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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Reflections on 2013 & my hopes for 2014

As December ends, I start to think about the past year and my achievements. When I first thought about my 2013, I originally thought I had not achieved that much. However, a random comment on facebook (thanks Danny!) made me look at my year in review and this revealed a bigger picture of my achievements both big and small.

On New Year’s eve, I created and posted on fb a list of the key things I achieved and enjoyed in 2013:

*had an amazing new year in Bruges

After a lifetime of NYE in London, three years ago I decided to spend new year in a foreign/ new city. I have celebrated in Edinburgh, Bruges and this year Liverpool. I find being away from home psychologically helps me to feel like I am starting a new year afresh and the experience of discovering a new place makes me more positive about the coming year and what I will achieve in it.

*moved house

It seems commonplace to write about but after two months of stressful looking, in March 2013 I moved in with my landlady Julia and two cats. I have gained a new home and a new friend.

*started swimming lessons & progressed well

This is one of my biggest achievements of 2013. I am pretty much terrified of water and it took all the patience of my swimming teacher Katy to get me in the adult pool, let alone learn how to tread water and take my first stroke of swimming unaided. I now can’t believe I progressed as much as I did in such a short time and will be resuming my lessons soon.

*helped to organise a fab 30th bday for one of my oldest friends

This is a small achievement but I’m glad that I was able to have some input and contribute to one of oldest friends 30th birthday. Particularly as I was not there to celebrate in person. Knowing that she was happy and thoroughly enjoyed herself made me glad.

*travelled to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi & Mozambique

This is my biggest achievement of 2013. Myself and Fu travelled overland from Kenya to Mozambique in 6.5 weeks, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’ve always wanted to do some ‘proper travelling’ and see more of the motherland, but it was in July 2013 that I finally got to realise that dream and surprised myself by how much I got into backpacking. I met some lovely people in the most varied of circumstances; saw some of the most beautiful places in the world and just lived for the moment. I have definitely been bitten by the travel bug and plan to have some more adventures in 2014.

*celebrated my 31st birthday

This isn’t really an achievement, but after having some considerable angst about turning 30, I am pleased that I was able to celebrate being 31 with equanimity. (and with lots of friends, alcohol, dancing and excellent food!) I also find that I am more self aware, more committed to taking responsibility for my life and financially stable, all of which I strived for in my 20s and which I have learnt is an ongoing process.

*organised another great Black History Month event at school.

For two years I have organised and hosted a Black History Month event at my school, celebrating the achievements of those from the black diaspora and those students whose academic excellence should be celebrated. It was a great night and highlighted both of these with lots of positive feedback from parents.

*helped to set up a feminist society at school

I am a feminist. I think feminism is important and benefits both men and women. I discussed this with a like minded teacher at school and a feminist group has been started. The group have already taken part in the ‘I need feminism because’ campaign. In a world where gender stereotypes are rife and media portrayals of women often focus on their relative attractiveness, we need to give young people the tools to deal with this crap.
On New Year’s day I thought about what did I want to achieve in 2014 and how was I realistically going to achieve my goals.

My biggest commitment this year is to continue to aim for more positive mental health. I am using the term mental health deliberately because there is unnecessary stigma about the term. I started this blog because I want to become a more positive person, and what I actually meant was – I wanted to be able to see my world in a different way and be more appreciative of what I have. A change in my mind set- an improvement in my mental health. As a coach and educator, I know having a positive mind set and understanding your goals and motivations are key to achieving any goal. By having more positive mental health this will enable me to achieve all my other goals. How am I going to achieve this goal? By surrounding myself with positive & supportive people; by reading more- A road less travelled and books on mindfulness are on my reading list and by starting samba classes (Sundays @ Islington Arts Factory if you fancy it!) . Doing what you love is also a powerful motivator so I will continue to tend to my mini garden and read lots.

This brings me to one of my other goals. I recently read an interesting article about a woman who is only going to read books by writers of colour in 2014. As a black woman who reads voraciously, I am aware that whilst I have read books by writers of colour, I have never made a conscious effort to do so and so my knowledge of literature is mostly western, with the occasional foray into the literature of the country I am visiting and writers of magic realism. I have also been a bit concerned about the lack of diversity in both the characters and writers in one of my favourite genre’s- fantasy. I had a quick scan of the books I now own and this confirmed to me that whilst there was some diversity, most of my books were written by white, western authors. So inspired by the article, book suggestions found in fantasy threads and my amazon wish list, I went to the Islington library catalogue and came up with a list of books to read in 2014:

  • Coolie Woman/ Gaiutra Bahadur (Indo- Guyanese)
  • Pride of Carthage & Acacia: War with the Mein Bk. 1 / David Anthony Durham (African American)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy 1) / N. K. Jemisin (African American)
  • The bastard of Istanbul & The gaze / Elif Shafak (Turkish)
  • The museum of innocence : a novel / Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)
  • Fictions / Jorge Luis Borges  (Argentinian)
  • The fall of the stone city & The Palace of Dreams / Ismail Kadare (Albanian)
  • Arabian nights and days / Naguib Mahfouz (Egyptian)
  • Sugar in the blood : a family’s story of slavery and empire / Andrea Stuart (Bajan/Barbadian)
  • Witchbroom & Light falling on bamboo/ Lawrence Scott (Trinidadian)
  • When the Only Light Is Fire / Saeed Jones (African American/ LGBT)
  • The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao & This is how you lose her / Junot Diáz (Dominican)
  • We need new names / NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwean)
  • Ghana must go / Tayie Selasi ( Ghananian)
  • Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital / Lloyd Bradley (Black British)
  • Twelve Tribes of Hattie / Ayana Mathis (African American)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God / Zora Neale Hurston (African American)

Wish me luck with my epic reading list and my quest to be a more positive, healthy person this year. I hope to have more good times with old friends and new and fit in at least one travel adventure. This will also be the year I learn to swim! Here is my final thought for what i want in 2014:


The Handmaid’s Tale

Reblogged from the Feminist Book Club blog.

Tonight we discussed a book by one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood. The book was The Handmaid’s Tale, and re-reading it thirteen years later has not changed my opinion that this is a fantastic read.

This is a story about women, about their roles in society both now, in the past and in the future. Offred is the protangonist and she tells her story slowly, and in snatches as if painfully remembering her past, whilst attempting to reconcile her existence in the ultimate patriarchal society.

We learn women in Gildean society are split into several groups-the-handmaids-tale

Wives, the wives of powerful army leaders
Handmaids, the women who bear children for the Wives
Econowives, women who have been allocated to be the wives of poor men
Marthas, housekeepers for the Wives
Aunts, moral trainers and indoctrinators of the handmaid’s
Unwomen, women who cannot conceive or have been deported to the colonies.

There is also an underground set of women that work in a black market club, Jezebels.

Women are used to police and control each other in a society created by men, and the women in it have little agency or autonomy.

Atwood draws you in with Offred’s remembrances of her life in the state of Gilead before becoming a handmaid; a life that is remarkably similar to our lives now. She went to university, she had a child and partner, she was able to walk down the street and leave her state. In comparison, her life as  a handmaid allocated to a Commander and his wife, is restrictive to say the least. Her whole  function is to reproduce, without serving this function she will die in the toxic colonies. As the reader, I  really wanted to know how this possibly could have happened in a society so similar to our own. So you keep reading Offred’s account, which is full of rich detail about her mundane, daily life and slowly, it is revealed how women’s right’s disappeared virtually over night. Atwood paints Offred as a sensualist, she enjoys the feel of air and water on her skin; the scent and sight of flowers and freshly baked bread or of Nick sweating as he cleans the Commanders car. Or maybe she enjoys these things because all other pleasure’s have been denied to her.

Women’s reproductive function is of utmost importance in Atwood’s Giledean world, yet this it is controlled with a set of rules and regulations for who can procreate and how. This is explained because of low population levels, however, more tellingly, there is religious justification for the reproductive control of women and religious language and imagery permeates the book throughout. The references to Angels; the justification for the different sexual appetites of men and women ‘ God made them that way but He did not make you that way…Its up to you to set the boundaries. Later you will be thanked’ ; and the white and blue uniforms of the Wives, in comparison to the red of the Handmaids. This is a new form of conservative Christianity where priests are hung, along with those accused of ‘gender treachery’.
In one chapter, there is a description of the fate of doctors that perform abortions; drawing a link with contemporary America and the Christian right’s attack on abortion clinics and those that work in these places. It is these links with our present that makes this tale so chilling and yet so realistic.

We recognise the methods of control and the justifications given for them.

The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985 whilst Atwood was living in Berlin, before the fall of the wall. Both America and the UK had elected conservative governments and there was an increase in Christian fundamentalism in the US. There were fears that the gains won by 1970s feminism could be undone. The Handmaid’s Tale was  not intended as critique of women in Islamic states, however to what degree are there contemporary parallels with the religious justification of the removal of women’s rights in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries?

This is an essential feminist read but also an excellent read for those who wonder why we need feminism today. Atwood in her own words:

‘I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.’

Some may read The Handmaid’s Tale as a story of the resilience of women. Offred mentally attempts to keep her own identity even though her name, child, family, money and education have all been stripped of her.  There is a secret society of women that pass information to each other. Throughout all her harrowing experiences and uncertain end, she remains in my mind as a whole, sensual woman.