Friday, April 24, 2009

The New Burlesque: Feathers and Feminism

Statement of the Issue

For centuries, women's sexuality has been constrained and suppressed by men; conformed physically and emotionally to fit the masculine ideal for female sexuality. Typifying the pedestal-gutter syndrome, women sexuality has been suppressed, viewed as unclean and condemned when used for a woman's own gratification. With the progression of society, however, rather than women's sexuality being thrust into the darkness, allotted only for their husband's pleasure, it has now gone mainstream. The objectification and sexual exploitation of women is everywhere. women still flaunt their bodies, but in the mainstream venues of stripping, pornography, and television, their bodies are exposed not for their own pleasure and glorification, but for the pleasures of men. However, in the midst of all their sexism and exploitation, a new and empowering trend has emerged: burlesque dancing. burlesque dancing is a backlash to objectification and marginalization of women's sexuality. It celebrates natural bodies and those who don't fit conventional standards of beauty, while simultaneously exhibiting and respecting a woman's intellect, humor, and personality. Burlesque dancing is also a tribute to feminism in it's representation of a simple yet essential perspective: sex positivism. As elaborated in No Turning Back, Sexualities, Identities, and Self Determinism, sex positivism is an institution of feminism that refuses to suppress or constrict women's sexuality in order to shield it from exploitation by men. Burlesque dancing evokes this uninhibited, unapologetic, and independent spirit of women's sexuality. Women adopt their own stage names and personas, control their own bodies and convey their own perspective of their sexuality, refusing to suppress or conform it to fit anyone else's standards.

Purpose of the Research

We performed this research for a very simple reason: to find out what real burlesque dancers had to say about the representation, or lack thereof, of feminism in burlesque dancing. There are so many misconceptions and condemning criticisms of burlesque dancing. It has been called objectifying, antifeminist in that it still measures the value of women only by their bodies. It has been equates to stripping and prostitution, so much in fact that the women of Effies Club Follies actually had to resort to posting on their website: We are NOT: prostitutes, escorts, porn stars, or garden variety strippers. So, with all of this controversy and debate about Burlesque- pro feminist versus anti feminist, objectifying versus sexually liberating, we noticed a trend emerging: no one was actually talking to the burlesque dancers themselves. In all of the research we did, scholarly or in mainstream media, we noticed that the evaluations and judgments made about burlesque were done so from a distance, the authors forming their opinions from simply watching it or responding to public reaction to it. However, no one was giving the dancers themselves an opportunity to say what they feel about burlesque; why they do it, if they find it empowering and why, and if they feel it is indeed feminist. This is what we are attempting in this research: simply to hear and respect the dancers' thought on the phenomenon of burlesque dancing, with the hope that they will reinforce our opinions that it exemplifies sex-positivism and feminism. To accomplish this, we interviewed two of the women from Effies Club Follies Burlesque Troop. We chose Effies because with their highly stylistic, politically involved performances; rife with biting social and media satire, we thought they perfectly embodied the spirit of intellectual recognition and holistic beauty that makes burlesque dancing such a positive advancement for feminism.We selected two women from Effies, Andrea Boyd, a.k.a Scarlett Noir, and Amanda Knisley, a.k.a Miss Effie.


Scarlett Noir

What is burlesque?
SN: I think, to most people, it's a striptease kind of thing.
SN: The definition of burlesque is a farce or satire. It's based in ancient Greek theater where you had lower class people making fun of the upper class and it grew into this mockery of social mores and that's what it continued to be until Vaudeville went into decline, and they brought out the dancing girls to revive it.
When was that?
SN: The 1940's and 1950's are considered the Golden Age of burlesque.
What do you enjoy about performing burlesque?
SN: For me, I enjoy the act of performance. It's a way to push boundaries, to make fun of things that are so not funny – events, politics, drug abuse, sexism, racism – it's an opportunity to just be ridiculous and get together with a bunch of other women who li
ke to be ridiculous.
What is your political agenda?
SN: There's still a lot of standards for beauty. One of the things that I love about modern burlesque is there is such a range of body types and personal styles and types of women who do this.
Some women argue that burlesque while burlesque pushes a different kind of beauty, it's still a beauty standard. Is that in itself anti-feminist?
SN: There's a lot of retro-phile in burlesque, so you have this specific hair and make-up style, and I can see how that might be considered its own standard of beauty, but honestly I don't feel like anyone's pushing that. It's a personal choice to follow that standard for the people who do. I feel that because of burlesque performance, there are a lot of women who have become comfortable with who they are and what they are and what their body is. They're able to project that confidence, and that's beautiful to me.
SN: I think as far as the standard of what is considered beautiful in burlesque, one of the major differences between now and in the past is that men decided that was beautiful. They were putting the girls on stage to draw men into Vaudeville. Women now are doing it because it's their personal choice. The performers now are going to do the same number regardless of whether the audience thinks it's sexy. They do it because it makes them feel sexy.
Do you think burlesque is sexually liberating?
SN: Yes, but it's really about being comfortable to explore new territories. It's amazing – almost all of us have said at one time, 'Well, I don't hang out with women. I don't really have very many girlfriends.' But we've both been doing this for 4 years. Of course we get mad at each other from time to time.
SN: The burlesque world at large is pretty embracing of women. We've performed with other troupes, and they don't do anything like what we do, but they're always really welcoming and embracing of the differences.

Miss Effie

What is burlesque?
ME: The modern incarnation is actually very retro.
When was that?
ME: They started introducing it in the 1920's and 30's. Modern burlesque has its roots in the Vaudeville era because when burlesque started, there was usually a coughing man who would tell the jokes and then there was a girl who would be either the punchline, or do a little dance, somehow vamp it up, bringing the sex appeal. There's also another place where burlesque gets its raunchier qualities and that's on the carnival strip. They'd have the tent shows where you'd have a barker out front bringing all the guys in. With those 2 things combined it became more of the striptease that you see now.
How/why did you start dancing?
ME: I am Miss Effie and Harry Dixon. I moved to Athens and I hadn't done any theater or anything like that since high school and they were having amateur drag contests and I thought it sounded like so much fun. I started performing drag and I created the character Harry Dixon. I had a lot of fun, I really loved it. But there were some numbers that I had ideas for that I would rather do as a woman, and there's really not a whole lot of place for that in drag unless you're doing what they call bio-drag where you try to look exactly like someone. There's not really same-sex persona, because that's just lip-syncing. That's not drag. So I thought surely there are other peopl
e who want to do what I'm doing, and I heard about burlesque, saw a Suicide Girls show, and I thought it was amazing. I thought it would be really funny if we did it ridiculous and over-the-top. It wasn't about sex as much as it was about being ridiculous.
What do you enjoy about performing burlesque?
ME: We're slowly pushing our political agenda on people, they're just laughing too hard to realize it.
What is your political agenda?
ME: Boobs can take over the world.
Some women argue that burlesque while burlesque pushes a different kind of beauty, it's still a beauty standard. Is that in itself anti-feminist?
ME: Hollywood definitely pushes its own standard of beauty. If you're an actress and you don't look like that, it doesn't necessarily mean that you won't get jobs, it just means that that part of the industry may not be what you end up doing. Burlesque has its own Betty Paige ideal of beauty, but there's lots of room within the whole of burlesque to do other things. Effie's has tried very hard to do that. We've tried very hard not to go with the stereotypical sexy pinup look. Honestly, we are our biggest censors as far as that goes. If we have a number with a girl going all sexy all the time, we try to bring in some ridiculousness. We try to dirty it up a little bit, make it a little uglier. We would rather go out there looking a mess and be funny than look perfect. That's not where our emphasis is. I agree that there are elements of burlesque that are sexist, but because you're dealing with something that is, by definition, a farce, you can also choose to lampoon that. That's part of what burlesque is about.
Do you think burlesque is sexually liberating?
ME: It's not so much about liberation as it is about comfort. Almost every girl in Effie's was not an exhibitionist to start out with. We all have flaws and parts that jiggle that we make fun of and that's fine, that's cool! Nobody expects you to be perfect. There's no shame anymore because we've broken through that. That's part of the reason we always wear wigs, always wear eyelashes, because we've created a persona to do something we weren't comfortable doing when we started out.

Upon actually speaking with these amazing women, we discovered that they, and the entire institution of burlesque dancing, is so much more politically laced, socially conscious, intellectual, and feminist than we had originally thought. They confirmed our beliefs that burlesque is about flaunting an independent sexuality, bereft of mens' or anyone else's standards of beauty, "The performers now are going to do the same number regardless of whether the audience thinks it's sexy. They do it because it makes them feel sexy." (Scarlett Noir). The women also definately affrimed our belief that the exaltation of a broad range of bodies and appearance expands the popular conception of beauty, inciting women and the general populous to look for and flaunt their natural and individual beauty, "One of the things that I love about modern burlesque is there is such a range of body types and personal styles and types of women who do this." (Noir). They also spoke of something we hadn't originally considered as an aspect of burlesque that further advances and embodies feminism, kinship between other women. When women base their entire self concept off of their ability to please men, it fosters an atmosphere of competition and treachery between women. However, by advocating an independent and autonomous sense of self and sexuality, burlesque dancing encourages women to be confident in themselves and to recognize and appreciate the beauty of fellow women. This atmosphere of friendship and unity is expressed inside of a sexually liberating, cerebrally charged and uninhibited environment, making the innovation of the New Burlesque a milestone for feminism.


Doing this project was amazing and very enlightening. We got to experience the raw, social evolution of feminism within burlesque dancing all against a hilarious, sexy backdrop of sequins and glitter. What was particularly interesting about observing the feminsm in burlesque, is that through a performance based setting, we could actually see it enacting before us. With so many other feminist issues, they are hidden and suppressed within our culture; suffered silently by those who are oppressed. It may take years or even centuries for those issues to attain the recognition and exposure that they warrant. However, in burlesque, these women demand an audience. They take whatever issue they want to critique or explore, and perform it brazenly before a captivated audience. Rather than studying the subtle elements of the issue within our culture. With burlesque, one can stand in the crowd and actually see this issue presented on stage. This is only one of the reasons why this project. and this subject, was so fascinating, and why we highly recommend taking in a burlesque show to anyone struggling from lowself-confidence, esteem, societal marginalization, or anyone who just wants some great entertainment.

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