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Can burlesque be described as “feminist”?

Is burlesque an expression of sex-positive feminism, or is it inherently sexist? In the following excerpt from The League of Exotic Dancers: Legends from American Burlesque, documentarian Kaitlyn Regehr and photographer Matilda Temperley share narratives by burlesque dancers who embraced this form of art as an early expression of women’s rights.

We also recently sat down with Kaitlyn and Matilda to discuss the history of burlesque in America. Watch the video below to hear Dr. Regehr’s perspective on the complicated relationship between burlesque and feminism.

On discovering Exotic World in Helendale, California, and thence the Exotic Dancers League, the neo-burlesque community embraced these women as their alternative feminist foremothers. The newcomers considered the EDL members the embodiment of their beliefs about body acceptance and identity. They saw legends and their lifestyles as subversive in the way these women physically displayed alternative outlooks on aging and sexuality. However, for many of the legends, particularly some of the older ones, these ideas seemed alien to their experience of burlesque. Their original performances were based on mainstream ideals of sex, consistent with the time period in which they were dancing, with their main focus being the sexual arousal of men. Further, some dancers, particularly those who had begun performing in the 1950s, felt the women’s movement was a negative impact on their careers and thus rejected it. This sentiment was touched on by [burlesque legend] Marinka when she recounted a protest outside of her theater in Iowa.

I was in a town called Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the women’s movement was protesting outside. I was not very well received by those people doing the demonstration, some of these college girls outside the club every day, saying all what they used to say, “burn the bra, equality and this and that and the other.” I will say that had a lot to do [with the end of burlesque]. Some college girls were picketing in front of the club where burlesque dancers were performing. I never wanted after that to go back to that town. I didn’t like that town at all. But things like that were happening in the ’60s.

This sentiment, expressed by Marinka, suggests that not only did she not include herself in the feminist movement—let alone a college-based, anti-sex-work feminist group in Iowa—but also that she saw groups involved in the movement as actually protesting against and threatening both her and her way of life. In addition, she attributes the feminist movement with the end of the burlesque theaters and the further marginalization of burlesque. As [burlesque legend] Tempest Storm noted, women’s patronage is often thought to gentrify and legitimize an entertainment form. Conversely, either the lack of women or the absence of support for women can push entertainment further underground.

I entered this community of exotic dancers with a similar hope of interpreting these legends as the unsung feminists of the twentieth century, perhaps believing they might be depicted as an untold women’s movement. Many, however, were uninterested in carrying such a label. Below is an excerpt from my interview with Jo “Boobs” Weldon, the first interview I conducted early in my time with the community. Weldon exposes my preconceived notions and calls for a wider lens for viewing the experiences of these dancers, one that would take into account the hardship in many of these women’s lives and the choices available to them.

The thing that you were saying about feminist icons, when I was young and I saw these women that did burlesque and I could tell that they weren’t necessarily having an easy life. But they looked self-invented; they looked like—the phrase I use is that they made glamour out of adversity. Some of them have had seventeen abortions, but they were still proud of carving out their own lives. So they had these really difficult lives … they started when they were teenagers and most of them didn’t have ballet training or whatever, and what I find feminist about them is that they own it [their lives] and they are not ashamed of it. They are, at least financially, empowering themselves, their families, and their communities. I don’t necessarily think that stripping is feminist per se, but I think that you can be a stripper and be a feminist. I don’t necessarily think that burlesque is feminist per se, or vintage burlesque was feminist per se. But any time I see women making a decision, even if they are forced to it and they having a hard time, to take things into their own hands and [think], I’m going to control at least this much, that is empowering to see.

Weldon’s term “glamour out of adversity” links to a concept expressed by Burlesque Hall of Fame director Dustin Wax. He proposed that many of the new burlesque performers “filtered flamour out of burlesque” when noting that neo-burlesque performers don’t say, “I’m going to go into this so that I can do this shameful horrible thing, and constantly be subject to physical intimidation and manhandling. It’s a personal choice that [these] people have made in sort of reviving this art form … They [the resurgence] transformed burlesque into primarily a theatrical art, rather than a sort of strictly erotic entertainment in the back room of a seedy bar.

However, Weldon’s comment suggests that what some new burlesque performers often choose to filter out is arguably the very thing that might make these women feminist or empowered. The resurgence often separates twentieth-century burlesque from “stripping” and a variety of social issues associated with the sex industries (e.g., abuse, objectification) in order to enjoy burlesque as an empowering, feminist “art form”; however, Weldon states that it is the ability to survive in spite of these issues that is perhaps even more “glamorous.”

Featured image credit: Courtesy of Matilda Temperley. Please do not re-use without permission.

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