Over the last week, I’ve been following the most recent burlesque controversy regarding size discrimination in the news and on social media. In case you missed it, burlesque performer Ruby Rage has said that was dropped from a show at New Orleans burlesque club Lucky Pierre's because of her weight. While I’m heartened to see the burlesque community finally rallying around this issue, there are a number of things I find both troubling and, quite frankly, indicative of the kinds of practices and beliefs that got us here in the first place.
The New Burlesque revival presents itself as an alternative to the mainstream. From a branding perspective, it frames itself in nostalgia while embracing just enough edge and feminism to make it seem relevant and progressive. Over the last couple of decades, it’s been touted as empowering, embracing of all body types, ages, colors, and genders and as a tool for subversion using satire and sex. It has lived up to this ideal in certain respects and failed miserably in others.
In response to the recent controversy, the Burlesque Hall of Fame posted a Facebook statement containing the following quote:
To claim that there is a single “image” of beauty in burlesque is wrong, both historically and especially in the burlesque scene today. While a producer certainly has the right to decide what kind of performers s/he wants in their show, they should not be surprised to find that excluding performers on the basis of their size (or race, or height, or any other physical factor) finds little support among today’s burlesque performers and fans.
Let’s be honest. Burlesque has been dealing with the “single image” problem both historically and in the current revival. While the current incarnation isn’t always as blatantly discriminatory as its predecessors, it has most certainly carried in the iconography and business practices of yesteryear without fully airing them out or altering them. Is it any wonder that someone outside of the community would look at burlesque, past or present, and think that its most successful incarnations are thin, able-bodied, white, and cisgendered with people of different abilities, ages, genders, colors, and sizes as tokens or backdrops?
I would argue that the burlesque community will not support blatant exclusion that gets widespread news coverage. But with a few exceptions, it is perfectly fine with coded language, gatekeeping, and a lack of transparency in casting, as long as no one talks about it or owns it directly.
It’s disturbing to me that the burlesque community would be so quick to pat itself on the back while railing against a business that was honest about its questionable, discriminatory, and somewhat common policies. There are many shows, festivals, and venues in burlesque that have unspoken size restrictions, and this is tolerated because it allows burlesque to claim diversity and empowerment without having to actually do it. I applaud Ms. Blue and Ms. Rage for being vocal, standing in their convictions, and refusing to do business with Lucky Pierre’s. However, this isn’t the first time something has happened in burlesque that’s discriminatory or questionable and it most certainly won’t be the last.
I’ve seen the following arguments trotted out in defense of Lucky Pierre’s choices and other discriminatory moments in burlesque:
Indeed. What’s the saying? This ain’t show friends, it’s show business. Show business is and has been notoriously cutthroat, exploitative, and downright awful. Success in the entertainment industry is often measured by the amount of dysfunction and abuse you are willing to tolerate and who you’re willing to screw over in the pursuit of your craft, stage time, fortune, and fame.
That being said, artists are often the tastemakers, influencers, and cultural shapers. You may not have made the game, but that doesn’t mean you can’t step in and change it, or build your own game. Especially in this day and age where technology means you cannot only choose your audience, but your collaborators. You have more power than you know. You don’t have to perpetuate the same bullshit others did in order to be successful. You don’t have to treat people like shit to win and you don’t have to starve to be appreciated. Good business provides a service to the community and recognizes people as its greatest commodity.
“I will book anyone as long as they’re entertaining.”
This sounds like an honorable and admirable stance to have. However, if you don’t recognize that your tastes and experiences are biased, it isn’t worth a damn.
What is entertaining is mercurial, intangible, and subjective. Audiences and tastes are vast and varied. If you have a certain aesthetic, own it, communicate it, and be willing to deal with the criticisms that come your way. If you’re going to push the envelope, do it unabashedly and unashamedly. But do not claim diversity if you’re not actually interested in it, or only want the tokenist version of it to gain market share.
Listen to feedback and criticisms regarding diversity and examine your organization’s efforts. It’s not all hateration and butthurt. Look at your track record and see if you measure up. Hint: Hollywood isn’t a good example of diversity or progress. Learn from their vast mistakes and don’t emulate their fucked up practices.
“My audience doesn’t want to see_____________.”
Imagine greater. Producers are curators and performers are salespeople. You decide what you’re serving up. It’s you who creates the dream world and crafts the fantasy. Someone wants to see it whatever “it” is, and sometimes they don’t even know they want to see it because they’ve never seen it before. Audiences are fickle and the best way to keep them entertained is to serve up a variety of things well.
Your audience can handle new things. Trust. If it’s the venue that’s limiting you, either don’t work with them or work on filling seats so you have room to negotiate and push back when it comes to creative decisions. Most importantly, if you think it’s good, fight for it.
“There aren’t enough _________ performers who meet our standards of professionalism.”
This is where we get into that coded language. This is a rationale that sounds good at first glance. We all want to work with people who are good at what they do, pleasant to work with, and respectful of others. However, it doesn’t factor in how your biases might inform what is considered “professional.” It’s important to understand how “professionalism”, “quality,” and “respectability” have been used historically to other and exclude underrepresented performers.
Like it or not, your notions of beauty and what’s good are informed by your surroundings and society at large, and will reflect that unless you make a conscious effort to examine them. Your notions of what’s good, beautiful, and right didn’t pop out of thin air. The world is full of talented, amazing, and quality performers, and, historically, the institutions and stages that trained some of the best didn’t let people who were deserving in. That hasn’t changed much. There are, indeed, people who are worthy of your stage time and money, but you won’t necessarily find them sitting around waiting for them to come to you looking and acting exactly like you.
“Hiring isn’t fair and you should be grateful to anyone willing to hire you because they didn’t have to do it.”
This is an unacceptable mode of thinking. Being able to perform for a living is, in some respects, a blessing. However, the notion that you should be grateful for the opportunity to be exploited, dismissed, underpaid, or abused is a dangerous one and one that shouldn’t be tolerated.
Our predecessors had to fight for what they achieved against oftentimes insurmountable odds, and it is a detriment to their legacy to turn back time on their sacrifices and hard work. There is a culture of silence in burlesque and entertainment in general that allows for predatory and discriminatory practices to take hold. If we are truly to be what we say we are as a community and an industry, our tolerance for this needs to be consistently challenged.
The first step, as individual performers, is to respect and acknowledge our worth. The second is to stand beside others in solidarity when those hiring aren’t fair or accountable. This is the only way this industry is going to evolve into something that feeds our creative spirits and our collective pockets.
It is imperative that we, as a community, live up to being who we say we are, and especially before we get our pitchforks and go mob deep on the mainstream for emulating, unashamedly, what we are doing undercover.