One of the attractions of burlesque lies in how it allows us as performers to show female sexual agency on our own terms, when the public display of an unclothed female body is still somewhat controversial, and displays of female flesh on or off stage are often criticised as either ‘sluttish’ or un-feminist. At the same time, burlesque is somewhat unique in the performance arts, in that it does not insist that performers adhere to mainstream forms of beauty. The engagement between the burlesque performer and the audience becomes less about being looked at, and more about the performer communicating power, control, desire and autonomy.
Burlesque allows us to play with tropes of what is considered ‘feminine’ (qualities that are traditionally ascribed to women), and what is considered ‘sexy’. Finding what being sexy means for us personally, and how we manifest that aspect of ourselves in our performance is part of finding our individual style as a performer. In terms of my own performance practice, this entails creating characters that are very strong, very humourous, very weird, and often have a tremendously wiggly butt.
Many of my most well-known acts also tend to be based on 1950s B-grade horror movies. I, like many performers, like to reference the 1950s, an era that approximates one of the heydays of burlesque, of artists/icons such as Bettie Page, Blaze Starr, and Tempest Storm, and is a great excuse for a killer rockabilly soundtrack. These kinds of acts are constructed, among others that I create, to be entertaining for a general audience, with a feminist subtext. The monsters in these films are usually strong, willful and imposing characters, and I like to find alternative ways to represent strong female characters on stage. The monsters I like to depict in my acts, I create to bring complexity, and to attract and repulse with their monstrousness and beauty simultaneously in order to encourage the audience to question what they find attractive.
In pop culture–films, art and stories–the monster character is invariably the villain. Be it B-Grade movie werewolf, vampire, or creature from the deep, the monster is used to represent giving in to base or animal impulses. Invariably the monster is male, and the heroine is a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from the monster’s unwelcome advances. 1950s monster movies are cautionary tales and morality lessons, in which, by using the imagery of the unconscious, viewers are warned against objects of fear of the times. Sometimes this can be startlingly prejudiced.
The vamp character, so popular in early cinema, was used to inspire mistrust of foreigners and female sexuality, and the werewolf to instill fear of difference and lack of control over animal impulse.
The werewolf is transformed by anger, the vampire by bloodlust. It follows that these tropes are ripe for subverting/burlesquing in order to convey a feminist message.
In my monster acts I explore the underlying theme of transformation. While using monsterism as representative of sexuality, it is a transformation that, instead of ending in being persecuted or hiding one’s monster traits, ends with complete revelry in ones own monstrousness. In my Teenwolf act, based on the films I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)1 and Teen Wolf (1985)2 Teenwolf transforms from a shy and awkward jeans-wearing teenager embarrassed and ill at ease with its new body hair, to a gleefully hairy cheerleader.
In the film Teen Wolf, the transformation into a werewolf is also a metaphor for coming of age. This transformation in film often coincides with puberty, encroaching adulthood, or sexual awakening. In Teen Wolf Michael J Fox’s character, once he accepts his werewolfishness, becomes a teenage werewolf basketball star. I become a high-kicking cheerleader that revels in her long, dark and luxurious body hair. My decision to choose an archetype of American pop culture that is representative of being popular, pretty and successful in a highly conventional way is no coincidence. This is a commentary on the idea that beauty and desirability are not about conforming to a set of externally prescribed values, they are about embracing your own uniqueness—an idea which burlesque and the body-positivism movement support in general.
Joanna Freugh writes in her book Monster/Beauty on the connection between body acceptance and the type of animal sexuality that the werewolf is often used as a trope to vilify:
I began shaving my legs when I was eleven, perhaps younger. Dark and abundant hair from thigh to ankle has been a beauty bane for most of my life. The perfect feminine picture should radiate animal magnetisim through her beauty, but she must not be too animal. She must not exhibit a brute body reminiscent of beasts.3
By pairing body hair, traditionally seen as unfeminine, with a pop archetype of feminine desirability, the chairleader, I am exploring a theme of embracing your ‘monstrousness’—which in contemporary society could be seen as being in command of your own sexuality and body—and demanding acceptance rather than succumbing to slut shaming and body policing. Teenwolf however, is not necessarily an act about being pro- or anti- body hair, it is an act about being comfortable with who you are.
Freugh goes on to define a concept she calls monster/beauty—an idea that relates to the burlesque performer and our desire to communicate and celebrate our own ideas of how our sexuality manifests—hyper-female, immoderate and exuberant—rather than acting out an externally imposed and more demure idea of female beauty:
I define monster/beauty as an extremely articulated sensuous presence, image, or situation in which the aesthetic and the erotic are inseparable. Monster/beauty is a condition, and it can also describe an individual. Because extremity is immoderation --deviation from convention in behavior, appearance, or representation--and starkly different from standard cultural expectations for particular groups of people, monster/beauty departs radically from normative, ideal representations of beauty.4
Like drag makeup, the stage makeup of the burlesque performer can become almost a parody of femininity, creating an artificially exaggerated ‘horrible prettiness’5, which burlesques as well as celebrates conventions of female beauty. Traditionally, like sideshow, burlesque was grounded in ‘the aesthetics of transgression, inversion, and the grotesque’6. The ‘horrible prettiness’ of the burlesque performer, or femininity without tasteful moderation, can be seen as a counterpart to the monstrousness, immoderation and animal sexuality of the werewolf and other monsters of pop culture.
As a feminist, and therefore as someone who is interested in rejecting traditionally prescribed or rigid gender roles, I find playing fictitious characters allows a certain ambiguity of gender. In burlesque the general expectation as performers is that we will deliver a performance that is ‘feminine’ and ‘sexy’. My Teenwolf act tends to blur a few traditional gender boundaries, this is done intentionally to encourage the audience to reconsider what they may consider ‘feminine’ and what they may consider ‘sexy’.
Another transformation I’m interested in is the idea of the subverted makeover—instead of transforming in the traditional Disney style, from the plain girl to the princess, (or as some would say to transform into an more societally-approved female stereotype), the heroines I like to play transform more from one state to something else entirely. I first encountered this idea in the story The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter:
I fixed the earrings in my ears. They were very heavy. Then I took off my riding habit, left it where it lay on the floor. But, when I got down to my shift, my arms dropped to my sides. I was unaccustomed to nakedness. I was so unused to my own skin that to take off all my clothes involved a kind of flaying.7
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. ‘He will lick the sin off me!’ And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.8
This is a story similar to Beauty and the Beast, and is often considered a feminist retelling of this story. In this tale the beast is not transformed into man, instead the princess strips herself of pride and artifice as she strips herself of clothing and is transformed into beast. This could also describe well the burlesque performer’s first experience of the vulnerability and power involved in displays of public nakedness. The beauty is less in the make-over, but in the revealing of oneself. The defining feature of burlesque is not nudity, it is the reveal, and what we teach the audience in the process of the reveal.
She-Creature, my act based on the films Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)9 and The She-Creature (1956)10, is Teenwolf’s aquatic counterpart. This act also plays with ideas of transformation. The Creature (from The Black Lagoon) is a complex and sadly misunderstood movie villain. Like King Kong, this movie is essentially a love story, where the monster is simply going about it’s monster business until provoked by a human aggressor, but ends up hunted and vilified.
In this act too I am more interested in playing the monster than the heroine, or more, exploring the idea that beauty doesn’t preclude monstrousness. Perhaps as complex, multifaceted human beings, we can be both? I try to challenge myself to find what is unique about myself and my performance, and not to fall back on enacting what is generally expected of a ‘desirable woman’. As performers we are here to communicate our own personality and desires, not enact anyone else’s.
In my version, the Creature’s likeable features are exaggerated—the tentativeness, the yearning for its love from a distance. To emphasise this, the costume is handmade from felt—part monster, part muppet. I strip to a kind of aquatic go-go girl, which is less wistful than the Creature proper, but also less nice, with fangs, gills and a tendency to hiss and shake. The pretty girl/heroine in this act is more monstrous (and more fabulous) that the monster proper, so is not afraid, does not need rescuing, and definitely does not faint, demure or scream. Who has time for such fancies when there is booty shaking to do?
It is a part of New Zealand culture to empathise with the anti-hero and the underdog, so possibly that is partly why I’m attracted to playing the part of these movie villans. Or maybe it is that being a monster means being thoroughly ‘unladylike’, and that being unladylike is a lot of fun.
1 I was a Teenage Werewolf, 1957, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050530/
2 Teen Wolf, 1985, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090142/
3 Joanna Frueh, Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love, University of California Press, 2000, 1
4 ibid. 11
5 Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, The University of North Carolina Press, 1991
6 ibid. 24
7 Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, Vintage Digital; New Ed edition, 2012
9 Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046876/
10 The She-Creature, 1956, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050957/?ref_=fn_al_tt_3
– Pastie Politics Issue 1
Amourous Ava is an Auckland-based burlesque performer and the creator of Pastie Politics. She has been performing since 2011 and is known predominately for romping around enthusiastically in her underpants as characters inspired by B-Grade horror movies, as well as being occasionally, if not always completely intentionally, hilarious.
Known as ‘The Fastest Ass in the West’, Amourous Ava has an abiding and equal fondness for both political subtext and vigorous booty shaking. She is quite a perverse creature and enjoys challenging peoples expectations of what a scantily-clad woman should do in public.
When she’s not writing for, designing and publishing zines on burlesque and feminism in New Zealand, Amourous Ava performs throughout New Zealand and internationally. She enjoys being a small business owner, a creative professional, a feminist and a burlesque performer, and she hopes you enjoy this zine.