10 Ways to Produce a Burlesque Show Safe from Misogyny, by Dottie Lux. Share your view in the comments section below…
Warning: this list speaks to burlesque performers as women. I acknowledge there are male burlesque performers and performers who reside outside the binary gender spectrum; for the sake of being concise I am speaking generally and from a woman’s perspective.
1. Pay Your Performers
I know, what a silly thing to start off with. Isn’t it a given that when you work a show, and it’s not an audition or fundraiser, you should be paid? Not always and not for everyone; how kookoo! It needs to be first on this list because it needs to be first in the producer’s mind. If money is coming in the door and not going to a charity (though sometimes even if it’s a charity you should pay your performers) performers need to be paid. Even if the show didn’t make any money, even if you go to the ATM, even if it has happened more than thrice, you need to pay people.
It is the producer’s responsibility to pay the performers. There is no greater way to show you don’t care about a woman’s work, creativity and body than to not pay her for performing. If the Bay Area has taught me anything it’s that you don’t have to pay in cash. Work out a trade that works for all parties. I have accepted all sorts of things as payment: housecleaning, street-promotion, massage, prepped meals, clothes, costumes, trim… Anything that saves me money makes me money. Be creative. I know some producers have the mindset that if performers don’t ask for money then they’re off the hook. Also, no.* This is cowardly; making people wait hours or forcing them to chase you down for money is almost as bad as not paying them. If you don’t plan on being able to pay them directly after the show you need have that scheduled with them before the show takes place. Example: I don’t get paid from the ticketing company until next week; I will send you a check when the ticketing company pays me, but not after July 11th.
*If you are a performer and reading this, this needs to be one of the questions you ask producers, like what time should I arrive. You wouldn’t put in a 40 hour work week at a new job wondering what your pay check will be or hound your manager for the next few weeks to get your check. These things are demeaning and also costly (time, gas, communication, energy).
2. Tell The Audience Where They are
Not only does this give you a chance to take a stand against street harassment, it gives first timers some perspective about proper etiquette. Everyone wins! At the top of every show, remind the audience that they are at a burlesque show, one of the few places on earth you can celebrate your love of women by hooting and hollering at them. You don’t have to be chastising about this and I often put myself in with the mix of offenders to make them feel like they’re not alone and can be taught.
For example, you can use opening jokes or recorded intros before the show. I tend to lead with something like: ‘This is a safe place to hoot, holler, scream, shout and throw your panties; yes, sir, you can throw your panties. We’re like Tom Jones up here and it’s not unusual! And I know what you’re thinking: isn’t the street a safe place to do this? Can’t I see someone’s body and comment on it right there in the supermarket?! I’m here to tell you, no. I used to have this issue myself, so instead of finding myself in an unsafe Safeway* situation, I channel that energy into something sexy, something creative, something consensual, and now our show is twice a week!’
*Safeway is a grocery store in SF
3. Have a Woman Host
I mean, we all love a good dick joke right? They’re endless at a burlesque show and what does that tell the audience? Dicks are funny, okay that might be true. How about a roofie joke? Ever hear a woman make those jokes? Probably not. I’ve heard them at shows where people get their drinks drugged. I wish this were funny; it’s not! The way I experience the world, men speak for women and it’s crushing to me when I see heavy handed examples of this in my own community. Picture it. Last Friday, I was performing in a Queer Burlesque show where a straight CIS man was the host. Nothing new there. He was so nice to hand the mic over to the producer during curtain call so she could say some thank yous. She thanked the audience, cast and then the other producer. The host took the microphone from her and actually said, ‘Let me use my big voice so people can hear that!’ I was shocked (but not really) and turned to another performer and said, ‘I’m so glad we have a man here to interpret; how would we ever understand each other without a man speaking?’ She said, ‘You too? I thought I was the only one who thought that!’
What if the person talking about the women taking their clothes off was a woman herself?! Can you imagine the possible vagina jokes she could do as counter-culture? Believe it or not, you can hear women behind the microphone and they are often powerful, witty, charming, smart and have the great ability to think on their toes. Having a women host tells the audience you are not afraid to have a woman in power. My favourite is male producers who hire women to host their shows. This is not saying that men are incapable of hosting an anti-misosgynist show, but let me fold another example into your brain. Right after the violence in Santa Barbara I had someone take my place as host because I felt so full of rage I didn’t feel like I could properly hold the mic. I asked a man to host and he did a fantastic job. Before the show, I asked if he would ask the audience for a moment of silence for all who have lost their lives because of misogyny. The host said, ‘I think you’re better suited to say something like that. It should come from a woman.’ I was giving him a chance to make the show anti-misogynistic and it was just too hard. I took the moment of silence and stood in power for all who suffer from the effects of misogyny.
No matter who you have hosting your shows, acknowledge that the performers are artists. From Honey Lawless: ‘One topic I struggle with when I hear it is language, particularly how emcees announce performers. I personally want to be more than “the next set of tits”. I want an acknowledgement of my identity as the unique individual that I am. By relegating the performers to a uniform identity based on body parts, we reinforce the idea that women are chattel. I like to think of burlesque as the “thinking person’s” form of entertainment. I may be alone in this, but the more mainstream example I think of is when Seth MacFarlane sang We Saw Your Boobs at the Oscars. It was so belittling to the accomplishments of those amazing women.’
Male hosts will always need to overcome their apparent misogyny. The misogyny is implied, but that’s because the world is misogynistic, not the work. This is not to say male hosts are derogatory or threatening; I’m saying it looks that way. When men are clothed and speaking and there are stripping, silent women, I think yes, it will be seen as misogynistic. The clothed male host would have to say anti-misogynistic things in order for that to change. They would have to strip themselves and/or use their privilege to speak to other men in the audience about the ways they can be feminist, including hiring women.
This is not an issue of semantics, this is a feminist issue. Disproportionately men are hired as hosts, yes, but also all over the world in all sorts of jobs. Women are not equal, not yet at least; we are not paid the same amount (maybe in burlesque we are but in the world we’re not) and until that happens it will always be important to hire women for everything: locksmith, bartender, lighting tech, car mechanic, doctor, tailor, graphic designer, etc. If this were not an issue our President would not have said this year that equality needs to happen. Equality hasn’t happened yet and if we want burlesque to be our happy pink bubble these are things we will continue to need to address.
4. Hire Photographers
Performers love to see photos of themselves and producers love to have them so they can promote the show. The best solution is to have an agreement between performers, producers and photographers that supports everyone. Paying photographers holds them accountable and values the work that they do. When the general public takes photos of the performers they may have the best intentions. They may want to share how awesome they thought the performer or show was. We all know photos and social media are one of the best ways to promote a show, but photographers may be ignorant or don’t always have the best intentions in mind. They may caption in a derogatory way, they may spread without the permission of the performer, they may even profit off the sales of merchandise the performer/show didn’t consent to. There is absolutely no way to protect your performers if a show allows anyone to shoot. If you can’t stop the photos from being taken (hey, you can’t actually control other people) you can demand that they delete the photos at the end of the show. You can have a representative from the venue to help you reiterate the policy and watch over while the person deletes the photos/video. When you stop these photos from being taken you show that you value your performers and that you have control over your brand. This is empowering. Additionally, we know who took the photo and can have anything removed we don’t like.
5. Public Shaming
Public shaming is always the answer. One of the most important things I have learned from self-defence classes with Impact Bay Area is to use your voice and be smart in doing it. When on the street and someone is harassing me, I do not engage with them, but instead publicly call out what I’m experiencing. ‘This man is harassing me. He is wearing a blue shirt and has been following me for three blocks. I DO NOT KNOW THIS MAN AND HE IS HARASSING ME.’ If you engage with the person you may make it look like a personal dispute when it is not. ‘Stop harassing me!’ only talks to the person harassing you; it does not engage the people in earshot. You may look like the crazy one who is talking to the open air; that’s fine. He is intimidated by your awareness.
At more than three of my own shows I have been touched without my consent, often by women who think it’s okay or that I should ‘lighten up’. The first few times I tried engaging them in conversation about why it wasn’t ok. That never works. I hold up the hand of the person touching me and say in a firm voice: ‘This person is touching me without my consent and it is not okay.’ Everyone sees this and now everyone knows. You can use this technique whenever you are faced with an audience member who is acting outside of our social norms. Empower your hosts to do this. It may stop the show for a moment, but a good host is able to keep the mood light while having a handle on the room.
6. Enforce Support From the Venue
Does your venue hire security? Are the bar-backs and door people there to help you? In most cases they really want to support the patrons and producers in their venue. It’s extra important to nurture these relationships and extra special when they have a no-tolerance policy. Those policies are my favourite. My show has dealt with all sorts of venue staff and I can tell you from experience that it feels degrading and unsafe to not be supported. I know, ‘Dottie, why would that happen? HOW could that happen?’ When a venue tells you they will watch the patron because it’s their policy to not do anything until they see it for themselves, you are not being supported and those wanting to take advantage of that situation will know it.
Nothing says misogyny more than adhering to the oppressive regulations of standardised beauty. Burlesque is about subverting that norm; include everyone in your shows. All genders. All sizes. All colours. All ages. All performance types. Hey, I realise producers can do what they want and can have whatever aesthetic they want, but if you want your show to promote difference, acceptance, support and inclusivity, these are all ways of fighting misogyny. Do it. There are performers of all types that can fill your creative production desires.
8. Be Clear With Your Performers About Advocating For Themselves
Do not chastise performers in your request emails. Do not call them stupid if they have questions or don’t understand something. Support them to speak up for themselves if they see something they don’t like. Even coming from you. Performer opinion is your window into what it’s like to work for you and if your intention is to empower them, listen. Give them information in your pre-show email. Tell them they are empowered to say something if they see something they don’t like. You may end up fishing through the occasional catty comment, but by far and beyond you will be gaining respect and insight to how your show is run and you further fortify that your show is a safe place for women to speak.
9. Backstage is the Safest Place
No friends, boyfriends or anyone besides performers backstage. This is the most vulnerable and most sacred of spaces for a performer. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in the merkin pasting position (full legs open squat) and someone who is not performing walks in for quite an eyeful. I often feel like apologising myself, then I think, ‘If I can’t paste things to my vagina in the dressing room, where the fuck can I?!’ This is not something that is the performers’ fault; it is the producers’ responsibility to make sure the dressing room is a safe place. Other performers are not perfect. My ass has been slapped, my boobs grabbed, my body put at risk in the dressing room of my own show by performers I’ve hired. Not okay. This is not tolerated. This shows that women’s bodies belong to the world and not themselves.
10. Realise It’s Not Possible
I would love to go on this idealised trip with you to say: if you follow the above nine steps your show will be free from misogyny. But the truth is, because it’s on planet Earth it won’t be. Be kind to yourself while trying to create a secluded bubble where women can be strong and empowered and the audience can be inspired and celebratory. Everything that happens aids in the learning process and gives you the room to make mistakes. It will happen and above all you can’t control other people. You can only control what you put out there and your reaction to what is given to you. Do your best. Be creative.
What do you think? Share your views in the comment section below.
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.