So burlesque: tarted up stripping with feathers?

An article I wrote on burlesque in 2012 for The Feminist Book Club blog.

Burlesque, burlesque, burlesque. There is glitter, feathers, sequins, tuneful singing and often some pleasing dance moves- what more could a person ask for? Plus, an attractive woman will inevitably shed some of her outer garments to reveal a chock full of body confidence and some strategically placed nipple tassels. The audience understands that this is not a cock tease/strip tease but an artistic expression of female sexuality. I am not against women being burlesque artists or indeed burlesque as a  aesthetically pleasing performance, but I dispute the claim that burlesque is so far removed from plain ol’ stripping. As a feminist, I understand that women are free to choose how they use their bodies and that they are to be free of judgement for sexual or sexualised behaviour. However, why is stripping considered ‘sleazy’ or ‘demeaning’ and burlesque as ‘artistic’ and ‘empowering’? Is it the patina of glamour that burlesque oozes? That women and men yearn nostalgically for an age when women wore stockings and basques and female sexuality was imbued with a supposed sophistication? Burlesque performances can be empowering for an individual, yes, but for women as a whole? I’m not so sure.

I have been to both a strip club and a burlesque night and there were some clear similarities. In the strip club, I paid for a beautiful, intelligent, body-glittered woman to remove nearly all her clothes. At the burlesque night, I paid for an admittedly much more comfortable and entertaining evening, albeit one where 10 beautiful, intelligent and be-glittered women removed most of their their clothing. I’m sure that in both cases, the women were paid to perform. In both cases I went because it would be a novel experience and whilst I don’t judge the women that choose to strip or do burlesque, as a woman I think both are part of the commodified sexuality/gender inequality issue.  In a world where the naked female body is constantly objectified, it almost seems more powerful to keep your clothes on.

Furthermore, of the claim that burlesque celebrates different forms of female women, here in the UK, I do not know of any celebrated non-white burlesque acts and I am not convinced of the representation of women above a size 14. The lack of non white women in burlesque may be due to a mixture of alternative cultural norms or religious values regarding expressions of female sexuality. Fundamentally, I believe that the burlesque issue is that of class. Sociological analysis of contemporary burlesque will note that class interacts with burlesque in that burlesque is currently on trend in certain circles and, while there is little UK empirical data on the socio-economic background of contemporary burlesque performers , I’m willing to guess that a lot of UK burlesque acts and their audiences are middle class. This middle class validation therefore positions burlesque as a safer, more correct expression of female sexuality among feminists and women in general as opposed to glamour modelling or stripping.

Also I think it is interesting that burlesque also heavily uses traditional signifiers of bourgeois femininity to recreate the feminine ideal – gloves, corsets, stockings, pinned up hair, fans and so on. Gloves which were originally to keep a lady’s hands lily white and also  a signifier of wealth because she had servants to do her domestic work.  Corsets which controlled many women’s bodies and were to  ‘separate decent women from prostitutes’ and yet its restrictiveness caused many illnesses.  Hair that was pinned up because loose hair on a lady was unacceptable and only for children.  Many of these ideals were obliterated in the 1960s by feminists and yet are being recreated on stage and supported by contemporary feminists as a ‘feminist portrayal of women’s desire to be liberated sexual subjects and not just the objects of men’s gaze’.

Originally a means for lower classes to poke fun at the social norms of the upper class, I saw but a little of the humour and parody that is meant to define burlesque. I see burlesque as part of the same performance spectrum that includes stripping and it annoys me when people attempt to persuade me that it’s not because burlesque has a theme or historical provenance. Its historical provenance is  very closely aligned to stripping and some analysis of the origins of burlesques posits that it was a precusor to stripping. Stripping has a theme too- it’s called ‘Continuing to satisfying the Male gaze whilst also making ridiculous amount of money in the 21st Century’. I am aware that there is also male burlesque but having not seen any yet, I am not able to include it in this analysis. I guess what really gets my goat is the middle class denial of burlesque as a form of gender inequality and its similarity as a performance act to glamour modelling or stripping.

So burlesque: tarted up stripping with feathers? What are your thoughts?

The Feminist Book Club

Michelle Mangal

Burlesque, burlesque, burlesque. There is glitter, feathers, sequins, tuneful singing and often some pleasing dance moves- what more could a person ask for? Plus, an attractive woman will inevitabily shed some of her outer garments to reveal a chock full of body confidence and some strategically placed nipple tassles. The audience understands that this is not a cock tease/strip tease but an artistic expression of female sexuality. I am not against women being burlesque artists or indeed burlesque as a  aesthetically pleasing performance, but I dispute the claim that burlesque is so far removed from plain ol’ stripping. As a feminist, I understand that women are free to choose how they use their bodies and that they are to be free of judgement for sexual or sexualised behaviour. However, why is stripping considered ‘sleazy’ or ‘demeaning’ and burlesque as ‘artistic’ and ’empowering’? Is it the patina of glamour that…

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I need feminism because

I need feminism because

…. it makes me feel less rubbish about not being a size ten.
…..it makes me question the world more.
…..it frees me from the bullshit of having to look, act and talk a certain way because i have ovaries.
…..i believe all women should be valued by their contribution to the world, not because of their looks.
…..not all men are aggressive, loud and macho, nor are all women delicate, talkative and weak.
…..i want to live in a society where women are not afraid to walk home alone late at night.
….. all women need to have equal and safe access to contraception and abortion.
…..i want there to be more female scientists, mathematicians and bricklayers.
…..i want to be paid the same amount as a man.

…..i believe we are all part of the solution.

Should FGM be considered sexual abuse?

NaBloPoMo November 2013- Post 2.

This morning I was listening to radio 4 and heard that there are recommendations that female genital mutilation should be classified as sexual abuse and that medical staff would have to report it as such. This announcement filled me with frustration for several reasons:

a) It is currently very fashionable to campaign against FGM, especially in certain ‘women’s rights’ circles and here was further evidence of this fashion.
b) Does our government think that prosecuting individuals that may have been forced to make their daughters to have this procedure help with this issue?
Let us be clear, I do not agree with FGM. I do not agree with parents taking their daughters abroad to have this procedure done and am aware of the terrible physical complications that can arise from having this procedure done. However, I feel that the men and women who enable FGM to happen to their daughters are pinioned by a culture that says a woman’s virtue is defined by what is between her legs. There are much bigger issues here, and ones I feel that the criminalisation of FGM will ignore. The main issue being of being a woman living within a sexist society with little power and control. 
We already know that making something illegal, does not make it go away. I believe criminalising FGM will not help to eradicate the practice, but potentially send it further underground. As the procedure happens to girls of Middle eastern, African, Arabic and Islamic descent, we will be disproportionately punishing those parents for ‘sexual abuse’ or potentially depriving children of their parents;and also add to the myths of those cultures and their ‘barbaric practices’.
The report recommends that health workers identify girls at risk and treat them as if they were at risk of child abuse. 
Girls at risk are defined as girls born to a woman who has undergone FGM or a child who lives closely with someone who has.
This statement is very judgmental, do we judge the children of alcoholics or drug addicts that have been sober for 15 years as at risk? Should we? I disagree with the infatuation that certain individuals have with this particular issue whilst ignoring the sexual abuse, rape and violence to women and children that happens within their own communities.
FGM happens within a cultural context, just as cosmetic vaginal reshaping does. We cannot ignore the cultural context and so I believe that if the government choses to criminalise and reclassify FGM as sexual abuse then they also have a further duty to commit to education and training for representatives that work in sexual health,  and in particular with immigrant communities.
The comments below from the Guardian comments section, sum up my thoughts:
 ”Just because FGM affects mostly black or minority ethnic women does not make it the responsibility of white people to eradicate it. The fact that FGM affects mostly black or minority ethnic females is a reflection of their lack of access to education and the power of local beliefs, religion and superstitions”.
“I believe that the solution needs to be led by women within their communities, with the support of the authorities”.
I have deliberately left out arguments on human rights because I believe this is just one aspect of the issue. Yes it is a European/ American human right to prevent harm to children but to what degree can we enforce this abroad? Also this piece is about a British response to FGM within the UK or happening to British children.
What do you think?

Feminist book club- better than a date?!

Yet another fantastic evening at Feminist book club, we were discussing The Myth of Mars and Venus, a very interesting read which dispels the myths that women talk more than men; men are more direct in their language, amongst other myths. There were lots of new members today, the table I reserved at Drink, Shop, Do was quickly submerged as more and more people arrived. I do love DSD but as it gets more popular, it gets more lively which makes it less suited to our purpose.

I came home full of the evening, telling Magda about the various debates, the lack of takers for the feminist porn on friday by the newbies and as I spoke with genuine enthusiasm, I was reminded of the excited debrief you have with friends after a date. Feminist book club is one of the more exciting things that I do and initially I thought it couldn’t be more exciting than a date (I haven’t been on a date for a while) . Then I remembered all the boring dates I’ve been on; where I’ve had to carry the conversation and looked for a spark of intellectual commonality and suddenly FBC with all its consistently interesting, lively debating, genuine questioning is better than many dates I’ve been on.

So thank you for FBC and the many lively minds and friends that come along- Livia & Doerthe being the pleasant surprise guests this evening.