League of Exotic Dancers demonstrates limitations of female ’empowerment’


The most notable thing about League of Exotic Dancers, a Canadian documentary opening Hot Docs on Thursday night in Toronto, is that it highlights, even if unintentionally, the issue of privilege.

Director Rama Rau interviews nine women who worked as burlesque dancers during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, what’s referred to as “the golden age of burlesque”… Key word: “worked.”

The number one reason women became burlesque dancers during that time was because it was one of the only options for women, outside housewifery and low-paid secretarial work, to make money. “There were very few jobs a woman could do in 1960,” an ex-dancer named Marinka says. Unlike the neoburlesque scene we see today, which claimed, early on, to be about “art” rather than income, burlesque was not something young women simply picked up as a hobby — it was a job.

Whereas women who choose to do burlesque today as a supposedly “empowering” pastime have tended to reject any comparisons to strippers — due specifically to that choice factor — the women featured in League of Exotic Dancers held no misconceptions about their work. “You’re not a dancer,” Holiday O’Hara said. “You’re a stripper… You’re supposed to be turning the men on.” Delilah Jones says, straight up, “It was a sex industry.”

Sure, there may have been some level of “glamour” in the industry, indeed the women in the film say they enjoyed their work, and even felt “freed” by it — I mean, left with so few alternatives, hell, maybe I would have chosen to do burlesque instead of becoming a wife or some condescending man’s secretary. There was money and champagne and excitement and an escape from the mundane lives women were expected to live… There was also a lot of pills, heroin, and coke — many of the women struggled with substance abuse and addiction as a result of their work. A number of performers got breast cancer from the silicone injections they had to get in order to achieve a more “voluptuous” figure.

While indeed some of the women featured in the film felt empowered by their careers in burlesque, the narratives they offered about where that “power” came from conveyed something else.

“I felt I was using my power… Which was my pussy,” Gina Bon Bon said, confirming the limitations of a type of empowerment that comes through sexual objectification.

Jones (who says she got a nose job in order to correct her “European” nose and look “more American”) explains, “It was not women’s lib… you had to be extremely feminine and perfect all the time.”

As burlesque is an explicitly “feminine” performance that celebrates the male gaze, I’m left wondering how, exactly, we can talk about “empowerment” in the same sentence as “femininity,” a thing that exists explicitly to reinforce sexism and a gendered hierarchy.

While being “sexy” certainly can feel good or even “powerful” to women, you really have to ask yourself why men never talk about the importance of “feeling sexy,” nor do they try to convince one another that public performances of nudity and so-called “sexuality” are an integral part of their empowerment or sense of manhood. Society teaches us that the performance of “feminine sexuality” is very much a part of womanhood and that “feeling sexy” is inseparable from both that performance and the male gaze.

O’Hara talks about the way in which burlesque helped her shed her sense of being an ugly duckling — an awkward, too big, too tall, unpopular young woman. She wanted to be seen — something I think many women who have been invisibilized by society, due to not fitting into norms of attractiveness and fuckability, desire. O’Hara was thrilled at the idea that anyone would pay her to take off her clothes — something she “didn’t get in her teenage years.”  I imagine this is something many of today’s burlesque performers relate to… And I get it. Feeling desired by men, particularly after having missed out on the kind of attention and popularity teen girls feel they “need” in order to feel good about themselves, can feel like a high. But just like a high, that particular sense of “confidence” is short-lived and unsustainable.

League of Exotic Dancers culminates by bringing together all these ex-dancers to perform, once again, at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. A representative interviewed in the film explains that this “give[s] the current generation an experience of their living history.” But I can’t help but think, “What are they learning?” What they choose to do today for “fun” — as some kind of kitschy throwback — was something women once did due to lack of choice, which only reinforces the clueless privilege of the neoburlesque “movement.”

The “golden era of burlesque” ended with the introduction of porn theatres and “live, nude, dancing.” Burlesque had been limited, back then, in that dancers had to wear underwear and pasties and, while you could simulate things like masturbation, performers weren’t actually allowed to “touch themselves too much,” Marinka explains. Some of the women tried to keep their customers by going more hardcore in their acts, but there was little they could do to compete with a burgeoning porn culture. Men wanted to get to their end point as quickly and directly as possible — none of this song and dance crap.

Today, though, you don’t need to go to a burlesque club to see a show — it’s fully immersed in our social lives. Bars, restaurants, clubs, and music festivals feature burlesque, whether customers like it or not. Oddly, the more “choice” women have, the less say we have in whether or not we are allowed to participate in the burlesque scene.

Marinka says she doesn’t think burlesque can ever exist the way it did then, and she’s right: the sex industry has gone way too far for burlesque clubs to be real money-makers in the way they used to be. The trick, today, has been to just incorporate burlesque into everyday social activities — so, forward-thinking people who perhaps wouldn’t spend their evenings at a legit strip club can still casually participate in objectification, free of guilt, as this time, it’s “just for fun” and “no one’s being forced.”

And while we used to be forthright about the purpose of burlesque (as Gina Bon Bon says, “that’s how we became stars: we sold sex”), today we insist it’s about anything but. That women have so many more options today but still choose to self-objectify “just for fun” shows just how powerful this patriarchal culture is. It’s succeeded in tricking women into volunteering for their own subordination — a sleight of hand commonly utilized by abusers.

Many of the women featured in the film are, as I believe League of Exotic Dancers intended to convey, strong women who led interesting lives. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, during that time, men were being strong and living interesting lives without also having to get naked on stage for an audience… Sadly, that trend is still present today. Women are still “choosing” to empower themselves through self-objectification, whether it be through selfies or amateur strip nights.

Glorifying what used to be the equivalent of strip shows — something that perhaps does really seem “kitschy” and “classy” today, in comparison to the no holds barred stuff that’s currently accessible to men in strip clubs, brothels, and online — is not a sign of progress, but a sign of misused privilege.

The neoburlesque scene has taken what second wave feminists gave them and pushed it aside in favour of the kind of social privilege, narcissism, and superficial “empowerment” they receive from their performances.

League of Exotic Dancers is not about choices, but limitations: the limitations of a kind of liberation that fits squarely within a context of femininity and within the borders of patriarchy.

League of Exotic Dancers premiers tonight at 9:45 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, 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 is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.