Grrrly Talk: Is Modernesque Burlesque Feminist?

Modernesque burlesque.jpg
Photo by Ari Justin Rothenberg
Modernesque Burlesque Troupe
The opening night for the Modernesque Burlesque troupe at Respectable Street Saturday was a glamorous sequin-filled celebration of movement and the female body. It was also "new, fresh, and unused," in the words of the cheeky mistress of ceremonies Torchy Taboo, age "none of your fucking business." Looking like a burlesque version of Ramona Rickettes (the grandmother in the John Waters film Cry Baby), Torchy was an unapologetic force from the stage, radiating as she worked the room with jokes and sass.

But as the troupe stripped down, the scene begged the question, can burlesque really be feminist?

Burlesque has provoked heated debate among feminist scholars. While some define it as a glorified form of stripping, sugar-coating an unjust power structure that compels women to use their bodies to get ahead, others say it's a celebration of the female body, embracing all and flipping a well-polished bird at whatever the ideal body type is.

Read more after the jump.

To be clear, there are environments where dancing naked is not empowering, where breast implants reign supreme, and where everything is done with the male gaze in mind. And yes, there are burlesque troupes, especially mainstream groups (cough, Pussycat Dolls, cough), that are just as guilty as the seediest strip-club patrons of placing a woman's value on how sexually desirable she is.

So, I have to say I was skeptical when I walked into Respectable Street. Does burlesque, which originated with social satire and later incorporated the strip tease, simply make the objectification equal opportunity because it welcomes all body types?

What was immediately apparent at the start of the night was that the gals of Modernesque were very different from the Pussycat Dolls. Sure, the strip tease is an important component of the performance, but nudity and sex have never been the problem. Feminists are -- gasp! -- humans with sexual needs and desires. We just don't want to be reduced to our boobs. And Modernesque seemed to make sure it didn't play into such reductionism -- for example, a guy standing a few feet back from me complained to his buddy, "I want to see a titty, dammit."

Thus burlesque must require something else from a viewer. It must require that people to look at the performers as more than just a body meant to arouse. After all, the show would be quite different if these women weren't funny and saucy in addition to oozing sex appeal. They're erotic, not erotica; entertaining no matter what's in your pants; and don't play into the virgin/whore binary. Gay, straight, big-breasted, flat-chested, curvy, or stick-thin, these are women expressing themselves and celebrating women. They don't care who is watching.

When the voluptuous Isadora Bull kicked off the night, she was hardly someone you'd see on MTV. But she was still freakin' gorgeous, she still freakin' worked it, and the show was no less impressive or entertaining because she didn't look like Paris Hilton. That many of the women were something other than the manufactured mainstream body type seemed a statement on its own, though we're still a long way off from the days of Dirty Martini.

Further proof came from an enthusiastic 100-person mix of women, men, rockers, gothsters, burlesque hopefuls, metal heads, and your average nightlifer. Cheering, whistling, clapping, and laughing at every turn of the hip, the crowd carefully followed the fluid movements of each of the next five gals who teased the senses with alluring movements, props, and loads of glitter. The second woman started her act as a silhouette behind a white screen, while other performers added various props including whips, gypsy jangles, hula hoops, umbrellas, and a Marilyn Monroe-style Happy Birthday performance for someone in the audience named Rodney -- ending with a hilarious baby-bottle-nipple pastie reveal.

Although some of the acts were not all I hoped for, the night did involve one of the most grrrly, subversive moves seen in these parts in a while: Torchy Taboo auctioned off a shiny, red-confettied Tampax holder. Bidding started at $5, eventually climbed to $14, hit $22, and finally sold at $25. For a tampon holder.

I was totally sold at that moment. (Who knew the way to my heart could be through a Tampax case?) These women had taken probably one of the most girlie-gross moments of womanhood, and put it front and center for all the boys to squirm. This was their space. All were welcome, but this show was on their terms. It was whatever tickled their pickle, not anybody else's -- an attitude and environment which is ultimately what makes burlesque a feminist act.

"Stripping is playing off of someone else's fantasies," Torchy Taboo told me after the show. A former stripper, she insisted she had no problem with the profession, but made an important distinction later in the conversation by stating "these are our fantasies."

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