Dance Macabre: Performances of Gender and Sexuality within Sub-cultural Spaces

Proposed Topic of Study

I am interested in studying “burlesque” subcultures to determine why local women are engaging in a practice that can alternatively be read as a “simplistic display of the flesh” or a form of social critique (Nally, 2009, p. 622).  Arguably, the local burlesque subculture does both; it is exemplified by groups such as the Fake Moustache Drag King Troupe, and those involved in the annual variety show “Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors.” Although some burlesque troupes perform gender in more or less “straightforward” ways, others take up the art form’s historical use of satire, “performing” gender in ironic, “campy,” exaggerated, or “humorous” ways to critique gender norms (Nally, 2009, pp. 622 – 3,631 – 3). I am interested in understanding why local women are engaging in these practices. Do they offer a form of “freedom” from conventional femininity, allowing women to embrace “composite” sexualities and explore their desires (as some theorists claim)(Nally, 2009, p. 628)? What are these performances intended to signify within these subcultures, and how are they taken up by those outside the subculture (ie, by friends outside of these subcultures, co-workers, authority figures)? How do women negotiate their sexualized “subculture” identities with other social roles? Although “burlesque” groups in the UK and United States have received some attention from academics (and feminists), this project presents an opportunity to understand how local women are engaging with broader cultural trends.

Working Literature Review

From the literature I have reviewed so far, it seems like the topic of “sexualized self-presentations” (typified in neo-burlesque, as well as websites such as Suicide Girls, God’s Girls, etc) tend to be studied from a “post-structuralist feminist” and/or “critical race feminist” perspective (Magnet, 2007, p. 577; Nally, 2009, p. 622). Many of these perspectives discuss possibilities for agency within these “cultural” practices, yet express anxiety about the “libratory” potential of such practices when “subculture identities” have become commodified, and “meaning-making” of women’s identity work is an intersubjective process (and thus not entirely within individual women’s purview) (Magnet, 2007, p. 593, Nally, 2006, pl 621; Pitts, 2003, p. 73). On the other hand, the study of “body modification” itself is not always explicitly framed in “feminist” or “post-structuralist” terms; some approaches to the study of body modification “de-emphasize” these “politicized” readings, to focus on the ways in which “body projects” facilitate and gain meaning within social “figurations” (Atkinson, as cited by Pitts, 2004, pp. 382-3). Of course, there are also interesting perspectives from feminism and queer theory (Pitts, 2003, p. 87). The concept of the “queered body” might provide a useful way to read some of the more “non-heteronormative” gender work I might come across in my study (Pitts, 2003, p. 91).

Preliminary Research Questions:

  • Do these women’s  “performances of femininity” constitute a self-conscious “performance” of gender?
  • What meanings are encoded onto burlesque performers’ gendered, sexualized, and possibly modified bodies?
  • How are these messages “read” by women themselves, other subculture participants, and those outside the subculture?
  • Are these projects/performances indented to “subvert” the male gaze?
  • Are these women engaged in “stylistic,” “discursive” or “behavioural” resistance, or some combination of all of these (LeBlanc, 1999, pp. 17 – 18)?
  • Do they “succeed” in doing so (and what constitutes “success”)?
  • How and why do women engage with “grotesque” representations of femininity (Braunberger, as cited by Magnet, 2007, p. 581)?
  • Do women experience burlesque performances as acts of sexual transgression or eroticism (Pitts, 2003, p. 99)?

Preliminary Methods:

Qualitative Interview:

  • Population: women involved in body modification and burlesque subcultures in Calgary
  • Sampling method: Purposive/judgmental or snowball sampling; ie, “word of mouth”, postings on Facebook and mailing lists ) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 134 – 5)
  • Obtain 3 – 5 participants
  • One semi-structured interview with each participant, one hour in length (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
  • Topics: how do they define/describe themselves, personal or social significance of body modification, experiences within either the “burlesque” or “body modification” subcultures, gender identification, whether or not gender is important in one’s “embodied practices,” how they feel about their social location (as a “woman,” “performer,” “body modifier” etc.), experiences of sexual harassment/abuse as a result of their “different” identities (presuming they describe themselves as such)
  • Possible questions/prompts:
    • Can you tell me about experiences within (a particular “scene”)? (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • How did you develop/create (a body modification or performance)?
    • Tell me more about (an experience/concept the participant identified) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • What does (a symbol such as an article of clothing, a particular body modification, or an event such as a performance) mean to you?
    • How do you think women typically experience (a scene, body modification, performance)?
    • Do you think women tend to experience sex/sexuality differently than men? In what ways?

Working Bibliography

Baxter, L.A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The Basics of Communication Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leblanc, L. (1999). Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture. Piscastaway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Magnet, S. (2007). Feminist Sexualities, Race, and the Internet: An Investigation of SuicideGirls.com. New Media and Society, 9(4), 577 – 602. Doi: 10.1177/1461444807080326

Nally, C. (2009). Grrrly Hurly Burly: Neo-Burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice, 23(4), 621 – 643. Doi: 10.1080/09502360903000554

Pitts, V.L. & Atkinson, M. (2004). Review Symposium: Health and Body Modification. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Heath, Illness, and Medicine, 8(3), 373 – 386. Doi: 10.1177/1363459304043479

Pitts, V.L. (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.