Every time I say I’m going to watch a burlesque performance I get the same reaction. Eyebrows get raised, heads get shaken and somewhere someone pipes up and mutters something along the lines of “undermining my values or morals” or “not understanding feminism”. They go on to talk about how women (and this is a direct quote) “prancing around in their underwear” are doing their bit to damage equality. I think it’s about time I addressed these thoughts, as they really couldn’t be further from the truth.
A quick Google of the words feminism and burlesque together will give you a vast array of articles debating the subject, from sites calling it demeaning and sexist, to others praising those who have chosen it as a career path. Having been to quite a few burlesque performances in my time, I’ve formed my own opinion on the industry. I don’t think that burlesque is sexist, vulgar or inherently anti-feminist, quite the contrary actually.
Don’t confuse burlesque dancers with strippers
When I was new to the burlesque scene, I approached it with trepidation; I didn’t know what to expect. I’ll admit it – I thought that it was going to be a strip show, but my curiosity got the better of me and I went along anyway and came out of the performance with a very different opinion to the one I entered with. Popular media has enjoyed penning burlesque as a form of stripping and due to this, many of the people who ask me about burlesque do so with a prior association of burlesque with stripping. Burlesque, however, is not the same as stripping and burlesque dancers are not strippers: you only need to go to one show to see this.
If you are struggling to tell the difference then remember that burlesque dancers and strippers have different goals and due to this, they attract different audiences. Strip clubs are, by their nature, transactional. Strippers are expected to look and act a certain way and to ‘hustle’ or offer a bit extra in order to get their money for the evening. Burlesque, on the other hand, is a performance and the audience pays the price of a ticket, in addition, the acts are not done in order to evoke arousal in the audience and the dancers are both male and female and can come in any shape or size.
The power lies with the performers
Each performance in burlesque is different, and each performer plays a character. In addition to this, burlesque is by nature satirical and fun. The compare (MC) is usually someone who takes no prisoners and makes fun of not only the audience but themselves as well. In the performances, the dancers dictate what happens on-stage. The power dynamic is clear – they have the power, not the audience. The dancers have control over their bodies, their identity and what they chose or choose not to show the audience members.
It’s clear that there is a certain amount of empowerment which comes with this form of expression and the performers own their own femininity and masculinity. This is a large part of why I don’t believe that burlesque is in any way anti-feminist.
There isn’t a gender divide
To me, this is one of the biggest things which makes me smile every time I go to a burlesque show. Everyone is welcome, no matter what your sexual preference or gender identity and proper burlesque shows are places where you are encouraged to be yourself, let loose and just have some fun.
Whilst I understand that there will still be those that argue that burlesque was born out of the patriarchy and therefore can’t be feminist, I will agree to disagree with them. Feminism is, after all, about equality and in the burlesque shows that I’ve seen, there has been plenty of it, ranging from seeing both male and female performers, the almost 50-50 split of audience members and the clear power balance. If you don’t agree with me then fair enough, but I would urge you to just give a performance a go. Gin House Burlesque (co-founded by three women) is a brilliant place to if you are a newbie to the scene, and it just so happens they have their next show in a couple of weeks (27th September) and you can have a glance at what to expect by checking out Paul Monckton’s infamous Instagram feed. So grab your tickets, get dressed up and go and see firsthand what Burlesque is all about.
*Images from Paul Monckton. All rights reserved.