Monday, March 29, 2010

My thoughts on burlesque, substantiated by Rae Armantrout

On Friday, I saw my first burlesque show. On Saturday, I read the April issue of Poetry, which includes a Rae Armantrout poem called "Soft Money." This is how it begins:

They're sexy
because they're needy,
which degrades them.

They're sexy because
they don't need you.

They're sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they're lying,
which degrades you.

They're beneath you
and it's hot.

Is this poem about stripping? Maybe. Probably not. I've been to a strip club, and I've been to a burlesque show. I can only comment on the performance as a heterosexual female audience member, not as anyone with experience, or an education in the history of the striptease. But here are some things I'm thinking, and putting out there for debate:

1. (true/false) Strippers are stupid because they just take off their clothes for men; burlesque dancers are smarter than strippers because they know men want them to take off their clothes so they do it slower and with more jokes.
2. It can be sexier to conceal than reveal.
3. (true/false) Burlesque is empowering to women. (Why?)
4. What is sexy? Says who?
5. I love the stanza: "They're sexy because they pretend / not to need you," because this seems to epitomize sexiness for me. A nonchalant performance is way sexier than a nervous one. But, ultimately, "they" do need "us." The performer doesn't exist without an audience.
6. Interesting that so many burlesque audiences are female and/or gay.


Andrés Norman Castro A. said...

The only "burlesque" show I´ve been to, was here, in my third-world country. I think it was just a fake name to get the authorities off the owners back: It was regular stripping.

I agree with your idea of sexiness: being attractive without giving it much importance. That is why I really like Gabourey Sidibe. (F***k Vanity Fair)

Leigh Stein said...

Interestingly, Iceland, a "world leader in feminist politics" has outlawed strip clubs:

Boots said...

I don't think the difference between stripping and burlesque has anything to do with being smart or dumb. There are strippers who dance to put themselves through school. I think the biggest difference is the amount of control the performer has. Stripping is all about doing what the, mostly men, in the audience want. With stripping men essentially write the act. Most strippers strip not because it's fun, but because they need a way to support themselves. The sexier you are to the men in the audience the more money you have to support yourself and possibly your kids. Even if what you're doing makes you feel dirty and degraded. Most of the burlesque dancers I know do not make a living off of it. It's something they do because it's fun, creative, and makes them feel good. With burlesque the performer is in control, and most people I know who enjoy burlesque shows don't go to them to get turned on. They go because they're campy, and funny, and sparkly. Yes there's nudity, but it's presented in a way that, compared to the hyper sexualized images we see of women all over the media, is refreshingly quaint. As a woman, I also appreciate the opportunity to see a range of body types that I'm not exposed to on TV, in tabloids, or in conventional porn. Other than in the locker room or in the mirror, most women don't typically get to see naked female bodies in person. My first burlesque show was a refreshing reminder that I don't have to have a body like Megan Fox or Jessica Alba to be sexy and beautiful.

Leigh Stein said...

Thanks for writing this, Boots. I think this is a clear-cut difference I hadn't thought of: "With stripping men essentially write the act." And the money comes from manufacturing these fantasies, not from the women-created striptease acts, which are more performance driven than economically motivated.

Anonymous said...

also you met me that day!

Kendra Grant Malone said...

i have had many close friends who have been strippers for a living. More than one might expect, these women claimed to have enjoyed what they do. Many of these same women were getting masters at schools as accredited as columbia. There is no good reason to generalize strippers into one solid person, especially one who is dumb, degraded, desperate and less entitled than other forms of sex work such as burlesque.

both stripping and burlesque can be empowering and degrading in different ways. it has nothing to do with the nature of the act, but everything to do with context and circumstances of the woman involved.

Leigh Stein said...

Thanks for responding to this, Kendra. I know I was being intentionally provocative and ignorant. But you narrow my question even further: in which contexts is each degrading or empowering? Does it have to do with audience? With money? With choice?

Eric Ziegenhagen said...

The burlesque I've seen that seemed degrading was so for reasons akin to bad theater: unflattering lighting, a poorly thought-out show, a gap between intention and execution.

The stripping I've seen that seemed degrading was so for reasons akin to waiting tables: the server has a job that requires being stuck in front of, and interacting, with disrespectful people.

So either it's that one is closer to art and the other is closer to commerce (in its conventions), or that they are two different kinds of conversations.

kristy bowen said...

Maybe it's the money factor that determines the difference. Taking your clothes off for money vs. taking your clothes off because you want to or in the context of performance. Doing anything you don't want to do for money seems to be degrading in various degrees, probably no more so than any other menial thing one might do solely for cash, naked or not.

Theflickeringeyeball said...

I've seen these burlesque shows because I dated a woman who was into it. That should say something right there. It seems to be more of a therapy session for women who like to package sexuality in the form of humor to make it appear less threatening. The result is that it's neither funny nor sexy. Whatever value it holds I don't think it is something that I, as a heterosexual male, can identify with in first person. Personally, I would find just about any female sporting event infinitely more erotic. Sure it's not squalid like stripping. I don't think that's saying a whole lot though. There are a lot of things that appear to me to be silly without being squalid. I wish women would just go ahead and make friends with sex and sexual appetite instead of always having to turn sex into a form of something else in order to legitimize it. It doesn't need to be legitimized.