A burlesque dancer who goes by the name of Ruby Rage made headlines recently when she was fired from New Orleans club, Lucky Pierre's. It appears, based on their website, that the club features mainly strip/burlesque shows and drag performances. Rage, who performed regularly with The Blue Book Cabaret, a regular burlesque show at the club, was let go, we're told, because of her "voluptuous appearance."
When club management told The Blue Book's producer, Bella Blue, that they were "concerned" about Rage's "curvy" body, she responded:
I told them that I could find them skinny girls with boobs and hair… But I warned them that the quality of the show might suffer. Looks don't always match talent, and Ruby is a prime example of burlesque as art.
Management let it go for a short time, but after a couple of months, The Guardian reports, they "insisted that Blue take a different direction with regard to the body types she would present on stage." Rage suddenly stopped seeing her name on the schedule and realized, after asking Blue what was going on, that management only wanted traditionally objectifiable bodies on stage. Her body, management told the performer, "wasn't right for burlesque."
Rage went public, claiming discrimination. The burlesque community was enraged. After receiving a number of complaints, the club responded in a statement on Facebook, saying, "Let's face the facts, in the long history of the art there is an expected image." Essentially they made the point that burlesque has always been about the performers' "physiques" and, therefore, it was in their right to only feature conventionally attractive and "sexy" bodies in their shows.
Despite protests from the burlesque community and despite the fact that these club owners are clearly sexist douchebags, their statement is true. Burlesque is about the sexualized, objectified, female body and I am continually confused by the insistence that it is not.
Well-known performer, Dirty Martini, told 21st Century Burlesque that "the hallmark of the New Burlesque" was "not just the glorification of retro womanhood but the dismantling of the male-dominated conversation of women's sexuality." She said, of Rage's firing, "Without raising the question of whether she's a talented entertainer with good costumes and a following, [Lucky Pierre's] objection lies in their expectations of what burlesque should be."
Martini said she was angry about "what burlesque had become." Back in the 90s, she said, "burlesque was a form of rebellion and social commentary" and "was an opportunity to excite and offer insight into a new world order where women call the shots and convey dangerous ideas in a candy-coated package."
She said she was tired of hearing what audiences wanted, especially if what they wanted was conventionally beautiful, silent women, shaking their perfect asses on stage.
But, at the risk of sounding unsympathetic, what on earth do people expect from a form of entertainment that is specifically about women looking pretty and getting naked for an audience?
What happened to Rage does constitute discrimination, but when performers talk about "taking back burlesque," as Rage said she wanted to do, I wonder what they think they had to begin with and what they are expecting from an art form that intends to objectify women? Equal objectification for all bodies? How on earth is the burlesque community shocked that women in burlesque are being judged based on their "body type and appearance" when the primary purpose of watching a burlesque show is to look at sexualized female bodies?
If this "new burlesque" is about "women calling the shots," "convey[ing] dangerous ideas," and "dismantling…the male-dominated conversation of women's sexuality" than why the "candy-coated package?" Wouldn't it be more "dangerous" to convey messages that challenge "the male-dominated conversation of women's sexuality" in a way that doesn't present female bodies as pretty things to-be-looked-at?
Blue was selling a show, for profit. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to make a living and paying performers for their work. But at the same time, you're talking about selling a product -- and that product is the female body. People don't go to burlesque shows, generally, because want to hear insightful comments challenging male power -- they go for the show. They go and they hoot and holler when the tits come out.
I am fully aware that there are "alternative" burlesque shows that are comedic or include social commentary, but those shows are in the minority. And certainly this doesn't seem to be the kind of show Lucky Pierre's was putting on.
While I do really, really want women to feel good about their bodies, regardless of what their bodies look like, I'm doubtful that the problem of objectification going to be resolved if we simply objectify more "voluptuous" women.
It's unlikely that a system that says women should only be paid attention to if they are beautiful and/or naked is going to be disrupted by a form of entertainment that exists solely on the premise that people should focus their attention on these women because they are going to eventually get naked.
If burlesque performers want to stop objectification in burlesque (which is, of course, the reason Rage was let go -- because her body was viewed as a consumable product, but one that wasn't sellable, according to male standards) than they're going to have to stop making burlesque about objectifying female bodies.
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