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Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a Rest!

Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a Rest!

21st Century Burlesque
Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a Rest!

Last night, social networks were frothing with a range of responses to comedian Nadia Kamil’s ‘Feminist Burlesque’ routine, which she builds up to by taking cheap shots at respected burlesque performer Honey Wilde and her celebrated Margaret Thatcher act. While there have been a number of eloquent responses to the video, including this from Jason Rutter and a post from Lili La Scala, UK burlesque performer Glorian Gray says, enough already…

Sometimes I get so sick of being a feminist. Not because I don’t want equality for all genders and so forth, but because being a feminist sometimes seems to be more about arguing about what feminism is, and who is doing it “right”, than anything else.

Yesterday a video surfaced of a comedian doing a bit about burlesque, in which she appears to be derogatory about burlesque.

It gets shared about, and the burlesque world ain’t happy with it. Facebook and Twitter heard our wrath, I tell ya! More about that in a bit, but first, why was the video so controversial? (Continues after video…)

The comedian Nadia Kamil describes seeing a burlesque act on a night out and how she and her mates found it “gross” and out of place at a comedy event. She then goes on to do her own version of a feminist burlesque act, stripping to reveal statements such as “Equal Pay!” “Pubes are Normal!” etc., sellotaped to her body.  I don’t want to write any more about what may or may not have been intended by the act (if Nadia Kamil wants to do that herself I am sure she will)  or reactions to it, as lots has already been said on social media and in this blog by cabaret singer Lili La Scala. The whole thing is problematic, and of course I have my own ideas about it, but I will leave you all to make your own minds up.

What I want to talk about is the sense of déjà vu I got watching the video and reading the responses to it.  We have heard it all before.

Honey Wilde and her Margaret Thatcher act received derogatory remarks from comedian Nadia Kamil. (Guilherme Zühlke O'Connor for This Is Cabaret)
Honey Wilde and her Margaret Thatcher act received derogatory remarks from comedian Nadia Kamil. (Guilherme Zühlke O’Connor for This Is Cabaret)

I love and respect the way the burlesque world fights its corner and stands up for the art form in the face of what often seems to be overwhelming prejudice and opposition. I got annoyed at first about this video just like other folks did.  But some of what annoyed me was not what the comedian was saying about burlesque, but that (so it seemed) here was YET ANOTHER person holding forth about burlesque in a misinformed way.  Saying the same old tired things as if they were new and incontrovertible truths, from a position of privilege (white, educated, etc.)

The thing I couldn’t help but wonder was this: how many more times are we going to have this same argument?  You know the one I mean; it goes like this:

Burlesque Detractor: “Burlesque is *just stripping, middle-class stripping, boring, sexist, demeaning, objectifying to women, male gaze, yadayada.”

Burlesque World: “Burlesque is *an art form, not just stripping, stripping is not bad, it’s not objectifying, if you don’t like it don’t come to watch, it’s performed mainly for women, it’s performed mainly by women, it’s performed by men too, you clearly don’t know much about burlesque, etc., etc.”

Burlesque Detractor: “You are wrong and don’t realise it.”

Burlesque World: “No, you are wrong and don’t realise it.”

Every. Single. Time. Same argument.  How many times have I seen this over seven years? Lots. But it’s not just the burlesque revival that has had this argument ad nauseam; it’s been going on for-frickin-ever!

An age old argument... (Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a rest!)
An age old argument… (Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a rest!)

“Degrading!” “Demoralising to women!” (Feminist and Theatre Critic Olive Logan on burlesque, 1870.)

“Obscene.” (Women’s Cooperative Alliance, 1925.)

“A corrupting moral influence.” (Mayor LaGuardia on burlesque clubs in NYC, 1935.)

That’s right, we have been having this argument since the 1800s. Isn’t it about time we changed the tune? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for spirited discussion and standing up for your beliefs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the discussions, there is value in discussion, but it has to be ultimately productive. It has to move on, but so often it just goes round in circles. We can’t keep doing this same back-and-forth forever and getting nowhere.

So what is the answer? Is burlesque feminist or not?

Burlesque can be feminist and not feminist at the same time.  It is not inherently feminist. It is also not inherently anti-feminist.  Some people find it feminist, some don’t.  Burlesque can both support and damage the feminist cause because the variable is the audience. Performance art can’t happen without someone experiencing it, and within those hundreds of people experiencing an act, there will be some who feel strengthened and empowered by it and some who take it as objectifying and demeaning. How they interpret the art will depend on their existing identity and mindset.  Burlesque is as feminist as the observer believes it to be, and that’s it. That is why two people can watch the same act but one finds it empowering and the other finds it demeaning.

“There is not one single way to be feminist, because there is not one single way to be a woman, or a human being. One size does not fit all, and never will.”

Same with feminism. It’s diverse with lots of different schools of thought within it, some of which are almost diametrically opposed. How you interpret burlesque as a feminist will depend on what kind of feminist school of thought you buy into. That is why one person can find an act feminist and the other absolutely doesn’t.

There is no one truth to prove. THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER TO THIS DEBATE!

When you have been having the same argument for over 200 years (after realising that you are most likely never, ever going to agree) your options are as follows:

– Agree to disagree and get on with your separate projects.

– Continue to tear each other apart.

– Go around the issue and try to find a way to move forward.

Could we try and think of a way out of the endless circle of bickering? (Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a rest!)
Could we try and think of a way out of the endless circle of bickering? (Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a rest!)

Could we try and think of a way out of the endless circle of bickering? Could we come to understand the opposing point of view, even if we don’t agree? Explain our side to them so they understand us better?  And maybe, possibly… could we find a way to work together instead of against each other?

Because really, we should be on the same team, right?  The end goal is the same.

There is not one single way to be feminist, because there is not one single way to be a woman, or a human being. One size does not fit all, and never will. If we want to move forward with feminism/equality we need to acknowledge that we are never all going to see it the same way. Your way is just the one that works best for you. Trying to force people to do it your way will never work. Feminism will not work that way.  And I want it to work, don’t you? That’s my end goal.

Plus, I sure as hell don’t want to be having this same argument every six months for the next 200 years and be no further forward than we are now.

Glorian Gray

Read more from Glorian Gray here…

View Comments (8)
  • For once, everyone is right; However, Burlesque and Feminism share one massive problem : It tends to be narrowly defined by the speaker. Is it exploitive? Is it liberating? It is pandering? Is it about control?

    First, let’s simplify both. given the climate of both in the past 100 years, two things are pretty safe to say, and not be wrong about : (1) Whatever your angle of Feminism is, the greater goal is a woman can do whatever in the hell she wants to do, and not be considered less of a woman in society’s eyes. (2) Burlesque is adult entertainment not limited to dancing. Burlesque is magic acts, comedy, emcees, dancing, stripping, everything and everything post-vaudeville, usually hinging on a tease.

    That being said, what’s the real argument in light of this? Simple preference? Are we not all surrounded by things that are overdone, and things that we want more of, with a fellow audience member on either side of you disagreeing?

    It’s not that big of a deal folks, not enough to fight about. However, if the negative comments come in en masse from your paying audience, sit back and reconsider what it is you’re doing, what you think you’re doing, how you’re trying to accomplish it, and how better to deliver your point. Performer’s 101. It’s not necessarily a personal critique to hear negative things about your act. It’s a chance to improve your craft, as all arts and artists need to be open to.

    Secondly, though Burlesque is primarily a female-performer endeavor, let’s not forget about the Emcees, The Magicians, Boylesque, Comedians, Drag acts and everyone else, most of which happen to be male, or mixed-identified gender. Burlesque is not a singularly Female/Feminine issue.

    I do think it’s very important to talk about it, any and all dialogue is healthy, so articles like this are needed, as is everyone’s opinion on this, including the pedestrian audience members with no stock in either camp (should one consider these camps different or at odds.)

    Second-and-third opinions are the lifeblood of Burlesque, keeping exhibitionistic vanity-fests for being confused with the art of Burlesque, as fluid as those borders can be sometimes.

    Go get ’em, girls. Your audience awaits!

  • Excellent article! What’s the point of Feminism is it’s a brand, that only tolerates a narrow range of “acceptable behavior?” It ought to be about greater individual freedom and not adherence to a particular way of thinking.
    But at the same time, I think it’s inevitable that people will criticize based on their own feeling of inadequacy.
    At the same time, while equality.means each person is more free to do what they want, that freedom also means other are free to criticize.
    So let the dogs bark…

  • Nice!

    I think this is an important perspective for a lot of people, and I’m glad you brought it to people’s attention, but I also I think the fact that WE hear it repeated doesn’t mean that it’s not new to other people. As an activist and instructor I have to repeat myself constantly and introduce people to materials with which other people are familiar, constantly. That’s my job. I don’t mind it.

    I constantly hear people saying “FINALLY someone SAID” when something has been said over and over. Perhaps we should be saying “FINALLY I HEARD” instead.

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