Well, folks, the inevitable has finally happened: the Neo-Burlesque Movement is now fully mainstream. This initially underground movement started in the early 1990’s with the founding of Dixie Evans’ Miss Exotic World pageant, and has been growing and growing to the point that now Burlesque is everywhere. Neo-Burlesque has finally crossed the mainstream threshold with the release of the movie Burlesque starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. To complicate the situation, stripper-turned-burlesque instructor Jo Weldon just released The Burlesque Handbook, which spills the beans on most of burlesque’s trade secrets and lowers the bar for practically anyone who wants to do burlesque to jump in. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream unless you can’t handle it, and there are many problems within the Neo-Burlesque Movement where they have set themselves up for their own failure now that the spotlight really is on them. One of Neo-Burlesque’s problems is inherent in its very existence: Neo-Burlesque is part of the very problem that it is trying to be a solution for. How? Read on to find out.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association released the 68-page Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. The report seeks to demonstrate academically something that women in Western culture already know—that women are subjected to an ongoing and never-ending sexualization contest that values them solely on their “sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” This comes largely from the media, but to exacerbate the problem further, women become obsessed with the sexualization contest themselves to the point that they objectify themselves and each other, using a few impossible-to-obtain body types as their reference points for performing well in this competition.
There is really no better way to explain the rise of Neo-Burlesque than as a response to this appalling sexualization contest. The stories about how women get into burlesque generally follow this pattern: They were already obsessed with the sexualization contest, depressed because they were losing it, or both. They went to a burlesque show, saw the wide variety of body types parading across the stage and being cheered unconditionally for it, and wanted to get in on the action. They were nervous and scared before their first strip show, but when it was all done, they too got their own unconditional adulation. It forever changed their lives, and now they are happy and gleeful in the burlesque community, regularly taking it off for other women and being praised for—sexualizing themselves. In other words, the Neo-Burlesque Movement still buys into the Western Culture Sexualization Contest’s ever-present message that a woman’s value is primarily based on her performance as a sex object. Their sexualization of each other continues on, only in a “soccer mom” kind of way where everyone gets a prize.
Over and over again in burlesque, women will use word “empowered” to describe how they feel when they perform. But is this really “power”? If she were the only woman alive, the argument that a woman has acquired “power” by causing men to helplessly lust after her would hold some water. But what if this man is bored with the “empowered” dancer’s act and falls asleep during her performance? Or, let’s assume that while our “empowered” burlesque dancer is putting on her show, another woman came along that was a little more willing, and the man the dancer has “power” over trots off to bed with the other woman. What happened to her “power”? What we see is that her “power” is not tangible power at all, but rather an illusion of power. She may feel like she rules the world, but what she feels and what exists in reality are two very different things. The 30% of the burlesque audience that are men and who smittenly watch our “empowered” woman are consensually giving her the “power” that she possesses, and can shut it off at any time. She cannot collect lust from them the way that the government collects taxes. So how exactly is this “power”?
In the previously mentioned The Burlesque Handbook, author Jo Weldon tries to explain how burlesque dancers differ from strippers: “As a strip-joint stripper, I usually looked for one individual to perform to, and that individual paid me. As a burlesque performer, I play to the entire house, and the house (show producer or venue owner) pays me.” She then recalls the pain when “As a…stripper, my appearance was constantly evaluated and commented upon openly…it was a rollercoaster for my ego.” As dehumanizing as it is for conventional strippers to be scrutinized like they are, at least they have the strength to get up close with men. Burlesque dancers, on the other hand, have a wall of separation between them and the audience, and have rigged the show to where the audience can only give positive reinforcement. In this environment, all the “power grabs” and attempts and being “daring” end up being, as Roger Waters put it, “the bravery of being out of range.”
The Alternative: The Vintage Movement
So you’re an audience member that’s getting bored of burlesque and tired of saying “Woo!” to everything they do. Or you like older styles of clothing and ways of doing things, and really want to get away from the sexualization contest. Where to you go? The answer: check out the Vintage Movement, which had its breakthrough year in the UK in 2010.
The Vintage Movement looks to the larger culture of the mid-20th Century, with the intent of bringing the better ways of life from the period to the current day. It is welcoming to newcomers, features real gentlemen that are kind to ladies, and ladies who come in all sizes and shapes who are appreciated as whole people. The ladies in the scene are genuinely loved and appreciated for who they are and what they do, and don’t even have to take their clothes off to receive that love and appreciation.
Here’s an overview of what has been going on so far. The tradeshow-sized Vintage At Goodwood festival made the biggest splash of the year, followed by the traveling event Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fairs. Vintage resellers fuel much of the movement, some running their own shops on Etsy, and others, such as Sadie Boon Vintage, running handsome online boutiques. Vintage fashion blogs like Va-Voom Vintage also drive the scene, and hard-copy magazines such as Vintage Life support it further. The men come in with blogs like Manly Vintage and magazines like The Chap.
The Vintage Movement’s music looks to be what will gather people together and perpetuate the movement even further. Dutch chanteuse Caro Emerald broke this territory open in 2010 with her multi-platinum selling Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor. Expanding the musical vocabulary further is the upcoming compilation This is Vintage Now, which features Miss Emerald, living saxophone legend Big Jay McNeely, exotica revivalists The Waitiki 7, classic jazz singer Beverly Kenney, and many others.
With so much excitement and so many nice people in the Vintage Movement, who needs the same old trite Cherry Bettie Kitty Bottoms taking their clothes off whilst holding the PC gun at the audience, demanding unconditional applause? The sexualization contest is tragic, but obsessing about it further in a narcissistic way and seeking “I win you lose” answers and imaginary “power” acquisitions is not healing, but a continuation of the problem. And this is only one of many issues inherent within the Neo-Burlesque Movement that suggest that the show is almost over.
David Gasten is a Vintage enthusiast and producer of the soon-to-be released compilation This is Vintage Now.