Burlesque and Feminism: Give it a rest!

Sometimes I get so sick of being a feminist. Not because I don’t want equality for all genders and so forth, but because being a feminist sometimes seems to be more about arguing about what feminism is,  and who is doing it “right”, than anything else.

Children arguing

Yesterday a video surfaced of a comedian doing a bit about burlesque, in which she appears to be derogatory about burlesque.

It gets shared about, and the burlesque world aint happy with it. Facebook and twitter heard our wrath, I tell ya! More about that in a bit, but first,  why was the video so controversial?

The comedian Nadia Kamil describes seeing a burlesque act on a night out and how she and her mates found it “gross” and out of place at a comedy event . She then goes on to do her own version of a feminist burlesque act, stripping to reveal statements such as “Equal Pay!” “Pubes are Normal!” etc, sellotaped to her body.  I don’t want to write any more about what may or may not have been intended by the act (if Nadia Kamil wants to do that herself I am sure she will)  or reactions to it, as lots has already been said on social media and in this blog by cabaret singer Lili La Scala. The whole thing is problematic, and of course I have my own ideas about it, but I will leave you all to make your own minds up.

https://lililascala.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/feminist-burlesque-dont-make-me-laugh/

What I want to talk about is the sense of deja-vu I got watching the video and reading the responses to it.  We have heard it all before.

been there

I love and respect the way the burlesque world fights its corner and stands up for the art form in the face of what often seems to be overwhelming prejudice and opposition. I got annoyed at first about this video just like other folks did.  But some of what annoyed me was not what the comedian was saying about burlesque, but that (so it seemed) here was YET ANOTHER person holding forth about burlesque in a misinformed way.  Saying the same old tired things as if they were new and incontrovertible truths, from a position of privilege (white, educated etc).

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The thing I couldn’t help but wonder was this: how many more times are we going to have this same argument?  You know the one I mean, it goes like this:

Burlesque Detractor: “Burlesque is *just stripping,  middle-class stripping, boring, sexist, demeaning, objectifying to women, male gaze yadayada”

Burlesque World: “Burlesque is *an art form, not just stripping, stripping is not bad, its not objectifying, if you don’t like it don’t come to watch, its performed mainly for women, its performed mainly by women, its performed by men too, you clearly don’t know much about burlesque etc etc”.

Burlesque Detractor: “You are wrong and don’t realise it”

Burlesque World: “No, you are wrong and don’t realise it”.

Every. Single. Time. Same argument.  How many times have I seen this over 7 years? Lots. But its not just the burlesque revival that has had this argument ad nauseum, its been going on for-frickin-ever!

“Degrading!” “Demoralising to women!” (Feminist and Theatre Critic, Olive Logan on burlesque, 1870)

olive logan

“Obscene” (Women’s Cooperative Alliance, 1925)

Careful now

“A corrupting moral influence.” (Mayor LaGuardia on burlesque clubs in NYC, 1935)

Fiorello

That’s right, we have been having this argument since the 1800s. Isn’t it about time we changed the tune? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for spirited discussion and standing up for your beliefs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the discussions, there is value in discussion, but it has to be ultimately productive. It has to move on, but so often it just goes round in circles. We can’t keep doing this same back-and-forth forever and getting nowhere.

Im right youre wrong

So what is the answer? Is burlesque feminist or not?

Burlesque can be feminist and not feminist at the same time.  It is not inherently feminist. It is also not inherently anti-feminist.  Some people find it feminist, some don’t.  Burlesque can both support and damage the feminist cause because the variable is the audience. Performance art can’t happen without someone experiencing it, and within those hundreds of people experiencing an act, there will be some which feel strengthened and empowered by it and some who take it as objectifying and demeaning. How they interpret the art will depend on their existing identity and mind-set.  Burlesque is as feminist as the observer believes it to be, and that’s it. That is why two people can watch the same act but one finds it empowering and the other finds it demeaning.

Same with feminism. Its diverse with lots of different schools of thought within it, some of which are almost diametrically opposed. How you interpret burlesque as a feminist will depend on what kind of feminist school of thought you buy into. That is why one person can find an act feminist and the other absolutely doesn’t.

There is no one truth to prove. THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER TO THIS DEBATE!

Orly

When you have been having the same argument for over 200 years (after realising that you are most likely never, ever going to agree) your options are as follows:

– Agree to disagree and get on with your separate projects

– Continue to tear each other apart

– Go around the issue and try to find a way to move forward

Could we try and think of a way out of the endless circle of bickering? Could we come to understand the opposing point of view, even if we don’t agree? Explain our side to them so they understand us better?  And maybe, possibly…could we find a way to work together instead of against each other?

Friend

Because really, we should be on the same team, right? The end goal is the same.

There is not one single way to be feminist, because there is not one single way to be a woman, or a human being. One size does not fit all, and never will. If we want to move forward with feminism/equality we need to acknowledge that we are never all going to see it the same way.  Your way is just the one that works best for you. Trying to force people to do it your way will never work. Feminism will not work that way.  And I want it to work, don’t you? That’s my end goal.

Plus, I sure as hell don’t want to be having this same argument every 6 months for the next 200 years,  and be no further forward than we are now.

there yet

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Burlesque burn-out: Why does it happen and what to do about it?

burn out

I want to share a secret: for a while now, I haven’t been feeling right about performing.

There are always positive moments in any experience, natch, but overall, for a while now, I have entered a show with great anxiety and come away with a feeling of inadequacy. And its not just that- ANYTHING to do with performing makes me anxious, even checking facebook.

So I make an appointment with Dr Cabaret (who by the way is a cat), and this is how it goes….

Dr Cat

Dr Cabaret: “Back again, Ms Gray? How about you explain your symptoms to me?”

Me: “Ok, here goes:

– I am anxious, dreading my next shows and feeling bad about the last ones.

– I am increasingly critical of my performances and fear I have lost my ability.

– I feel inadequate

– Things about burlesque which previously didn’t bother me or which I could tolerate, now really piss me off.

– I have lost my creativity, ideas and general motivation for burlesque.

(Mr Hanky feels like crap)

What the heck is going on? Am I losing my MIIIIND?”

Dr Cabaret: “Ms Gray, I am sorry to tell you that you have BURLESQUE BURNOUT”

Burnout

Me:  Blimey. So what should I do, Dr C?

Dr Cabaret: “Well, Ms Gray, you need to work out why you have burn-out. It is usually due to a collection of things.

-Doing too many gigs with not enough down-time: its great to be busy but if, over a protracted amount of time, you consistently have no free time because all you do is gig, then this can creep up on you.

Exhausted

-Travelling a lot and being away from home. If you are someone who recharges in your own space with your family, travel can take its toll.

– Burlesque unpleasantness: the bitchiness and competition can really drag you down.

– Pushing too hard: its good to challenge yourself but if you constantly force yourself out of your comfort zone, it can be emotionally exhausting.

– Other life stuff: Other life stuff or personal stuff can get in the way of your enthusiasm or creativity

Me: Oh, well all those apply to me. Suppose I should’ve seen it coming, really.

*****

Soooo- I have burlesque burn-out.  Question is, what should I do about it? Well,  I have decided to take a partial break- still do my existing gigs but not actively seek more, have some chill time, follow up on some other projects I have ongoing like book writing and photography exhibitions. I also know I need to address another issue I have, which relates to the way I see myself and my body, but I am saving that for the next blog post!

There isnt really much point in flogging a dead horse, so if you feel like burlesque is doing nothing for you, going nowhere in particular or making you unhappy, but you don’t want to give up entirely, taking some time out is a great idea. Burlesque is pretty darn intense and you have to work so hard at it, plus there is always some facebook post ready to remind you that someone is better than you in some way- no wonder it takes its toll.  Taking time off can be scary, because everything moves so fast in burlesque. You feel like if you drop back, 10 more performers will spawn to take your place, and you will be left behind.  The truth, though, that its easier than you think to get back into it when you are ready to return, and in the meantime you can go to shows, or work on other things, or just totally chill, so when you do get back to business, it is with a fresh perspective and a bunch of new plans! Rock n Roll!

The Re-Rise of Burlesque Competitions?

They sure have been controversial, burlesque competitions. I wrote an article a while back with a bit about them in This is Cabaret, from the angle of “Paying to Play”.

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http://www.thisiscabaret.com/money-for-nothing-should-burlesque-performers-pay-for-exposure/

I remember a few years ago when there were a flush of competitions that were asking people to pay to play, and it caused a bit of uproar. They seemed to die off, and the popularity of competitions appeared to wane a bit. Then we saw the Burlesque Idol competition start up in London, and although it took a while to find its feet and build a good reputation, it is now one of the most respected new comer competitions in the UK. We also have the Burlesque Baby competitions, which have also earned a good reputation.

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Perhaps it is off the back of the success of these two (or perhaps I haven’t noticed until now) but I seem to be seeing more and more smaller competitions pop up. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in noticing this, some thoughts have sprung to mind.

What makes a competition credible and worthwhile?

Feedback: getting good feedback from experienced, professional and established performers can be really valuable and helpful in developing as a performer.

As long as:  the judges ARE actually experienced, professional and established, with years of performing and/or producing and/or teaching behind them. Otherwise it is just peer review- which can be very helpful but a peer should not be positioned as a judge, if they do not have the background to…back it up! Baby gotta have back, yo.

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Exposure: It is possible that you might be seen at a competition and get gigs from it, especially if you win. This is particularly true if it is one of the bigger, established competitions.

As long as:  the competition is exposing you to people who can offer genuine work opportunities. You might just be in burlesque for the lark, in which case a competition can be a good networking opportunity for other small-scale shows, sure. However, if a small event, organised by people with little background in burlesque, claims “great exposure! The biggest and best show! The hottest and most upcoming starlets” etc, I would investigate further, as it is quite time consuming and expensive to do something which does not deliver what it promises.

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Prizes!– Ok, few of us can argue with prizes! Although only the winners get them, those gits.

Make sure you– Check out the experiences of others who have won the competition and make sure the prizes actually materialised, because sometimes they never do!

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A Title!: Being dubbed “Queen of” something is great, especially if you get a wee sparkly crown and maybe some bubbly. And it can be used to boost your marketing potential.

Just remember: Being “Queen of” or “Best of” has varying degrees of meaning. It depends on the credibility of the show, the experience of the judges, the judging format, the quality of the other performers. If you win something, be happy, be proud. But also be realistic about what it means in the long run, and make sure you are happy with what you are being asked to do, in exchange for the chance of winning a crown (in terms of what you pay to get there, time and effort etc. I don’t think you have to worry about the whole “casting couch blowjob” situation haha).

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Why am I doing this? Be self-aware about why you are entering competitions. Do you want the performing experience and useful feedback? The fun, excitement and networking opportunity? Are you a competitive kind of person? Do you want to win to boost your burlesque success? Great, go for it.

But: If you find yourself bouncing from one competition to the next, ask why. What can you gain from doing this? Stage time, sure. More feedback, sure. But success comes from work and practice and time and money and just doing a shit-load of gigs, some of which will be brilliant, some of which will be bloomin pants. Winning things is great but it is not what being a performer is about. Being seen as successful in the scene and having lots of bookings all the time (regardless of quality or pay) isn’t what is about (although the illusion of success can breed success to an extent). The point of being a performer is to entertain your audience the best you can, and that is where you will find your confidence and your success.

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Competition Organisers– the onus is on you, too! Make sure your competition offers real worth, real experienced judges, real exposure, and it will blossom and bloom.

So- do competitions, but make sure you check them out thoroughly (against a UK canvass, not just your local scene where small fish can seem large). Do that, and if you win, BOOM! Wear your crown with pride, get drunk, post selfies.

And if you don’t win- BOOM! Who cares! Competitions don’t really mean much when you think about it- there is no “best” burlesque, the genre is too diverse, and individual preferences are so different! Even within one show, what the burlesque community is currently favouring can be quite different to what the audience enjoys most on the night, and they are unpredictable buggers!  Winning a competition might mean you are a good performer, and its a wonderful validation, but not winning doesn’t mean you are any less good, have any less potential, or are any less entertaining. So take the benefits, don’t get too high or too low because of the results, and keep entertaining, bitches!