Thursday, May 24, 2012

'House of Burlesque’ at London Wonderground – 23rd May 2012

Burlesque is a tricky one.  On one hand I like the retro aesthetics, the playfulness, the subversion and satire.  On the other hand, for all that is trumpeted about female empowerment it is still women taking their clothes off in front of a whooping crowd.

The London Wonderground is part of the ‘Udderbelly’ temporary area near the London Eye on the South Bank.  It’s quite nice down there, at least on a Wednesday night anyway (I suspect it might be a bit more crowded on a Friday).  The Wonderland area is decked out in wood in a sort of Americana themed way.  Customers can sit in model dodgem cars, sipping their drinks from plastic cups surrounded by cheesecakey retro 50s pinup pictures.   The stage area seems to be a cross between a circus tent and an old Western saloon.  For a temporary setup it’s pretty impressive, although on a night like this, hot, sticky and humid.  But, if you’re going to sit around watching girls dance about with very little on it seems strangely appropriate for it to be all steamy and hot under the collar.

I’ve been to a few burlesque shows before, but this was probably the most professional and elaborate.  Of the two I’ve seen before, one took place in a working men’s club, and the other in a burlesque club called 'Volupte' in the City.  This was more of a corporate, slick affair.  This company, “the House of Burlesque” has toured the world, and won prizes at the Edinburgh Festival.  Its members have performed with burlesque legend Dita von Teese.  It is, as far as burlesque companies go, one of the big fish.

The individual performances were pretty varied.  There was the expected 20s/30s style retro feather waving stripteases, but there were also circus acts involving ten hulahoops spun at once, a woman acrobatically swinging out over the audience, there were comedy numbers – a sort of quasi-mime strip, and a magic act.  There is no denying that these women are talented.  All of them were enjoyable to watch, and in all of the performances the personality (or the stage persona at any rate) of the performer was accentuated.  I can’t deny that I was entertained the whole time.

But I find certain elements of burlesque problematic.  From what I gather, feminist arguments for burlesque are along the lines that it is a celebration of the female body rather than an exploitation of it.  The ‘tease’ subverts and satirises cultural expectations of how women ‘should’ act.  Additionally, within burlesque a wide range of body types are celebrated and the stick-thin waifish body type prevalent in the media supposedly has little sway here: burlesque is portrayed as age and weight inclusive.  The fact that burlesque is performed to the ‘male gaze’ does not, as such, imply that the woman is exploiting her body, rather that the performer is in control of the reactions of the audience.  It is a way in which women can behave in an overtly aggressive and sexual manner in a public arena.

I can sympathise with nearly all these arguments.  There is nothing remotely wrong with celebrating the female body.  Societies that seek to repress female bodily imagery tend to be repressive theocracies.  The fact that the current cultural model of attractiveness is the skinny waif is actively harmful in terms of encouraging eating disorders.  Burlesque has its roots in satirising the behaviour of the upper-class, so it has a good pedigree in subversion.  The creative director of ‘House of Burlesque”, Tempest Rose, says she “strongly believes in the empowerment of women worldwide to be free to express their creativity and personality without fear, judgment or oppression”.   Who can argue with that?

Despite all this I can’t help but shake the feeling that burlesque does more reinforcing of gender roles than subverting them.  The vast majority of performers at the Wonderground were slim and conventionally attractive.  I think it is extremely telling that the only performer that didn’t do some kind of striptease was a woman of size, who kept her clothes on and did a mock magic comedy routine.  Why is this?  It seems to me that there is a very narrow line of between satirising the male gaze, and pandering to it.  Even though the entire tone of the act is that the girls are in charge, they only have as much power as has been granted to them by their audience.  How would the audience have reacted if the fat performer had been aggressively sexual towards them?  I don’t know, because it didn’t happen.  If it had happened that would have been genuinely subversive, and would have actually pushed some boundaries.   It seems a bit shallow to promote diversity, and then have all of your stripteases being performed by women occupying a very narrow definition of conventional attractiveness.

It is interesting that the audience seemed to be fairly equally split along gender lines.  It wasn’t even the case that the women were there with male companions – there were groups of women there together to watch it.  I have never been to a dedicated strip club, but I’d hazard a guess that you don’t get too many groups of women in there.  Burlesque has managed to gain a certain level of acceptability in society.  When my colleagues at work asked me what I’d done with my night I didn’t feel any shame at all telling them I’d been to a burlesque show, and they took it in stride as if I’d been out to see a musical or concert.  What if I’d told them I’d spent the night in a strip club?  Would they have been so blasé?  Why is one category of women taking their clothes off in public to music socially acceptable and one isn’t?

I suspect the acceptability of burlesque boils down to class.  Burlesque is also something seen as being done “for fun”, while being straightforward stripping is something that society sees as shameful, as a last resort for purely economic reasons.  Modern burlesque is safely middle-class, a way for people to dip their toe into the waters of experimental sexuality without immersing themselves in it or making any kind of commitment.  It is possible to enjoy burlesque at an ironic distance. A pole-dancing club is more overtly sleazy, they don’t slather on the irony when it comes to the female body.  In many ways it’s  more honest in its titillation.

So I’m torn.  On one hand I had a genuinely fun night watching talented girls performing highly skilled and imaginative acts.  On the other hand, I find modern burlesque somewhat hypocritical in its philosophy.  This performance did not practise what it preached.  It offered a shrink-wrapped, easily consumable form of safe and socially acceptable transgression.  It pushes far too weakly against mainstream gender roles. The burlesque philosophy of female empowerment via celebrating the physical body seems shallow and plays right into the patriarchal notion that the primary indicator of a woman’s worth is her appearance.  Somehow, it feels like true empowerment should be based on character and personal achievements rather than getting a roomful of people to hoot and holler while nipple tassels are shaken.

I should add that I don't think it is impossible to put on a burlesque performance that is genuinely subversive and explores interesting themes, but this wasn't it.  

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