Saturday, August 31, 2013

Powering up with Nerdlesque

Nerdlesque is a beautiful thing. While a tricky term to define (about as tricky as "burlesque" and "art"), it's distinctive enough to know it when you're seeing it. My personal definition is this: burlesque that is an homage to or exploration of media that was created by someone else. Nerdlesque can take the form of a tribute to characters from beloved film, comics, games and books, and it makes up the majority of what I've created and performed in these first few years of my burlesque career. Nerdlesque has brought me around the country to perform and speak at conventions, made me a great many smart and talented friends, and put me before some of the most loving and enthusiastic audiences a performer could ever hope for. I've written previously about burlesque's potential for feminist expression, curiously enough, I have found that nerdlesque in particular has unique possibilities as empowering art.

Nerd culture is notoriously toxic toward women. From sexual harassment horror stories at conventions, to the concept of "fake geek girls", or the endless harassment Anita Sarkeesian has received for daring to point out that video games may have a sexism problem (not to mention the games themselves), it's hard to escape the feeling that women and girls just aren't  welcome as nerds. As a nerd who is a woman, there is a particular pressure one feels that they must prove themselves worthy, or that a nerd or geek must look (or not look) a certain way to gain entry to the community. I'm a nerd for the reason that most people, regardless of gender, are nerds: I was a lonely kid without many friends, and I found comfort, solace, and escape through science fiction, comic books, and video games. My burlesque is an extension of my interests- when I perform a striptease based off of my favorite video games and films, I am not only asserting my body and my sexuality, I am asserting my interest in the media I love. In a culture that pushes against me liking the things I like, a detailed and passionate tribute to, say, Bioshock, demonstrates that not only did I play the game, I thoroughly enjoyed it enough to recreate elements of it and explore its themes. And since it is in a mode of expression that is somewhat rare in these communities (although getting more common every day), I get to do it on no one's terms but my own. I am empowering myself not just as a person, but as a nerd. A devotedly nerdy audience who understands the media I explore with my work connects with it, and me, and it is immensely gratifying.

It's always worth pointing out that much of typically nerdy entertainment is written and designed by men. Comics, science fiction, video games, and the like are notoriously male-dominated fields, and when a female creator does step in, it's often on a character or story that was originally conceived by a male team. It's also worth noting that much of this media is filtered through a heavy male gaze, since the target audience is most often intended as males age 18-35. This results in not just a fan culture that is hostile to women, as explored above, but sometimes the media itself can be, well, uncomfortable. Since burlesque has the potential to offer the opportunities to "take back" our bodies from the male gaze, so too does nerdlesque, but with characters as well. Beloved, archetypal characters that are often used for cheesecake and fanservice make for great nerdlesque as those types can allows performers to exert their own power over the beloved character, and with their own unique voice. It's always a delight when I get to see fellow burlesquers portray Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Lara Croft and many more with their own personal ideas, messages and humor. Nerdy media deals in powerful archetypes, and it's intensely gratifying when we get to draw power from those archetypes for our own uses and for our own personal empowerment. We get to portray passionate homage to the gorgeous, strong, fictional women we know and love, and do it all on our own terms.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why I am Still Going to PAX

As some of you may know, I sat on a panel regarding women in video game culture this past March at the PAX East convention. We spoke about feminism for gamers, how women are marginalized in the media itself and mistreated in person, and a few strategies for how to overcome all that. It was a phenomenal experience, and I have been looking forward to doing it again in way-far-away Seattle for PAX Prime at the end of August.

The events of last week regarding Penny Arcade, both Gabe and the PAX showrunners, have been very upsetting for me. It’s been made quite clear, even to those unfamiliar with video games or gaming communities, that it’s all pretty toxic toward women and LGBT folks, and there has been a lot of rightfully aimed criticism levelled at all of this, which has been heartening to see. It’s awful that a Microsoft developer can make a rape joke during a PR event at the biggest industry convention of the year, but it has been wonderful to see so many people speaking publicly against it. Criticism, calling out violent or inappropriate speech, and making spaces more inclusive is a sign that this world is growing and changing for the better, but the struggles are far from over.

So a figurehead in the community made some really shitty comments this week in a very public sphere. Gross. Gabe's actions and words were deplorable, and it’s interesting that in his first, and lamest, apology read not as a “sorry I was an asshole”, but “sorry everyone pushed me to lose my temper”. It seems to me that thus far, Gabe has been operating as if he’s a loveable, nerdy jerk, who likes to push around the bullies. How can anyone blame him? He’s just a guy! Being an asshole on the internet is all well and good if you’re an anonymous troll, but Gabe is not anonymous, and hasn’t been anonymous for a long time. If he’s posited himself as a figurehead of a large and global community, he needs to be held accountable for his actions. And if his most most recent apology is to be taken at face value, it seems like someone finally got through to him. Thank goodness. (It’s worth noting that my compatriot Shoshana Kessock goes into more depth about this in her fantastic blog post.)

My biggest moral quandary this week was: do I still go to PAX? One indie developer has pulled out in protest, and I had received word that one of my more high-profile fellow panelists was thinking about doing the same. By attending PAX, and speaking at it, would that be an endorsement of Gabe and the ignorance that he’d doubled down on? It’s great that he made an apology, but there’s still a lot more that Penny Arcade has done that they need to understand and apologize for. I’ve been mulling this over a great deal in the past few days with friends, coworkers, and my partner, and what I’ve concluded is this: even if Penny Arcade continues to perpetuate hurt and ignorance, I’m still going to go.

First of all, by attending as a speaker, I’m not actually giving them my money, so that’s all well and good. But more importantly: by doing this panel, I provide support. I want to be clear that by blogging, tweeting, and speaking, my goal has never been to educate the privileged. They can listen, and probably learn, sure, but it’s not really in my realm of interest to teach or *shudder* debate. My goal from the first to the last has always been to empower people; to help women feel safer at conventions, to help gamers feel good about the choice to protest their representation at the hands of developers, to help people of all genders speak out against bad behavior online, on XBOX live, among friends, and wherever they find it.

I’m not so egotistical to think that if I don’t attend PAX personally, the scaffolds of feminism will crumble. That’s silly. But if our panel falls apart, and there’s no dedicated space to help women feel safe at this convention, or help people of marginalized identities the the spark they need to understand their own power, I’m not so confident PAX will make that opportunity available (especially considering what’s going on in Austraila). Penny Arcade was created to make gamers laugh, and PAX was created to bring gamers together, and, for what it’s worth, I believe in it. Gabe and Tycho need to remember, though, that not all gamers are straight, white, cis men like they are, and I hope our panel, and other events like it can serve as a reminder of that. Even if it means endorsing shitty guys with shitty opinions, I want to be certain my support is there for the people who do still attend PAX. I’ll still go because I love gaming and gamers, and I want to do everything I can to make a change.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Is Burlesque Feminist?

Oh ye gods, this question is one that gets asked a lot, and is tremendously difficult to answer. Like feminism itself, burlesque is a multifaceted and layered thing, comprised of lots of different kinds of people, each with their own idea of why they’re a part of it, and what it means to them. And, like feminism, a lot of these ideas can be conflicting.

A bit about my own feminism: I am very very third wave. I care a great deal about normalizing sexual agency and pleasure for women, for women’s sovereignty over their own bodies, and for representation of all kinds of bodies, colors, personalities and interests for women in media. Sex, sexuality, and bodies are obviously a big part of who I am and what I do in many aspects of my professional life and my feminism, which is what drew me to burlesque in the first place. Burlesque is a showcase of the body on stage, and when I write and speak on the subject here, I focus on the female body in particular, as that is representative of me, and the great majority of my fellow performers. I don’t want to discount, however, all the fabulous and essential male, trans*, and genderqueer burlesquers I know and love.

The best way to sum up my thoughts on the subject of burlesque and feminism are with two quotes. Both, oddly enough, from my favorite male personalities in the burlesque scene:

Tigger! during a class I took with him about performance art in burlesque, said, and I paraphrase: a woman taking her clothes off onstage is always a political act.

Bastard Keith on the other hand, wrote me that “No artform is inherently feminist.  Pottery isn't, screenwriting isn't, you name it.  Artforms are themselves neutral on such values.  Burlesque is just like any of those”

My problem here is that I completely agree with both of these, even though they seem conflicting, and it makes my head hurt.

The question comes down to: is burlesque a celebration or objectification? Is striptease an empowering reclamation of female sexuality, or is it yet another forum among countless many in which the female body is an object on display, pandering to males and their ever-present gazes? There’s really no easy answer to this, as I believe burlesque in its ideal is the former, but in practice is sorely plagued by the latter.

On Tigger’s idea: as women, the media tells us what is acceptable to do with our bodies. Politicians tell us what to do with our bodies. Our parents tell us what to do with our bodies. But what about what I want to do? I like being naked. It’s fun and it’s freeing. I like dancing around on stage wearing a gala event gown or a superhero costume and stripping down to nothing, and having numerous cheers as I jiggle and shimmy. Whenever I see a shitty weight-loss ad on TV or facebook, I think to myself “people pay to see my cellulite”, and I feel better. Every time I step on that stage, I am making a deliberate choice to be there, to fly in the face of parents, government, and society and show not just my body, but my wit, ideas, and dynamic spirit. It’s empowering and it’s glorious.

On the other hand, I do agree with Keith. An artist's’ medium is what they make of it, and, Keith further elaborated in our conversation that burlesque can be feminist, but only if the intention of the performer is to make it that way. Burlesque in practice, like anything in the real world, is not perfect. And more often than not, the problem is less with the performers themselves, and more with the surrounding people, and how it’s framed. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and the way an artform is framed can color the artist’s message without their intention or permission. And there can be a lot of awful crap surrounding the industry of striptease. I’ve encountered hosts and stand-up comedians who’ve denigrated performers while they were on stage. Despite all the positive PR, I’ve experienced a real problem with sizeism in this scene, almost exclusively from a handful of producers who only cast performers they believe an audience “wants to see”, meaning the skinny standard of beauty. We can all stand to be a lot more inclusive of performers of color.

These two thoughts from Tigger and Keith, while paradoxical, are really more complementary to each other than I initially gave them credit for. Burlesque is a community of some truly amazing, intelligent, and strong-willed women. We’re all incredibly supportive of each other, our art, and our businesses. Yes, there are a lot of nasty audience members, producers, and critics out there. Bastard Keith again:Any time you have a show involving stripping, there are going to be people coming to see it ready to objectify the artists.  That much is inevitable.  But once you have people in the room, you have their attention and you can do whatever the hell you want with the art, imbue it with any meaning or values system you please.” And I really, truly love a lot of what I see these women create.  It takes a lot of guts to do what we do, and if that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Naked and Nerdy, Pervy and Proud

Starting is always the most nerve-wracking part of any new project, so I’m just going to jump in with an introduction and a statement of intentions.

Hi. I’m Iris Explosion. In no order of importance, I’m a nerd, a burlesque performer, a sex educator, feminist, and queer. I've started many blogs in the past that, like most baby blogs, floundered and died after only a few posts (the exception being a pretty kickass livejournal I kept for many years when I was a teenager). I have recently discovered, though, that I am full of OPINIONS! on my many varied interests. Try to imagine that whenever you see the OPINIONS!, I am thrusting my index finger forthrightly into the air. You can even do it yourself when you read it.

I am full of OPINIONS! about burlesque. OPINIONS! about nerd culture. OPINIONS! about feminism. And, most importantly, OPINIONS! about where all three of these intersect. It’s not that I need a soapbox. Goodness knows, there are plenty of boxes in this world that I can proudly stand naked upon thrusting forthrightly. There are so many wonderful conversations happening on blogs, on facebook, on twitter, and in real life about all of these things, and I want to join in on that. I’m in awe of blogs like The Pervocracy and Showgirl Detritus who's authors are able to speak candidly and with humor about some pretty serious subjects. I want to discuss, to debate, and to have a body of work to look back upon, and to see how my OPINIONS! change and shift over time.

Things that this blog will not be:

A promotional platform- I do a lot of things! I perform! I teach classes! I speak! And yes, that is my business (in more than one sense of the word). Sometimes I’ll post my thoughts around those things, but I don’t want this to be a space where I promote my endeavors. You can go to my website or twitter feed for information on that kind of stuff.

Full of pictures- There are lots of mostly-naked photos of me floating around on the internet. Go find ‘em. Knock yourself out. I post new ones to a lot of my aforementioned social media.

A personal sex blog- I have a ton of respect for people who write and publicly explore their personal sex lives. I have a great deal to say on the subject of sex, but I will not be sharing much from my own life unless I think it's applicable.

Things that this blog will be:

Varied- I have a lot of different interests! This blog will probably not be about just one thing, but a lot of things! And exclamation points! If you’re here because you want to read my thoughts on burlesque, but don’t play video games- awesome, there will be something for you. If you’re here because you’re a feminist gamer or nerd, but don’t really *get*  the burlesque thing, super cool, make yourself comfortable.

NSFW- Content wise, just keep this in mind.

Awesome- Yes! I don’t know. Maybe? Hopefully!

So yes. Hello. Let’s begin.