Spring 2022

Why burlesque is not simply sexy, but also subversive (CW: some nudity)

Burlesque empowers performers and (ideally) viewers alike to reject patriarchal norms and to help create a more inclusive society.

by Merlijn Barkema

Burlesque is an art form intricately intertwined with questions of femininity, desirability, and sexuality in a patriarchal society. It is often thought that in burlesque women perform in a “sexy” way to please the male gaze. I disagree with this view: burlesque actually holds the potential to break patriarchal norms and empower performers of all shapes and sizes by redefining what sexy means.

The idea of a “male gaze” comes from a 1975 essay by Laura Mulvey. She theorises that a gaze can hold power—it is a controlling mechanism. Mulvey observes that in Hollywood films, women are often presented as objects of desire to be gazed at by the spectators in the cinema and male characters in the film. An illusion is created in which women are passive objects for men to look at, project their fantasies on and, in doing so, exert power over.

According to criticists, women surrender themselves to the male gaze when they perform burlesque, making themselves into objects to be watched by an audience. A performance that is conventionally sexy supposedly propagates patriarchal scripts and expectations. Therefore, burlesque supposedly does not empower women, but forces them into a narrow ideal of desirability. Others, including burlesque dancers themselves, state that performing is actually empowering. So which is it?

Hurricane Hannah wears a flapper costume reminiscent of the 1920s. The roaring twenties are often referred to as a time of female empowerment and remain an important point of reference in burlesque. Photo by Sugarcoated Company shared with permission of the artist.

The difference between the points of departure of the proponents and opponents of burlesque matters. Proponents often reason from their experiences, while opponents criticize burlesque because of its influence on society-wide gendered relationships. Both perspectives should be taken into account to examine the empowering potential of burlesque. Empowerment can be split into three levels.

The first is personal empowerment, that burlesque dancers refer to. Personal empowerment is about a sense of self and individual confidence. A society-wide perspective is about collective empowerment, so collective action to make social changes. In between there is empowerment on the relational level, which is about developing the ability to influence relationships with others and decisions made within them. The experiences of Hurricane Hannah, who is active in the Dutch burlesque scene as performer and teacher, illustrate how all three levels converge in burlesque.

For her, a feeling of power comes from getting to dance, getting to be on stage: “The feeling that the stage is yours. The audience has to wait and see what you will do, whatever you do, you just own it.” This is how burlesque is empowering to the individual: being able to take up space, to shake off some, if not all, expectations of what is desirable or pleasing for a while.

Hurricane Hannah illustrates the many faces of burlesque, combining humor and confidence to transcend the confines of the patriarchal gaze. Photo by Sugarcoated Company, shared with permission of the artist.

There are infinite types of burlesque to choose from. Hannah explains that although the classic showgirl “in a corset with rhinestones and feathers on her head” is still the most visible, there is a shift towards diversification: “From showgirl, to more kinky, clownish, or housewives on fire; there are so many. I try to take a different side of burlesque every time [in workshops] to show that there is not only one kind of sexy.”

A performance is at least as much about the interaction with the audience as it is about the performer, however, especially in burlesque. Burlesque dancers gaze back at their audience, gesture, and involve them in the show, either from the stage or in closer contact with viewers. The performer can gain a sense of relational empowerment from this interaction, because they hold the power to make the crowd respond to something as little as a move of their shoulder.

The feeling of empowerment is heightened by a sense of community: “It is great to perform before people who are used to going to [burlesque] shows. […] I feel even more empowered if I get to perform for such a community.” Despite this sense of community, little collective action is undertaken. Good initiatives happen, but on a smaller scale. Hurricane Hannah would like the burlesque community to become more connected, join forces and increase its impact: “Doing everything solo limits the possibilities—one body in space is only one body in space. Imagine if you celebrate womanhood with 10 bodies in space.”

Hurricane Hannah enjoys combining different types of dance to create characters, including classical dance on pointe shoes. Photo by Sugarcoated Company, shared with permission of the artist.

Although the collective action of the burlesque scene is limited, collective empowerment is still possible. As a community, burlesque performers propagate tolerance and stretch the standards of desirability. Individual performers of so-called underground burlesque even cover taboo topics, such as abortion or rape, in their shows. The scale might be small, but the impact is large. A burlesque performer can challenge internalised ideas of their whole audience.

The burlesque community provides a place to question patriarchal standards. Performers are in charge of the stage and can perform in a way that fits them, trying out and celebrating different kinds of desirability. They reject the male gaze and the patriarchal expectations it brings, replacing them with a broader understanding of sexiness. Burlesque not only shows an alternative to oppressive scripts, but defies them with humour and grace, all while involving the audience in the performance. This makes burlesque especially empowering.

Burlesque is not about being conventionally sexy or pleasing the male gaze. It holds potential for empowerment as an individual, in relation to others or as part of a community. Taking up space on stage, dancing in a way that makes you feel sexy and gazing back at the audience can be subversive, because they are part of redefining norms for sexiness and desirability. At its best, burlesque is both sexy and subversive.

Merlijn Barkema is a research master student in History at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She has a broad interest in cultural history, including histories of activism, animals and the body. Her bachelor thesis focuses on mechanisms of literary resistance under the Ceaușescu regime in Romania as exemplified by Herta Müller’s book Niederungen.

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