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In 2010, link
check a theater writer set out to Scotland’s famous Edinburgh Fringe.   When it came to the traditions of burlesque, remedy
critic Sally Scott would find no fun.  Except, visit this site
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
Many years ago I enjoyed a brief but fantastically odd period of internet sex with a tech-support Team Leader from Syracuse, injection
NY.  This imaginary sex was good.  So good, neurosurgeon
in fact, that I began to plan a trip to the USA.  Why not?  I could explore unlawful frontiers in pleasure and stock up on quality linens.  Sheet-sets are so reasonably priced in America.

Of course, it did occur to me that crossing an ocean to be tied up by someone with the screen-name Hugh_G_Rection might be risky.  So, I asked around for advice.  “Are you insane?” was one rhetorical reply.  “Have you lost your dog?”.  The consensus was that I should absolutely not serve the unwholesome needs of an IT Team Leader in upstate New York.  This was due less to a fear that I would be killed, julienned and served as a goulash for Satan and much more to our national kneejerk loathing for the USA.

Why, as one colleague put it, would you bother to travel so far with sex with middle-management?  Especially when there are many needy, under-achieving perverts with handcuffs so close to home?  This was not an issue of morality. Nor had it a thing to do with my recreational Health and Safety.  This was a matter of fair trade in which my vagina, rather like Vegemite, had consented to multinational takeover and would never taste the same again.

Needless to say, there is a good deal of plain sense to be seen in trade protection.  Both my genitals and I prefer to buy Australian wherever we can. However, the import of goods should be viewed as quite separate from the export of lust and I fail to see why one should forgo American sex as well as American Vegemite.   I.e. to mistake cruel economic imperialism for pleasure makes about as much sense as confusing breakfast with sex.   This is to say, it makes absolutely no sense at all and, unless you really want to get crumbs in your crack, you should be especially careful to divide one from the other.

It’s been some time since the USA was our major economic partner.  Nonetheless, our great and confusing dislike for the nation has grown even as our two-way trading dwindles. Many public thinkers are more fearful of “Americanisation” than they are of climate change or bird flu and offer long, tedious pieces to the newspaper pleading for the rebirth of Australian culture.

The rebirth of, what, precisely?  Bush Ballads and dreary landscape paintings and a “She’ll Be Right” demeanour that punishes excellence and pats passable achievement on the back? The thing is, Australian culture has been shit for more than two centuries.  Long before we began to worry about our rank as a 51st-state, it was shit.  After the release of Any Questions for Ben? it was still absolute shit. I thank goodness every day for American culture; a behemoth which continues to give us great cinema, written inspiration and dazzling standards in bed-sheets.

Certainly, Australia is a just and reasonable place to live.  Certainly, I want to experience American health-care about as much as I want to sit through Any Questions for Ben?. Certainly, our nation has produced exceptional mutants who have risen above our fight to the middle.

We can rock and we can play sport with the best and every now and then, we produce a thinker or scientist with something to offer.  Of course, these people always go and live somewhere else.  Usually North America.  But, bugger them, eh?  With their fancy educations and expensive ideas. She’ll be right.  Let’s throw another awful bush ballad on the barbie and talk about the “Americanisation” of the culture and coast along on the mineral boom as though we ever actually did anything to earn our gloriously lazy lives.

Writers rage about it.  People on television rant about it.  Everyday people fume about America displacing our national character, too; as though we had a national character worth preserving.     In defining our national character, we increasingly reach for the things that we are not. The list of things that are unmistakably Australian is brief, unimpressive and probably includes melanoma.  The list of things that are “un-Australian” is relentless and absurd. It’s much easier for us to identify those things that are foreign than anything that might legitimately belong to us.

A country so preoccupied with the business of saying what it is not is bound to resent a country that appears to know what it is.  And so, of course, we dislike and admire the States in equal measure. Even as we talk about America’s failings, we’ve become a cultural parasite on this big, juicy host.

We define ourselves in opposition to America but suck on the teat of its confident culture until we are bloated with self-hatred.  And bloated with actual fat, too.  We can bang on about “fat ugly Americans” all we like. But in 2008, global diabetes research found that we had won the international race to obesity boasting the highest per capita population of fatties anywhere on the planet.

Even as we state our revulsion for the USA, we mimic its worst habits.  And appear to pick up none of its good.  We reject the value of distinctly American qualities like sentiment or eloquence or civic-mindedness; it’s “un-Australian” to demonstrate emotion, to speak passionately and publicly or to become involved in community matters.  But, it’s tolerably Australian to sit in front of the telly eating simple carbohydrates and failing to move for weeks at a time.

I never did make it to Syracuse.  This is for several reasons, not the most of which was a poor exchange rate and not the least of which was that Hugh_G_Rection, as it turned out,  weighed 300 pounds and was, in fact, the sort who confused sex with breakfast.  I mean.  A little frivolous edge-play is one thing.  Functioning as a buffet for steak-and-eggs is something altogether different.

My near miss as an all-you-can-eat attraction notwithstanding, there remains much that I admire in the USA.  Perhaps if we can all learn to openly love the good in this other nation, we might be better equipped to actually like ourselves.

 This was written for my Sadeian Overlords at FHM Magazine. I wrote it naked and slathered in oils because I am oppressed.