Dr. Sherril Dodds, scholarly dance professor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance recently presented her engaging research on Neo-Burlesque performance as social and gender commentary. The lecture was informational to say the least and controversial at the most. I sneaked in as she began to speak and grabbed a seat in the front row. Pulling a notepad and pen out of my bag, I did not stop writing until I had to leave.
As Dodds explained, she has been studying neo-burlesque for several years, interested in how performers communicate more than sexuality and coy femininity while on stage, but when it came to her research, her nose definitely didn’t stay in the books. Dodds went on to show pictures of herself in a UK-based burlesque company, twirling tassels and shaking her groove thang. Throughout her thesis reading, she showed pictures of famous burlesque stars from America and Great Britain, summarized the history of the medium and went on to argue that burlesque has more to do with political statements than showing off what your momma gave you.
As she spoke, her word choices were flowery and articulate and they flowed off her tongue with a hard British accent. She liked using alliterations and metaphors to try to get the audience to imagine that they had attended the same burlesque shows she had seen for her research. The effect was stimulating, but at times took away from what she was trying to prove. This becomes an issue when an educated individual tries to present their research when framed between two wall-size screens with pictures topless women licking their lips. Novelty? Yes. Academic? Yes. Full Communication? Hopefully, hopefully.
Firstly, Dodds made it very clear that there is a difference between “stripping” and “burlesque.” Stripping, she described, is when individuals have “economic necessity,” or the priority to meet their safety and physiological needs. In this mindset, they cannot explore the medium with creativity. “Commercialized neo-burlesque focuses less on politics and commentary and more on nudity and ideal feminine sexuality through the male gaze.” Dodds was focused with the influence of authentic neo-burlesque, not its commodified cousin.
Besides authentic neo-burlesque being “good, clean British fun,” Dodds emphasized (every other paragraph, practically) that it empowers women to make choices about how they communicate their gender roles and sexuality. Certainly she was pro-burlesque, but to what extent? Dodds did not view the form as exploitative in the least, apparently. I struggled with this evaluation during the whole lecture. Many of her points were valid in my eyes, but others, well others I just could not morally agree with!
Dodds said that neo-burlesque is an art form that allows “imperfect flesh” to be “celebrated.” That it is a “parody” examining the humorous stereotypes of complicated female identity while mocking expressed feminine behavior and hyper-masculinity. Yes, that’s all fine and dandy and I think it’s great to deconstruct those ideas, especially in a creative manner, but burlesque, no matter what the performer is intending, involves nudity, stripping, teasing and sex. It is male fantasy. It is degrading. It is using one’s body to seek value. I my brain, none of these things are right or rewarding. And even when try to justify Dodds ideas by saying to myself that burlesque is an opportunity for women to explore sexual power, I fall back and see that it is just another way of seeking male approval.
Burlesque is apparently a lot like Drag in that the performers don’t sing, but instead lip-sync and dance to carefully planned choreography. Dodds says that this offers participants a chance to meticulously plan costume changes, movements and props, therefore creating spectacle and statement. “Facial expressions are social commentary that offer more than just what the smile represents.” Well, what I see is women actively participating in voicelessness, allowing their exposed bodies to speak for themselves with cultural context, not personal. This is detrimental because the audience sees breasts, butts, curves and sex – a playtoy, instead of a thoughtful individual who may very well have planned a social commentary into their dance. This “voicelessness” represents passivity and perhaps is the exchange for the female to hold court on stage, but she should not have to give up her voice in order to get attention. Her body should not have to be exposed for her to be able to have a platform for opinion. Her ideas should not have to be interjected in-between shimmying, unzipping and flashing. Sex is power, but only temporarily.
First and foremost, Burlesque is a medium that sexualizes and monetizes the female form. Although Dodds enthusiastically commented that cat-calls from the audience are motivating and approving, all parts of me cannot imagine how. Does burlesque actually offer women the freedom to explore their sexuality or can they not get off unless someone else is? With popular forms of media like women’s Cosmopolitan magazine whose sex advice to female readers is largely how to please “your man,” (the mag is almost always heterosexual, mind you) and never to speak out for your own desires, I’m pretty sure that women are being conditioned into these mindsets.
At the end of the day, neo-burlesque as parody, strip, commentary, rebellion, expression, exploration, exploitation or entertainment is mixed messaging. Dodds has a doctoral degree and has proven the ability to deconstruct. The average person does not have that education nor the media literacy training to comprehend the millions of images and texts penetrating their existence from every source imaginable. This is why burlesque is problematic – the commentary is lost somewhere in-between the garters and the feathers.
*May it be known that those who actively participate and enjoy burlesque are not in the wrong, they are expressing themselves, hopefully. I have no issue with their choice, their bodies and minds are their own. I am sincerely and solely concerned with how our society interprets women, their roles and their bodies through their actions and current privilege discourses.