I am not sure how to effectively use words to describe what I want to say. The fear of failing to achieve an understandable pattern of non-offensive, supportive, and loving letter combinations has woken me at 4am with a nightmare. Within this mad dream, a faceless burlesque performer beats me black and blue by twirling her gigantic diamond tipped tassels right up in my face. I mean, this may be some people’s before-sleep fantasy, but for me it is alarming.
My fear is not just that my words won’t make sense, but that what I am about to write, no matter how I craft it, is going to be taken the wrong way by at least one person. I fear it might push a button for them, or they might think that I am directly pointing the finger at them. Then they may go and talk to their friends, possibly within the burlesque community and say:
“OMG, did you see what THAT Constance Maehem had the audacity to write? Who does she think she is? I mean, what?! She has only being doing burlesque for a year. I had a look at her Facebook page and there is this photo where she looks like she is dead. Like, I mean seriously, that picture is better than what she looks like in real life. And she thinks she has any right to be performing, let alone writing her thoughts about like, what did she call it… Horizontal Hostility? I mean seriously. Who is she to comment on how WE behave?”
Yes, this scenario has literally run thorough my head. This insecurity has fed my dreamscape until I have nightmares. However, fortunately for me, I realise I have a rather overactive imagination and am sure that no one could possibly beat my face black and blue with tassels on their tits, no matter how pert they are.
I am also fortunate to be self-aware enough to know that my fear about people’s reactions to my writing is being fed by my insecurity rather than any experience I have actually had. During my short time doing burlesque I have never met anyone as nasty as I have just written about. However, I believe that burlesque involves just the right mix of competition, insecurity, and stigmatisation to potentially be a breeding ground for a super bug of this kind of behaviour. Some would call this sickness Cattiness. An academic, may call it Horizontal Hostility. I choose to call it, “Making yourself feel better at someone else’s expense”.
In this article I want to address the three contributing factors that could develop the super bug that, if allowed, could destroy the burlesque community. Join with me in imagining ourselves in a science lab with these three ingredients.
1. The Petri Dish: The Environment Within Burlesque Exists
The Petri Dish consists of all the environmental factors that contain burlesque. It is such a huge area for discussion, but I am only going to focus on one factor: the reality that the Burlesque community still has to interact with the stigma associated with public removal of clothing, and/or the external display of powerful female sexuality.
The process of stigmatisation occurs when one person (the stigmatiser) identifies and “marks” the other (the stigmatised) as being unacceptable, undesirable or defective. The stigmatised individual then responds to this “shaming” in a wide variety of ways. When considering communities of stigmatised people, in my humble opinion, a couple of things begin to happen.
The community realises its position in society as a stigmatised minority and this creates a bond. This can be hugely beneficial as the sense of comradery can provide a sense of belonging and, when mobilised, can bring about powerful social change. In my own lifetime, within Aotearoa New Zealand, I have seen homosexual law reform, prostitution law reform, and now the fight for greater understanding and rights around gender diversity.
The flip side of this is when a group is stigmatised by society, the individuals within this group can experience their self-esteem being impacted. This can lead to a situation where individuals, in order to reclaim their sense of self, “steal” esteem from those around them. This is where we begin to see Horizontal Hostility. To put it bluntly, society makes you feel like shit for what you do, so in order to make yourself feel better, you then find another person within the same judged circle and find something about them to criticise. At its best it stops there, but at its worst it is externalised so the other person is made to feel like shit also. “I might do burlesque but at least I don’t do/have/look like *insert appropriate word here*”. This behaviour divides communities and cripples their ability to fight for greater social acceptance. It hurts others rather than lifting them up.
2. The Vegetarian Gelatine substance: Competition
Burlesque has many elements of competition. Firstly, it has actual competitions, where people compete to be the best performer on the night. These competitions are wonderful! It is so glorious seeing people rocking out their best selves and receiving what is hopefully supportive feedback. Competition can however create a sense of either success or failure. and competitors need to be supported to manage this experience. Ideally, this support should come from the individual, but not everyone has this internal support. This is where the community can step in and be supportive, to help people balance the experience of success or the experience of not winning.
Competition also exists regarding acquisition of performance spots and potential financial reimbursement. This speaks to two prongs of competition, financial competition and popularity competition. Performing for me is not my main source of income and therefore my day-to-day living does not depend on the business of burlesque—rather it is a hobby, an outlet. So this sense of competition does not exist for me. But it does for people whose performance practice is their main source of income. When people are competing for their livelihood pressure is added.
Additionally, despite the fact that we all think we left this behind at high school, there is still the horrible reality that popularity competition still exists. It is a human need to feel wanted and accepted. Nothing reinforces this more than having a big fan base, which I myself do not have. For example, there are maybe 30 people who are friends of Constance Maehem on Facebook, and of those one is myself and 27 are my actual real life friends. However, I will never forget the happiness I felt when I received likes from people I did not know! I felt special and liked. I am not worried if I ever get another like again. While I might be weird in many ways I am sure I am not alone in the joy of having others like me and my performance.
But when you aren’t as liked, or as popular, or don’t get as many people telling you that they loved your acts, it really can be rough. There is no denying it. However, do we get nasty and let that envy poison us? Or do we talk with the community mentors around us, or our friends, about our frustrations, our hurts, what we can be doing to grow as performers? As a community we also have a responsibility to watch for those who may be feeling disheartened or as if they are on the fringe. Why? Because we damn well know what it would be like if we weren’t popular or liked.
3. The Sample: Insecurity
The last part of the recipe for growing our super bug would be the sample: our own insecurity. I have body parts that I feel insecure about, particularly my upper arms. Also my most recent challenge is my inability to do a smile that is not a big ass cheesy Pikachu smile. I desperately want to be that woman who says “I’m not insecure about my body, I am comfortable in my own skin.” But I don’t. So when I go to shows, I often catch myself doing that self-defeatist activity that inevitable makes me feel like crap: I compare. I ain’t gonna lie, I go to burlesque shows, and I look at people’s upper arms and think “Are they like mine?” and if they are better, I sit there and I plot how I can steal their upper arms.
I look at people’s beautiful half smiles, that don’t make them look like lighting is about to come out their ass, and I wonder how their face does that. I marvel at it. Then I go and I look in the mirror and I try to achieve that same polished no-gum smile. Despite all my comparison, plotting and practice, I am yet to be able to find a way of either removing someone else’s upper arms that doesn’t involve prison, or a non-gummy no butt lightning smile. Worst of all, I feel like shit. At these times, there is an invitation to then try and find a defect, even the smallest thing, about the other person that has better arms or smile than me. If I allowed it, it could consume my life. “Your arms maybe taut but YOU have a freckle on your left shoulder three centimetres away from your neck, whereas on the other side there is none! YOU ARE OFF BALANCE!” Bacteria is born… and if allowed to remain could become the super-bug that destroys burlesque. And it is within me. And it is within you. We need a vaccine.
Vaccinate yourself: Your mind
Okay, so I guess we all got it—stigmatisation, competition and insecurity are a potentially poisonous combination. But how do we vaccinate against it? This is complicated and I am sure there are many websites that give you sage advice, but I am going to put forth the proposition that it starts within ourselves and our ability to use our minds. The burlesque community is full of intelligent, strong people and we are also passionate, which involves feeling strongly about things. This is powerful for performing but it can put us at a disadvantage when dealing with reactions to people and situations. This is where our mind comes in. If we educate ourselves about how each of the areas involved in creating horizontal hostility impact upon us, and how we respond to them, we can start modifying our own behaviour and prepare ourselves for others reactions.
Acknowledging our insecurities, frustrations and hurts is healthy and doesn’t show weakness. Identifying what your strengths are can also help with balancing out those times of frustration. Building a network of people who are open to supporting you, and also being supported by you, is vital for life, not just burlesque. These people can remind you of your strengths when you feel only your weaknesses are visible. The trick is to be prepared to return the favour.
We are all human, and we all need to rant sometimes. It is how we do this ranting that is important, and who we communicate it to. If you feel hurt by someone in the community, choose wisely who you talk to and how you talk. Don’t become a gossip and don’t rant to a gossip. If you can’t say what you need to say nicely, then don’t say it till you can do it safely. If you say something that you later regret, be honest about your regret. Sorry is a powerful word, and shouldn’t be as hard to say as it is.
We are in a powerful position as performers to show the world that women of all varieties are beautiful and that owning our bodies does not deserve shaming. But if horizontal hostility is allowed to grow within the burlesque community, then the gifts that burlesque can give to the world will be destroyed.
– Pastie Politics Issue 2
Constance Maehem hails from QuakeCity, Canterbury. Her birth into burlesque involved stepping out of a coffin crafted by her father. This symbolic resurrection marked the beginning of her determination to live as if she is dying (please note she is not dying), by embracing opportunities and challenges that come her way. Becoming a member of Ayla’s Angels has supported this philosophy and introduced her to a world that she never dreamed she could be part of.
Scratching the surface of this performance persona, we find that behind Constance there is a woman called Hannah Komatsu. As a social worker who supports young people and their families, Hannah is kept humbled at the determination and strength that she sees on a daily basis. She spends most of her time with her family and dog. She loves her friends, who accept all her insanity. Cute animal pictures feed her soul.