by Anna Curry
While January 24th is not a noteworthy date for everyone in Perth, for me it signals the first day of the Fringe Festival and, therefore, act after act in show after show of burlesque. While burlesque has evolved over time, both in terms of the acts involved and its social significance, modern burlesque is inseparable from several key concepts: female empowerment, artistic expression and class. While the presence of the latter two in burlesque is entirely contingent upon the contextual specificities of the show – the acts involved, the standard of the performance, the venue, the audience etc. – and are therefore non-debatable, I take a firm objection to the popular belief that burlesque is empowering. While many will shake their heads and passionately try to convince me otherwise, I am of the opinion that burlesque is nothing more than glorified, middle-class stripping. It is self-imposed sexual objectification and therefore cannot be empowering either at an individual or at a societal level and in no way advances the feminist cause.
There is a popular fallacy about burlesque that because so much of the performance is about titillation and tease the female performer must be in position of power by virtue of her withholding actual sexual favours whilst inflaming the desires of the audience. The absence of genuine sexual availability, however, does not in any way mitigate the sexual objectification inherent to the performance of burlesque and the disempowering effect thereof. If one thinks about sex appeal more generally, the attraction is derived from the possibility of sex not sex itself. If sex remains within the realm of imagination it can be whatever the subject wishes it to be; awkwardness, poor performance and other disappointments cannot tarnish it. Titillation effectively operates along the same lines – leaving parts of the body unrevealed allows the imagination to fill in the gaps with an ideal. Thus, a burlesque performer is not a sex object in the same way a prostitute is, but she is a sexual object and is still sexually consumed and acted upon albeit in a different way.
Objectification is always dehumanising. The very notion that a woman can be empowered by being less than human is illogical. Compartmentalising a burlesque dancer into her breasts, legs, stomach etcetera reduces her to an item; a commodity. This creates an object-subject relationship whereby the audience member (the subject) is in a position of power to act upon the performer (the object); they have the power to judge, to visually consume, and to fantasise about her. Furthermore, her success as a performer is entirely dependent on the audience and their willingness to respond positively to her. She needs them far more than they need her, and this position of dependency is thoroughly disempowering. I will not contest that many women gain confidence from the positive feedback they receive while performing burlesque. However, affirmation within the context of stripping can only encourage them to value themselves as objects of the male (or heavily conditioned by the male) gaze and not as human beings.
Burlesque has also been championed by feminists as a facilitator for women expressing their sexuality. However, surely the confines of this mode of performance force women to conform to a very limited ideal of sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality on show is not sexuality for one’s own pleasure but for the enjoyment of others, in which case the performer loses possession of her sexuality as something self-fulfilling. Thereby, female sexuality, like the female body, becomes an object in need of a subject.
Opponents of my opinions may suggest (and have) that I dislike burlesque simply because I am jealous of women who are attractive, confident and “talented” enough to do it. Sure, I wish I were more confident but genuine confidence and self-worth are not achieved by relying on the attentions, gawps and whistles of a voyeuristic audience whose approval is unreliable and ephemeral. Many people will also say “Oh, get over it. It’s just a bit of fun, there’s no harm in it.” On the contrary, the more we buy into and glorify objectification and hold it up as an ideal of femininity the further away we stray from valuing women as people and thinking of them as human beings first and females second.