Can Burlesque Be Empowering to Women?
The Delphiad Blog has a post that starts by examining the claim that burlesque is "empowering" to women, moves into an exploration of a personal anecdote (visiting a nude beach with a boyfriend didn't go as he had planned) and ends with this declaration:
I can have fun when I want to, if I feel free, if I don’t feel pressured, if I do it for me first and if I don’t feel someone is shilling their agenda with ulterior motives that don’t mesh with my best interests. Whether this is the case with every instance of “fun” that gets pushed at women is another story. Only each and every woman can tell for herself, of course.
I can see where yes, burlesque can exercise your imagination, involve your sense of play and perhaps help you claim or reclaim your body and sexual self when you need to do this, or just plain want to.
That, indeed, is empowering. There are just so many things we get thrown at us that are not.In the end, no one can label me as a loser or a weakling for not embracing their definition of “fun”, “liberation” or “empowerment”, instead of respecting my choices and quite-considerable experience in deciding what, in fact, I truly consider “empowering”.I agree with that conclusion, and I feel confident saying that women viewing their own bodies as sexy and enjoying expressions of that sexiness can be feminist. But I can't help but look at that conclusion and the introduction to the post as never-ending circles of a vicious cycle. In the beginning, the post had this to say:
My initial reaction, I admit, is to cringe and/or roll my eyes when I hear that word spoken in connection with anything that sounds so obviously centred around male pleasure. Let’s just say burlesque is one of those things… along with pole-dancing lessons; bunny ears; having a threesome you don’t really want, for the “higher purpose” of “liberating your sexuality”; watching lesbian porn with a boyfriend when you’re completely straight, etc.Obviously, she started with this question and ended with some version of "but it can be empowering to an individual who finds it empowering" but we could just as easily start with that conclusion and end up with "but it isn't empowering to women who are pressured into it by societal standards."
The problem becomes in distinguishing where societal standards and pressure end and individual desires and expression begin. And, to some extent, they don't begin and end. We are products of our society. I can't separate myself out from the culture that's shaped me. Even when I step into different cultural contexts, I am a product of my past experiences. The people I've known, the books I've read, the movies I've watched, the relationships I've had--that's all part of me. On the flip side, our culture is a product of us. The music we create, the blog posts we write, the words we say, the products we buy, the art we paint--those are all part of our culture. The question of "is burlesque feminist" is so damned frustrating because it's really a question of identity.
Yes, It Can Empower
Chloe Emmot has an interesting post over at The F Word that asks the same question: "Can burlesque be feminist?" Here, Emmot talks about her experiences in a burlesque class:
One of the first things I remember from class was being told that any negativity regarding our body image was not to be tolerated and that burlesque was about showing off your beauty, whatever your size, shape or colour. It may sound trite, but, as a young woman who, no matter how hard she tries, cannot fully escape the pressure to be thin and 'beautiful', a message that left me walking home noticing how my 'fat' thighs, stomach and bum wobbled - and felt so goddamn-sexy - is one worth celebrating. 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.For her, then, burlesque was a way to claim authorship over her definition of sexy. While she admits to still having some reservations about burlesque (and its intertwinement with strip clubs and pornography), she ultimately believes that burlesque can be a way for women to decide what they think is sexy rather than always playing the part of what (they think) men think is sexy.
No, It Can't Empower
To be fair to this debate, I have to consider viewpoints like this one from Jill at I Blame the Patriarchy. She takes to task the notion that women can be claiming their own sexiness because she sees that "sexiness" as ultimately controlled and created by a patriarchal system of oppression:
Today’s feminist, empowered by all those articles on vibrators in Bust magazine, chooses choices of her own free will. These choices mirror her own unique sartorial, sexual, and philosophical personality. That these unique choices happen to align precisely with standard male porn fantasies, and that they are therefore rewarded with positive attention, is purely coincidental.
Such a viewpoint is a luxury of youth. It is the great tragedy of the women’s liberation movement that fully-realized feminist consciousness is too rarely achieved by women who are still young and fit enough to take on Dude Nation in a knife fight. Too often, it’s only when a woman ages out of pornosity, and is too old to do anything but take pictures of cows, that she discovers what the world really thinks of her.She goes so far as to decry femininity itself as degrading:
It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization.Many of the comments on the post demonstrate that feminists (young and old alike) have ascribed to this viewpoint and recognize femininity as a degradation to women. At this point, we're clearly getting into the murky waters where second-wave and third-wave feminism clash.
Trading One Set of Rules for Another?
I see a mini-version of this debate play out in the toy crusades and gendering of children. While many people recognize that ascribing narrow gender roles to children through toys is problematic, the answers on how to deal with that problem are complicated.
|The Fisher Price Brilliant Basics rattle teaches infant girls that diamond rings are most important.|
Of course, Jill's argument is that you can't really, truly like glitter. You are just programmed to like glitter because society tells you so. I'm not rejecting that argument out of hand, but doesn't that seem a little too narrow? There's no merit to glitter? Nothing redeemable? For anyone? Ever?
And then (you knew there was going to be an "and then" didn't you?) there's this: "Lady Gaga's Patriarchal Bargain." Guest blogger Sonita Moss wrote in this article for Sociological Images that bounces off of Lisa Wade's look at "Serena Williams' Patriarchal Bargain."
A patriarchal bargain, according to Wade is defined as follows:
A patriarchal bargain is a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact. Williams is making a patriarchal bargain, exchanging her sex appeal for the heightened degree of fame and greater earning power we give to women who play by these rules (e.g., Kim Kardashian). Don’t be too quick to judge; nearly 100% of women do this to some degree.It's not quite "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but it's close. Something more like "if you can't beat 'em, trick 'em at their own game." The problem is that this doesn't do much to dismantle the oppression in place to begin with. In fact, because the women who are making these patriarchal bargains often do so to gain power and prestige, they are in positions of influence and may actually be furthering that oppression.
Throughout her body of work there is a thread of what we know all too well: ass-shaking, barely-there nudity and conspicuous consumption, just in an offbeat fashion. Gaga is bonkers, but Gaga is sexy. Gaga is political and outspoken, Gaga is skinny and [often] blond. Indeed, “Mother Monster” may uplift her fans because of her affinity for oddness, but lest we forget, she is a lady and must inhabit the flesh that adheres to gender norms and restrictions, she reminds us:
“I would rather die than have my fans see me without a pair of heels on. And that’s show business.”If you want to ride the ride, you have to pay the price. And that price is patriarchy.
Expression and Language
So, with all of those complicated views bouncing around in my head, I'm trying to figure out how I feel about this. I don't know the answer, but it does remind me of a different (and equally contentious) debate: the use of the n-word.
As you may know, I don't use the n-word. Ever. If it's in a quote (like in song lyrics or a book), I'll type the word, but in my own language I do not use it. I don't feel like I have the authorial rhetorical positioning. I don't have the ethos. The history of the word is too steeped in hate, violence, and degradation. I don't feel comfortable participating in it.
However, I also don't think it should be banned (like it was in this "symbolic" ban in NYC back in 2007). While some (like Richard Delgado, for instance) maintain that some words are always designed to wound, destined to be fighting words, that view ignores the fact that words do not have innate meanings. Words' meanings are created by the people who use them. Language is fluid, constantly changing, and overlapping. Finally, banning a word doesn't ban the thoughts, and the thoughts are what worry me. If the n-word were suddenly wiped from everyone's vocabularies, I have little hope that racism would be equally wiped from everyone's minds. After all, it was racism that created the most popular meaning of the n-word to begin with, not the other way around.
I feel like banning the n-word gives too much power to the people who have used it with negative connotations. While I don't suggest we ignore those connotations and the cultural realities surrounding the word (which is why I don't use it myself), I see negative effects from fixing that definition for all time, for saying that the word can never have any other possible use. When we do that, we give the people who have championed a racist use of the word immense power. No other word gets a fixed definition that never changes. Why should these people have the power to destroy a word forever? Why should these people get the position of permanent authorship? Doesn't that just imply that the current system of oppression is forever set? The people who wield the power over the n-word and its current meaning will always do so? I can't accept that.
I likewise can't accept that women are destined to always be objectified. If we say that burlesque or lingerie or stripping or pornography are always and inherently objectification, we give the patriarchal oppression that can make them objectifying too much power. We deny the opportunity for those expressions to have alternate authorship. We fix them in a time and space in a way that denies the fluid reality of human communication and give too much credence to oppression as it currently exists. The patriarchy doesn't have ownership over sexuality.
What do you think? Can burlesque be feminist? Have you participated in a patriarchal bargain? Am I participating in a patriarchal bargain by writing these words? Have I been had? Can't glitter be nice, too?