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August 11, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Neo-Burlesque

The old objectification cloaked in a veneer of chic?

Over summer I went to a poetry night at the Mighty Mighty. My friend was reading his poetry and we turned up to support him. As we sat round sipping our CC and drys, I glanced around the room – it was the usual crowd – girls with vintage frocks, guys with straight leg jeans and bizarrely coiffed hair – i.e. Hipster central.

The morning DJ from Radio Active was the MC and he announced the first act of the night. Before we endured the poetry we were going to get a taste of some ‘cabaret’. Now I know cabaret can be cool – The Dresden Dolls (“Brechtian punk cabaret”) and Meow Meow (if anyone caught her in the International Festival, she was amazing) are two recent postmodern examples. Moreover, cabaret as an art-form can be subversive and political (Kiwi theatre revolutionaries Red Mole strutted their stuff in strip clubs in Wellington in the 70s when they couldn’t get a slot in a ‘real’ theatre, and 70’s feminist performers across the globe also took up the form to cloak their politics in edgy humour). So a poetry and cabaret night isn’t too bad is it? An overt hipsterishness nod to simpler, techno-free retro times.

I understand that the definitions of cabaret vary, but I was not expecting to see scantily clad girls grinding to Chicago’s ‘Cell block tango’. Moreover, I was not expecting to see a girl humping and sliding up and down a pole. My friends were not as outraged as me – “she’s got a great body”, “that’s really athletic; it takes some real skill to do that”. Good points. Points all equally applicable to the strippers down at Mermaids. And no one here is advocating we bowl down there for an evening’s entertainment. Mighty pole dancer might not have nipple tassels on (rather a leotard and a quirky tutu skirt), but she’s still wearing an outfit and performing moves that draw our eye to her thighs, her breasts, her ass. Moreover, she’s silent in this process, and we’re the eye. She’s subjected to the male gaze, and we sit quietly and fetishize various parts of her body. This makes her no different to a stripper. Grrr, I scream internally. I paid for poetry, not objectification!

What is burlesque / cabaret?

Burlesque literally means “in an upside down style” – it was a style of performance pioneered in the 1870s that aimed to turn social norms on their head (by social norms, we’re talking about the Victorian repression of sexuality, and general moral uptightness). It used humour, satire, performance art, cross-gender casting, and striptease to mock bourgeois entertainments like opera, theatre and ballet. Stripping was one component amongst many and it was used to take the piss out of polite society. Gradually as sexual restrictions loosened, it became the dominant part; burlesque giving birth to the modern day strip club. Dita Von Teese is the most famous modern advocate of ‘burlesque’, acclaimed for re-pioneering the retro pin-up look.

So what is neo-burlesque? In the case of the girls at the Mighty and Dita Von Teese, it can be nothing more than stripping in retro revival gear.

Heavenly Burlesque

However, it can be something more. In Wellington, Heavenly Burlesque is a good example of neo-burlesque. Since 2006, their shows have mixed circus, theatre, installations, magic, music and comedy; re-investigating burlesque to explore and play with the ideas of “body politics – sex, gender, courtship, media imagery, and social / cultural expectations.” Awesome.

But don’t just let me quote their publicity guff, what do the reviewers say? Of the more sexually explicit content, Scoop’s reviewer says it’s “more arch naughtiness than anything overt”, in fact MC Kim Potter takes the piss out of your typical sleazy Vegas style MC and the overall conclusion from Texture reviewer Natalie Medlock is that it’s got the right amount of “cheek, personality and randomness”.

In one act, Incentua Consulting (according to legendary square John Smythe), “two upwardly mobile modern day female Executives…strip from their corporate costume…[and] do a very creditable trapeze act.” Here, the stripping has some subversive point (to show the restrictions of the corporate world perhaps). In fact, their 06 Fringe show even had some distinctly feminist elements – “Olivia Bryant uses a highly expressive mime-cum-dance mode to depict a repressed woman seeking sexual liberation”.

Heavenly Burlesque is veering towards subversive. The sex is about anarchy and the glamour is about art. Here, the display of flesh has an artistic point beyond just looking hot and that. Moreover, these performers aren’t silent (Vis-à-vis the Mighty Mighty girls).

Step Up Darlings… It’s Ten-in-One

A possibly less successful neo-burlesque attempt involves many of the same performers from Heavenly Burlesque. Step up Darlings…It’s Ten-in-One is a striptease circus / freak show featuring trapeze, erotic seminaked dancing, contortions, fire-eating and nipple tassels. Cap Times’ Lynn Freeman says “it’s not just a night out for the boys, though they were clearly and vocally appreciative” (ewwww); she states it fails on some level because “it wasn’t shocking despite trying very hard to be”.

Neo-Burlesque

My dancer/actor friend was recently approached to be in a Wellington super-burlesque troupe. Cool, she thought. “What kind of stuff shall we do?” she enquired. The response: “mmm…not sure, but we definitely want to look hot.” Ok lame, girls who want to do burlesque just to look hot are silly. Cos we know it can be more than that.

But even when it is more than that (as in Heavenly Burlesque), it still runs a fine line between objectifying women and subverting said objectification. Is stripping for art acceptable? Surely there’s always going to be some skeeze getting off on it? Will that ever be unavoidable?

Objectification

It’s an issue I recently had to address in a theatre project I directed for university. The play involved a peep-show dancer. Fortunately the style of the play was more abstract and poetic rather than realistic, so we had a range of options to subvert the peep-show thing. My question was how can we critique and show objectification of women, but without actually allowing the audience to objectify the actor? Other than dressing her in a sack, not much. And that become a secondary question because as my supervisor pointed out, we can admire someone’s body and physical prowess without solely seeing them as a sexual object.

This article ties into a wider debate about the objectification of women, and what I have a real problem with is people who go along to Heavenly Burlesque or cabaret night at the Mighty and objectify women, and think that’s fine because it’s in semiclassy surroundings. And that is somehow different from going to Mermaids. When it’s acceptable to pay $20 and go down to Mermaids, when strip club culture is this mainstream and accessible – having pole dancers in the Mighty Mighty is not neo-burlesque, it’s not even burlesque, it’s not cabaret, it’s just plain old objectification, but disturbingly cloaked in a veneer of chic.

Moreover, why amongst my university attending, post-feminist ‘empowered’ female friends, is taking your clothes off in the name of art somehow different to normal stripping? And what if it fails to become art and doesn’t rise above stripping? Even the international La Vie, which had plenty of sass, wasn’t really subversive and my friend admitted he “spent a lot of time ogling the sexy dancer”. The point is the interpretation of the sex is going to be a subjective personal thing for each audience member.

This fine line points to the fact that women still have very few sexual options (and anyone who accuses me of being a ‘prude’ is just proving my point there). The virgin/whore mentality is still in full operation. I hope it’s clear I’m not dissing the girl/s in the Mighty; rather, what I object to is a society where there is only one option if we want to portray ourselves as independent (yet still sexual) creatures. There should be multiple, self-defined versions of ‘sexy’ rather than just this raunchy, red light district influenced brand of female sexuality.

Burlesque in its hey-day was cool, a challenge to repressive bourgeois Victorian values. But when I walk down the street and see pictures of faceless, big breasted women on billboards, magazine covers and outside strip clubs, showing a bit of skin is not revolutionary. In fact it is simply buying into a society where women are not valued for anything more than their bodies, a society we supposedly said goodbye to a long time ago. So Burlesque today has the challenge of rising above this overt display to do something genuinely subversive. That’s a big challenge. But not an impossible one.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jackson Wood says:

    “I feel that beauty and femininity are ageless and can’t be contrived, and glamour — although the manufacturers won’t like this — cannot be manufactured. Not real glamour, it’s based on femininity. I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous…. We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it—everything.”
    – Marilyn Monroe

  2. Gibbon says:

    “Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television, North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe.”
    – Billy Joel

  3. Hillary says:

    It’s all part of the new raunch culture. Like somehow I’m going to be stupid enough to believe pole dancing as excercise is liberating. Pfft.

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