This goes beyond my interest in the genre of camp from last year’s dramatic literature course, but I can’t say they’re completely separated.
If there is anything in this world that would make me feel confident about my body image, my sexuality, and/or my expression of art, it would to successfully complete a burlesque performance.
I hate dancing. I don’t think of myself as very graceful. But when I was sixteen, I visited Oberlin College on a weekend overnight shadowing a current student, and she took me to Oberlin’s body positive burlesque show.
It was totally radicalizing. I immediately wanted to do it, and I was having particularly bad body image issues at the time. As an audience member, I got to cheer and laugh and share this performance with someone who may or may not have ever stripped in front of an audience before, and it was extremely freeing.
I don’t know what reminded me of this today. Maybe it was my political science professor once again reminding my classroom full of women how much danger we were in come January. Or maybe because my partner and I have an open, communicative relationship, or that I feel healthy and strong, and god damnit if I can claim something after this election it better be my fucking body.
So I did some research on the history of burlesque, and its role in what many scholars that found described as “post-feminist” or “anti-feminist” world. While I think these terms could be misconstrued, they ultimately mean rejecting an era of feminism that refused to let women be liberated from multiple spectrums and demanded we stop trying to get Bernie bros to be in love with us. These terms hold their own debate, but the subject matter is most key. Burlesque is a manifestation of third wave feminism. Even of womanism, in its best settings.
Burlesque truly owns the phrase “nasty women.” It was all about rejecting what is low or high art, what should or should not be taken seriously, and in the neo-burlesque age we live in, how sexual bodies should or must look on a stage and what gender they need to identify as. Jacki Willson, author of The Happy Stripper says it tests the limits of legitimacy and illegitimacy and of social decorum. For me, my revealing of skin is power. It means that I own my body, and that I can control my image. It means that I feel bulletproof in that moment. And I don’t always have to be that!
I want to sing, and strip, and dance, and perform. I want to make people laugh. Or get turned on. And be able to accept that while those are two positive responses, that I might also get called a slut.
I don’t think I’m there yet.
I think the United States has shown that it is also not there yet. Which makes it even scarier to even consider performing in the future.
I also know that this is not everyone’s empowerment. I can’t discuss everything that I found in the book that I read, but it’s available in many online libraries, if anyone is interested. I’d like to write more about Willson’s analysis on freedom versus oppression in sexuality and gendered culture, and the Western world compared to other global communities. I know my opinion is only one side of the empowerment spectrum, and I’m sure in a day or two I won’t be able to comprehend how I felt in this moment. But for now, this is a moment where I feel I could own my performativity of gender and sexuality. And that is pretty cool.
Featured photo by Huffington Post, featuring New York Neo-Burlesque performer Dottie Lux.