Responding to critiques of burlesque cheat sheet (crazy-making edition)

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of burlesque. I think it’s a boring, overplayed example of what you might call neosexism or retro sexism —  meaning that the “vintage” veneer and claims of “subversion,” “irony,” or postfeminism are meant to disguise the fact that it’s just the same old sexism that’s been going on for centuries. When it comes to burlesque, and, for that matter, anything that looks like sexism (see: pole-dancing classes, American Apparel ads, and “feminist pornography“) but is billed as not-sexist-because-women-like-it, the most useful tests to apply are these:

1) Are dudes doing it?

2) Are dudes trying to explain to you that it’s actually feminist?

If dudes aren’t doing it but are simultaneously trying to convince you that it’s liberating, empowering, or progressive, then you can count on a 99% chance of sexist fuckery.

Having published the odd critique here and there, and, more generally, mushed burlesque in to the sexism-in-disguise category with the assumption that a phenomenon centered around women getting naked on stage doesn’t need all that detailed an explanation of the ways in which these performances still objectify women, even if these women are enthusiastically participating in their own objectification and the objectification of others, what I’ve learned is this: It doesn’t actually matter what your critique is and how well you articulate it, because the burlesque community will respond to you in the same way every single time.

As such, I’ve compiled a helpful list of every single response you will definitely get, over and over again, every time you say anything marginally critical of burlesque. I’m not sure what the purpose of this list is except to encourage you to ignore these types of responses because there is not a single thing you can say or do to avoid them, as well as to point out the absolute unwillingness of burlesque defenders to engage in any self-reflection or critique of their fav hobby.

While the arguments can be generally summed up as: “But I like it,” I’ve provided you with more detailed responses as well. Enjoy!

1) You haven’t done enough “research”

I’ve been getting this same response for years. No matter how many burlesque shows I endure, I have never been to enough, so long as I continue to critique the phenomenon. I am told that, either, I have only seen “amateur” performances ( though I have watched plenty of awkward amateurs, I have also seen the professionals, who are equally as boring and objectified), or that I haven’t been to enough “alternative” shows.

What’s the rule here? How many burlesque performaces do we have to sit through before we are allowed to decide that, not only do we never want to sit through another burlesque performance again, but that we have good reason to avoid doing so in the future?

What this argument boils down to is that those who love burlesque refuse to believe that any other human being might not love the thing they love which, to boil it down even further, is to say: “As both the center of the universe and a petulant child, everyone must like what I like. If they don’t like what I like they are wrong and offend me by forcing me to think about the things I like and why I like them, which makes my head feel funny.”

2) You don’t understand

Similar to the “you haven’t done enough research” response, “you don’t understand” stems from an unwillingness to use (or lack of familiarity with using) one’s brain for the purposes of critical thinking. This response translates to: “You don’t agree with me/like the same things I like and I can’t come up with a logical response to your argument.”

“You clearly don’t understand burlesque” is kind of a hilarious response if you think about it, because burlesque really isn’t very complicated. What they really mean is: “You aren’t inside my head/bubble and I don’t care to acknowledge that which exists outside my head/bubble.” Again, it’s that problem of thinking about things when one doesn’t particularly like thinking about things issue.

3) Anything I do that makes ME feel good is feminist! (FUCKYEAH)

I don’t have much to say about this response. It can be easily addressed by repeating this handy mantra: “Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist.”

Which is not the same thing as saying you can’t like it. I like all sorts of things that aren’t feminist, despite the fact that I am a feminist. I just don’t pretend like my undereye concealer is some kind of radical movement. Patriarchy does not live in my undereye circles, nor will it go away if I appear less tired/sickly.

4) But there are women in the audience! Women erase sexism!

As we’ve learned from things like “feminist pornography” and pole dancing classes, just because women are doing things that are sexist or rooted in misogynist practices, doesn’t negate the sexism.

Women internalize the male gaze. You probably notice the way you look at women on the street — I do. Women sexualize women’s body parts just as men do, focusing on their bodies and appearances in ways we tend not to with men. When we watch things like film, television, and pornography, as well as when we look at ads, we are looking through a male lens. So we all learn to adopt the male gaze. When women’s bodies are objectified on screen or in American Apparel ads, we learn to see women as objects. We do this regardless of whether or not we are men.

The male gaze is still present even when there are women in the audience. Women go to strip clubs too — does that suddenly make strip clubs feminist? Does that mean the women performing at the strip club aren’t being objectified when women are looking?

This argument makes no sense but is brought up again and again with aplomb as though it’s never occurred to us before and will BLOW OUR MINDS into little tiny pieces.

You are welcome to spend an hour trying to explain the male gaze to these people, but at the end of the day I’m not sure they care. If they did they probably wouldn’t be doing burlesque in the first place.

5) Boylesque

Repeat after me: The exception does not make the rule.

You can reuse this argument in response to classics such as these:

– but women abuse men too

– but men are prostitutes too

– but men post sexy selfies too

– but men do strip shows too

– but women take up too much space on the bus sometimes too

6) Different body types in burlesque = feminism

I appreciate the representation of bodies that aren’t skinny white ones. I really do. BUT women who are not skinny and white are objectified and sexualized too. I find it very odd that people think that, somehow, if you objectify bigger bodies or if you objectify women who aren’t white, this is somehow progressive.

In any case, most women in burlesque are still skinny and white. So whatever.

7) If you don’t like burlesque then don’t go to burlesque shows

Ok, deal. I promise to never intentionally go to a burlesque show ever again so long as you promise not to objectify women in order to sell your “art.” No deal? How about I don’t have to stare at ass while reading my local paper? Or how about every single lefty or feminist fundrasier ever doesn’t include a burlesque performance? Also no? Aw man. I feel like we’re going to have to keep talking about this then, eh?

Local "artist" promoting his "music" (This ad ran in The Georgia Straight through December 2012.)
Local “artist” promoting his “music” (This ad ran in The Georgia Straight through December 2012.)

8) You are turning me into an object by talking about the objectification of women

This is a tricky one. So, this is the same as telling people who point out racism that they are being racist. In talking about the objectification of women, we are not, in fact, turning anyone into an object. Pointing out that women’s bodies and body parts are treated as and viewed as things which exist to-be-looked-at doesn’t reinforce that phenomenon — rather it is critical of it.

In making this argument (that those who point out objectification are actually doing the objectifying), you are asking people to stop thinking and to stop speaking up about inequality. Which makes you a reinforcer of the status quo. Bad move!

9) I’m not being objectified because I choose to objectify myself

So, everyone makes choices. Sometimes and often those choices are limited by our place in society and the culture and systems that surround us. Choosing to prostitute oneself, for example, does not make prostitution a feminist industry. It also doesn’t mean that you are responsible for patriarchy or men’s sense of entitlement around access to women’s bodies; but simply inserting the word “choice” into a sentence doesn’t actually change the meaning or root of the action or situation. I “choose” to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (and Orange County!). Does that mean that I’m subverting patriarchy from my couch? Just as “choosing” to post sexy selfies on Instagram doesn’t amount to a feminist act simply because you’ve decided to objectify yourself. It doesn’t make you a terrible person either. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If not, please refer back to point number three.

10) You have to be on the inside to understand/form a valid critique

Ok, so let me get this straight. In order to be critical of anything (and in order for that critique to be legit), you have to actually be the thing you are critiquing? Does this also mean that women who haven’t been abused or raped can’t be critical of abuse and rape? Does it mean white people can’t be critical of racism? Does it mean men mustn’t say anything negative about prostitution because they themselves aren’t prostitutes? Am I not allowed to say that fast food is bad for you unless I eat a bunch of fast food? Drivers shouldn’t run people over! Oh wait — I’m not a driver, can’t say that 🙁

This is the dumbest argument ever. If we left critical conversations only to the people who were actually doing whatever we were being critical of then nobody would get to say anything about anything ever. Ex: “Capitalism sucks!” “SHUT UP, YOU AREN’T A CAPITALIST. YOU DON’T GET IT. YOU’RE NOT ON THE INSIDE.” See what I’m getting at? Stop this crap. It’s illogical and anti-intellectual.

11) You’re a prude and you hate boobs

I also hate sex, men, vaginas, penises, and joy. Can we move on?

But seriously. I have little to no interest in engaging with this silliness because it’s an anti-feminist, cheap, meaningless trope. Accusing feminists of being man/sex-haters because they speak against the exploitation of women is what sexist, anti-feminist men do. If you want to participate in that sort of thing, again, why are we talking? We clearly have different goals in life — yours being to ensure equality and freedom is never a thing, and mine to work towards women having “human being” status some day.

As a general rule of thumb you will learn, if you ever bother writing anything remotely critical about burlesque (which I doubt you will because, honestly, does anyone really give two shits about burlesque anymore? I feel like a broken record at this point…), that people who like burlesque only like burlesque. They don’t bother engaging with other topics yet suddenly develop a passionate interest in whatever they’ve decided feminism is once someone starts talking about the inherent sexism in taking off one’s clothes and shaking one’s boobs for an audience. Your response should be: If you have no real interest in the feminist movement or in liberating women from patriarchal oppression, why are we talking? And then don’t talk to them anymore unless you get masochistic pleasure from being screamed at by people who once took half a Women’s Studies 101 class and left as soon as they heard the word subjectivity.

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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