Burlesque: They tell me it’s just for fun…Except I’m not having any.

Two weeks ago we ran our 2-part series on burlesque. Considering the many varied perspectives among women and feminists, we felt it wouldn’t be quite sufficient nor would it present an entirely accurate representation of those varied views if we explored only one side of the argument. The first show featured local burlesque superstar, Crystal Precious and PhD Candidate, Mary Shearman, who we brought on in order to present a look at burlesque that included feminism and female empowerment, rather than a straightforward rejection of it. The conversation could have easily gone on for another hour. Our guests provided us with some super interesting ways of looking at this ‘neo-burlesque movement’, as it’s been coined. We were presented with some ways in which burlesque could, potentially, be subversive. Both from our guests and from listeners. Like thisthis,  and this.

Alas, this was not what we were seeing from mainstream presentations of burlesque.

Nor was it, no matter where we went, what we were seeing at local burlesque shows.

And while we didn’t agree with everything our guests argued, we realized that there are many out there who do. And that there are many women who enjoy burlesque; whether from an audience’s perspective or as a performer. I mean, what’s wrong with having fun right? What’s wrong with feeling sexy, right?

…right….?

Weeeellllllllll….we weren’t entirely convinced.

The idea that we should just ‘work with’ that ever-present male gaze just didn’t sit well. For me, personally, it brought up a lot of that-which-I-am-ever-irritated-by in what is often presented as being the ‘3rd wave’. That which the older generation of feminists, those who came from the revolutionary 2nd wave often seem to feel disappointed by – this concept that feminism is about individual empowerment. Not my feminism. This isn’t a ‘hey whatever makes you feel good’ kinda movement. Not that you can’t feel good and be feminist. But let’s get this straight – this is a movement. Not a self-help book. Feminism and neoliberalism are not bff’s. Feminism is, in large part, about changing those dominant systems that hold up neoliberal ideology. We aren’t all out for ourselves here. And individualism just doesn’t work for the marginalized. It sure doesn’t work to destroy that objectifying male gaze.

In terms of burlesque, I just couldn’t get past this idea that it takes a certain amount of privilege in order to even argue that this kind of stripping is ‘just for fun’. For so many women, stripping isn’t ‘just for fun’. It’s a living. Like, they need the money. So what kind of implications does it have when some women decide to start stripping ‘just for fun’? Does that mean stripping is supposed to be ‘fun’? Are we supposed to be doing it for free? Am I supposed to enjoy it? Should it be fun for me? The unexamined privilege within this discourse is pretty glaring. Regardless of whether or not burlesque dancers align themselves with strippers, they are not viewed or treated by society as strippers are. They are not judged or disrespected or subject to violence in the same ways that many strippers are. Particularly those who aren’t doing it ‘for fun’. But rather as a living. Out of need.

Women and girls everywhere are being told that pole dancing is ‘fun’. That flashing your breasts for Girls Gone Wild is ‘fun’. And that burlesque is ‘fun’. And you know what happens when we think something is ‘fun’? It means that we choose it. That we consent to it. And therefore it equals empowerment. Being coerced isn’t ‘fun’. Having no other alternative but to sell our bodies isn’t ‘fun’. In order for something to be ‘fun’, we must feel like we get to choose. What, then, are the repercussions for those who don’t choose to strip or flash or take pole-dancing classes – are we, then, not ‘fun’? What does it mean when I go to see a burlesque show and don’t have any fun. When, instead of liberation, I see women shaking their asses for an audience. Posing in martini glasses or on coffee tables. Like pretty objects. What happens when I feel angry, instead? When I feel uncomfortable, instead; seeing a male MC introducing his legion of ‘girls’ and encouraging the audience to tuck money into the ‘go-go girl’s’ g-string? Am I no fun?

Individualism and neoliberalism have stolen choice from the feminist movement. As Nicole Deagan so aptly pointed out on show number 2, ‘choice’ is about abortion rights. ‘Choice’ was a powerful aspect of the feminist fight for control over reproductive rights and women’s access to medical procedures. For us to be told that ‘choice’ is about our ‘freedom’ to pasties is misleading, distracting, and dangerous. Capitalism isn’t our friend. You can’t sell choice. And, let me add, having a ‘choice’ does not mean that we all have to shut our eyes and lay down. Being a feminist means we question these narratives. We question those things which reinforce the idea that women are meant to be seen and not heard, that women are ‘to-be-looked-at’, that women exist to fulfill male fantasies. And we do this because it’s easier to commit violence against objects than it is to whole human beings.

As Nicole also mentioned, and I want to include this because I think this is central to this conversation, as well as, in large part, what is missing from mainstream narratives around 3rd wave feminism: “The fact that white women have decided to ‘play’ with the role of ‘empowering’ an objectified woman performing for an audience is really telling about how disconnected they are from the actual lives of women who live in true poverty and how traumatizing it is to be living in a racist, sexist, classist world where women are sexually used by men who have access to privileges and entitlements that many women can’t even dream of.”

I have seen several burlesque shows in Vancouver. And Ariana and I went again, for research purposes; to check out what’s happening on the scene these days. Hoping we would find all sorts of subversion, you know, challenges to gender norms, maybe some comedy, something even remotely feministish. What we found was a stage and some women awkwardly taking off their clothes, with smiles pasted across their faces so we knew they were enjoying themselves. A man in a business suit ‘hosted’ the evening, and introduced all the ‘girls’. He remained clothed throughout the evening. A male MC was also allowed the privilege of keeping his clothes on. One after another, ‘girl’ after ‘girl’ got up on stage, unzipped her dress and, by the end of the ‘show’ was in pasties and a g-string, posing for a cheering crowd. Let’s play find the subversion! There is nothing new here. It’s just the same old thing. And I wasn’t having any fun.

***Authors note: Thanks to Nicole Deagan and Ariana Barer for inspiring and contributing to much of this content and to my larger understanding of what the hell it was that was bothering me so much about this burgeoning movement.

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 The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, 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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