Feminists hate naked ladies and other tales from the backlash.

Man, the internet is a funny place for feminism.

Because burlesque is, apparently, the favorite topic of all those who wish to berate feminists without actually knowing anything about feminist theory,  feminist movements, or feminist discourse, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find this precious gem linked to my piece on burlesque, which I wrote back in February. My post being, according to the author, an example of second wave feminism.

The burlesque=empowerment argument, as discussed previously by The F Word, seems to be popular among those who either ARE burlesque dancers and wish to defend their craft, or among those who argue that ‘post-feminism’ has arrived and, therefore, anything goes because women are so liberated that objectification is impossible or, at very least, no longer gendered.

I disagree, obviously.

This post, in an attempt to be highly logical and, you know, set the record straight,  pointed out how ‘misguided’ any critics of burlesque, or ‘sex work’ ( in the words of Catherine, the author of the post) are. Ok fine. So let’s talk misguided.

If you are going to argue ‘misguided’, my personal recommendation would be to avoid being ‘misguided’ yourself. And so, in an effort to help Catherine in her efforts to, one would assume, build some kind of educated/intelligent/rational argument, I feel that some clarification is in order (although it must be pointed out that said ‘clarification’ could have easily been found by either reading the post Catherine linked to or by googling second wave feminism – but WHO HAS THE TIME when we are all so busy with important business and things!! Right this second I am calculating important bank-math with my brain and wearing a fancy suit! All the while handing out business cards that read MEGHANMURPHY:LAWYERORSOMETHING at a meeting in New York with men in suits. I have a briefcase.). SO. Feminism.

While on one hand, I do tend to agree with Catherine, in terms of her argument that strippers and burlesque dancers need not engage in class wars over who is legitimate or who deserves to be viewed as a ‘skank’ (sidenote: I would not ever call anyone a ‘skank’, these are the author’s words. I don’t criticize the objectification of women and the perpetuation of the male gaze and the representation of women’s bodies as sexy things which exist for male pleasure because I think women who strip or perform in burlesque shows are ‘skanks’, but rather because I don’t feel that either burlesque, nor stripping, empowers women or leads us any closer to equality.). I actually think that this kind of classism is highly problematic and, as Catherine argues, places women at odds with one another in a way that hinders women’s liberation. Burlesque dancers may well, as Catherine argues, feel more artful than strippers because they are working for free, but the imagery remains the same. The fact that some women need to take off their clothes for money, while others are privileged enough to do it ‘for free’, playing with the fun and sexy idea of objectification, does not make one version more empowering than the other. It’s not just about money (though in many cases it is, indeed, about financial need, negating the possibility of any real free choice) it is also about valuing women primarily for their sexualized bodies and ensuring that women are always, in the end, available for male consumption.

What I would like to address, though, is a couple of little tiny misconceptions which, while may be very straightforward to many of those engaged in feminism, are clearly the source of deep, dark, confusion among those who don’t know how the internet works.

Catherine, ‘a writer’, has formed an argument based on several untruths. Outlined here:

I know, I know. I laugh, I joke, I make fun. But in all seriousness, half of this really pisses me off (the other half is just kind of stupid). More often than not, feminists who are critical of sex work are accused of being judgmental, moralistic, fun-haters who think that women should hide out in dark basements with penisy voodoo dolls. Also, we hate naked ladies because naked ladies are fun and we are no fun. Sadface. Sadly for the scapegoaters (but happily for the penises), these accusations have little to do with feminism in real life.

Never never never has any feminist argued that ‘all female nudity is inherently degrading’. Not even does the article that Catherine links to argue that ‘all female nudity is inherently degrading’. In fact, it argues that burlesque is classist, that it is far from liberating or empowering, and asks why, in order for women to hold power, must they take their clothes off? As Laurie Penny argues: “There’s more to subversion than stripping and sequins.” I believe that what many feminists who are ‘critics of sex work’ desire is that women could, in fact, walk around in public, or be on stage, or be in film, or, like, live our lives without being objects of the male gaze. Without feeling like there were few to no other options than to get naked in order to gain ‘power’ or money or, simply, because often that’s what women need to do in order for anyone to pay any attention to them.

Barbara Hammer likes naked ladies.

I certainly can’t speak for all feminists, but I am very familiar with this argument and can say for certain that feminists are not, as a mass unit of never-nudes,  ‘against female nudity’. Ever heard of Barbara Hammer? Check her out (Menses is the best, but it doesn’t seem to be available online).

Or Carolee Schneeman?

There is even Catherine Breillat, who manages to include female nudity ON FILM that is subversive and doesn’t necessary force the female to be the sole subject of the disempowering gaze.

Catherine Breillat's 'Romance': Feminist erotica?

Feminists don’t think female nudity is inherently degrading, but rather, that women’s bodies have been made the objects of a sexualized and gendered gaze and that, within the context of patriarchy, women’s naked bodies, placed on display, as they so often are in burlesque, feed into the idea that we exist to be looked at, and to be enjoyed (and accessed) by men.

Catherine argues that ‘people who actually know what they are talking about’ don’t ‘moraliz[e] about sexuality’ and, hey what do you know! She’s right. They also don’t use feminists as a scapegoat  to prop up a weak argument.

Ex-burlesque dancer, Laurie Penny, who, one would presume, does know what she is talking about, points out that there is nothing new about this ‘neo-burlesque’, that: “Since the dawn of time, women have been told that their most important social bargaining chip is the power to suggest sex and then withhold it, denying our own desires and manipulating the desires of men.” And that, I believe is the argument ‘critics’ are making. Not, that nudity is immoral or that women must keep their clothes on at all times. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if women could stand around in the nude without being sized up by the whole damn world? Sigh.

Please stop perpetuating these myths. It is awfully frustrating. It doesn’t strengthen your argument, and it wastes my time. Having to constantly do damage control on a bunch of anti-feminists who can’t be bothered to learn anything at all about feminist arguments but reeeeally love talking trash about them is not, I don’t feel, the best use of my, or any other feminist’s time (see note re: bank math and briefcases).

In conclusion, the second wave ended (arguably) at the end of the 70s. I was born in 1979. I am not a second wave feminist (though I do love and appreciate my sisters of yester-wave). My arguments are very much a part of the third wave. Partly because of my birthday, yes, but also because we have, those of us enmeshed in third wave feminism, a very big job to do.  One that is particular to the third wave. We are up against an even bigger backlash than the one Susan Faludi wrote about in 1991 (when I was 12!). This backlash is disguised as ‘post-feminism’, this backlash, we are told, is not a backlash at all but, rather, it is THE NEW FEMINISM. Actually, it is the old sexism, wrapped up in feminist discourse, chewed up and spat out by folks who have drank the kool-aid, bought the ‘silly media coverage’, and don’t want to tire out their I-live-in-a-post-everything-bubble brains for one. more. second. in order to figure out what the hell they are talking about.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • kathy

    Well done! I appreciate your blend of sarcasm and respectfulness. As someone who has been making similar arguments for decades it’s still rather like howling into the wind. I wonder how to crack through these same impasses where one side refuses to use logic or to support their points with any evidence whatsoever. hmmm sounds like most politicians (not just Tea Party although that is a good paradigm) and life on the internet. I wish we weren’t constantly reinventing the wheel. But it’s so refreshing and great to find you! power on!

  • Ali

    I love this! Very well done. Sometimes I feel like the sole feminist who is not down with the whole stripping culture. You really did a good job of putting into words exactly what I have been thinking.

  • The article was not about whether or not burlesque, stripping or sex work is empowering. It was about a film reviewer hypocritically praising one and criticizng the other, based on ideas that were neither sensible nor fact-based.

  • Nicolette Le Faye

    This whole argument about performing for the “male gaze” in reference to burlesque culture becomes irrelevant when you remember that 50-70% of the audience at just about any modern burlesque show is made up of WOMEN.

    • Meghan Murphy

      That’s ridiculouslessly thoughtless and simplistic. Women internalize the male gaze. The male gaze is not merely about the literal ‘man looking at a woman’. Read up, buds!

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  • lizor

    I really hope it’s ok to be commenting on such old threads. Unfortunately, the content and arguments are still needed and relevant.

    To add another example to those Meghan has named in her post, world renowned Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard, to name a more high-profile individual from a community of many ground-breaking live-art makers (surely all of the burlesque performers bent on explaining artistic performance to us will be very familiar with her work) has a 30-year body of phenomenal work that is rife with nudity, viscerality and sensuality and I don’t know of one feminist critique of the performances she creates.

    Contemporary dance artists have been utilizing the naked body for many many years, much of it subverting the presumptions we carry about what it means to be a naked male or female body in front of a live audience. The claims of many neo-burlesque regarding the meaning of their practice in most (not all!) cases is solipsistic and delusional especially when we consider the really great work being made that is actually breaking boundaries around our ideas of how to look at bodies.

    • Anna

      I have been commenting on Meghan’s other post “Responding to Burlesque…” and have just now read this. I do very much agree that burlesque artists are not working on the same level as Breillat and Hammer and Schneeman! And in fact most of them are not challenging existing systems at all. I realize now that this was Meghan’s main point, and that she was not saying that burlesque can never be subversive in theory, just that in practice it rarely is. I love the radical tone of this blog and the attempt to bring the word feminism back to its actual, serious meanings and roots and objectives.

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