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Burlesque: Sexy or Sexist?

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My response to criticisms of queer burlesque: fat, self-love and why it’s feminist to take my clothes off on stage. I am getting pretty good at exercising my intellectual muscles to argue with feminists who say doing this is inherently sexist, but I’d appreciate your input too. Any other ideas about why queer burlesque is queer, feminist and hot?! 

This post also addresses misogynist and homophobic hate and may be triggering.

As a woman I am born ugly. In the eyes of patriarchal ideology, my body is scary in its fat abundance, its wobbly sensuality. So I starve myself and in the process make myself physically weak in order to try and grasp a power that will never be allowed to me. Of course, this power, which is also self-love, is always one stone away. "Just one stone thinner, and then I’ll be beautiful…"

I remember spending hours looking in the mirror just before I became a teenager. I would make faces at myself, tilting my head this way and that, to see if I could capture a ‘Hollywood’ face. Capture beauty just so. I found that if I raised my chin (so you can’t see the fat) and tilted my head slightly to the left, while holding my eyes wide open (makes them bigger) and slightly pouting my lips, I looked beautiful.

For much of my life, it was only through altering my body, either in poses in front of the mirror, or semi-permanently, that I could find myself beautiful. I would wear a prosthesis to make my boobs look more equal (one is bigger than the other) and, at my most ill, starved myself for half a year. Then, at my thinnest, I looked the most conventionally beautiful. I remember my uncle telling me in surprise how good I looked. I remember this because it was probably the first time one of my relatives called me attractive. At this time, aged 17, I was eating one apple, a bowl of cereal and a bowl of pasta every day. At a generous estimate, this is 900 calories a day. I was also swimming for half an hour every morning, exercising in my bedroom and not sleeping. I was, by medical and social standards, starving myself and going mad.

Ten years later, I am pleased that, after years of working on my self-esteem, I can find myself beautiful. When I look in the mirror, instead of disappointment and crippling self-hatred, more often than not, I like what I see. At least, I like my face. I am working on finding the rest of my body, especially my fat tummy, beautiful, but I am making headway with that too. Yay me. This is the result of years of really hard fucking work.

The politics of fat for those assigned female at birth, combined with my own experiences of being raised, socialised and actively identifying as a woman, is one reason why I get so mad when my burlesque performances are dismissed as apolitical or -- worse -- sexist. Well, actually, it's one of many reasons.

As I have said before, we are told that as women we only have power by proxy. We only have power insofar as we associate ourselves sexually with men, and we are only seen as sexually attractive to men when we are thin. Now, I know many men find fat women attractive, and I love you back. So, when I say ‘men’ here, I basically mean something like ‘the heterosexualised male gaze.’ Hmm, feminist film theory 101. 

Anyways. So, as women we are only seen as beautiful and therefore powerful when we are thin. This is why, when some feminists argue say that taking my clothes off on stage buys into sexism and objectification, I think they miss the point of what I, as a queer femme performers, am doing. In one of my first blog posts, I wrote how I find my own beauty and my own agency when I perform burlesque. As choreographer, I decide what vision of myself I will present to the audience, and therefore have at least some control over the way they see me. I choose what type of sexual woman they are going to see tonight. In a following post, I argue that this active engagement with the audience is different from the objectification and sexualisation of women that does happen in media everywhere, every day. Everyday objectification first classifies us women as silly little girls, good for nothing but fucking, then forces us to comply with this image by telling us that if we want even this little bit of power we need to fit into an impossible ideal of ‘beauty.’ Here, objectification and sexualisation are working to disempower women and keep us in our place.

But queer burlesque is different.  When I perform burlesque as a fat femme I am demanding to be seen as beautiful. I get my audience to cheer me, and if they don’t, I don’t take my clothes off. Affirmation of my sexuality and beauty is central to the performance. Standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexually attractive in a world that wishes we queers didn’t exist, and does everything its power to erase us, is both feminist and empowering. And when I say erase, I don’t only mean that mainstream culture tells us we are ugly. I don’t only mean that mainstream media either presents us queers as they wish we were or leaves us out completely. By erasure I also mean that every day queers are murdered, yes, killed, for not looking and behaving how we are supposed to as good ‘men’, ‘women’ and citizens.

This is the continuum of invisibility and its horrifying logic. It starts with, ‘femmes are letting the feminist side down when they show their bodies on stage’, goes through, ‘I wish they weren’t in our community’ and ends with self-hatred, self-mutilation, starvation, suicide and murder.

Now, I’m not saying that when someone criticises queer burlesque they really wish I were dead. But, for me, as a committed feminist theorist, I see the connection between other queers saying I can’t behave in a certain way, and patriarchal ideologies also saying I can’t behave in that way, and the misogynist and homophobic hate that is both the logic and the starting point for this way of thinking and that causes self-hate and death. Sexism is both the small (personal) and the big (global). It’s both me not eating and the global scale of daily violence against women. It’s fine if you don’t like my performances, it’s even kind of OK if you think I’m a bad artist, just don’t tell me what I’m doing is inherently anti-feminist.

As a burlesque performer, I am doing my best to claim my beauty for myself and my power as a beautiful person when the patriarchy tells me that as a fat woman, lesbian and queer I am inherently ugly. As I said last week, standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexy, when people in the queer scene would rather we femmes weren’t there, is political. Being naked does not mean you are buying into objectification. Queer burlesque is empowering. It is about claiming our own sexualities in a world which says they are wrong. Watching queer burlesque is an affirmation of queer sexuality.

I remember standing at the school gates, age 7, watching an outgoing classmate playing. I, shy and introverted, wished I looked like her, wished I was her. I already thought I was fat.

Further reading:

tits and tassles by me!

i’ll show you mine… also by me :)

Fat! So? by Marilyn Wann

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

 

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