Yes, Burlesque is Feminist
I have finally made sense of this contradiction — and it’s all thanks to the Taliban.
I was at a burlesque show, one of many shows I have attended. Also attending were a couple, mutual friends of mine and a few of the performers. It came up that this was the first burlesque show they had attended, and we were talking about why. I made the statement, repeating what I had been told, really, that neoburlesque* is an act of feminism. He took on a dismissive face and contradicted me, laying out his argument, which was basically that burlesque objectifies women.
It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t the opinion of nobody. He is very well read among the writings and philosophy of feminism, and it was essentially his area of study. I think he may have even done a doctoral thesis related to feminism. On the other hand, he is also very conservative in many ways, and I believe he makes his living now teaching at a Catholic seminary. Anyway, he had credentials on the topic of feminism, and I felt like he was dismissing me and the entire burlesque community as being foolishly misguided with the rationalization that neoburlesque is feminist.
I chewed on that for a long time. (Heck, it was probably eight or ten years ago.) I’m certainly no expert on feminism, and I could believe that the entire burlesque community was choosing to see things a certain way.
His argument was essentially that burlesque is an act of objectification. Performers get up on stage and present themselves in a way that is sexual and desirable. If a person is an object, they are less of a person. That certainly isn’t equality. It is subjugating themselves to (mostly) men.
The statement I’ve heard from many burlesque performers is that it is empowering. The performers are able to express themselves in a way that they have previously felt was off limits. The audience feels this with them vicariously. They can do what they want, and if they want to be sexual, then it is an act of feminism to break the social barriers preventing them.
I haven’t known how to choose between those two. If women break social barriers to objectify themselves, is that really feminism? Or is it just some rebellious hedonism, pretending to be something more noble?
Last month, the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan. It got me doing some historical research, and I learned that the goal of the Taliban had been to unravel the cycle of violence of sectarian warlords by enforcing strict adherence to (a conservative interpretation of) Muslim teachings, so-called Sharia law. A huge part of that is about the relationship between men and women, sexual purity, and so on.
Pondering these things led to my Virgin Theory of Breaking Repressive Regimes (which I’ll have to post here sometime). It basically recognizes that men, driven by sexual insecurity, control the sexual behavior of women for the purpose of ensuring that men never have to worry about having their sexual performance compared to that of other men, because they are the only man that their wives have ever been with. Social repression is primarily sexual repression, and as far as I can tell, the sexual repression of all cultures that engage in it is consistent with this theorized goal.
Anyway, sexual repression is controlling women. The methods used to control women vary from shame to stoning. Shaming women is the primary method, and our modern American culture is rife with it.
So back to burlesque. The barrier that is being broken by neoburlesque is the stigma (and sometimes actual legal statutes) of openly acknowledging sexuality. There’s nothing wrong with a woman being sexual, of course, unless you are trying to control women. ALL of the shame and pressure (and legal statutes) that forbid or limit sexuality of women are part of a system intended to subjugate women to men. When a woman defies all of those pressures, she is empowered because she — or at least her sexuality — is no longer under the control of men.
What about objectification? If she is defying the control of men by making herself a sexual object of men, is that really equalizing and empowering? Well, in fact, being sexual is not the same as being an object. It only seems that way if you are accustomed to treating women as objects for the purpose of your own sexual gratification. A woman does not stop being a person when she expresses herself sexually. It is a mistake to believe that a woman’s sexual gratification requires her to submit to objectification by a man.
Indeed, objectification is part of the same system of control. A man needs a woman to be an object only when he is unable to earn and deserve sexual satisfaction from a woman. Men, in their insecurity, embrace a culture of control that ensures they need not exert any effort to earn sexual parity in a relationship.
So no, neoburlesque is not objectification. It only appears to be objectification when seen through the lens of our culture of control over women’s sexuality.
Therefore, yes, burlesque IS feminist.
(* The historical form of burlesque, in the early 20th century, was arguably very objectifying and certainly not feminist. The purpose, intended audience, and [dare I say] agenda of today’s neoburlesque is quite different from the old institution of burlesque.)