Undressing Burlesque

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The Rubensque bloke dressed as pharaoh – who stripped down to his nipple tassells and gold G-string – was my takeaway moment from the Victorian finals of Miss Burlesque 2013.

I was however, attending not merely as a crinkle-browed, feelin’-pervy member of the public, but as a scholar, a thinker, watching in a room of Amy Winehouse/Betty Page/SuicideGirls understudies.

I live in Melbourne. My 99% black wardrobe is a pedestrian illustration of this; a better one was collected last week. A giant, angular piece of polystyrene foam had been shoved into a bin in my street. Gone are the days when I could have dismissed it as trash: a week on and I’m still wondering whether it was street art.

And whether burlesque is art – and whether such a categorisation is even useful – was one of dozens of different debates raging in my head during Friday night’s competition.

So, while watching contestant after contestant go through the ruse of “seductively” removing gloves with their teeth and taking the slow boat to the bare-boob-jiggle, I was brainstorming.

If burlesque is art, should it be judged? (A question, needless to say, that I asked at the release of the first Stella Prize shortlist, and that I ask at every mention of every art prize).

Is it a kind of drag? If it is drag – defined as the performance of gender along the Judith Butler lines – does the fact that the majority of performers are women mitigate some of the feminist concerns about femininity being mocked or parodied in such shows?

Just because burlesque is (one version of) female sexuality performed in front of an audience, does this mean that it’s a performance for the audience? If the audience is mainly women, does this discredit radical feminist concerns about objectification?

Can women objectify other women? If so, should it trouble us?

What constitutes sexy? What role does irony play? Why did the loudest, most boisterous screams follow the least polished and least stereotypically sultry performances? Are points awarded in burlesque for simply giving it the proverbial college try?

Does the single act – the chutzpah – of braving a stage and disrobing maketh a person sexy?

Is the fact that most burlesque performers aren’t the waifish blondes that society often lauds – and instead offers up for eyeballin’ other body shapes and sizes – enough to deem the spectacle feminist?

At the Miss Burlesque competition, women dominated the audience and women were the ones whoopin’ and a hollarin’. Some of the audience might have been lesbians, sure, but many had male dates. Is their roaring, therefore, the same kind that a male strip show might solicit, or does burlesque – with its fancy lingerie and dolled-up faces and elaborate coifs – motivate lady audience members to scream less about sex appeal and more about the celebration of femininity?

And, lastly – and, you’re no more grateful to get here than I was on Friday night – was I right to feel as uncomfortable as I did that the scantily clad women who cleaned the boa detritis after each jig were referred to as kittens?

Of course I over-thought the evening: as is my skill and probably my downfall. I didn’t depart a burlesque devotee – truth be told, by the end of it I felt very inclined to jump on stage and explain that there are much faster ways to remove clothing – but at least intellectually I understand the appeal a tad more.

Side note: once upon a time on a flight, I met a woman who owned a turkey feather processing factory. At the time I thought it seemed like such an anachronistic industry. The Miss Burlesque competition taught me just how wrong I was.

March 26, 2013

© Lauren Rosewarne

Original Source: The Conversation