All that separates "subversive" burlesque from a stripping? Class consciousness.
As we mentioned last week, burlesque has been in the news lately, since a London council classified a hipster burlesque show as "adult entertainment," tantamount to lap-dancing. To those of us who've watched the rise of neo-burlesque as an act of self-described performance art and subversive empowerment - and its acceptance as a standard part of any urban gym's fitness menu -such a ham-handed move seems laughable. But in an essay in the Guardian, one young woman, Laurie Penny (who, at least, must have had her choice of stage names. We'd have gone with 'Penny Dreadful' like cheap Victorian fiction) claims that the reality of working as a burlesque dancer was, for her, anything but subversive - and that the business now is not what the 90's revival had in mind.
Polestars, one of the largest companies to run these classes, says they offer "a chance for the modern-day woman to learn the old art of seduction and improve your body image ... to release your inner minx and use your femininity in saucy burlesque style!"...Burlesque shouldn't have anything to do with your inner minx. Done properly it should be uncomfortable to watch – even terrifying. It certainly shouldn't be about reproducing gender norms, with women performing sexually, and submissively, for an audience. However, as my troupe became more successful, the managers ditched our most subversive acts. First to go were the cross-dressing, my favourite political sketch, and the reverse striptease (where a young woman ripped the clothes off a male plant in the audience). What was left was threadbare.
It's hard to know if this is more characteristic of the author's employer than of the industry as a whole - I know several friends who perform in genuinely subversive acts (granted, primarily for an LBGT audience) and enjoy it tremendously. But Penny's next point is truly interesting:
I began to realise that what really differentiated my act from that of your average stripper wasn't the performance, or the costumes, but simply class. Like the majority of women who choose to get involved with burlesque, our troupe was made up of middle-class girls, with the act offering us an opportunity to indulge in raunchy exhibitionism without feeling "cheap" (at least initially).
Stripping is conflated in the public imagination with desperation: no one's doing it because it's her life's dream. Doing burlesque, on the other hand, is all about fantasy fulfillment, be it of empowerment, of old-fashioned glamor, of owning one's sexuality in a controlled environment. When we hear lady Gaga worked at New York's burlesque center the Slipper Room, it enhances her image as a provocateur. If it had been Scores, we'd hardly feel the same way. And of course, the intention, the control the environment, do change everything - they make it performance art. But is the difference in the intention, or in the perception? Or does it just come down to class? Can burlesque only qualify as subversive while it's a sideline, a choice - and if so, is the much-vaunted issue of "control" simply one of economics?
Says Penny, "the sexual tease, in all its forms, is a game that girls are taught to play from early adolescence, and for many of us it is the first real power we know." But if she's right, burlesque touches on an equally hard reality - that of class and money.
Burlesque laid bare [Guardian]