The Art Of Modern Burlesque Drama Essay

2771 words (11 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 Film Studies Reference this

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The meaning of burlesque has changed throughout its varied history; the earliest form of burlesque can be traced back to Chaucer and his story of Sir Thopas. This piece of writing had no rivals or predecessors at the time and the next form of burlesque was Shakespeare. The playwright John O’Keefe is another early burlesque writer; his plays were light-hearted and mocked the upper classes, the operas and plays in a cheeky way. His plays were the foundation of the earliest burlesque shows in London. This form of burlesque is often confused with satire because of the use of humour however they are very different forms of entertainment.

“Satire is the schoolmaster attacking dishonesty with a whip,

Burlesque is the rude boy attacking pomposity with a peashooter”

Unfortunately the original burlesque shows which were full of comedy and skits have died out; they were considered a very English form of entertainment as the English people were able to mock their upper classes without causing offence. In England burlesque continued to develop and with the introduction of the Music Halls in the 19th century the shows had a permanent home. It was when it went into the music halls that it changed format from a full length comedy play to a series of sketches. Unfortunately burlesque died out in England after the world wars.

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Simultaneously there was a form of burlesque evolving in America; the popularity dramatically increased in 1868 with the troupe the “British Blondes.” Their show included comedy sketches and parodies of plays performed by ladies in scanty costumes. By 1873 the parodies had disappeared and the show mainly comprised of dances and political satires. The modern image of burlesque started in the 1920s when the term became synonymous with the striptease. Carrie Finnell performed the first true striptease in 1917; she would take one

garment off each night with the promise that she would take another item off in the next show. In this way she inspired the audience to come back to each show. In the 1920s the striptease became the main draw of the show with the variety acts and comedic performances that accompanied it seen as fillers. This view is still popular today. A major part of the modern burlesque show is the use of gimmicks, such as the giant props and over the top costumes; these gimmicks also have their roots in the burlesque shows of the 1920s. At that time there was a saying:

“You’ve got to get a gimmick, if you want to get ahead”

The popularity of burlesque seems to be directly related with times of unrest and depression. Its popularity increased in the 1930s at the time of the depression, it rose again in the early millennium when the terrorism threat increased and it has become popular again with this latest recession. The main explanation for this is that in times of hardship people seek out cheap, sexy entertainment and burlesque fits this description. When burlesque returned to England it was in the form of the American variety shows with striptease.

Historically the majority of burlesque performers are female; this is still the case although male performers are becoming more common. The modern female performers have a great respect for the performers of the past.

Females become burlesque performers for a variety of reasons, for many women it is a way of expressing themselves in a way that they would never dream of doing in real life. Burlesque allows the performer to act out their own fantasies and embrace their sensuality. Many performers cite their desire to be a drag queen as the main reason for becoming involved in burlesque performance.

“When I started doing burlesque, I would tell people it was because I

couldn’t be a drag queen”

Many burlesque performances involve exaggerated femininity with the use of heavy make-up; false eyelashes and rhinestone covered costumes which are often associated with drag acts. The women who perform burlesque feel empowered on stage, they often feel like they are empowering the female audience by proudly displaying their body which doesn’t necessarily conform to the media’s idea of a desirable woman.

“Feeling sexy and powerful onstage and knowing that you are possibly

Changing the way the world looks at you and others who look like you

Is an incredibly rewarding by product of the burlesque experience”

Some female performers have negative experiences and there are some clubs which make the performer feel cheap and exploited by forcing them to expose more that they are comfortable with and to perform to please the male audiences.

“There are a lot of ­burlesque clubs that are really oversexualized, ­really

horrible. And I think a lot of girls feel ­pressured to strip.”

However these clubs are rare now but were more common in the early 1990s revival; unfortunately many people still hold this opinion of burlesque clubs. The comedy and variety sections of the show are overlooked by many people eager to criticise the whole movement.

It is easy to assume that all burlesque performers are arrogant and natural exhibitionists; this is not the case for the majority of the performers and the amount of control they have over their acts gives them the confidence to perform.

“Like any woman, put me in the wrong light and it’s not good! I definitely have moments when I feel very hyper-aware of my body – some of my stage

positions could potentially be unflattering. So I do my own lighting.”

Being able to control the lighting of a show is a rare thing for a performer and unique to burlesque.

The relationship between burlesque and feminism is a much discussed issue, the changing face of burlesque means some feminists are embracing it as a feminist movement and many performers feel they make a feminist statement when they perform. When looking into this it is important to understand the feminist point of view.

“To deny a woman’s sexuality is certainly to oppress her but to portray

her as nothing but a sexual being is equally to oppress her”

This statement is undeniably true and some burlesque performers have felt exploited as sexual objects and nothing more; this is demonstrated in Laurie Penny’s article in the Guardian. The feminist views on the burlesque striptease are very contradictory. Some feminists are completely against any form of sexual imagery or exhibitionism; Andrea Dworkin was outspoken in her views on sexual imagery.

“Women are reduced to sexually subordinate vile whores”

Many people consider the burlesque striptease as a form of subordination which only exists to entertain and fulfil the male fantasy. When arguing against this opinion it is important to acknowledge that the original performances did begin as a fulfilment of the male fantasy. When the burlesque girls began attracting male attention in the 1860s they were managed by men and therefore did not have much control over their acts. At that time the majority of the audience was male so the show was geared towards them. There is always going to be an aspect of the male fantasy in the performance because without it the whole movement would not have developed. The contrasting feminist opinion is that women are sexual beings and should be free to express their sexual desire and pleasures; there is a feminist movement which formed the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT). This group has published essays that celebrate women’s sexuality and have said:

“Yes, sexual abuse exists and, yes, some images do degrade,

But this should not prevent women from being able to represent

Their experience as sexual beings”

This statement is supportive of the burlesque performer as when they are performing they are expressing their sensuality.

It is important to understand the difference between the burlesque striptease and stripping in strip clubs. Since they are both forms of stripping the boundaries are indistinct but there are definite differences. The strippers in a strip club will expose much more of their bodies and gyrate to please the audience; their performance changes and becomes more sexual with the tips they receive. A burlesque stripper has a routine, which has been rehearsed, and perfected, it does not alter with tips. A burlesque stripper will never take off all their clothes, their nipples and are never exposed and the performance is more about the tease and what the audience cannot see.

“A woman’s greatest asset is a mans imagination”

This quote was particularly true in the 1920s when many of the stripteases lasted fifteen minutes with the performer teasing the whole time. The acts are significantly shorter in the modern burlesque shows but the tease aspect has continued.

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Another important difference between strippers and burlesque performers is the costume. In burlesque the costumes are a huge attraction and add to the spectacle of the show. Many of the performers start in a corset; the attraction of the corset is that it emphasises the female form and adds to the exaggerated femininity of the performers. According to Michelle Baldwin a burlesque costume is designed to “sparkle shine and flow in the spotlight” they are therefore covered in beads, rhinestones and feathers. The more spectacular costumes will move and flow with the dancer so they are often made from a light fabric or covered in tassels. To add to the tease of the show the performers will wear several layers; the final layer consisting of decorated pasties and matching thong. In a strip club less emphasis is placed on the costume and more emphasis is placed on the condition of a dancers’ body and what men will find attractive.

“It’s an unfortunate truth but the slimmer you are the more money you will

make. You don’t have to be fashion model skinny but you do have to be

tight if you expect to make good money. I personally find that a combination

of yoga and weight training is ideal for the kind of look that men like.”

The costumes in a strip club vary from club to club but a common costume is micro minis and Lycra.

A major difference in the costumes of the burlesque performer and the stripper is that the majority of burlesque dancers customise and create their own costumes. They will buy a basic garment and attach the rhinestones and glitter themselves. The main reason for this is that a burlesque dancer will not make much money performing; they do it simply for the love of performing.

The audiences of the new burlesque shows are different from the audiences of the early shows and strip shows s that it appeals to men and women.

“An important difference from earlier burlesque is that the audience is

as likely to consist of women and gay men as the heterosexual men

who comprised the traditional audience for such shows”

The new wave of burlesque epitomises the glamour of the past in a way that previous revivals didn’t; this is one of the major attractions of the modern burlesque shows; the audience who attend many modern burlesque nights in clubs such as Volupte and The Pigalle Club are encouraged to dress up in vintage clothing. Another reason could be the amazing costumes and spectacle of the show as a whole. The female spectator also come to the show to see a woman who has the same body as them performing a striptease as it makes them feel better about themselves. It is so popular because the burlesque world embraces women off all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately there is a counterargument to this opinion; burlesque’s most famous face is Dita Von Teese. She has trained her waist to 16″; visually she possesses every womanly attribute the media say is desirable; the small waist, porcelain skin and large breasts. She could be said to be consolidating the negative images constantly displayed to the public but in a different way to the emaciated models. However she is a strong public figure and her unique appearance encourages women to be individuals and express themselves to be happy.

The increased number of female spectators could also be due to the messages behind the show; the performers bring current issues and politics into their shows and react on stage, one example of this is the show of the world famous *BOB*; in one of her shows she plays a voice over of every hurtful thing ever said to her and reacts to it in her performance.

“Images laced with humour are so much easier to ingest for a consuming

public.”

The nature of the burlesque show means that the performers are able to express the issues they want to without worrying about what is appropriate.

The question of whether burlesque can be feminist is complicated as there are so many different clubs that are managed in many different ways. It is difficult to ignore the feminist arguments about the negative objectification of women and some personal accounts do support them. Laurie Penny had a bad experience as a burlesque performer and was made to feel exploited and when Jacki Wilson was an audience member in a burlesque show she was left feeling vulnerable and unsettled. However there are a huge number of positive reactions when it comes to the performances.

A lot of current performers believe they are feminist; they have this opinion because of the positive reaction from the female audience members; however a strong feminist would dispute this opinion citing that their objectification was negative. When fledgling performers are taught how to perform burlesque they are taught to enjoy their bodies and the spotlight and not how to please men.

“We were not taught to please men, we were taught to enjoy ourselves, to

revel in our bodies, to enjoy our sexuality, the thrill of the tease and the

sensation of being in the spotlight.”

This is a very significant quote as the thrill of the body and the tease is echoed by many performers. Another positive aspect of burlesque is that it doesn’t discriminate against women who are curvy or short; the public are constantly bombarded with images of the size zero models, burlesque embraces all body types; the routines and lighting are all designed to make the performer feel comfortable in their own skin. This is a very important part of the movement as modern day women are made to feel inferior and ashamed of their bodies by exposure to the constant images of airbrushed, surgically enhanced models. Despite the passionate opinions of some feminists who believe burlesque to be a form of negative female objectification it is a mistake to view it in this way. Females are sexual beings should not be repressed or denied their freedom of expression; if they choose to express themselves by performing a striptease they should not be criticized. Burlesque performers are often wrongly associated with sex workers and prostitutes and there is a stigma attached to the name as a result of some of the seedy aspects of its past.

Many critics of the movement have not witnessed a true burlesque performance and have a strong opinion that they are unwilling to change. A very clear example of this is seen in the interview conducted with Von Teese by Hannah Pool. Pool was very dismissive of burlesque stripping and would never set foot in a club as she felt the women who attended them “let the side down”. This is an incredibly narrow-minded and unacceptable argument; no one can criticize a movement so passionately without experiencing it first hand.

Burlesque is growing in popularity; the glamour aspect of the movement is attracting a new audience who agree with the opinion that it is empowering. One of the major attractions is that the female audience members see a performer similar to themselves on stage. Unfortunately there are some clubs that are not respectful of their performers and make them feel exploited so there will always be people who oppose burlesque. However the true spirit of vintage burlesque is one that should not be opposed and should be enjoyed by men and women alike.

The meaning of burlesque has changed throughout its varied history; the earliest form of burlesque can be traced back to Chaucer and his story of Sir Thopas. This piece of writing had no rivals or predecessors at the time and the next form of burlesque was Shakespeare. The playwright John O’Keefe is another early burlesque writer; his plays were light-hearted and mocked the upper classes, the operas and plays in a cheeky way. His plays were the foundation of the earliest burlesque shows in London. This form of burlesque is often confused with satire because of the use of humour however they are very different forms of entertainment.

“Satire is the schoolmaster attacking dishonesty with a whip,

Burlesque is the rude boy attacking pomposity with a peashooter”

Unfortunately the original burlesque shows which were full of comedy and skits have died out; they were considered a very English form of entertainment as the English people were able to mock their upper classes without causing offence. In England burlesque continued to develop and with the introduction of the Music Halls in the 19th century the shows had a permanent home. It was when it went into the music halls that it changed format from a full length comedy play to a series of sketches. Unfortunately burlesque died out in England after the world wars.

Simultaneously there was a form of burlesque evolving in America; the popularity dramatically increased in 1868 with the troupe the “British Blondes.” Their show included comedy sketches and parodies of plays performed by ladies in scanty costumes. By 1873 the parodies had disappeared and the show mainly comprised of dances and political satires. The modern image of burlesque started in the 1920s when the term became synonymous with the striptease. Carrie Finnell performed the first true striptease in 1917; she would take one

garment off each night with the promise that she would take another item off in the next show. In this way she inspired the audience to come back to each show. In the 1920s the striptease became the main draw of the show with the variety acts and comedic performances that accompanied it seen as fillers. This view is still popular today. A major part of the modern burlesque show is the use of gimmicks, such as the giant props and over the top costumes; these gimmicks also have their roots in the burlesque shows of the 1920s. At that time there was a saying:

“You’ve got to get a gimmick, if you want to get ahead”

The popularity of burlesque seems to be directly related with times of unrest and depression. Its popularity increased in the 1930s at the time of the depression, it rose again in the early millennium when the terrorism threat increased and it has become popular again with this latest recession. The main explanation for this is that in times of hardship people seek out cheap, sexy entertainment and burlesque fits this description. When burlesque returned to England it was in the form of the American variety shows with striptease.

Historically the majority of burlesque performers are female; this is still the case although male performers are becoming more common. The modern female performers have a great respect for the performers of the past.

Females become burlesque performers for a variety of reasons, for many women it is a way of expressing themselves in a way that they would never dream of doing in real life. Burlesque allows the performer to act out their own fantasies and embrace their sensuality. Many performers cite their desire to be a drag queen as the main reason for becoming involved in burlesque performance.

“When I started doing burlesque, I would tell people it was because I

couldn’t be a drag queen”

Many burlesque performances involve exaggerated femininity with the use of heavy make-up; false eyelashes and rhinestone covered costumes which are often associated with drag acts. The women who perform burlesque feel empowered on stage, they often feel like they are empowering the female audience by proudly displaying their body which doesn’t necessarily conform to the media’s idea of a desirable woman.

“Feeling sexy and powerful onstage and knowing that you are possibly

Changing the way the world looks at you and others who look like you

Is an incredibly rewarding by product of the burlesque experience”

Some female performers have negative experiences and there are some clubs which make the performer feel cheap and exploited by forcing them to expose more that they are comfortable with and to perform to please the male audiences.

“There are a lot of ­burlesque clubs that are really oversexualized, ­really

horrible. And I think a lot of girls feel ­pressured to strip.”

However these clubs are rare now but were more common in the early 1990s revival; unfortunately many people still hold this opinion of burlesque clubs. The comedy and variety sections of the show are overlooked by many people eager to criticise the whole movement.

It is easy to assume that all burlesque performers are arrogant and natural exhibitionists; this is not the case for the majority of the performers and the amount of control they have over their acts gives them the confidence to perform.

“Like any woman, put me in the wrong light and it’s not good! I definitely have moments when I feel very hyper-aware of my body – some of my stage

positions could potentially be unflattering. So I do my own lighting.”

Being able to control the lighting of a show is a rare thing for a performer and unique to burlesque.

The relationship between burlesque and feminism is a much discussed issue, the changing face of burlesque means some feminists are embracing it as a feminist movement and many performers feel they make a feminist statement when they perform. When looking into this it is important to understand the feminist point of view.

“To deny a woman’s sexuality is certainly to oppress her but to portray

her as nothing but a sexual being is equally to oppress her”

This statement is undeniably true and some burlesque performers have felt exploited as sexual objects and nothing more; this is demonstrated in Laurie Penny’s article in the Guardian. The feminist views on the burlesque striptease are very contradictory. Some feminists are completely against any form of sexual imagery or exhibitionism; Andrea Dworkin was outspoken in her views on sexual imagery.

“Women are reduced to sexually subordinate vile whores”

Many people consider the burlesque striptease as a form of subordination which only exists to entertain and fulfil the male fantasy. When arguing against this opinion it is important to acknowledge that the original performances did begin as a fulfilment of the male fantasy. When the burlesque girls began attracting male attention in the 1860s they were managed by men and therefore did not have much control over their acts. At that time the majority of the audience was male so the show was geared towards them. There is always going to be an aspect of the male fantasy in the performance because without it the whole movement would not have developed. The contrasting feminist opinion is that women are sexual beings and should be free to express their sexual desire and pleasures; there is a feminist movement which formed the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT). This group has published essays that celebrate women’s sexuality and have said:

“Yes, sexual abuse exists and, yes, some images do degrade,

But this should not prevent women from being able to represent

Their experience as sexual beings”

This statement is supportive of the burlesque performer as when they are performing they are expressing their sensuality.

It is important to understand the difference between the burlesque striptease and stripping in strip clubs. Since they are both forms of stripping the boundaries are indistinct but there are definite differences. The strippers in a strip club will expose much more of their bodies and gyrate to please the audience; their performance changes and becomes more sexual with the tips they receive. A burlesque stripper has a routine, which has been rehearsed, and perfected, it does not alter with tips. A burlesque stripper will never take off all their clothes, their nipples and are never exposed and the performance is more about the tease and what the audience cannot see.

“A woman’s greatest asset is a mans imagination”

This quote was particularly true in the 1920s when many of the stripteases lasted fifteen minutes with the performer teasing the whole time. The acts are significantly shorter in the modern burlesque shows but the tease aspect has continued.

Another important difference between strippers and burlesque performers is the costume. In burlesque the costumes are a huge attraction and add to the spectacle of the show. Many of the performers start in a corset; the attraction of the corset is that it emphasises the female form and adds to the exaggerated femininity of the performers. According to Michelle Baldwin a burlesque costume is designed to “sparkle shine and flow in the spotlight” they are therefore covered in beads, rhinestones and feathers. The more spectacular costumes will move and flow with the dancer so they are often made from a light fabric or covered in tassels. To add to the tease of the show the performers will wear several layers; the final layer consisting of decorated pasties and matching thong. In a strip club less emphasis is placed on the costume and more emphasis is placed on the condition of a dancers’ body and what men will find attractive.

“It’s an unfortunate truth but the slimmer you are the more money you will

make. You don’t have to be fashion model skinny but you do have to be

tight if you expect to make good money. I personally find that a combination

of yoga and weight training is ideal for the kind of look that men like.”

The costumes in a strip club vary from club to club but a common costume is micro minis and Lycra.

A major difference in the costumes of the burlesque performer and the stripper is that the majority of burlesque dancers customise and create their own costumes. They will buy a basic garment and attach the rhinestones and glitter themselves. The main reason for this is that a burlesque dancer will not make much money performing; they do it simply for the love of performing.

The audiences of the new burlesque shows are different from the audiences of the early shows and strip shows s that it appeals to men and women.

“An important difference from earlier burlesque is that the audience is

as likely to consist of women and gay men as the heterosexual men

who comprised the traditional audience for such shows”

The new wave of burlesque epitomises the glamour of the past in a way that previous revivals didn’t; this is one of the major attractions of the modern burlesque shows; the audience who attend many modern burlesque nights in clubs such as Volupte and The Pigalle Club are encouraged to dress up in vintage clothing. Another reason could be the amazing costumes and spectacle of the show as a whole. The female spectator also come to the show to see a woman who has the same body as them performing a striptease as it makes them feel better about themselves. It is so popular because the burlesque world embraces women off all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately there is a counterargument to this opinion; burlesque’s most famous face is Dita Von Teese. She has trained her waist to 16″; visually she possesses every womanly attribute the media say is desirable; the small waist, porcelain skin and large breasts. She could be said to be consolidating the negative images constantly displayed to the public but in a different way to the emaciated models. However she is a strong public figure and her unique appearance encourages women to be individuals and express themselves to be happy.

The increased number of female spectators could also be due to the messages behind the show; the performers bring current issues and politics into their shows and react on stage, one example of this is the show of the world famous *BOB*; in one of her shows she plays a voice over of every hurtful thing ever said to her and reacts to it in her performance.

“Images laced with humour are so much easier to ingest for a consuming

public.”

The nature of the burlesque show means that the performers are able to express the issues they want to without worrying about what is appropriate.

The question of whether burlesque can be feminist is complicated as there are so many different clubs that are managed in many different ways. It is difficult to ignore the feminist arguments about the negative objectification of women and some personal accounts do support them. Laurie Penny had a bad experience as a burlesque performer and was made to feel exploited and when Jacki Wilson was an audience member in a burlesque show she was left feeling vulnerable and unsettled. However there are a huge number of positive reactions when it comes to the performances.

A lot of current performers believe they are feminist; they have this opinion because of the positive reaction from the female audience members; however a strong feminist would dispute this opinion citing that their objectification was negative. When fledgling performers are taught how to perform burlesque they are taught to enjoy their bodies and the spotlight and not how to please men.

“We were not taught to please men, we were taught to enjoy ourselves, to

revel in our bodies, to enjoy our sexuality, the thrill of the tease and the

sensation of being in the spotlight.”

This is a very significant quote as the thrill of the body and the tease is echoed by many performers. Another positive aspect of burlesque is that it doesn’t discriminate against women who are curvy or short; the public are constantly bombarded with images of the size zero models, burlesque embraces all body types; the routines and lighting are all designed to make the performer feel comfortable in their own skin. This is a very important part of the movement as modern day women are made to feel inferior and ashamed of their bodies by exposure to the constant images of airbrushed, surgically enhanced models. Despite the passionate opinions of some feminists who believe burlesque to be a form of negative female objectification it is a mistake to view it in this way. Females are sexual beings should not be repressed or denied their freedom of expression; if they choose to express themselves by performing a striptease they should not be criticized. Burlesque performers are often wrongly associated with sex workers and prostitutes and there is a stigma attached to the name as a result of some of the seedy aspects of its past.

Many critics of the movement have not witnessed a true burlesque performance and have a strong opinion that they are unwilling to change. A very clear example of this is seen in the interview conducted with Von Teese by Hannah Pool. Pool was very dismissive of burlesque stripping and would never set foot in a club as she felt the women who attended them “let the side down”. This is an incredibly narrow-minded and unacceptable argument; no one can criticize a movement so passionately without experiencing it first hand.

Burlesque is growing in popularity; the glamour aspect of the movement is attracting a new audience who agree with the opinion that it is empowering. One of the major attractions is that the female audience members see a performer similar to themselves on stage. Unfortunately there are some clubs that are not respectful of their performers and make them feel exploited so there will always be people who oppose burlesque. However the true spirit of vintage burlesque is one that should not be opposed and should be enjoyed by men and women alike.

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