(This contribution is from Ulla Holm, a sociologist and columnist at the Danish newspaper Information.)
It’s funny what a label can do. Dancing in sexy underwear in front of an audience is demeaning, objectifying, alienating and reproducing gender stereotypes when women do it for money in strip clubs, whereas the exact same thing is liberating, subversive and artful once it’s called ”Burlesque”.
That I learned the other night when watching a documentary on Danish television about the the American Neo-burlesque icon ”Dirty Martini”. Prior to the tv tribute to Dirty Martini there was a documentary about girls who do strip tease for a living in British night clubs: these girls expressed a great deal of satisfaction over the acknowledgement and money they receive from pleasing the costumers with their pole dancing.
In the burlesque universe, however, the motive of pleasing the audience is a sin and makes you just another slave of the Culture Industry. That at least is what Dirty Martini seemed to suggest with her proud remark that she doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks of her ”performance”, all she cares about is ”being comfortable in her body” and with her ”art”. What you do in burlesque is ”perform,” whereas normal strippers just do work. Apparently what strippers do cannot be classified as ”art”. In an interview with Timeout Dirty Martini says ”we know what I’m up there for, and we know it’s not the same reason a stripper might be on a pole.” And she goes on to say that’s what makes her performance so ”subtle”, it’s ”a form of self-expression” and ”political speech” as opposed to standard striptease.
So: what supposedly makes burlesque so avant-garde in opposition to mainstream stripping is that it’s not done for money or other people’s enjoyment. As Dirty Martini says in another interview with ”21st Century Burlesque Magazine”: ”Why perform? Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money, making people happy or any lofty values. Performers must do it. It burns in their veins. To be quite frank, if you want to be famous, don’t do burlesque. Become a pop singer or an actor. People love that crap and you can make millions.”
This echoes the Wikipedia definition of Burlesque ”performers” which reads: ”Unlike strippers who dance in strip clubs to make a living, burlesque performers often perform for fun and spend more money on costumes, rehearsal and props than they are compensated.”
What it all boils down to is this: When a woman takes her clothes off for commercial gain, it is alienating and inauthentic. On the other hand, it highly empowering, self-actualizing, and authentic when there are no financial interests involved. The failure to get paid, then, is what transforms it from exploitation into art. Obviously it all adds to the authenticity of burlesque that its performers make references to burlesque icons of the past, lending it a sort of cultural superstructure that goes down well with academics. Another authenticity bonus is the fact that burlesque, according to the curatorial statement of the Danish New Burlesque Festival, ”has existed since time immortal and we will find examples of burlesque in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work in ancient Greece, and also in the renaissance works of Shakespeare.” Modern striptease, because it has no such fine history, cannot make any claim to any such cultural distinction.
It is ironic that burlesque speaks out so loudly for the female need to feel comfortable about oneself, because its requirement for authenticity is what frames normal strippers as poor commodified sex objects with no cultural value and keeps us and the strippers themselves from attaching any real value and prestige to what they do. They may be enjoying their work, but outside the clubs it’s ”stripped” of the celebration and recognition that Dirty Martini and her queer co-artists enjoy. But hey, in contrast to burlesque performers, striptease dancers are out there actually making an effort to please their audience. Shouldn’t we give them credit for that?
Back in 1853 Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Colet: “To publish something is to degrade yourself and your work, it’s to give up being an artist.” What this quote translates into is highly reflective of the Burlesque logic: Work performed with the intention of pleasing an audience ceases to be worthy of the “art” label and becomes self-humiliation. This is reminiscent of Kant’s view that the aesthetic object must be separated from any interests outside itself – be they money, power or recognition. It’s sad, because it cuts off a whole array of phenomena and experiences – such as striptease - from aesthetic appreciation and makes being in the world a lot less fun.
Finally, if you want to see how absurd the burlesque argument is, substitute "taking your clothes off" for another chore that women have been doing for millennia, namely, "housework." According to this view, women who clean other peoples' houses for money are doing menial, alienating work. But cleaning your own home, for no one's pleasure but your own? That's authentic and empowering.
Ulla Holm can be reached at email@example.com