Chapter One – Setting the Stage: An Introduction to Burlesque
Why Study Burlesque?
Like many feminist academics, my motivations for pursing a study on burlesque entertainment are personal, academic, and political. I had known for quite some time that I was fascinated by style and sexuality-based subcultures and the possibilities they seemed to offer for transgressive expressions of gender and sexual identities; however, this interest only coalesced into an idea for an Honours thesis on burlesque entertainment after I had a singular experience as a burlesque performer in 2009. For a number of years, I had been involved as a performer in a local production which I can only describe as a blood-stained, punk-rock, fetish-inspired variety show: “Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors.” In 2009, I was cast in a burlesque act called, “Cycle Sluts From Hell;” the role required that I step outside of my comfort zone by acting and dancing in a considerably more aggressive manner than was typical for me; I found that the sensual belly-dance inspired movements I’d relied upon in previous performances were ill-suited to communicate the personality of the hell-raising, sexually assertive, demonic biker-chick I named, “Rhea Revolver.” However, I was schooled in the arts of sexually assertive dance movements by the troupe leader, and by opening night I had learned how to occupy space on stage. While engaged in the performance, I found it exhilarating, and dare I say, empowering, to publically release my already tenuous hold on demure femininity; I inhabited a grotesque caricature of femininity that was at once terrifying and unabashedly sexual. “Rhea Revolver” was at once me, but not me.
After that experience, I found that I could take everything else off, but the academic’s hat remained. Stepping back and taking a more sober view, I could determine evidence of the external factors that shaped my subjective experience of “liberation.” Advertisements for the liquor company that sponsored the event reminded me that I had not stepped outside of the capitalist system, but was somehow intimately caught up within it. Yet what was that sense of fulfillment I experienced on stage? Was I really as powerful as I felt, or had a cocktail of sexualized attention, restrictive footwear, pheromones, and adrenaline given me a terrible case of “false consciousness”? I had taken enough political science, sociology and women’s studies classes by that point to understand that whatever sense of “self” I held existed in relation to economic, social, and discursive systems, even if it was not circumscribed by factors outside of my experience entirely. As an academic, instead of adding that experience to the running mental tab of the neat things I’ve done with my life, I sought to understand it in a more systematic way. I wanted to understand how the relationship between the aforementioned systems and my understanding of self worked; I wanted to know if other women danced through the contradictions, or if they even thought that there were any tensions between considering oneself to be a feminist (or a smart, self-aware woman, if they did not identify as “feminist”) and taking one’s clothes off on stage with the goal of telling a story through the use of an eroticized female body. I wanted to know how other women experienced this darkly beautiful world, to determine if any aspects of my own experience were shared by others.
Why study a fragmented, marginal community, one that cannot be readily understood as a subculture, let alone a deviant one? Although the discourse of “deviance” sometimes circulates through the community itself, I see the community and the cultural artifacts it generates not only as a fantasy space in which one can leave behind the limitations of the “mundane” world (as members of the subculture sometimes suggest, and the shows’ advertising would have one believe); I see these as the “perversions” that sets the “mundane” into sharp relief, the looking-glass that highlights the fissures and points of consensus within Western, post-modern society at large. This thesis is the result of my attempts to start a conversation about women’s experiences and motivations as “sexualized” performers in general.
History of Burlesque in North America
European Theatre Meets the American Bawdy House
Burlesque is a form of comedic entertainment that became popular in the 19th Century (Nally, 2009, p. 622). According to Nally (2002), early performances included dancing, singing, minstrelsy, dialogue, political commentary, and parody, in addition to striptease performances (Nally, 2009, p. 622). According to Ross (2009), early striptease performers were influenced by north-African belly dancers, Hindu erotic dancers, and Brazillian snake dancers (Ross, 2009, pp. 5-6). According to Ross (2009), some American and Canadian burlesque entertainers were regarded as paragons of heterosexual, white, feminine beauty, yet generally considered to be indecent and vulgar and blamed for criminal activity in urban centers prior to World War 2 (Ross, 2009, 6-10). Therefore, these acts tended to draw the scorn of religious authorities, censors, political authorities, and early women’s groups; as a result, theatres in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver faced increased police surveillance and forced closures (Ross, 2009, pp. 6-9). However, after the war, the post-war economic boom, as well as changing social mores in regards to sex, helped to promote demand for sexualized entertainment such as striptease (Ross,2009, pp. 12-15).
Neo-Burlesque Emerges From the Back Room
In recent years, burlesque has experienced a “revival” in popular culture as well as within subcultures focused on style, politics, or sexual orientation (Nally, 2009, p. 621). While “popular” performers in particular tend to focus on provocative displays of the female body, others use burlesque to engage in social critique or political commentary (Nally, 2009, pp. 621-3). Some contemporary performers do so by parodying gender norms to explore the possibility of a “third” gender, or use exaggeration, drag, and camp to ridicule these norms (Nally, 2009, pp. 624-5). Others participate in burlesque in order to re-create their gender and sexual identity, and navigate feelings of powerlessness (Nally, 2009, p. 634). To the extent that burlesque provides a forum to engage in critique, some feminists see this as a potentially transgressive activity and form of resistance (Nally, 2009). However, where some feminists see a self-conscious demonstration of agency and creativity, others suggest that these performances represent a “nostalgic” desire for the stable gender relations of a past era (Nally, 2009, pp. 632). They view contemporary burlesque performers’ use of the female body, as well as their tendency to co-opt 1950’s-era models of femininity as indications of a normative view of womanhood, not a transgressive re-construction (Nally, 2009, p. 632, 634).
Neo-Burlesque in Calgary
Local performers incorporate striptease, “retro” and “fetish” costuming, humour, parody, and drag into their performances. To an extent, the “early” association of burlesque with “lowbrow” culture survives in local expressions. Performances are often staged in nightclubs and bars, are aimed at “adult” audiences, and have been censored by local bodies such as the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. Marketing materials tend to focus on the striptease elements of the shows and align burlesque troupes with an “underground” culture. At the same time, my research suggests that performers and attendees alike are drawn from various socio-economic backgrounds, and often participate in full or part-time employment or educational opportunities in addition to their activities within the “subculture”. Although not all of the informants indicated affiliation with a particular subculture, those who did participated in the local GBLTQ and BDSM communities, as well as the professional arts community. In addition, respondents suggested that that at least half or more audience members are women, depending on the performance.
Situating Myself as a Feminist Researcher
The purpose of this section is to determine how the privileges I experience, and the interests, biases, and experiences I enjoy as a result, shape the knowledge I produce. Feminist researchers assume the power relations within and outside the academy shape the research process and knowledge production at every turn. Some feminist researchers use standpoint theory to explain the relationship between society, power, and knowledge (Sprague, 2005). According to Harding (as cited by Sprague, 2005), a standpoint is a physical/social location that gives one potential to develop insight into the social world based on resources available to make sense in that location (Sprague, 2005, p. 68). Like social constructionists in general, standpoint theorists question whether it is possible to discover the “objective” truth of an object of study (Sprague, 2005, p. 32-3). However, unlike “strong” social constructionists and post-modernists, standpoint theorists presume that an objective truth can be gleaned from a combination of various standpoints (Sprague, 2005). This epistemological position is not simply one’s subjective view of the world; in order to develop a standpoint, one must come to understand one’s own idiosyncratic experience as a result of group experiences of privilege, marginalization, and exclusion (Sprague, 2005). According to Sprague (2005), epistemological positions are political, since they suggest who can know and potentially exclude others (Sprague, 2005). Since critical and feminist researchers are on some level committed to ameliorating inequality and exclusion, they have an obligation to consider the ways in which their own thinking may cause them to overlook and discount other valid ways of knowing as they engage in the research process (Sprague, 2005).
What is my own social location? According to Sprague (2005), a researcher’s social location is not usually straightforward (Sprague, 2005). My role as an undergraduate student within the academy puts me a relatively privileged position, since I am part of the system that produces “legitimate” knowledge, I have access to material benefits to which I would not be entitled otherwise, and I am allowed to adopt various discourses through which I can understand and explain my own experiences and those of others. However, as much as I believe my disciplinary location has enriched my own understandings, it will likely surprise no one when I suggest that this location itself is not the most prestigious or widely heard within the university and outside of it. Similarly, my gender and class background are less privileged, and as a result I am more likely to find “oppositional” discourses to have explanatory value, and to believe that gender and class are significant influences on individual experience, even if it is impossible to determine any structuring or causal relationship between these factors. Taken together, the social locations I occupy, and the discourses to which I have access as a result, illuminate some aspects of the social world and cause me to be oblivious towards others.
My class location, gender identity, and disciplinary location have come together to shape my research interests and experiences outside of the academy. I relate to Bruckert’s (2002) experience of being an “outsider within” the academy; when I put on my “knowledge producer” hat, I feel somewhat “at home” within the institution, yet my class position did not provide the material resources, nor the social and cultural capital required in order to navigate the system readily (Bruckert 2002, p. 2). Taking Sprague’s (2005) notions of “resources” into account, I understand that my experiences growing up within a single-mother family give me the intellectual resources to understand ideas like “systemic inequality” and “patriarchy” (Sprage, 2005). Growing up outside of the institution of marriage gave me the resources to relate to the critiques of sexual norms made by “pro-sex” feminists, and to find the class analysis of these arguments to be limited as well. My experiences during “secondary socialization” have informed my main research interest (put very broadly): the relationship between history, social structure, discourses, and individual and group performances of gender and sexuality.
In addition, I enter this research as somewhat of an insider within the style/music, GBLTQ, and BDSM subcultures that have supported the development of a burlesque “scene” in Calgary. I have participated in burlesque performances myself, do a bit of modeling, and have some dance experience. This has its epistemological advantages; since I shared a language and experiences with some of the informants, discussions on these topics led to many useful insights. It also had practical advantages, allowing me to establish rapport based on shared experiences and interests. However, my position as an insider also proved to be a barrier to knowledge, since I walked into the interviews assuming that my own observations and experiences as a subculture member would be relevant to informants. These assumptions framed my results; throughout the interview process, I had to balance the practical objective to “make conversation” and focus on the topics that were directly relevant to my research with the epistemological and ethical imperative to allow respondents’ ideas to come to the fore. I also realized that I held uncomfortable, unconscious stereotypes as a result of my own experiences within the subculture. I will discuss the benefits and limitations of the “insider” perspective in greater detail when I discuss research methods in Chapter Three. Suffice it to say that this particular social location did not always provide the advantages that qualitative researchers and those interested in subcultures may tend to assume.
Looking Ahead: Main Arguments and Chapter Breakdown
Within this thesis, I will explore participants’ experiences of gender and sexuality within their off-stage lives, and in regards to their involvement in burlesque dancing. I will argue that burlesque was meaningful to participants primarily because performing and interacting with audiences allowed them to re-imagine their “ordinary” bodies as sexy and beautiful, in contrast to cultural messages which tend to suggest that only women who fit into narrow ideals of beauty have sex appeal.
To this point, I have explained my interest in this topic, outlined a brief history of burlesque in general, provided a sketch of the local community, provided an overview of the ways in which my social location provides epistemological advantages and disadvantages. In Chapter Two: Turn Up the Lights, I will present an outline of the literature relevant to this topic. In Chapter Three: The Tease, I will provide an overview and explanation of my methodological choices. Using Sprague’s (2005) consideration of the relationships between “knowing and doing” to frame my discussion of research methods, I will state the assumptions that underlie my theoretical frames, and relate these to my choices of methods (Sprague, 2005). I will then discuss my sampling method and interview techniques themselves, engage in a detailed discussion of the benefits and limitations of insider research, and reflect on the ways in which the relationships I developed throughout the interview process informed my findings. In Chapter Four: The Reveal, I will present my findings by exploring the following topics: participants’ early experiences and ideas in regard to their gender and sexual identities; the life events that shaped participants’ past and present ideas in regards to their gender and sexual identities; the influence of burlesque on their self-concepts as gendered and sexual beings; finally, I will explore the ways in which the participants understand burlesque and exotic dance, and strategies they employ in order to navigate the “stripper stigma.” In Chapter Six: Closing Time, I will provide a summary of my main arguments, offer a reflection on what I’ve learned as a result of engaging in this process, and provide a number of promising areas for future research on this topic. Finally, one will find the interview guide, the poster I used to recruit participants online, as well as the informed consent document I used during the course of this study in the Appendices.
Bruckert, C. (2002). Taking It Off, Putting It On: Women in the Strip Trade. Toronto: Women’s Press.
Nally, C. (2010). Grrly Hurly Burly: Neo-Burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice, 23(4), 621-643.
Ross, B. (2009). Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, and Sin in Postwar Vancouver. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.
Sprague, J. (2005). Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.