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«‘Showing the girl’ F T The new burlesque Feminist Theory Copyright 2008 © SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore) vol. ...»

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‘Showing the girl’



The new burlesque

Feminist Theory

Copyright 2008 ©

SAGE Publications

(Los Angeles, London,

New Delhi, and


vol. 9(1): 47–65.


DOI: 10.1177/1464700108086363

Debra Ferreday Lancaster University http://fty.sagepub.com


This paper examines the cultural phenomenon of ‘new

burlesque’, a subculture in which young women take part in striptease performances which invoke the iconic styles and routines associated with mid-20th century cabaret. By reading burlesque websites alongside the celebrity culture and advertising, the article examines how the retro styles of dress and make-up associated with this subculture have circulated through a range of media sites as an alternative mode of femininity. By focusing on the intersections between online fan communities, popular images of burlesque, fashion, and beauty, I argue that burlesque styles involve a reclaiming of traditionally normative sites of identity production and that computer technologies are an extension of the technologies of dress, cosmetics and movements through which femininity is produced. I go on to suggest a re-framing of burlesque as a site of parody and resistance which ‘troubles’ critiques of femininity within both feminist theory and queer theory.

keywords drag, femininity, parody, performance, subculture Introduction: the new burlesque ‘Welcome tothis underground of delights,’ booms the handsome MC, downstairs in the tiny theatre. He introduces Miss Immodesty Blaize... The curvy brunette weaves her way through the tiny theatre and takes to the stage, black hat cocked over one eye, dressed in a black bustier and fishnet tights. Turning her back, and peeping coquettishly over her shoulder, she sways her hips and begins to undo her corset... Miss Blaize comes near to the end of her act, taking off her bra to reveal breasts crowned with a pair of black sequinned nipple tassels which she twirls, using shoulder action that should qualify for some sort of Olympic category of its own. (O’Connell, 2003) The scene described above could be taking place in many contexts: in the music halls of 19th-century London, the supper clubs of pre-war Berlin, or the striptease shows of 1950s America. In fact, this article in the British newspaper The Observer describes a club night at the Duke of York pub in Clerkenwell, in 2003, at which the audience consisted mainly of women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom were dressed in similar vintage styles Downloaded from http://fty.sagepub.com at University of Birmingham on March 9, 2009 48 Feminist Theory 9(1) to the performers onstage (O’Connell, 2003). Clearly, the relationship between performer and audience here was not that of a conventional striptease show.

This form of ‘new burlesque’ involves a nostalgic reworking of the striptease performances of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. In this article, I shall use the phrase ‘new burlesque’ to refer to two distinct but intertwined cultural phenomena. Firstly, contemporary burlesque subculture in which women who may be amateur or professional performers take part in staged striptease performances; and secondly, the use of ‘new burlesque’ by the fashion and beauty industries to refer to a specific vintage ‘look’, a look which, as I will show, has been widely imagined through narratives of excessive, dangerous femininity.

Contemporary burlesque subculture appears to have originated in the mid 1990s in the nightclubs of New York and especially London, with the revival of ‘supper clubs’ including Volupte, The Pigalle Club, Teatro, and Bethnal Green Workingmen’s Club. At these club nights, performers and audiences alike take part in striptease performances and dress in vintage styles. However, an important difference from earlier burlesque is that the audience is as likely to consist of women and gay men as the heterosexual men who comprised the traditional audience for such shows. What is more, the new burlesque is not limited to these particular spaces; it has also generated a wider subculture, including a highly active online community, with which I am concerned here.1 As a look, the new burlesque has become a genre of femininity that circulates across a number of social and media sites. Its most famous representative is Dita von Teese, who exemplifies the burlesque look: dyed, often dark hair, red lips, corsets, and extravagant feathered and sequinned costumes that has been widely copied by the fashion and beauty industries.2 The rise of new burlesque communities on the Web reveals the extent to which this version of femininity has been taken up as a dramatic counterpoint to what von Teese calls the ‘greasy supermodel look’ that characterizes popular ideals of femininity (2006: 43).

Although, as I shall argue, the new burlesque ‘look’ is powerful precisely because it invokes stripping as performance and practice, the focus of this article is not on the club space itself, but on the ways in which cultural spaces, particularly online spaces, allow imagery previously associated with private space to circulate and to become the basis of an emergent community. This article focuses on the intersections between online fan communities, popular images of burlesque, fashion, and beauty. If new burlesque is partly a reclaiming of traditionally normative sites of identity production, spaces on the Web can be seen as an extension of the performance space.3 Similarly, computer technologies are an extension of the technologies of dress, cosmetics and movements through which femininity is produced. Indeed, an awareness of femininity as technologically constructed is central to this subculture, in which much space is devoted to constructing, displaying and sharing feminine images. However, this version of femininity is nearly unrecognizable from the version that is constantly reproduced and circulated through women’s magazines and Downloaded from http://fty.sagepub.com at University of Birmingham on March 9, 2009 Ferreday: The new burlesque 49 advertising. Here, I am concerned with the ways in which particular images, practices and objects associated with the burlesque scene have been positioned against both mainstream femininity and a particular reading of feminist critiques of feminine identity.

I realised some time ago that I am a showgirl. When I perform it is to show the girl, whereas some performers take the approach of caricaturing or ‘burlesquing’ the girl. (Lola the Vamp) In fact, burlesque means ‘to parody or ridicule’, a fact pointed out by a central figure on the London burlesque scene, Immodesty Blaize. For Lola, however, parody is less important than ‘showing the girl’, that is, allowing a feminine identity, or ‘girlness’, to emerge through performance.

This tension between ‘burlesquing the girl’ and ‘showing the girl’ – that is, in producing a version of femininity that is parodic, but also demonstrates pleasurable attachment to a feminine identity that is lived as authentic – precisely suggests a reading of burlesque as drag performance.

My argument is that by reading new burlesque in this way, it is possible for the historic tension between feminism and femininity to be re-thought.

Burlesque powerfully dramatizes the fact that femininity is not reducible to a single object or practice: that feminine identities are multiple, and may be experienced as pleasurable. However, it is not enough simply to claim that femininity is always a source of parodic pleasure. Like drag, burlesque also works to destabilize the ways in which dominant feminine identities become normalized. Whilst performers and fans may not participate with the explicit intention of questioning normative notions of femininity, these performances, haunted by queer theory and feminism, nevertheless speak to the constructed nature of feminine identity with just as much eloquence as any male drag performance: indeed, more so, since they also dramatize an attachment to feminine identity that may be missing from drag shows.

New and old burlesque The term ‘new burlesque’ might appear to suggest a break with the old.

However, one of the defining characteristics of new burlesque communities is nostalgia for original burlesque performances, as well as a reclaiming of historical burlesque performers as proto-feminist heroines. There is a distinction here between burlesque and other forms of stripping. Originally, burlesque performances took place in theatres, not strip clubs, and involved elaborate costumes and sets together with spoken dialogue or comic routines, often performed by the striptease artists themselves (Shteir, 2004: 122–4). As Shteir notes, unlike strip clubs, the American burlesque theatre of the early 20th century could provide a route to stardom for female performers, with iconic strippers like Gypsy Rose Lee appearing alongside comedians and singers like Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson and the Marx Brothers (2004: 122). Whilst many performers were also trained dancers or singers, their role in the show was to provide ‘what Jazz Age Americans called “it” or sex appeal’ with performers competing Downloaded from http://fty.sagepub.com at University of Birmingham on March 9, 2009 50 Feminist Theory 9(1) for the most outrageous costumes, hairstyles, sets, and the most feminine walk, as well as displaying ‘wit, charm, vivacity and versatility’ (p. 122).

Burlesque was hence associated with a public display of sexuality, but a sexuality that depended first and foremost on excessive femininity of appearance and gesture. Burlesque has historically been a site of anxiety about traditional feminine roles; as Mary-Elena Buszek has observed, the burlesque performers and pin-ups of the late 19th century occupied a highly contested position which ‘negotiated a rare spectrum of gray areas between the period’s societal binary for women’ (1999: 141). By performing excessively sexualized feminine roles onstage, but also being accepted in bourgeois society as the embodiment of ideal female beauty, female performers showed that ‘between the bourgeois “true woman”... and the low-class prostitute existed alternative, unstable, and powerful roles for white women – transgressive identities that were celebrated and made visible in the theatre’ (1999: 141–2). The pin-ups of the time can thus be read as ‘representing its beautiful/beautified subjects’ as ‘... self-aware sexual beings... whose sexual identities can be self-constructed, selfcontrolled, and changing’ (1999: 160).

An important aspect of the current burlesque scene is a sense of continuity with historic performances. The desire to honour earlier performers often stems from a recognition of their importance as just such self-aware and self-creating feminine subjects who embodied resistance to the dominant feminine ideals of their time. Indeed, the front page of her website, which shows Miss Blaize gazing out at the viewer while herself the focus of a crowd of paparazzi, precisely suggests the beautified object of the camera’s gaze as self-aware sexual subject. Many current performers and fans claim continuity with earlier burlesque stars of the 19th and 20th century; indeed, von Teese’s signature act, in which she dances in a giant cocktail glass, was first performed by Lili St. Cyr in the 1940s. Immodesty Blaize attributes her love of burlesque to seeing a film about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee when she was three years old, an experience which, significantly, also inspired the comedian Paul O’Grady to develop his (excessive, working-class) drag alter ego, Lily Savage. Blaize also speaks of her admiration for another artist, Tempest Storm, who is still performing at the age of 80 (The Paul O’Grady Show, 2007), demonstrating how new burlesque is seen in terms of honouring past performers, as a performance of femininity that has survived as a symbol of earlier expressions of independence and sexual freedom. The ‘newness’ of new burlesque, then, has to do more with the context in which performances take place. The content, costumes, dance routines, all draw heavily on ‘old’ burlesque;

and, as I shall argue, embody many of the same anxieties about feminine excess.

One aspect of this ‘newness’, however, is an awareness of feminism; the question of whether burlesque is feminist or not is ever-present.4 Within the new burlesque community, there is a widespread, albeit uneasy desire to align an attachment to feminine identity performances with a commitment to feminist politics. However, this desire is troubled by an anxiety about whether burlesque is really compatible with feminism. One Downloaded from http://fty.sagepub.com at University of Birmingham on March 9, 2009 Ferreday: The new burlesque 51 performer described this tension between a desire to see herself as a feminist, and her commitment to continuing the tradition of burlesque

dancing as follows:

Early in my career I would use feminism as armour. It was my shield to those who were worried about what I was doing stripping!... [But] I’ve learnt over time that the most interesting thing about burlesque, for me, is not the ideas about feminism it answers or raises, but how many ideas, how many different aesthetics, can be poured into the form... (Lola the Vamp) The new burlesque is haunted by feminism, but the burlesque community is troubled by a sense that any cultural practice that makes visible an attachment to feminine identity is always already irreconcilable with feminism. However, whilst performers may feel excluded from explicitly claiming feminism as an identity – in much the same way as their 19th century forebears were forbidden to discuss sexuality openly – an awareness of the problematic relationship between feminism and feminine identity practices is always in the background, part of the shared history of the community. The staging of femininity in burlesque performances is hence associated with a history of women’s liberation and sexual freedom that is inseparable from excessively feminine identity performances.

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