I identify as a body-positive, sex-positive, intersectional feminist. I am also a tassel twirling, booty shaking, glitter spraying burlesque dancer. Can it be possible to be both?
I was drawn to burlesque for three main reasons:
I was cautious for many more than three reasons.
But, I have to believe in a world where people can admire my sensual, sexual body, while being fully aware that an actual human exists in here, who can make autonomous choices about her body and her sexuality. I’m a woman who loves to dance because of the way it feels inside my skin when I do so. I do it for me, not for anyone else.
A few weeks ago I uploaded a photo of my cute bum in frilly undies to my performer page. I love my body. I love the photo. I love what it says about my sensuality. The next day I went to work and had a co-worker ask me which of the two young gentlemen politely commenting on the image had “got it in”, or whether it was both.
The entitled sexist douchebag who made these comments believes that because I’m a sexual being who happens to admit that, and like that about myself, it must mean I’m a worthless object for men to poke with their appendages. For men like this, the fact that I like to dance in my undies means I exist only for their male gaze and the enjoyment of men, and posting a photo of myself wearing anything but a burqa means I’m gagging to be objectified, harassed and insulted.
Society teaches women to please men. We’re taught that our bodies are public property, to be covered or flaunted for male attention, we’re taught our bodies are things to be ashamed of unless they conform to the hyper-sexualised images that pervade our culture. We’re taught not to walk alone at night, get drunk, or wear revealing clothing. We’re taught to feel shame for exercising our right to choose anything deemed unacceptable by the powers that be. We’re taught that we are responsible for the urges, actions and pleasures of men. We’re taught that there are two kinds of women—virgins and whores—and neither one is good enough.
So with all of this going on, how on earth can burlesque—getting naked on stage in front of strangers—be feminist?
Isn’t burlesque just stripping, but with better costumes? Isn’t it stripping for white, middle class women who don’t need the money? Doesn’t it just cleverly position women into thinking they’re empowered, while actually reviling in their objectification?
The short answer to these questions is, no. But perhaps the best answer to all of those questions is actually “it depends”. Because of the forty or so women that took the plunge into burlesque classes with me last year, more than half of them said they were there primarily to learn some sweet moves to impress their men in
Now, I’m all for impressing your man with sweet moves, and having the choice to do so. However I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that those women dropped off the radar very quickly, and the women that kept turning up were all there for one reason and one reason only.
They were there for themselves.
Those first burlesque classes were an exercise in self-love, body positivity, sex positivity—and most importantly—sensual-self-positivity, with the odd feather boa thrown in. I ditched the boa early on due to a feather allergy, but the marvel of being encouraged to look at my body and see it, not through the lens of the patriarchy, but for its own gloriousness, to touch it and feel its softness and its power—to be embodied and enjoy it—that’s why I stayed. Because for that one hour each week I could be the sensual, sexual person I am, without fear of repercussion. For me, attending burlesque class was an act of reclamation, and very definitely a feminist act.
But burlesque isn’t feminist in and of itself. Just like having a career, or being a stay at home mother, or a sex worker, or just about anything else isn’t inherently feminist, burlesque isn’t either. Feminism boils down to choice. Central to my feminism is the mantra “my body, my choice; your body, your choice.” It holds that even if I would not choose to, for example, be a sex worker, that another woman might, and I would respect her choice and her as a person (as long as it was her informed choice, and she wasn’t being exploited). I also hope that people will see that what I do or don’t do with my body and who I do and don’t show it to is my choice. Perhaps a vain hope in some cases, but very definitely the expectation.
That is why things like comedian Nadia Kamil’s ‘feminist burlesque routine’ make me so angry. Her four minutes of revelation of feminist tenets such as ‘equal pay’, culminating in her big reveal of a pair of pasties stuck to her actual college degree screams “smart girls don’t strip”. It also contains unmistakable notes of body and slut shaming, which most feminists agree are problematic.
The drive to be seen as a complete human and not just a body is strong. We’re removed from our bodies so often we barely notice it anymore. The night I posted a photo of my ass on my performer page, I felt compelled to post one of me holding my masters thesis as well. I did this, fully aware that I was making a hypocrite of myself, and yet somehow unable to stop. The truth is that the world we live in is judging us and objectifying us. No amount of empowered glitter bombing is going to change the minds of men like the one who accosted me at work.
Kamil argues that burlesque can’t be feminist because of the ‘male gaze’. (The perspective of heterosexual men, which often reduces women to objects.) One only has to look around to see this gaze in action: women are hyper-sexualised in advertising and mainstream media but shamed for breastfeeding in public. Women’s nipples are considered taboo, but men’s are not, and of course, females who embrace their sexuality are considered worthless, while virginal women are placed on a pedestal. The Virgin/Whore dichotomy results in men who will lust after an unapologetically sexual or beautiful woman but will never view her as ‘wife material’, because along with their lust comes their disrespect. This perpetuates the ongoing issue of positioning women as objects to be admired by said gaze, as opposed to autonomous human beings. That is why the male gaze is so problematic when you’re a feminist burlesque performer. Because there’s always going to be some ‘Neanderthal’ watching you who thinks that burlesque is just stripping, and burlesque artists are just whores. The patriarchy has so positioned these men that they cannot entertain the idea that a woman would have any other motivation to dance naked than to look sexy for them. I’ve been called a hypocrite (and much worse) for trying to explain that for me, burlesque exists outside of the male gaze (and not just because most shows are run, performed and watched by women).
If burlesque can’t be feminist because of the male gaze, then nothing can.
Burlesque, like everything else, is not inherently feminist. It’s all about intent. If you do it as part of your feminist practice then it can be feminist—the same way as you choose to shave or not shave your legs, or to wear a bikini or a burqa. It is having the choice to do what you want (ideally free of judgement) that makes something feminist. This means burlesque performers can absolutely be feminists because we don’t hold that our bodies are shameful, we don’t hold that a naked (possibly very sexy) women exists only to please men and we don’t hold that naked dancing invalidates us as human beings. In fact, some of us hold the exact opposite and find naked dancing our ultimate feminist expression. Our bodies, our choices.
Last night I danced what is affectionately known as my ‘cunt’ routine. It tells the story (my story) of a woman who, judged for her clothing, figures she may as well look sexy and take her clothes off, since that’s what expected of a women in a short skirt. Except the removal of her clothing reveals disapproving words written on her skin. The shock of it is enough to break her, but in the pieces of herself, she finds her power.
I’m always afraid before I perform this routine—and that’s how I know I need to be performing it. The very real possibility that no one will understand why a woman covered in curse words is onstage peeling them off in showers of glitter is terrifying. But there might be one woman who gets it, or one man who rethinks harassing a woman wearing a short skirt because of it. Some glorious nights, like last night, I stand onstage in my pasties and my merkin, with two middle fingers in the air, body scrubbed clean of all the bullshit that the patriarchy makes me wear and the crowd rises to their feet, applauding, to stand in solidarity with me.
This is my feminist burlesque. And no amount of male gazing can stop me.
– Pastie Politics Issue 1
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 that these things are contradictory in any way (despite being told that they are). 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 just completed her Masters in creative writing. She is currently the Editor of Waikato University’s student magazine Nexus, which won Best Small Publication at this year’s Aotearoa Student Press Awards. Rachael also won the 2degrees Poetry Slam with Write the Body Bloody (Mayhem Literary Journal Issue 1). Her work has previously appeared in the journals 4th Floor, Probe, JAAM, Poetry New Zealand and Mayhem.