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
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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  • Maria White

    I see the mainstreaming of burlesque as a warm-up for the mainstreaming of strip acts in local bars. “Whether customers want it or not.”

  • “ethics needs to take priority over aesthetics”


  • Meghan Murphy

    All excellent questions. The women featured in the doc stopped working because the industry died as porn theatres and strip clubs became legal. And I assume older women aren’t prominent in the neoburlesque scene for all the reasons you’d guess: the ‘feminism’ and ’empowerment’ you find in burlesque remains fixated on the sexualized bodies of younger women, even if those bodies are (we’re told) diverse. All that said, I wouldn’t see burlesque as any less rooted in sexist gender norms if older women were embraced by the scene.

  • Laura

    I agree, art doesn’t exist in a vaccuum any more than science does. It can reflect and perpetuate ideas from the world it was created in. I think artists who rely on cheap sexual thrills to make their point are hacks, like that Miley Cyrus pedophile babytalk video.

    If you’re not capable of making art without harming your co-workers (not sure if that’s the right word) or your audience, you have pretty limited skills as an artist. I think an important part of the creative process is figuring out how to work with boundaries (your budget, your materials, etc.) and I don’t see why women’s humanity shouldn’t be one of those boundaries.

    There’s something Audre Lorde wrote that I’m having trouble finding, but iirc the gist was that people were saying that living without sexual cruelty and domination would be no fun, and that she disagreed with that, does that sound familiar to anyone?

  • Lucia Lola

    Where the former male burlesque performers at? (crickets)

  • Aylune B. Papyrus

    “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.”
    THIS. Yes. I always felt there was something wrong with the “I’m sexy so I’m empowered” rhetoric though it was difficult (and felt painful) to explain why. But this simple question just hits you. And the answer is so evident : because they know that in the grand scheme of things, “feeling sexy” is frankly irrelevant. It’s not power. They know it because they are the ones watching us, and they know how they feel about us while doing so – they just think of us as pretty things, please the eyes, but not to be taken seriously. They know looking sexy doesn’t grant you any sort of real power or respect… because they are the ones looking, and they are not respecting.

    “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.” I want to tattoo that sentence somewhere and never forget it, every time I will – because I know I will – feel flattered when men glance at me appreciatively. My teenage years and early twenties were lived in anxiety because I felt I was undesirable, and I wished so much to be desired. I recently realized how empty it makes me feel when it happens, though. Because it’s kinda worthless and doesn’t say much about me, really. But I still desire it. Alas. I hope with time I’ll train myself out of it.

    • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya

      That bit of logic hit me too, about how men don’t need to “feel sexy”. It’s so obvious and yet it never occurred to me before.

      • Aylune B. Papyrus

        Isn’t it ? Funny how you also rarely – if ever – hear men talk about “their sexuality”, “exploring/expressing/honoring their sexuality” blabla… or being “empowered by their sexuality”. That vocabulary seems exclusive to women. Odd.

    • Melissa Cutler

      I agree completely, both with the lines from the essay that you picked out and with the anxiety and longing to feel desirable that I felt in my teens and twenties. Thank you for articulating what so many of us have experienced.

    • Bleep

      Being desirable as a teen is a shitshow.

  • Melissa Cutler

    Those questions really get to the heart of the illusion of “empowerment”, not only about burlesque, but the film and television industry, porn, and all industries in which women are objectified. Thank you, because I’ve never heard the argument phrased like that and it articulates the flawed logic of libfems and “pro sex” fems so perfectly.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Thanks! I think you might find this intereview useful, in terms of your question: https://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/03/29/interview-lindsay-kite-on-empowerment-body-positivity-and-selfies/

  • corvid

    As an artist, I couldn’t agree more. Art is not sacred, there is a group process in art school and individual practice called a “critique”, and formulating your own ideas around your work coherently is essential if you intend to have any credibility. If you were a student choosing to defend your work with “it’s my art and I do what I want” you would probably be failed, if not laughed out of the building.

  • Bleep

    You know, a lot of libfem rhetoric is based on the idea that selling women’s bodies is exactly like selling anything else — or at least like doing any other job. What about selling body parts, like kidneys? I mean, I’ve got two of them, and only really need one. I would make enough money to at least finish college, and that’s damn appealing to me. Why is this empowering or not, for me, if I’m willing to go through with it? I could even upload videos of a doctor or two proving how healthy my kidneys are… maybe with some upbeat music in the background… really brand my particular kidneys (I mean, I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years).

    Unfortunately, this is not sarcasm on my part. I would gladly sell one if it were legal. I would much rather do that than get “power” through my “pussy”. What if my particular “power” comes from my kidney? It feels much more like a simple transaction to me than waving my genitalia around. Why am I wrong??

    • Sine FourEx

      You might be interested in this. http://phys.org/news/2015-06-body-evidence-prostitution-compensation-donation.html regarding approval of prostitution, compensation for organ donation

      If you want to convince someone that selling organs should be allowed, concentrate on the life-saving benefits. Do not make the analogy with prostitution, it can only result in less approval.

      An interesting observation in that article is that “When survey respondents learned that legalized indoor prostitution reduces violence against women and cuts the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, this didn’t have much of an impact on their acceptance of the idea. In fact, among women, having more information led to a decrease in approval rates.”

      When women are given more information about prostitution, myths are dispelled, they see it for what it is, they face up to the reality, and approval decreases.

      Note: The contention about legalised prostitution is based on a single scientifically flawed analysis of events in Rhode Island (Cunningham et al), rejected by both pro and anti prostitution camps as an example of academic bullshit. It doesn’t stop people like Richard Branson quoting it and being rewarded by Amnesty for his efforts to facilitate the commercial exploitation of non-consensual sex in the name of human rights.

  • fragglerock

    I think being seen as an inhuman thing without a past, future, feelings, wants, needs or desires is pretty limiting.

  • Hierophant2

    Have you ever heard a man say ‘“I felt I was using my power… Which was my penis”?

    Have you ever wondered why that is? Or are you just particularly uncurious?

    • MsTerry

      Why do you attack a question with such derision? How does that serve the purpose of this forum? And do you really think a person who asks a question is (in)curious? I think it’s the opposite.

      • Hierophant2

        Where did I “attack” you? I merely answered your question with another question.

        I do think you seem very uncurious. Sometimes people ask questions to deflect thinking. Just sayin’

  • Meghan Murphy

    There is a difference between feeling sexually desired and being sexualized as as object to be looked at. Surely, after all your time on this site, you know this. You are, at this point, simply being disingenuous (i.e. trolling).

  • Melissa Cutler

    Why would you assume that “at the moment all the men are watching Gina, she has some power of them”? This is the fundamental issue. Not what the limits of Gina’s power are, but whether she has any real, if fleeting, power at all (spoiler alert: she does not). I hope you will read the essay that Meghan linked to in a reply to your comment.

  • Melissa Cutler

    “And FTR…I am explaining my experiences and feelings as a man. To deny them…as I know you will… is the female equivalent of “mansplaining”.”

    Oh, no denial here. We’re all nauseatingly aware of the experiences and feelings of men.

  • Bleep

    “Yes, women are pretty and please the eyes (and other things).” This may apply to you but it is not an objective truth.

    • Anonomega

      ‘ “Yes, women are pretty and please the eyes (and other things).” This belief may apply to you but it is not an objective truth.’

      You’re partly right. Theres something I should clarify. Women are, by and large, pretty and pleasing to the eyes (and other things) to heterosexual men, and , I’m assuming, gay women. So yes of course women aren’t so much beautiful so much as people with certain sexualities are wired to find them beautiful. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant, but it is true in that regard.

      • Bleep

        What I’m saying is that people have decided that female features are “pleasing to the eyes”, are pretty, etc. It’s a made-up concept. Humans could decide differently tomorrow. A huge part of it is socialization.

        This is separate from being sexual attracted to females.

  • Hierophant2

    Right, exactly. I think you hit the nail on the head. For men, it’s a threat. Because they equate power with domination.

  • Anonomega

    “Dude, that was a quote from the article.”

    Not sure which quote your talking about, but I’m well aware that these are quotes from the article. They weren’t used out of context, so whats your point. If you’re gonna blather on about my supposed ignorance, perhaps you can actually prove why and how I’m ignorant and actually address my arguements?

  • marv

    Your sexual feelings/opinions as a hetero-man have no value in the socio-political environment of a male orchestrated world. It is similar to whites who drone on about how they are not racist in a white settler society or bosses who proclaim the virtues of economic liberalism to their subservient workers. You really want to have no understanding of structural inequality and how it applies to personal conduct.

  • Meghan Murphy

    “Firstly the idea that men do not engage in the performance or expression of their sexuality in the same way women do. The answer to that is women do not find a man expressing his sexuality in the same way as woman does attractive. Women generally don’t fawn over male strippers and models in the same way men fawn over strippers and models. In my opinion generally speaking women find dominant confident powerful resourceful males to be attractive. This also highlights what men and women generally find attractive: men look at skin, women look attributes of man’s character.”

    Because women don’t objectify men. Men are human, women are not. I think I’ve explained this quite clearly, many times over. This is socialized not innate.

    “A note to the moderator: I’ve read your notes on moderating. It’s all fine and good you decide which comments are posted even if its only based on your mood or whim. But ultimately you have a responsibility to your readers and even to the logic of your obviously closely held beliefs, that you confront and deal with logical objections to your feminist views. You only do harm to feminism by providing a platform for feminist discussion without allowing it to meet and answer objections and criticisms of feminism. Feminism is failing to provide a convincing philosophical framework that accurately reflects women’s lives. This is why you have a world of women out there who when asked if they are a feminist they answer with ‘well, yes but…’. I hope that concerns you, it does me.”

    I have a responsibility to the feminist movement, not to all readers. And I have engaged with objections and criticisms for years, day in and day out. If people choose to ignore years of feminist theory, articles, discourse simply because it’s easier for them to ask the same lazy questions over and over again, it is not my responsibility to engage or respond. That is a waste of my time.

  • ‘masturbatory penetrative sex with your body’? With this statement I take it you are describing sex without any feeling or even respect for the other person more akin to masturbation, as opposed to sex on some deeper more meaningful level. Is this something you struggle with? the idea that is possible that when you have sex with someone you are merely engaging in masturbatory experience even when you care for them – the possibility that even the deepest love is merely some form of masturbation for that matter. I mean if you struggle with this than, you must be shocked to hear the theory (or common saying) that there is no true altruism. Your ‘masturbatory penetrative sex’ maybe as good as it gets. Therefore a person(s) looking at you wanting to have ‘masturbatory penetrative sex’ with you maybe as good as the deepest look of love you will ever encounter. Ah, if only all of us could count ourselves that lucky, eh?!

  • Meghan Murphy

    Do you actually believe, 1) I have the time to or interest in reading your essay about your personal critiques of feminism, 2) I have the time to or interest in engaging in email debates with men about feminism?

    This is what male entitlement looks like.

    (Also, FYI, if anyone leaves a comment this long I skim or delete. I don’t have time to read anything this long in the comment section.)

    • yeah, do you regularly get men posting something that long? i think it might be just my own entitlement, not male entitlement. i think you should read it, my mom said it was an insightful. you should engage with debates with men, there are some smart ones out there. I hear there’s even a few smart women too. you know, i’m funny there’s no doubt, but you’re even funnier in your no nonesense feminist crew cut curt manner – so cute.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Your efforts to convince women that engaging in debates with entitled men about feminism is a good use of their time are falling flat, bud.

  • marv

    Read as much of your blog as I could. Found it to be original and intriguing. What was original was not intriguing and what was intriguing was not original. It’s never too early to retire from ill-suited hobbies.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Oh my god. Graduate from highschool, move out of your parents house, then try again. Best.

  • Meghan Murphy

    How about I just delete your annoying waste-of-space troll comments and we can all move on, eh?

    • If you like, but they are in substance the most informative thing written here. You are repeatedly saying things that are or should be embarrassing for any person who has any respect for intellectual debate. You’ve done it again – calling me a troll when there is no trolling. And you did it earlier by attacking me personally and not what I’m saying (your comment: ‘Oh my god. Graduate from highschool, move out of your parents house, then try again. Best.’). The response to which you have ‘moderately’ removed. My responses are not trolling. The are calling you to account for attacking the person and not the argument in the most silly and juvenile manner.

      • Meghan Murphy


  • marv

    Religious and secular prophets are mostly patriarchal ideologues like you. You’re all unoriginal that way. Why would I indulge your fanatical mansplaining and ho hum speeches? Have the last word if you will but I won’t engage these masculist polemics any further.