Burlesque as a Feminist Act

Words and opinions by Punani Difranco.

I recently came across a video — posted on a good friend’s wall — of a comedian doing a piece of ‘feminist burlesque’*. She didn’t take off much clothing, but what she did take off revealed signs with feminist messages written on them — things like “Stop looking at my arse, you sexist” and “100% of rapes are the fault of the rapist”. She ended by pulling out her diploma with pasties taped to the front of it; the whole thing was bloody hilarious, and I enjoyed it greatly.

What I enjoyed a little less was her analysis of burlesque leading up to her performance. It was clever, and funny, but, as comedy so often is, reductive. “Why can’t burlesque be feminist?” she asked. “Why can’t it be whatever you want it to be?”  She already had her answer: “Because of the male gaze.”  It was funny, I’ll give her that. I laughed. But here’s the thing: I am a feminist, and for the past year or so I have also been a burlesque performer. I take my clothes off onstage in a variety of venues to a variety of different songs in a variety of different ways. The male gaze is certainly present in these performances — there are men in the audience, hooting and hollering and generally having a grand old time, along with the (usually more than half) women who come to see us. And the male gaze is present in me, too, internalized as it is in all of us, in my judgement of myself, and undoubtedly in my presentation of myself.

Punani Difranco. ©Matthew Cope  (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)
Punani Difranco. ©Matthew Cope (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)

But here’s the thing: the male gaze is not more present or more in charge in my burlesque performances than it is in my everyday life. I cannot stop the male gaze — I cannot prevent it from having an impact on my life. It is there all the time, whether it is telling me that I am too covered up or not covered up enough. It judges me when I’m in jeans, or sweatpants, or a miniskirt, summer or winter, hoodie or halter top. Its presence in burlesque is no more or less powerful than in any other facet of my life. Obviously this fact doesn’t demonstrate that my burlesque is inherently feminist; rather, what I’m claiming (so far) is just that burlesque is not more problematic than any other thing I might do as a woman in this culture, in this society, which judges me based on my appearance no matter what that appearance is (too fat, too thin, who does she think she is to wear those shorts?).

I do get my tits out onstage. Whether I’m being funny or serious or just plain weird, I end up naked (well, mostly naked, anyway). So how is that not kowtowing to the male gaze? Well, for one thing, I am the one deciding exactly how to get my kit off and when. No one has told me to do this, or how to do this, or anything else for that matter. This is a context where I get to control the presentation of my sensuality in ways that often confuse the audience as much or more as they arouse them. Hell, at this point that’s one of my goals. My tagline is: “She’s a weird, scary lady.”

Punani Difranco. ©Martin Giroux  (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)
Punani Difranco. ©Martin Giroux (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)

And when I do get my kit off, I am doing it at least in part in resistance to the messages that tell me my body is not worth seeing — that my scars, and my stretch marks, and all the signs of aging and humanity that we all have render me ugly, undesirable, unworthy of affection. Now, I say this fully recognizing that I am a slender, conventionally attractive white woman, a member of a group that is undeniably overrepresented in this art form, and undeniably privileged in a myriad of important and harmful ways within this culture. But I am not the only sort of woman participating in burlesque.

Furthermore, I say this as a victim of sexual assault.  That attack threatened to render me completely invisible: I hid for months, covering myself in as much thick clothing as I could get my hands on, feeling as though I was so broken and so deformed that I would never be able to share my body with another human being again. When that feeling became too much to bear, I decided that I had two options: I could die, or I could crowdsource it. That is, if I couldn’t share my body, my sensuality, with one person anymore, well, then, I could share it with a whole building full of people. Burlesque gave me a space where I could render myself visible again, a safe space in which I could control both how I was portrayed and how I interacted with the spectators. I cannot control everything about the way the audience see me, or their interpretation of what I am doing, but I don’t believe that my inability to control how I am viewed should stop me from doing this. My body is not a shameful thing. There is not more merit in a feminism that demands I hide my body for fear of attracting the male gaze. The male gaze is always there, and I will not let it stop me from engaging with an art form that I love. Through burlesque I work to queer** the male gaze through acts of my choosing, whether they are weird, or frightening, or just sexy as hell.

Punani Difranco. ©Andy Gryn  (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)
Punani Difranco. ©Andy Gryn (Burlesque as a Feminist Act)

I don’t believe that just anything can be a feminist act. I am not claiming that this is a feminist act simply because I have chosen it for myself. This is part of my fight to reclaim what was taken from me. Not every burlesque artist is a feminist. Not every burlesque act is a feminist act. I am a feminist. I don’t know if everything I do onstage is feminist, but I do know that I am trying to make it so. I do know that I feel more comfortable with my body now than I ever have, even before I was assaulted. I do know that I’m still not completely okay. But I do know that burlesque has helped me to heal.

*Nadia Kamil Does Burlesque, which you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-w-3CplMi4

**In “A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory”, Nikki Sullivan defines queering as “a movement between viewer, text, and the world that reinscribes (or queers) each and the relations between them.”

21st Century Burlesque
21st Century Burlesque

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.

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