UNPOPULAR OPINION: Burlesque Isn’t Just Sexist, It’s BORING

Can I please leave the house without being forced to endure yet another fancy strip show?
Publish date:
September 18, 2013
sexism, burlesque

Often when we criticize burlesque, we are accused of being prudish, uptight, or "anti-sex." As someone who's been to many burlesque performances (often against my will), my general reaction tends to be: "I came here to watch a band, why are there naked girls on stage?" or "Holy crap, these people are bad dancers."

I am all for you having fun. And if naked-on-a-stage-in-sequins-and-feathers is fun for you, that’s great. But the resurgence of burlesque over the past decade grates on me, for a few reasons:

1. The insistence that strip shows are "feminist" or "activism" because they take place outside of strip clubs and include sequins and feathers. Here is a mantra I like to use: “Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist.” This does not mean you have to stop doing it, -- it simply means you aren’t literally freeing women from the oppressive system of patriarchy with your pasties.

2. Please stop imposing these performances on us. We are just trying to eat dinner/watch a band. Surprise burlesque is more awkward than it is thrilling.

3. Getting naked, on stage, for an audience, to music, is possibly the least original idea anyone's ever had. Be less boring.

Naked Ladies On Stage has been a popular pastime for eons. We are accustomed to seeing women's bodies as a form of entertainment, and as sexy objects whose purpose are to sell things like beer and socks.

I will never argue that women should either cover up, or that they should not enjoy and be proud of their bodies. I hate pants just as much as the next lady, and there are many occasions you will likely be able to see down my shirt, including Christmas, at the bar, and on Mondays. I do not hate your boobs.

BUT! When nudity is a performance for the male gaze, I fail to see how this is either revolutionary, interesting, or something that goes well with dinner. 

A friend of mine texted me recently from a local bar/restaurant: "Accidentally watching burlesque now. It's so fucking uncomfortable." My friend went on to say that they went out for dinner and it was suddenly announced that a burlesque show was starting. "We couldn't leave because we hadn't fucking paid yet," she added.

Her brother said it was the most uncomfortable he had ever felt during a meal. "She took off almost all her clothes in a tiny restaurant... None of us can figure out why they didn't say anything until it was starting."

I've had a number of similar experiences. At a folk music festival, a local musician feels the need to surround himself by be-thonged ladies for no apparent reason; at a bar, watching some bands, unsure as to why we have to watch women strip in between sets; at a birthday party, suddenly everyone is trapped in a small space, awkwardly trying to figure out where to look as a woman strips for the room. It feels rude leaving in the middle of a performance (though I did).

Every time I write anything critical about burlesque someone tells me I'm just not watching the right burlesque shows, and that real burlesque shows are subversive and empowering and fun! They say I must be NOTFUNORSEXY if I can't get into it.

One woman told a friend, after I walked out, mid-performance, offended and uncomfortable, that I was just “jealous” I wasn’t the center of attention. Ah yes, that classic trope. The only possible reason a woman could be critical of anything another woman does is jealousy. CAT FIGHT!

What is “real” burlesque if it isn’t the dozen or so performances I’ve watched over the years? I've seen both "professional" and "amateur" performances at both mainstream and “alternative” venues, as well as, of course, on television. How many of these shows do I need to watch in order to be sufficiently qualified to say that watching a bunch of white girls with tattoos (no dis to the tattooed, but thanks to Suicide Girls we seem to think tattoos and piercings are patriarchy-killers) getting naked on a stage for a cheering audience is still about objectifying women’s bodies and, beyond that, these shows are, honestly, boring?

Lady after lady after lady walking on to a stage, dancing around for two minutes before stripping down to her thong and shaking her ass (albeit with different props than the lady who proceeded her) is not creative, interesting, or revolutionary. The only difference between strippers and burlesque dancers is that burlesque dancers are well-off enough to call their strip shows a "hobby."

If I want to see a strip show, I'll go to a strip club. But do you think it might be ok for us to eat dinner or go to the bar without having to endure an hour of weak-ass choreography that NO ONE WOULD EVER WATCH if it weren't served with a side of ass?

Why do girl trends always have to be about getting naked or pole dancing? Why does female “art” or performance still have to be about performing for the male gaze? When do we get a new trend? Tassels and top hats feel so old-news to me.