In 2010, a theater writer set out to Scotland’s famous Edinburgh Fringe. When it came to the traditions of burlesque, critic Sally Scott would find no fun. Except, perhaps, that in the creation of similes. “Somewhere between a crack addict and a blown-up sex doll” was Scott’s published impression of the gaze of a burlesque performer.
An occasional theater writer myself, I recognize this sketch. Personally I’d often place the burlesque dancer’s expression somewhere between Cthulhu and Rachel Zoe. Rachel Zoe right after a particularly wet air-kiss from Tom Ford. However, ours is not to quibble with facial degrees of numb-but-sensual conceit. Rather, it is to learn about the criticism of burlesque in Scotland and beyond.
In a compendium review, Scott awarded the several “ironic” strippers she had seen no more than three stars apiece; in Edinburgh, a charge of mediocrity is more damaging than slaughter. So, the day the reviews appeared, performers donned their nylons early and marched, or minced, to occupy the offices of The Scotsman.
Tempest Rose, a professed “showgirl sensation”, led the complaint against the reviewer. She and her fellows, it seems, were worked-up by Scott’s failure to appreciate everything the burlesque revival had done for women.
Rose was acting, she said in a statement, on behalf of “a community” angered by the assertion that her burlesque was about nothing more than tassels and tar-tars. Burlesque, said Rose, “promotes the idea that a woman can be intelligent and powerful as well as expressing and enjoying their sensuality”.
“Women can have brains and beauty,” said Rose.
This is the sort of pish one might excuse from a pageant contestant. Perhaps if a woman other than Miss Norway believes that this is a point worth making publicly, then she has no real place making art.
But, this is the point that drives a good deal of burlesque: women can be intelligent and sexy and in charge of removing their very own clothing. Zzzz.
Certainly, the view that a bright woman need not forfeit her libido is one with which I have no quarrel. But, there is a good deal of burlesque that is performed by women who show much sexual hunger but nothing that makes them seem especially bright.
It is, of course, no crime to be dim. If it were, then our prisons would be full of the off-cuts from Reality TV. It is not a crime but it is a sin to press a terribly useful thing like feminism into the service of under-done theater.
If I’ve seen one lass in an animal-print tutu drop her boop-a-doop and give us the late-breaking news that women are capable of thought and tassels, I’ve seen a hundred. Or, at least a dozen since the New Burlesque hit town a little more than ten years ago.
Across this past decade, burlesque has developed a few different subspecies and functions. First, it was an “empowerment” exercise that, regrettably, took root in licensed premises. One can spot these performers by checking the ladies for (a) feather headdress and (b) frequent use of the phrase “brains and beauty.”
Then, it became a project of those who have read books. One can spot these performers by checking the ladies for (a) tattoos and (b) frequent use of the phrase “performativity.”
So, burlesque has been largely practiced and informed by Personal Development or Gender Studies hobbyists. Which helps us understand both why it’s so bad and so absolutely, cultishly sure of itself.
As burlesque shows no sign of setting down its brains-and-beauty, the time has certainly come for critique. It’s time to alert the community of corsets that their burlesque can no longer rely on a feminist fan dance to save it from review. Perhaps we could invite the critics of Scotland over to take the ladies’ boop-a-doop away.
Or, perhaps we could make our own efforts as connoisseurs. A good start, is in seeing something good; something that does not crave approbation for its “beauty and brains” but seeks, instead, to jolt.
The tradition of burlesque can offer us something wonderful. The idea of identity as a costume that is worn, not a biology that is fixed, can be so boldly illustrated in the sideshow arts. But, most of the time, it is not. The most sincere artistic wish of many local practitioners is not to detonate gender or beauty or the fabric of identity. Instead, it is to purchase cute, shiny outfits and take them off in a Brooklyn speakeasy. To an uncritical audience that lacks a Sally Scott.
This piece is adapted from a thingie I wrote for The Age newspaper