Sitting in the front row of a café-style theatre, I stared dumbly at the first burlesque act I had ever seen. Honey Wilde aka ‘Maggie Thatcher’ was strutting around onstage toying with a small whip. Gradually, she started to strip and when at last she was down to just her curly wig and diamante thong, she posed with a union jack and promptly left the stage.
Feminists have divergent opinions of burlesque. Some denigrate it as little more than glorified stripping, saying that adding a corset and feather boa to a woman’s objectification doesn’t make it any less objectifying. Others, such as Caitlin Moran in her recent autobiography ‘How to be a Woman’, describe it as utterly different to stripping and even empowering. Since my recent experience of burlesque at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I’m still trying to make up my mind.
Wilde’s act involved nakedness, but it was very tastefully dealt with. There was no grinding or humping. The compere made the audience promise to whoop and cheer encouragingly when we saw a bit of flesh. We were thankful for some suggestion of how to repress the momentary awkwardness…WOO! Furthermore, the nakedness wasn’t the point of the act. The point lay in some combination of humour, subversion and charm.
The second burlesque performer of the night had recently and controversially been described as ‘somewhere between a crack addict and a blow up sex doll’. The compere assured us that Vendetta Vain took pride in the review, ‘she puts it on her posters!’ Unlike the previous act, hers was a routine full of seductive wriggling, but low on satire. And yes, her expression was deliberately and comically vacant. The show was a straightforward sexual tease. After the big reveal she lingered awhile to flex her pectoral muscles to the beat. I felt it drew dangerously close to objectification then.
The third and final burlesque performer was 78 years old! Lynn Ruth Miller appeared onstage in a sexy dressing gown, elbow-length gloves, hold-ups and very low high heel shoes, all white. She sang songs along the lines of ‘you think I’m too old to be sexy, but I’m not’. She stripped...just down to her nighty and bare arms. She danced very carefully and the compere took her hand to guide her down the steps into the audience, where she sat on the knees of terrified men of all ages. By the end of her act I had nothing but respect for this woman, old enough to be grandmother but with more sexual confidence and joie de vivre than I could shake a stick at.
Clearly, some burlesque acts would classify as nothing more than glorified stripping. However others truly celebrate female sexuality, encompassing charisma, wit, passion and yes, the naked female body, as an exclamation mark at the end of the show rather than its content. The question that remains is which type of act dominates burlesque. While I am totally unqualified to answer it, I can only hope that it is the latter.
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