who understands that these things don’t go together.

 

For Europeans aping Asians, it’s definitely the other way around. Here are white people, with all their privileges, trying to find a way to be ‘other’.

Viva Lamore

 

POLYNESIAN

There is certainly an American Tiki culture that is so westernised that it seems like it nearly has no real link to actual Polynesia! However doing a Tiki, Hawaiian, Polynesian or Islander act when you do not identify with this culture is still stepping right out of your cultural lane and in to one that has many sacred traditions and rituals around the costume pieces which you may have chosen to wear, on all of which you have no claim.

It is not a ‘theme’ – it is an existing culture and you’re mocking them by dressing in their garb – and stripping out of it for payment.

Sit down with yourself and think about whether your ‘Islander’ act is created with respect for the voice of the Oceanic people who have been exploited, bullied, and killed by mainland America and the West for hundreds of years. The same voice that has spoken and asked you to stop sexualising their sacred traditions. Sure, use some seashells, no problem! Just be careful about stepping on stage pretending to be someone from a tropical place and culture that you are not.

 

Some references to my culture that make me uncomfortable are things such as ‘tribal’ tattoos. I see a lot of these in Europe, and it gets to me every time. Ta Moko, and other culturally relevant tattoos are always unique to the wearer. When I see someone who is wearing one with clearly no idea what it is they are wearing, I feel angry that they are so ignorant as to think that our culture is a gimmick, a way for them to look cool.

Alyce Elysium

 

INDIAN

India was a colony, and one with a complicated history with the West.

The immigrant populations from India and Pakistan are still living in marginalised communities in many parts of the world. The women within their own country are dealing with a horrific rape culture and patriarchal society. Using items such as the Bindi on your third-eye (meant to signify consciousness!), bangles, a sari (which is traditional Indian attire), and many other pieces like nose rings, or jewellery draping through your hair on to your forehead (Maang Tikka), are for bridal customs. If these do not relate to you, they are not for your dress-up.

And as said before – especially not for you to strip out of unless you’ve been invited to an Indian event or ceremony and told specifically to wear traditional clothing.

 

A white person making an Indian act when Indian people have been mocked for their religion, dress and tradition is sort of a slap to the face.

Misty Lotus 

 

MEXICAN/SOUTH AMERICAN

Right now it would be hard to imagine that a particular country could be more bullied by America than Mexico! From Mexico to the entirety of South America, there are major human rights crises and struggles with gangs, displacement, violence and poverty. On top of all of this, throughout history the West has continually robbed this continent of their own resources.

Currently, the US government is taking children away from their families at the border. They have not returned them to their families despite the passing of multiple deadlines, and they continue to deport Mexican immigrants back to face extreme poverty and very possibly death by violence throughout the country. And it does not get better from there.

This is a culture which has faced brutal and ongoing discrimination from their bully neighbours and sure as f*ck does not need to see us making ‘cute’ strip routines pretending to be Speedy Gonzales or, as Mexican performer Violetta Poison said, ‘Showing Mexicans as a lazy and drunk: sorry, but the average Mexican has three jobs!’

Please leave these people alone. Your sugar-skull face paint when you are not celebrating Dia de los Muertos, and your huge tourist sombrero are tacky and a hurtful mockery of a culture that doesn’t need you to have any more fun at their expense.

 

When I see other performers using Mexican themes I do struggle with myself because I believe that they kind of appreciate my culture but on the other hand their acts are showing me stereotypes and performance without any meaning.

Violetta Poison

 

AMAZON & JUNGLE

Big strong Greek mythological warrior-woman? FINE!

Act about being a person from the actual Amazon forest? Were you born in the Amazon jungle? No? Then maybe not very cool. This is a sacred, ancient and very private culture being threatened by deforestation, massacres by farmers and governments, colonisers, and of course the white missionaries coming to ‘save’ them from their own ancient culture.

They definitely do not appreciate your sexy ‘Jungle Girl’ number.

 

MIDDLE EASTERN & ‘ORIENTAL’

Throughout history, women of the Middle East have faced exoticism, Arab-Face, cultural imperialism, colonialism and racism. There are very serious women’s rights issues that their women are trying to rise up against with a lot of difficulty.

Belly dancing is an oft used defence for one’s right to appropriate Arabian culture for performance. However, belly dance is not free from the heat! There has been a lot of work done in the belly dance community to become more conscious and appropriate, and I suggest you research it if that dance style is your jam. We’re not here for the belly dance battle, though. Our point of difference is striptease! Explicitly sexual.

 

 

One example is using the Burqa in a ‘burlesque reveal’. This is an item worn by women to hide their ‘dangerous, passion-invoking beauty’ from men in places were women lack equality and basic rights. In some cases they fear serious things such as beatings and honour killings if their faces are shown. Other times it is an observant religious choice.

Either way, if you’re not someone raised Muslim and using this in your performance for your own expression of liberation and empowerment, please leave this well alone. It’s not for you to sexualise.

 

I would be hurt if someone not Jewish got on stage and started stripping out of holy robes that are important to my religion or if a performer got on stage acting like a Nazi. Some would think, who would do that? That’s terrible! But it’s been done and it hurtful. Just like someone white doing black face.

Dotti Moscati

 

AFRICAN, TRIBAL & VOODOO

Again, like with blackface these acts can be extremely racist.

Voodoo is a real existing religion which we like to exaggerate in to something more dark and sinister, most likely because of films and media that depict it as such.

 

As something that is coded as black, presenting voodoo in scenarios that are belittling, denigrating and, most especially, aimed to evoke terror is a way of directing these sentiments at blacks without openly entering into racist discourse.

Adam McGee

 

Basically, our interpretation of voodoo only helps perpetuate fear of black people.

African People and their descendants are tired as hell of being impersonated as savages. It comes across as racist and offensive. Leave it well alone.

 

We don’t need you to represent or speak for our culture or say how great it is, and how you wanna pay tribute to it. We need you to move out of our way, sit down and shut up for once (no one did before you). Book people like us, propose people like us to producers, ask for people like us to be in the program.

Martini Cherry

 

ROMANI/TRAVELLER/GYPSY

One of the MOST persecuted communities of people throughout history and now. In Europe they are currently facing ongoing discrimination and live as a marginalised society.

There have been some truly sad statistics in the UK about the treatment of traveller communities being ‘the last permissible form of racism’ with at least 70% of travellers having faced discrimination.

 

Marlene Dietrich - Golden Earrings 1947
Marlene Dietrich – Golden Earrings 1947

 

This culture, along with the treatment of Roma women, is fraught with major issues like poverty, violence, displacement, xenophobia, etc. Dancing around in a flamenco skirt pretending to be a sexy ‘gypsy’ is seriously inappropriate and problematic. There have even been burlesque acts created by Romani descendents who have binned their own acts because they realised how harmful continuing to perform them might be.

Maybe don’t?

 

…as I learnt more about the harmful nature of this kind of gypsy caricature, I retired the act immediately. I realised that it doesn’t matter what my intention was when creating it; if I’m putting this on stage even full of love, that it is hurtful and trumps anything that I may feel about it.

Lila Luxx 

 

*Side note: If you want to play with your own culture and find that empowering then that is for you to understand the limits of and do so. This is not directed at you.

 

These are just some of the examples of popular cultural themes in striptease, but the basic principle is: Be careful of using themes when creating an act with cultural references you do not identify with which may be offensive.

Have a good talk with yourself about what right you have to use another culture’s iconography as your costume or act. Is this a culture that is living and existing right now and could be hurt by it? Am I using my privilege to make this choice without taking a moment to listen to their voice?

Do your research!

 

We should not still be performing these acts. Please retire these acts. It’s not hard to put it away, dream up something wonderful, dream up something truly captivating.

Imogen Kelly

 


 
DO: PUNCH UP!

You do not have to stay right in your white, working class confines and limit yourself to doing acts that are inspired by country music singers (they are great though!). You can rather choose to mock and parody the very privileged, and that is a huge resource.

Yes, stay in your lane, but your lane is VERY wide!

You have the opportunity to source your inspiration from SO many places.

Burlesque is a social parody, always has been, and can be offensive. That’s not in itself bad but beating on beaten people is simply unkind, and can continue to traumatise populations that have already been traumatised outside of their own industry and community.

Being a white person jumping around naked with a baguette? Pretty fine! Jumping around naked in a Lap-Lap or Burqa? Not that fine.

 

‘Let me do my art!’ Well, hate to break it to you, but blatantly copying other peoples culture isn’t unique or artistic.

Ariel Helvetica

 

EXAMPLES OF PUNCHING UP:
  • The church:

Yeah, it might offend some people but a) it’s not exactly the industry for good Christians, and b) the church is extremely privileged and actually caused a great deal of harm to the mentioned populations listed above.

  • Politicians:

Yeah you can offend them. Do not throw your D-Trump number in the bin!

  • Celebrities:

 I mean, make sure they are from the same background as you or a more privileged society and then punch as hard as you like?

  • Cultures of great privilege (you’ll find most are white/European).
  • Historical figures who you culturally identify with.
  • Nature
  • Beauty
  • Popular culture
  • Mythology
  • Dance
  • Wealth

Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc.

* It should be noted that doing an act which is intended to be offensive when ‘punching up’, such as mocking the church or politics may offend people! Be ready for that.

 

It is an extremely free industry in this way. YOU get to decide what you create and represent and share with your audiences. You are in a position of power because you are promoting a message of your choice when you step on that stage. Only you get to decide if that message will be a positive one.

 


 
MISTAKES & APOLOGIES

‘Oh, but someone speaking out about this now had a ‘Lazy Mexican’ act two years ago!’

Well, if they have retired the act and apologised and attempted to learn, that’s a different story. Most of us are learning about this right now, and a lot of us have performed or booked acts which we now realise are problematic. Some performers were aware of this sooner than others, but in general we have been struggling to make sense of how this all relates to us. We have struggled to accept that we may have been wrong. We may have been hurting our friends who we dearly care about. We may still be struggling with it.

You may have even done this shitty thing yesterday.

It is astounding how patient the minorities in our community have been with us, and how much emotional labour that they have had to do to get us here. When you realise that your act is harmful, the most simple and effective thing to do is to stop doing it. Apologise!

It is of course the right of a hurt person or group not to forgive you; I can only say that from personal experience, I have been overwhelmed by the capacity for understanding from people who have every right to be upset and remain so.

When you realise that you made a mistake, you can admit it and say you’re sorry.

You will be surprised at how a genuine and sincere apology will be accepted by this community, and how great is that! But YOU have to do that labor. Make a public apology, and mean it.

 

Start a discussion, enlighten people. That is what I hope this discussion will lead to, more awareness and a safer community that includes more diversity. Without exoticising and exploiting already beaten minorities. Enough is enough.

Evilyn Frantic

 


 
CALLING OUT

It is my belief that publicly calling someone out online should be a last resort situation. It is our moral duty as an ally (white ally most likely!) to address things that we think might be hurtful to the marginalised populations. I feel the most effective first step to dealing with a problematic performance is to address the performer personally, either through a private message if distance is an issue, or face to face. Ask them if they know that this act is problematic, and have a productive discussion as to why. I have personally found that such an approach is received very well.

I would to say though, that this is NOT and should NOT be the job of the marginalised people who are being traumatised and re-traumatised by these performances. These groups have gone through so much emotional labour and personal pain already; it should really be our job as allies in a position of privilege to do this labour for them.

 

Privilege is what gives us the understanding that we have a right to do what we want regardless of anyone else. It says that ‘I have access to anything’ so why can’t I have access to any culture I like, whilst maintaining the position of the dominant culture? Let’s start erasing the dismissal and start honouring us by standing by us.

Zelia Rose

 

Sometimes these conversations are had, and ignored. Sometimes they are had many times, by many different people with a performer who is doing an offensive act. Sometimes even marginalised voices have committed even FURTHER emotional labour by confronting a performer who has caused them pain with an offensive act, and all of these words have fallen on deaf ears.

In this case, a public call out is warranted to actually get a response. Doing this can completely ruin someone’s career and lead to a lot of attacks on this person. This is an absolute last ditch effort to be heard and should not be done lightly; you will also need a lot of energy to deal with the backlash.

 

‘If you don’t see us Indigenous performers hopping into the appropriation conversations it’s because we just can’t anymore.’

Ruthe Ordare

 

My place in burlesque allows me to work and travel anywhere in the world with as much safety and security as any woman can hope to have. I can watch all burlesque shows without being personally offended and have yet to see a performance which triggers trauma or makes me feel unsafe.

This is a privilege not shared by all of our sisters and brothers in burlesque or larger society who are marginalised. I am really writing this for them with the huge hope that I can use my little voice to encourage you to help reinforce and empower theirs.

 


 
VOICES
Words from performers in this community who have been/are affected by Cultural Appropriation in Burlesque.

 

MisSa Blue – German/African

Cultural appropriation is a persistent problem in burlesque that has only been properly addressed in the last couple of years. The USA and UK have seen major changes in awareness, and people who kept being ignorant have been called out officially and lost bookings until they changed their work.

In Europe, however, many performers are immune to accepting that their work hurts and insults minorities and that their actions are racist. They are also getting back up from their friends and fans so have had no reason to turn around into acceptance that cultural appropriation is NEVER okay and that they need to learn and change their work.

For example, this festival season has seen a major comeback of the ‘Geisha’, performed by several white performers with no cultural or emotional connection to Asia, performing insulting routines that degrade the heritage and women. The indigenous feather headdress is still being used in strip tease acts. This work is defended or classed okay by many producers. A recent online discussion has hurt so many black and indigenous voices that i feel it is time to stand up and make it stop.

Based in Berlin and London. 

www.missablue.net

 

Ruthe Ordare – First Nations

“If you don’t see us Indigenous performers hopping into the appropriation conversations it’s because we just can’t anymore. We’re all exhausted spiritually after over a month of having to remind YT People™️ that our humanity is not up for debate. We’re trying to protect our sanity by opting out (for now). Re: the month of Halloween.

Based in Vancouver.

www.rutheordare.com

 

Imogen Kelly – Australian

I inherited Lili St Cyr’s ‘Native American’ act when I was 23 years old – and only because my agent insisted I looked like Lili and had to play her in the line up. It is not an act I ever chose for myself but was honoured to be gifted a remake created by an Australian legend Cigarette.

The costume was made by one of our first trans legends, Electra. It’s a huge thing to inherit. It has a huge history behind it.

I never knew what to do in it and audiences always hated it – be they rednecks, be they gentlemen, be they queer, be they gentrified burlesque fans. It makes people uncomfortable and always has.

I’ve never really spoken about the act publicly but I have retired it – I retired it the minute I heard the words cultural misappropriation in 2011. It’s not hard to understand why it is offensive – and who wants to use their stage time being offensive?

Regardless of its history, the importance of its original maker to burlesque and the history of the exotic in burlesque, we should not still be performing these acts. Please retire these acts. It’s not hard to put it away, dream up something wonderful, dream up something truly captivating.

Based in Sydney, Australia. 

www.imogenkelly.com.au

 

Scotty the Blue Bunny – American Jewish

As burlesquers, we like to talk a lot about empowerment, body positivity and feminism. You can find a workshop on any of those themes at any modern burlesque festival. These conversations seem to end when it comes to cultural appropriation.

For me personally, they intersect. For others not. And that is curious. How is talking about your ‘Japanese act’ part of the conversation of empowerment, body positivity and feminism? How is your ‘Native American’ act part of the conversation of empowerment, body positivity and feminism?  How are modern incidents of blackface part of our conversations on empowerment, body positivity and feminism?

Black women can’t wash off the black – why should you even get to try it on for three minutes? Actual Indigenous Americans can not wear their own feathers, headdresses and colours without confronting generational bodily harm – why should you throw on some beads and go make money at a gig? Jews can’t take off the holocaust.

Everybody loves to belly dance, but how popular are actual Arabs? Why should people from a group you don’t belong to step aside while you enjoy a three minute cultural exploration on stage? Why do you get to just pack up a character and a costume, while others go home with a target on their backs? As feminists, as empowered body positivity activists, don’t we want to heal the damage of these Disney fetish-fantasies of the past?

Based in Berlin. 

www.scottybunny.com

 

Zelia Rose – Mixed race African/Australian

When I see blatant cultural appropriation in our industry I feel disappointed, but also embarrassed. As much as burlesque references yesteryear, we need to be aware of the cultural significance of now and where that is going, not where it was. We need to be aware of the message we are giving to those watching and our communities. Vintage styling, not vintage values.

When you grow up black you are made to believe that what you are is not desirable and that what you are causes an inconvenience. You see white women around you as the standard of desirable beauty, so you don’t feel that the same things in life are accessible to you. I really do believe that’s one of the reasons why we see less POC in the arts and in our industries other than the societal constructs that surround race.

I think what’s most important now is to respect each other and not to jump back to saying ‘I never meant to offend; I only wanted to celebrate this beautiful part of the culture’ or ‘It’s only a costume’. These excuses don’t give you the space to make light of the experiences of people who must fight everyday to be respected and heard.

Privilege is what gives us the understanding that we have a right to do what we want regardless of anyone else. It says that ‘I have access to anything, so why can’t I have access to any culture I like, whilst maintaining the position of the dominant culture?’. Let’s start erasing the dismissal and start honouring us by standing by us.

Based in Melbourne, Australia

www.zeliarose.com

 

Ariel Helvetica – Canadian

If you are booking these performers you really need to check yourself.  ‘Let me do my art!’ Well, hate to break it to you, but blatantly copying other peoples culture isn’t unique or artistic.

Based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Burlesque Performer

www.arielhelvetica.com

 

Karla Gallardo / Violetta Poison – Mexican/German

When I see other performers using Mexican themes, I do struggle with myself because I believe that they kind of appreciate my culture, but on the other hand their acts are showing me stereotypes and performance without any meaning.

As long as you are not connected and have no kind of deeper relationship to the minority/culture, it’s better keep your fingers out of it. Minorities have suffered enough and they should not have to deal with an artist that has no idea what they are doing. I mean, I love the Scottish culture because I lived there as an au pair for a while, but I‘m not going to create an act with ceilidh dance because I don‘t identify with it and most because I don‘t have the credibility for it!

Uncomfortable references from my culture:

– People wearing giant hats with ponchos. Sorry. This stereotype is only a good seller for tourists.

– Sugar skull painting with no reference to the Day of the Dead.

– Showing Mexicans as a lazy and drunk. Sorry, but the average Mexican has three jobs!

I think that this discourse is very complex since we do live in a global network society. There is no clear separation between cultures because we are all the result of social evolution between different folks.

In my opinion: If you don’t identify with the culture you use for your work then forget about the idea. You won’t be able to bring the affordable credit on stage. It’s easy to hurt others by creating acts just for fun and even more without proper research. Just because your audience claps it is not right, and even more when others tell you that you are hurting them.

When I started performing I knew that I would love to embrace my culture but I started it wrong. I thought that I should use themes that everyone would easily identify as Mexican. But too much of this stuff is filled with stereotypes. That‘s why I dropped the idea of creating a Speedy Gonzales act. I don’t want to support this image of my country and I don’t want to hurt my people.

Based in Stuttgart, Germany. 

www.facebook.com/vpburlesque

 

Misty Lotus – Indian/Swiss

Cultural appropriation in burlesque makes me very uneasy when I watch it on stage. I feel that the resurgence of burlesque in the 90s up until now, was, and still is, a very political movement: accepting our bodies, showing all sizes, shapes and genders on stage! That is a huge issue, so I don’t really understand how people who are part of this community can do something that is clearly ignoring the huge issue that is cultural appropriation today.

From what I see and understand, most of the acts appropriating culture are made by people who have no intention of hurting minorities and they wish to ‘pay tribute’ to a certain culture or country they love. But from personal experience, all of the Indian acts I have seen have very little to do with India and are more often inspired by the last scene of Moulin Rouge.

I feel there is something to be said about cultural exchange that can be a beautiful thing on stage if you really do the research; however, I still feel strongly that all acts representing any ethnicity other than your own can be a very dangerous path to go down. Minorities who see you on stage performing an ethnic act have no idea of the personal relationship you may have with the ethnicity or country you are representing.

Remember that almost all of these minorities (even myself) have probably been bullied, shunned because of their culture, for being ‘different’, and even have more trouble getting jobs because of their last name or appearance (this is still very current!). I am just citing a few of the everyday problems POC can have.

POC are almost expected to let go of their own culture and history in order to fit in to the countries they or their families may have immigrated to. A white person making an Indian act when Indian people have been mocked for their religion, dress and tradition is sort of a slap in the face. Like, basically what we are is a costume you can put on and take off for a show, and you can keep living your lives without dealing with all that comes with being an Indian woman today.

So I will come back to cultural exchange. If you are really inspired by another culture,  there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and I celebrate it with you! You like Indian fashion? Why not celebrate the colours and make a costume that doesn’t even exist yet? What about a gown inspired by a Sari that you can unravel while you dance? You like Bollywood movies? Maybe invent a new sort of choreography that’s a mix of burlesque and Bollywood! You don’t have to make a Bollywood act for it to be Bollywood in its soul. There is no end to creativity! Use your inspiration and make something beautiful and new! It will make your act entirely yours and something no one has seen before.

Based in Switzerland. 

www.mistylotus.com

 

Dotti Moscati – Jewish American

I accept myself and my body on stage. My big belly and big ass are definitely the biggest things that stick out. I make acts that inspire others to be body positive. If I ever saw someone who I know to be super skinny get on stage in a fat suit and they start to eat lots of donuts or cakes and stereotyping me and my body, I would be hurt.

Now some think people would never do that – that’s body shaming or fat shaming – but it’s been done and it is hurtful. I would hurt if someone not Jewish got on stage and started stripping out of holy robes that are important to my religion, or if a performer got on stage acting like a Nazi.

Some would think, who would do that? That’s terrible! But it’s been done and it is hurtful. Just like someone white doing black face. Or a white German woman stripping out of a kimono, or a French performer in similar robes but with a toilet brush on her head. Or white women stripping out of Native American tribal robes. It’s been done, it is hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Based in Berlin.

Facebook.com/dottimoscati

 

Viva Lamore (Victoria Linchong) – Taiwanese-American

My feelings about cultural (mis)appropriation are very very mixed. I’m not always offended. It’s the other way around too: I see Asians all the time trying really damn hard to be Americans through some token surface means. They bleach their hair blonde, wear blue contact lenses, get a nose job. Or they wear baseball caps backwards and low-hanging pants. For Asians, it does seem to come from some kind of inferiority, as if by dyeing their hair or wearing that hat, they can assume a power they wish they had.

For Europeans aping Asians, it’s definitely the other way around. Here are white people, with all their privileges, trying to find a way to be ‘other’. They wear Native American feathered bonnets and get all tribal, or they put on blackface like this lady attempting to bring attention to those poor African tribes. It’s a misplaced magnanimity, thinking they can embrace another culture by adopting traditional dress or other surface representations.

The line here is kind of fuzzy. Painting your face another colour and taping your eyes in a slant and dancing around a teepee: no no no. But antique kimonos are beautiful and I’m glad some other people appreciate them as long as they’re not bowing and shuffling like they’re Princess Yum Yum in the Town of Titipu. It’s interesting to me, this desire to be the ‘other’. Most people who come from marginalised communities will basically agree that it sucks and if there was a way to erase all the marks of being ‘other’ and still be true to yourself, then YES PLEASE.

Based in Berlin 
www.vivalamore360.wixsite.com/vivalamore
www.victorialinchong.com

  

Martini Cherry Furter Martinique – French/Caribbean

I don’t know where to start. Why is cultural appropriation not okay in burlesque?

Coming from a Caribbean island colonised by the French and still is today, this question sounds like ‘How do you know earth is a globe?’ I don’t want to point fingers or bash anyone here.

The world burlesque community is an open space of an infinity of magic, delicate and flayed souls. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for this medium. It’s an art, an entertainment, but it’s a medium also. A way to express our existence in this world, the boldest way, in my point of view. 

Under all that glitter, Swarovski, wigs, paint, and sparkly eyes, though, there is trauma, sweat, pain, loneliness, failure and depression too. This oxymoron cocktail can make communication a challenge. Put that on a platform used to self promote your ideal and it’s turned out to be off topic, cannibalised by egos and friendships. But I won’t talk about the manner and their consequences. Because it’s a diversion from the topic.

Let’s talk about racism.

This world is structured by a racist frame. If you’re not agreeing with that then you can’t understand the rest. Because there is more – sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, gender-biased, health stereotyping and occidentally centred. Pretending that this has no influence on the way you see, live and interact in this world is delusional. Your ego is not your friend in this. Being white in this world is a privilege.

There are others : Being a man, being rich, being French (I’m joking 50%).

What is the point with cultural appropriation?

This is the way to see and experience the world that Europe has spread all over this planet. On top of that you can add being: Catholic, speaking English or French or Spanish or Portuguese. Well, all that leads them to say ‘being educated’. This is how Europeans tamed the savages around them, USA included. Culture is what makes us apprehend the world. It’s what our ancestors, parents, leaders, artists, teachers, left to us. Cultures have been methodically attacked, raped, enslaved, educated, analysed, classified, ranked in the past and still are today. The methods are different and various.

White people can be so creative when it’s about destroying something. The Code Noir, Lynch, Adolf, Colomb, the concept of border, nationalism, native reserve, jails, asylum.
To justify this, they presented these people as dangerous, criminals, savages, invaders, invalid, weak.

That’s how human zoo was created.
This is the process of blackface.
This is the process of ripping headpieces from the wise to put it in entertainment.
This is the process of Holocaust.
This is the process of any war.
This is Becky calling 911.
This is the process of colonising.
That’s how you erase the differences by ignoring this.
Ignorance.
I don’t have this privilege either.

Read Aimée Césaire and Franz Fanon. Humanity is so diverse. We need symbols, we need utopia, be f*cking real! Humanity has entertainment, humour, creativity since for the first time there was a human fart with friends around a fire. You’re free! You have the freedom to create! Infinitely! You can be influenced by other cultures! But be aware that this freedom is a privilege!

We don’t need you to represent or speak for our culture or say how great it is, and how you wanna pay tribute to it. We need you to move out of our way, sit down and shut up for once (no one did before you). Book people like us, propose people like us to producers, ask for people like us to be in the program.

We know what to do, what to say and we have so much more to do than to educate you.
Being a minority is not my job. I’m an entertainer, i’m proposing you to dream another way. That’s all I have to say on this topic.

Based in Berlin. 

www.facebook.com/miss.martini.cherry

 

Lila Luxx – Australian/Italian

One of my first acts was a tribute to my mother, using a costume that she had performed in many years before. The costume in question was a ‘gypsy/fortune teller’ styled piece, with the stereotypical scarves and hanging beads. I created the act full of love and honour for the woman who had sacrificed her performing career to raise me.

However, as I learnt more about the harmful nature of this kind of gypsy caricature, I retired the act immediately. I realised that it doesn’t matter what my intention was when creating it; if I’m putting this on stage even full of love, that it is hurtful and that trumps anything that I may feel about it. I think if you keep performing something with the knowledge that it is problematic, then that’s significantly worse than performing it in ignorance.

Brisbane, Australia. 

www.lilaluxx.com

 

Evilyn Frantic – Norwegian Sàmi/Northern Finnish

When I see cultural appropriation in a burlesque act, first I feel shocked that someone can be so ignorant and not see what they are doing. How can someone think that it’s okay to dress up as a minority and prance around on stage ‘pretending to be a mysterious Native American’ for example? Not cool.

Second, I feel hurt and sad. Because someone doing these things proves that we:
a) haven’t come that far in our development after past mistakes
b) we still have a long way to go.

That is why this discussion is important. Education is important.

I think it’s good to spread awareness before attacking as well. Start a discussion, enlighten people. That is what I hope this discussion will lead to, more awareness and a safer community that includes more diversity.

Without exoticising and exploiting already beaten minorities. Enough is enough.

It is when you take a, let’s say, object out of its original purpose/context and use it to apply some sort of flair to your, let’s say, outfit. The Native American war bonnet is a good example of this – it has been and is being used by people as an ‘cool accessory’.

When in fact (from Wikipedia):

War bonnets (also called warbonnets or headdresses) are feathered headgear traditionally worn by male leaders of the American Plains Indians Nations who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe. They are seen as items of great spiritual and political importance, only to be worn by those who have earned the right and honour through formal recognition by their people.

I am uncomfortable with Non Sami people wearing traditional Sami kolts (our traditional clothes are called kolt). I once saw an sketch on Norwegian television, with a man pretending to be the spokesperson for the Sami government (yes, we have our own government now, finally!) The man proceeded to mimic the way our spokesperson speaks. All this while being dressed in a kolt and having a live audience laugh at it. Not funny. Blatantly racist. The last castration done upon an Sami child, by the Norwegian government, was in the 1960’s.

Ignorance is the worst thing imaginable.
We need to educate others and ourselves.

Based in Berlin, Germany
www.facebook.com/evilynfrantic

 

‘Elsie Marley’ Nadja – half German/half north Indian Muslim

A lot of dance moves are based on classical Indian dance. If you look at Fosse’s hand movements for example, the classical ‘jazz hands’ is a typical indian movement, not just in dance but in everyday expression.

It makes me uncomfortable to see non-Asian people perform Bollywood acts as burlesque, because first of all it’s not appropriate to satirise a culture which isn’t yours. Especially as everything in burlesque is satire; that’s the purpose of the art form, to me.

Secondly, it’s not appropriate because women’s sexuality has been suppressed and subdued by Indian culture and the powers that prevail. These are patriarchal structures and regulations on how a woman in supposed to behave that are very hard for Indian women to break through.

The portrayal of the ‘Indian Bollywood Beauty’ whose only desire is to make a good match for marriage is outdated and should be considered when using Indian style costume and movements. It is not something that can be romanticised and fetishised without being aware of the suppression that most Indian women face, even when living in a western country.

Seeing CA makes me very uncomfortable and angry, because even If it’s not done with an evil intent it shows lack of education, creativity and the absence of research in an artist’s work. Artistic freedom should never be an excuse to use your privilege, in order to punch down to a culture you do not own.

We no longer live in a time where a POC performer should be labeled as ‘exotic’. This term stems from an era where western society was colonising the East and mowing down any real form of culture they encountered and did not make the effort to understand.

When in doubt of being an CA offender, ask yourself whether you are punching up or down with the satirical portrayal of your character on stage.

Based in Munich, Germany

https://m.facebook.com/elsie.marley.161

 

Alyce Elysium – NZ Maori/European mix

I guess I am ‘lucky’ in the sense that my culture is so obscure that I have not yet seen a representation of it used in a burlesque act (yet), but when I imagine it, I feel sad and angry at the thought. Our traditions are sacred; they are things taught to us by our mothers, our aunts, our families. The idea of sexualising them in any way is repulsive.

Some references to my culture that make me uncomfortable are things such as ‘tribal’ tattoos. I see a lot of these in Europe, and it gets to me every time. Ta Moko, and other culturally relevant tattoos are always unique to the wearer. When I see someone who is wearing one with clearly no idea what it is they are wearing, I feel angry that they are so ignorant as to think that our culture is a gimmick, a way for them to look cool.

I also have to laugh a little bit. Would you get someone else’s family tree tattooed on you? Would you wear a veteran’s war medals when they didn’t belong to you? This is what I see when someone is doing this.

Naturally, I am so happy when someone takes an interest in our culture – I want to share it with people, because it’s a huge part of who I am, and I love sharing its beauty with others. Generally I find that people who have learned enough about it to properly appreciate it would never consider using it in the ways we discuss when we talk about appropriation.

Based in Berlin

www.instagram.com/beckiberlin

 

CONTRIBUTOR

Lolita Va Voom – Jewish American

Based in Berlin, DE/USA

facebook.com/lolitavavoom

 

AUTHOR

La Viola Vixen – Australian

I was born and raised in Australia of European descent, and currently live and work primarily in Europe.  Australia was a British colony that was brutally, forcefully stolen from the indigenous occupants by means of genocide. Personal experience and my own family’s struggle to discover its true history, made me finally aware of ‘my country’s’ shameful past. We were not taught about it in school at all.

I feel extremely remorseful for the sh*t I didn’t know, and I want to do better. I’m extremely sorry for any mistakes I’ve made in the past.

The marginalised need loud supportive allies, not more of our abuse.

Based in Berlin.

www.laviolavixen.com

21st Century Burlesque Magazine
21st Century Burlesque Magazine

Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.

5 Comments
  1. There is a line between respect and taking inspiration from a culture and then there is reducing it to a sideshow. Most people would agree there is nothing wrong with the first one and it is a way of celebrating culture, enhancing understanding and bringing people together. I am sure this article comes from a well meaning place but it is very knee-jerk and shows a lack of imagination that stifles creativity, alienates people and serves to push people apart rather than unite them together. Sorry!

  2. I agree about the cultural appropriation element but it seems odd that sexualising women through burlesque is OK and only becomes not OK if you add race or culture to that. If burlesque is essentially sexualising women and as mentioned in the article – a form of stripping – why is it OK to demean women as a class in this way even if an individual woman may feel empowered by it. Doesn’t the same argument stand for women in general not to be represented as simply sexual objects in this form of entertainment?
    That also causes harm and offenoffense and certainly is not ‘punching up’

  3. What do you think of paying homage to traditional dress or dance of white European cultures who have not been oppressed such as Spanish Flamenco or German Beer Maid? Is it off limits because it is sexualising?

  4. Extending this.

    DON’T: Use a minority’s protest song. This is also cultural appropriation. Eg. Using Strange Fruit by Able Meeropol performed by Billy Holiday if you’re not African American.

    DO: Learn where the song comes from. Listen to it’s lyrics / story. Is it your story? Teach Burlesque students to read the song.

    It’s never too late to make change.

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