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.