Most feminists are more than familiar with the Virgin/Whore dichotomy: where ‘pure’ women are placed on a pedestal as worthy of love, marriage and protection, while ‘dirty’ women are objectified as things to be sexually desired, but never considered for a long term commitment. Under the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, men can only marry a good girl, but will always sexually desire a ‘good time’ girl. For women this means if you say you have, you’re a slut and if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. It’s just another way the patriarchy attempts to police and control women and their behaviour.
Burlesque has always seemed to me the ideal way to transgress this sexist double standard—an opportunity for women to define and explore their sexuality/sensuality themselves, without the overt influence of the male gaze. For many of us, burlesque is the ultimate subversion of expected and/or ‘appropriate’ female sexuality. Whatever it looks like, as performers we are unapologetically sexy, and often unapologetically naked. We have no problems with a diverse and inclusive range of sexual expression. Do we?
While my research suggests many people overseas describe Neo-burlesque as any and all burlesque performed post the 1990s revival (with acts ranging from classic striptease to contemporary dance to theatre or comedy), here in New Zealand we make a very definitive distinction between ‘Classic’ and ‘Neo’ (or what others may describe as ‘Neo-classic’ and ‘Avant-garde’). While we insist on splitting our burlesque in such a definitive way, most of us find it very difficult to universally define either of these terms.
Despite the fact that within our industry our labelling of ‘Classic’ and ‘Neo’ often appears vague or misapplied, when the average New Zealander thinks of burlesque they think corsets, gloves, high heels, feather boas and 20th Century tunes. When people come to beginner burlesque classes they’re taught how to pose to best show off their assets, to strut, to peel gloves, to pop a corset and walk in heels—and it’s glorious fun. They’re taught how to be sexy. But whose definition of sexy are they being taught?
‘Sexy’ is, of course, a highly subjective idea riddled with personal opinion, social expectation, and cultural influence—one person’s tame sensuality is another person’s grungy pornography. I’m of the opinion that whichever way a performer embodies their own sexuality—be it ‘Classic’ or ‘Neo’ (or something else entirely), they are the epitome of ‘sexy’. People doing glove peels are sexy, people grinding sparks off their bodies are sexy, people with automatically twirling tassels are sexy, people with corseted curves are sexy, people eating hamburgers are sexy, people doing fan dances are sexy, and people wrestling blow up dolls? Sexy. Whether it’s what I would do on stage or not, it’s still sexy as hell. Because that performer up there feels sexy—and that’s the sexiest thing out.
But with our beginner burlesque courses (and many intermediate ones also) currently heavily focused on ‘Classic’, and many shows and competitions favouring this side of our art form, I’m concerned about the unintentional effects of this: that what we define as ‘Classic’ burlesque is being inadvertently showcased as an inherently more acceptable version of female sexuality than ‘Neo’. Or, to put it another way, that ‘Neo’ routines are seen as more sexually explicit, more controversial, less appropriate or more offensive/less enjoyable than ‘Classic’ ones. When teachers state that they never want to see a performer onstage without heels or that performers should “keep it classy”, and producers request ‘Classic’ routines, are we unintentionally somehow buying into the patriarchal constructs of the time that ‘Classic’ burlesque was born as well as the art form?
It’s ironic that a movement born from subverting ridiculous societal standards has this small underbelly (that smells just slightly slut shame-y), but not at all surprising. With the constant barrage of expectations placed upon women every day, it is inevitable that some of those messages will seep into our consciousness and consequently leak into our burlesque. These messages manifest in all kinds of ways: an easy example is that most people believe women’s body hair to be disgusting and dirty, despite the fact that widespread use of razors, wax or hair removal creams was not common in the West until targeted advertising campaigns post WWII. I am yet to see a performer embracing their pubes, let alone something more shocking, like armpit hair. So it is inevitable that the messages we internalise about appropriate ways in which a woman can explore her sexuality (which are, for the most part, only ever approved of in relation to a man’s enjoyment) are going to leak into our burlesque. It’s how we react to this internalised misogyny that sets us apart as feminists.
I want to be absolutely clear here, as I’m aware the issue I’m raising is both controversial and/or unpopular: I do not think that either ‘Classic’ or ‘Neo’ are in any way shape or form superior or inferior to each other, and I don’t believe that any producer or performer is intentionally causing this issue. I do not think that ‘Neo’ is inherently more feminist than ‘Classic’ (though I do find some of the tropes inherent to ‘Classic’ personally troubling to my feminism). While I personally don’t like wearing corsets or doing glove peels I will advocate voraciously for anyone who chooses to do so, and cheer long and loud at your awesomeness. Your body, your burlesque, your choice. There are ‘Classic’ routines that I love, and I incorporate many moves deemed ‘Classic’ into my routines. I even perform a routine or two that I would describe as ‘Classic’. But I am concerned that there is an unwritten expectation that everyone should perform ‘Classic’, and the subtle sense of moral approval that ‘Classic’ routines and performers sometimes enjoy troubles me.
When some producers first started asking me (after viewing my footage) if I had any ‘Classic’ routines, I didn’t think much of it. I’ve been told on numerous occasions that my Lady Cunt routine isn’t appropriate for shows I’ve been asked to perform in (and fair enough, I know that a crazy ginger jumping up and down with a neon sign flashing “CUNT” stuck to herself is not everyone’s cup of tea). That sort of performance doesn’t fit with just any show theme or ethos, the routine is designed to be confronting, and isn’t suitable for all occasions. A producer has absolute autonomy over the way they want their shows to look, sound and feel. That’s their job and their right. Your show, your choice.
But then I got talking to many other performers who had encountered the same thing: producers calling for performers, who, after being provided with ‘Neo’ footage, then asked for ‘Classic’ acts. Perhaps these producers have a very specific idea of how they want their shows to be perceived by their audience, or perhaps, just perhaps, they don’t want to challenge said audience too much. But would burlesque exist if producers and performers hadn’t consciously pushed their audiences outside their comfort zones? It seems that some forms of burlesque have been embraced by society—to the extent where many performers are totally comfortable talking to co-workers about their alter-egos, without fear of repercussions. But the envelope-pushing, the boundary-pushing and the standard-smashing side of burlesque is yet to enjoy the same privilege.
Once I was shoulder tapped for a ‘Classic’ show, but I asked if I could perform Lady Cunt to get some footage. The producer obviously had some reservations, but then told me that it wasn’t up to her to decide what the audience could and could not handle. So amongst a line-up of very ‘Classic’ performers, I got my Lady Cunt on. I expected shock, dead silence, or walk-outs from the older, very refined crowd in their vintage gears—but they were amazingly supportive. In my varied performing life I have found, many times, that audiences are far more willing to be pushed outside their comfort zone than we anticipate. There is a shift currently happening in New Zealand in terms of our political consciousness that burlesque could be milking much harder than I think we are at the moment. The amount of swiftly stifled horror that greeted Dirty Martini’s swan cunnilingus proves that for the most part, a woman’s pleasure is still taboo. Our sexuality has rarely been owned by ourselves, and now is the perfect time to drill down into what it is that really makes us feel ‘sexy’, and bring that to the stage. Because the more people that are exposed to our authentic, unapologetic, unbridled enjoyment of our own sexual sensualities, the less controversial they will become.
From chatting to people in the industry, I know that this current love of routines we somehow define as ‘Classic’ is just the latest fashion to grip our community: up until as late as 2013, ‘Neo’ routines were hot property while ‘Classic’ languished in its shadow. This may just be ‘Classic’s’ time to shine and in two years ‘Neo’ will be flavour of the month again. But perhaps our industry would be more inclusive if we did away with these slippery labels of ‘Neo’ and ‘Classic’ and instead realised that we’re all performing some kind of post 90s Neo burlesque. The more we think critically about the reasons we like or don’t like things, the more we fight our knee jerk reactions, the more we push outside of our own comfort zones and into authentic, unapologetic self-expression the more rewarded we will be. Because at the heart of it, no one really cares what sort of burlesque you’re performing, as long as it’s entertaining.
– Pastie Politics Issue 2
Pert, petite and light on her feet: Pixie Twist, the tiniest tease in Glamilton. A burlesque dancer, a writer and a feminist, Pixie doesn’t believe these things to be at all contradictory. She loves to combine her feminism with her love of dancing and writing to paint the town, her audience and herself red—in ways you’ll never expect.
Pixie Twist’s alter-ego Rachael Elliott has a Masters in Creative Writing, and was previously the Editor of Waikato University’s student magazine Nexus, which won Best Small Publication at the 2014 Aotearoa Student Press Awards. She also writes a weekly sex advice column under the pseudonym Aunty Slut. Her creative work has previously appeared in literary journals such as 4th Floor, JAAM, Poetry New Zealand and Mayhem.