I was thinking a lot yesterday at the Camp/ Anti-Camp Festival at HAU II about the presence/representation of women in general, and the question that came up at some point that afternoon by several of the speakers: Is CAMP only the domain of gay (male) culture? And as I was thinking about it I got on the thought that (female) burlesque—especially clear in footage of “early burlesque” and in the imagery of performers like Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda, is absolutely, without a doubt, camp. And yet modern (female) burlesque has gotten the reputation of being something other than camp and has been coupled, especially as I’ve seen it in Europe, with generally heteronormative and certainly gender binary cultures, like that of the rockabilly scene. [I tread lightly on accusing any or all rockabilly scenes of being homophobic, however I certainly have seen and felt more than one instance of homophobia. I’ve often felt strongly the general problematic of the precise recreation of a cultural instance (1950’s) which was especially concerned with traditional male-female roles, traditionalism, cars, and militaristic iconography. This is why for me personally it’s been difficult to refashion rockabilly as queer or punk (both of which I view as politicized identities). That is not to say that queer cultures have not had their own love affair with reproducing fifties gender binaries and femme/butch fashion statements, though the motivation seems to come from the need to carve a space for queerness, creating a counter-culture at the margins of a heteronormative idea. I don’t want to digress, but it is worth saying that perhaps there is more queerness in the dressing up itself than I first gave credit for and I hope that such scenes can ultimately use this concept to find solidarity with queers and acceptance of queerness.]
In any case, I should be upfront in saying that this is why at times the burlesque scene, especially when coupled with a culture that essentially reproduces what I see as the worst aspects of the male/female binary, is so problematic for me and why I often feel like an outsider in it.
What’s interesting about this is that the act of female burlesque and even DRESSING UP (and in this I am including any person who spends more than one hour getting themselves ready before leaving the house)—as I realized fully not until yesterday—is in fact about impersonating women (or, to broaden this context, could be any gender). This essentially queer idea does not seem to be truly integrated into the sensibility of glamour girl burlesque, though I argue that it should be. Simultaneously it also does not seem to be integrated into intellectual art house scenes that are fascinated by drag, especially men in drag, and less fascinated, if not actively abhorrent of modern glamour girls or girls that try to be fashion magazine “perfect”—though artist/intellectuals seem in general slightly more open to pop stars and celebrity, at least on a theoretical level.
We aught to—whether we are burlesque stars, artists, curators of arty/camp events or simply audience members—reclaim and own a simple but subversive idea: Female impersonation is not and should not be only in the domain of men. Therefore our fascination with female impersonation and camp need not be oriented towards men or gayness, since, as truth be told, it can be found all over the place. [This translates to an even more simple idea of seeing beyond the superficiality of how one dresses their body, though for an artist this is certainly difficult as we are consumers and lovers of eye candy and therefore we throw events like Camp/Anti Camp and celebrate dressing up. But WHO gets to be part of the in-crowd? This we have to always ask ourselves.]
For me this is a big eye opener because I have been at times depressed by some burlesque which seems to forget its own queerness, or forgets what I perceive as its own true intention, which is: making a drag of women. In other words, burlesque’s job should be to poke fun at the near impossibility of creating the “perfect girl” (or perfect boy, for that matter). When I think of this in practical terms, and when I consider what it takes to turn me into a glamour girl—it takes a LOT! I spend just as much time in front of a mirror and under the “gun” as my male partner does to turn himself into a woman. While this is at root the fact of any girl trying to become the perfect girl, it seems that some girls have taken on the illusion that they actually CAN do it and forgotten the CAMP of it!
They believe they can do this by perfecting the perfection (read: bio sex) of their own bodies, which straight culture has mixed up with the un-queer idea that it is only possible because they are real girls, ie, have vaginas. This reinforces what the queer feminist world interprets as the mainstream and banal obsession with straight (and implied un-feminist) girls really trying to create the perfect body by dieting, extreme beauty, and taking on the mantra of beauty is pain. This line of thinking only reproduces competition among women to be skinnier, more demure, better behaved, better styled and with better hair—which is not really what a truly liberating feminist burlesque (or feminist scene at all) should be about. And at feminism is not and should not be as simple as saying, “gee wiz I feel so exploited by all those women on the covers of fashion magazines.” At the same time there is the opposite side of the coin, which is that women who don’t buy into this have a superiority complex that because they are seemingly “unconcerned with societal expectations,” they are more feminist (read: better, smarter) than women who “give into the cultural expectations of their own femininity.”
Where are we at after that? Right back at the same place – women feeling like shit!
This relates and can give another answer to the popular question of Why is burlesque “feminist”? It seems that in the last years this question is often answered in terms that have to do with sex. In part, it is implied, or so it seems, by many burlesque dancers themselves, that burlesque is in part feminist because women use tease as opposed to “giving it all away”—it being sex. Burlesque is feminist because women are choosing how to represent themselves and taking their sexuality into their own hands—indeed this is so. But in my experience there is also the subtle implication that the choice of representation should be or aught to be a more demure or behaved or glamorous representation of sexuality than a “normal stripper” who “only buys into mainstream definitions of male desire and gives it all away.” This is in quotes because I have heard statements to that exact effect. *I assume this is why my work in queer porn/grey areas of sex work has been at conflict with being fully accepted into the burlesque scene—I am neither good at being glamorous nor do I refuse to give it all away. That said, the other side to that is my own resistance at being wanted to be accepted into a scene that I thought had forgotten its own queerness. In fact I realize there is a possibility for transgressing this perceived border between us.
Moreover, the feminism of burlesque need not have anything to do with SEX but rather with a reinvention of GENDER. [There seems to be a big confusion with the conflation of anything having to do with SEX as SEXIST. One could argue that sexism has not so much to do with SEX as it does with power. What about renaming sexism as powerism and renaming feminism as queer, thereby reinforcing what should be a commitment of all genders and sexual orientations to fight powerism?]
When I watched Vaginal Davis last night give fallatio (and a decent attempt at cunilingus) live onstage at HAU II, I thought about how, had she been a cis gendered woman, her actions might have been interpreted as un-feminist, or at least, base, especially by fellow women, whereas in a context of intellectuals and artists a character in drag like Vaginal can more than “get away with it”—she is lauded and pleasing (at least to me, who hooted and hollered and laughed). Because essentially we know that she was not born a woman, she can’t be “disrespecting her own sex,” with the implication that at root of feminism is that no self respecting feminist can give into male desire by giving blow jobs, much less in public. I’m hyperbolizing but the statement itself is not unwarranted given some strains of feminist thought and general societal thinking, which points to what I see as its problematic, ie, why are women always being asked to over-explain and control their own desire in order to be given the respect they already deserve?.
In fact these boundaries and interpretations of bodies onstage engaging with sexuality need to be continuously allowed to open and be reinvented and re-accepted, especially as it relates to the cis gendered female body onstage. They can only be reexamined when we think of a girl onstage as, firstly, in drag herself, therefore as a queer body. This goes hand in hand with the point made earlier which is that we have to reimagine that the feminism of burlesque is not about the refusal to engage with sex or the refusal to give it all away (if this is what she chooses, fair enough, but that is not the essential feminism). The essential feminism is actually that burlesque dancers are camp in their act of female impersonation, which is not and should not only be left to the domain or control of men. Their job is to remember and claim their CAMPiness.
How can we performers curators and artists help to make that conceptual intention visible in our representations of ourselves onstage?