Femininities and Feminisms: Tensions in (Neo)-burlesque

Chelsea Haith

(Culture and Thought After 1945, University of York)

This paper explores the tensions that arise in the negotiation of sexualities, femininities, and feminist ideology in Cape Town-based (Neo)-burlesque performers’ articulation of their experiences in the genre. The focus of this paper is on the way in which performers articulate their beliefs and experiences of (Neo)-burlesque. Due to the tensions that emerge in the performers’ conversations about the genre, I have chosen to bracket the ‘Neo’ in Neo-burlesque throughout the article with the exception of the literature review. (Neo)-burlesque, as the literature review and analysis suggest, is a more subversive and contemporary form of the older iteration, ‘burlesque’. However, what emerges in this article’s analysis is that the performers construct the genre within both traditional notions of vintage burlesque and in the subversive discourses of contemporary (Neo)-burlesque. Their articulations, bound as they are in language, imply tensions in the way that (Neo)-burlesque performers negotiate and make meaning of their femininity and feminist beliefs. These tensions, I argue, have the potential to produce simultaneously problematic and generative new discourses about the production of femininity and the concept and application of feminism in this genre. This paper locates itself within a feminist poststructuralist framework as this opens up the possibility of exploring the discourses (Neo)-burlesque performers may be creating, deconstructing or conforming to in their talk.

The contradictions that arise from the production of normative or emphasised femininities in the genre suggests that there are tensions within the narrative of (Neo)-burlesque as a kind of resistance. This analysis explores a central theme in the data: negotiating multiple femininities, and examines whether the performers themselves experience or produce a disruptive or subversive form of femininity in the genre and how this correlates to their feminist ideologies.

The construction of disruptive and subversive femininities offers the genre alternative discourses through which to articulate its feminist ideology, though this is troubled by neoliberal iterations of choice and acceptable alternative femininities. These ‘alternative’ bodies are nevertheless constructed as part of what makes (Neo)-burlesque a kind of embodied activism for some of the participants.

Literature Review

Neo-burlesque is a revival of the 1870s-1930s British and North American vintage burlesque style. It was revived in the 1990s and the modern iteration of burlesque is often, but not always, referred to as Neo-burlesque or the ‘burlesque revival’.[1] Several theorists have argued that Neo-burlesque is a kind of feminist transgression[2] or, as articulated by theorists writing in the 2010s, a postfeminist art form.[3] As such, Neo-burlesque engages with discourses of feminism in progressive and controversial ways, which may be problematic due to theoretical conflations of postfeminism with a neoliberal agenda that has consequences for the erasure of certain groups of womxn[4]. It is for this reason that I engage the brackets to indicate the distinction between vintage burlesque, Neo-burlesque as a subversive genre and (Neo)-burlesque, the more ambiguous iteration of the genre. The brackets indicate an intentional ambiguity that highlights the tension between subversion and postfeminism that the analysis section details.

Gill and Scharff’s edited collection suggests that theory about the construction of femininities has been emerging for about the last two decades. The emergence of theory on femininities includes noted gender scholar R. W. Connell’s conceptualisation of ‘emphasised femininities’, which rejects the notion of a hegemonic femininity.[5] This is due to what Connell believes is an inescapable subordination of women to men such that femininity is always constructed as the unequal opposite to hegemonic masculinity. A framework that organises subordinate masculinities and femininity together in a gender matrix that acknowledges the raced and classed implications of white men’s political and social hegemony in the gender order is at work in Connell’s theory. Connell argues that ‘emphasised femininity’, which is a dominant form of femininity, ‘is defined around compliance with this subordination and is oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men’, which means that in her conceptualisation, no femininity is inherently powerful or agentic.[6] Diction plays an interesting role here because in this article’s later analysis, many of the performers refer to ‘emphasised femininity’ as ‘heightened femininity’, which has ideological implications for those who perform this kind of femininity due to the performative nature of any gendered behaviour. Emphasised femininity also has implications for Neo-burlesque constructions of femininity as I will discuss in the analysis section.

In her article ‘Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Hegemony’ (2007) Mimi Schippers takes up Connell’s allusion to multiple femininities[7]. She argues further that ‘configurations of femininity that are not deemed normal, ideal, or desirable cannot be thought of as subordinate to an ideal femininity’ because marginalised femininities may in fact be more empowering than emphasised femininity is for heterosexual white women.[8] Using Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of heterosexual desire as the basis for the binary opposition of masculinity and femininity in Gender Trouble (1990), Schippers argues that ‘the construction of hetero-desire as the ontological essence of gender difference establishes the meaning of the relationship between masculinity and femininity’ (2007: p.90). Controversially for this article’s interview participants, Schippers argues that from Butler’s position, ‘[r]egardless of one’s sex category, the possession of erotic desire for the feminine object is constructed as masculine and being the object of masculine desire is feminine’.[9] Emphasised femininity is therefore constructed by Connell, Schippers and Butler within a heterosexual paradigm that both renders women subordinate to men, and complicates and troubles the queer space of (Neo)-burlesque.

Schippers allows that different ‘configurations of femininity’ can be troubling to this heterosexual paradigm that subordinates femininity, because:

Practices and characteristics that are stigmatized and sanctioned if embodied by women include having sexual desire for other women, being promiscuous, ‘frigid’, or sexually inaccessible, and being aggressive. These are characteristics that, when embodied by women, constitute a refusal to complement hegemonic masculinity in a relation of subordination and therefore are threatening to male dominance.[10]

While not referring explicitly to the queer space of Neo-burlesque, Schippers does argue that by deviating from feminine ideals in their gender performance, women and women’s movements can ‘threaten men’s exclusive possession of hegemonic masculine characteristics’, action that can ‘constitute a refusal to embody the relationship between masculinity and femininity demanded by gender hegemony’.[11] The implication here is that by accessing and claiming traditionally masculine characteristics and desires, women can reconstruct femininity on an equal footing and not as subordinate in relation to masculinity.

Using gender ideals as an access point to the discussion about the relationship between masculinity and femininity, Shelley Budgeon carries this argument further by suggesting that: ‘Expressions of femininity which violate the authorized practice of hegemonic gender relationality circulate as ‘pariah femininities’ alongside hegemonic femininity’, which explains the characterisation of Neo-burlesque as an ‘alternative’ genre.[12] Here Budgeon refers to normative notions of gender that prescribe gendered behaviour, noting that alternative modes of feminine expression are considered outside the norm. In her description of ‘new femininities’ Budgeon complicates Connell’s and Schippers’ models of gender order by signalling the philosophical and psychological impact of late modernity and neoliberalism on the construction of the individual’s primacy over the marginalised (female) collective: ‘The successful performance of femininity increasingly takes place against a backdrop of meritocratic systems promising to reward worthy individuals’.[13] Budgeon’s criticism of this construction of ‘new femininity’ is focused on the kind of neoliberal feminine power espoused by businesswomen like Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg. This is a power narrative that hierarchises different femininities and ignores the role of privilege in creating permissible alternative femininities such as those deployed by ‘power women’ like Sandberg, while ignoring the hierarchy that subordinates, for example, threatening queer femininities. Budgeon writes:

The privilege of particular femininities is sustained not only at the expense of other possible articulations but in a relation of interdependence with those femininities which visibly mark the boundary of socially ‘acceptable’ femininity. The multiple forms of femininity evidently being enacted in relation to new femininities are ordered hierarchically by applying a measure of individuation repeatedly constructed as a personal failure to overcome ‘pathetic’, dependent traditional femininity and assert personal choice.[14]

Femininities are therefore theorised in relation to masculinity, and while Connell, Schippers and Budgeon all note the plurality of femininity, they fail to articulate how these multiple femininities might manifest practically, though this may be due to their imbrication in theoretical research, rather than qualitative research.

Can Neo-Burlesque be feminist?

Debra Ferreday’s work on Neo-burlesque deals with the problem of under-representation of queer femininities in the literature on the construction of femininities. Ferreday interprets Neo-burlesque as a way of asserting an alternative femininity, and in her much-cited article ‘Showing the Girl’ (2008) she suggests a ‘re-framing of burlesque as a site of parody and resistance which ‘troubles’ critiques of femininity within both feminist theory and queer theory’.[15] The costume and performance of Neo-burlesque, Ferreday notes, is bound in ‘narratives of excessive, dangerous femininity’ and this indicates the power of the genre as a space for promoting counter-hegemonic discourse.[16]

Posing an outright opposition to the discourse of Neo-burlesque as a feminist genre, Kay Siebler notes a distinction between feminist practice and claims to feminism:

Inherently, there is nothing feminist in neo-burlesque, but there are some feminist neo-burlesque performers who are doing feminist work and that work diverges in smart, interesting ways from most of the neo-burlesque currently being performed and consumed.[17]

Siebler rejects the claims that Neo-burlesque is feminist on the grounds that the genre is beholden to heterosexual constructions of femininity and sexiness, and that it is therefore implicated in perpetuating the male gaze. What, therefore, seems to be emerging in the literature on Neo-burlesque are tensions related to the definitions and terminology of feminisms and iterations of these within Neo-burlesque.

Methodology

The study that this article draws upon was conducted using a feminist poststructuralist epistemology considering the ways in which the participants use language and discourse to make sense of their lives in relation to their performance of Neo-burlesque. The principles of various other epistemologies such as feminist standpoint epistemology and the hermeneutic tradition were also in use to allow the participants agency as subjects and to ensure that they were not treated or represented as objects.[18] The aim is to render the experiences of the participants as constitutive of real knowledge and to create research that the participants and researcher are mutually invested in because ‘[f]eminist research is politically for women, feminist knowledge has some grounding in women’s experiences, and in how it feels to live in unjust gendered relationships’.[19]

Included in the project are photographs of one of the events at which the observation research was conducted, on 1 July 2017. Lady Magnolia has permitted the use of these as the headmistress of The Rouge Revue and owner of the images, and all credit is to Ilze Kitshoff, the photographer, who has granted permission for these images to be published in this journal. These photographs have been specifically chosen and accepted by the performers to appear on The Rouge Revue website as well as on social media, and permission to publish has been granted by all of the participants in this study.

Analysis/Findings

The data suggests that the major discourses emerging are discourses of normative femininities and disruptive or subversive femininities. The central tension that emerges is the simultaneous production of these multiple femininities by the participants in their talk about their experience of the production and expression of femininity. The participants express uncertainty about the definition of femininity while constructing aesthetic and psychological notions of it in their discussions about themselves, one another and their sense of what it means to be feminine.

Red lipstick, that classic signifier of femininity

When talking about femininity almost all of the interview participants expressed that it was difficult to define or explain the term. Many of them struggled for words while being sure of what it meant to each of them outside of language. To Ziggy, a non-binary transgender person and (Neo)-burlesque performer, femininity is everything that is ‘not-masculine’ a position which evokes Judith Butler’s theory that masculinity and femininity are constructed in a system of heterosexual difference. Ziggy’s construction of femininity specifically relies upon a binary for definition, though they[20] explain this position further when they say that ‘femininity may well resist definition’. Many of the participants responded to questions about the construction of femininity with frustration at the difficulty they had describing it. Lady Magnolia says that ‘we all express it differently’ and notes that another South African (Neo)-burlesque group, Black Orchid Burlesque, have ‘a lot more grungy, heavy metal sort of vibe’. She presents this grungy look as Black Orchid Burlesque’s more alternative studio identity and in the next sentence seems to set this identity in contrast or perhaps even in opposition to The Rouge Revue’s own image, which is influenced by her personal preferences: ‘I like to work with glamour and heightened femininity. So when we do a show, everyone wears red lipstick, that classic signifier of femininity’. This construction of normative femininity on-stage through the use of make-up is completed by ‘false eyelashes’ and ‘the hair is styled’, she says. The implications of branding a business within the mode of traditional “classic” symbolic cues of a type of emphasised femininity has implications for the supposedly subversive elements of the genre.

The “goddess”

The power that femininity allows (Neo)-burlesque performers to feel is articulated by their talk about their on-stage personas and how these differ from their ‘real life’ personalities. The ‘goddess’ that emerges in the process of costuming is articulated not as a beautiful or sexy person, but as someone who is ‘completely confident, at ease, completely able and willing to accept and receive the love and appreciation without that human tendency to make it smaller’, Lady Magnolia says. Confidence, ease, self-containment and grace are the qualities of the ‘goddess version of me’ that the Lady Magnolia stage persona signifies. However, rather than being inherent, the goddess needs props, make-up and a stage in order to emerge: ‘I don’t feel like Lady Magnolia until I put my lashes on’ and ‘I always have a glass of champagne when I’m getting ready because that also makes me feel like a goddess’ she says. Performing (Neo)-burlesque is an act of empowerment and self-assertion for Lady Magnolia ‘because that’s when I feel the most powerful, sensual, present’. She constructs this performance as an expression of the best traits of her persona, merging femininity and sexuality in her production of a ‘powerful’ persona. This presentation of public sensuality is bound in a discourse of feminine sexuality as ‘powerful’, which is both connotative of dominance and also associated with the idea of the goddess.

Scar-Lit Hearts’ notion of femininity in (Neo)-burlesque has changed in the decade that she has been performing it, shifting from ‘cheesecake and cutesy’ in the past to her recent performances which have ‘been very much about feeling strong on stage, as opposed to being gentle or funny’. Her iteration of her on-stage persona is ‘big and proud’, and her idea of femininity is delinked from the aesthetic and instead is articulated as inherently fluid: ‘What makes you connect to that feminine power is not something that is fixed and fast’. Her articulation implies that ‘feminine power’ is something that one taps into, that one makes a connection with, which implies a divinity in femininity that women can access, rather than a performance of gendered behaviour traits.

Strength and confidence are the overwhelming discourses that the participants use to talk about their personas. Jezzy Bell becomes ‘even more female, even more womanly’ when in character, a gender expression that is performed ‘not in a pretty, sweet kind of way. More in a way that I own my femininity in quite a strong way’. Jezzy Bell’s performances very often involve gesturing to the audience, inquiring whether they like what they see and demanding appreciation.

fig 2 burlesque

fig 1 burlesque

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1- Ilze Kitshoff, “Jezzy Bell in The Rouge Revue, pre-reveal”, 2017.

Figure 2- Ilze Kitshoff, “Jezzy Bell in The Rouge Revue, post-reveal”, 2017.

In the first image we see Jezzy Bell in a power stance, arms wide open, the act requiring fans with which she hides and reveals parts of herself during the performance, showing off her costume and body. In the second image, she is nearing the end of her performance in which she strips down to a sparkly body harness. Part of the identity of Jezzy Bell is that ‘she doesn’t care, she does what she wants and she likes what she likes’ she says, which she explains contributes to the confidence that the persona brings: ‘part of that [persona] is being assertive in that way without making any apologies for it’ she says.

Apology and shame came up several times in the participants’ talk about their ‘real life’ personalities, as well as the magnification of the performers’ off-stage personalities on-stage. For Jezzy Bell, transitioning to her on-stage persona is ‘natural, like breathing’, whereas for Missy Meow the on-stage persona is ‘my own character but magnified’ in a process through which she becomes ‘a more cowboy version’ of her off-stage personality. These articulations that resist apology and which are connotative of a type of lawlessness, indicate a breaking with discourses that seek to prescribe women’s behaviour.

Vita Nova notes that in her on-stage character there is ‘always a sass, an attitude, an unashamedness, which I am proud of’ but that that persona is so ‘antithetical to my personal life where I feel such shame, or wanting things to be different and not knowing how to navigate that’. Below is an image of Vita Nova nearing the end of her solo performance on 1 July 2017.

‘Vita doesn’t care,’ she says, discussing her on-stage persona as unashamed, adding that ‘I am not that in real life’. The lines between real life, stage and the production of femininity that occur in both begin to blur in this discourse of the ‘goddess’ who both is and is also more than the performer her/their self, implying a complex negotiation of disruptive femininity using the props of normative femininity.

The construction of disruptive and subversive femininities offers the genre alternative discourses through which to articulate its feminist ideology, though this is troubled by neoliberal concerns centred on issues of choice and acceptable alternative femininities. The ‘alternative’ bodies are nevertheless constructed as part of what makes (Neo)-burlesque a kind of embodied activism for some of the participants.

fig 3 burlesque

Figure 3- Ilze Kitshoff, “Vita Nova in The Rouge Revue”, 2017.

The “other girl”

Lady Magnolia says that (Neo)-burlesque disrupts normative notions of beauty due to the valorisation of diverse body types. She frames the ‘alternative body’ as something that disrupts the heteronormative and limited discourse of permissible sexiness that the advertising, media and entertainment industries present as commodified sexuality:

We bring to the stage all of the other parts of sex that aren’t sold. We bring different shapes and sizes, not a lot unfortunately, but different colours, different ages, alternative ideas of what a woman should be. My oldest student is about sixty-one, and for a sixty-year old woman to get on stage and strip down to panties and pasties, and audiences are paying to see her do that, that’s pretty unheard of.

She cites older people, people of colour and those with larger body types as ‘alternative ideas of what a woman should be’, and in doing so her articulation plays into the presumption that the slender, white, young woman is the prototype of what a woman should be.

Despite the problematic nature of her articulation of ‘alternative bodies’, Lady Magnolia’s articulation of the purpose of the performance is bound in a discourse of empowerment and activism, much like Jezzy Bell’s, Vita Nova’s and Viola Vice’s, all of whom articulated their performance as empowering activism. Lady Magnolia states that by actively exhibiting ‘alternative bodies’, (Neo)-burlesque challenges perceptions of beauty because alternative bodies receive and evoke positive visceral responses from audiences:

We totally disrupt that idea of one kind of beauty, one kind of sexy. And we disrupt it because audiences respond so well to the dancers that are outside the norm. It’s great when a girl who looks like she could be a model goes on stage, but when the other girl goes on and she doesn’t look like she could be a model, people go crazy for it. And I guess that’s because they’re surprised by the physical reaction that they’re having to someone that they wouldn’t have normally thought was attractive.

The creation of the possessor of an ‘alternative body type’ as “the other girl”, perpetuates the centring of the prototypical ‘ideal’ female body in contrast to the alternative who can only access social acceptance of her/their physical form through an alternative genre like (Neo)-burlesque.

The image below shows four women of different body types performing a group dance in silk pyjamas and it is evident in their postures that they are all equally committed to the performance. I am aware that my use of this image to discuss this point further may speak to my own socialised notions of what constitutes the ‘alternative body’. Viola Vice notes that burlesque uses a discourse of body positivity that rejects patriarchal beauty standards that value more slender or curvier bodies. ‘Burlesque is about taking that back and being like, ‘Fuck your standards, every body is sexy,’’ Viola Vice says.

fig 4 burlesque

Figure 4- Ilze Kitshoff, “Silk Pyjamas Routine”, 2017.

Queer Femininities

The production of femininities in the genre is complicated by the queerness of (Neo)-burlesque. The first two (Neo)-burlesque companies in South Africa, Black Orchid Burlesque and The Rouge Revue, were established by two married lesbian couples in the mid-2000s. While there is no verifiable data on the sexualities of all of the (Neo)-burlesque performers in South Africa or in Cape Town, Missy Meow predicts that ‘In the crew, eighty-five per cent of us are not-straight. I don’t think there’s a single woman who is one hundred per cent hetero or gay’, speaking about her perception of the fluid sexuality of her fellow performers in The Rouge Revue.

In her articulation of the queerness of The Rouge Revue, Viola Vice ascribes sexual subjectivity to the genre as a whole because it is performed by queer people and is a queer friendly space:

When I think of burlesque I don’t think of men at all, I don’t even think of men in the audience. I think of it as a really, really queer space, probably because it’s headed by a lesbian, and a lot of the dancers are queer, even the dancers that aren’t queer have developed a physical intimacy that can come across as queer even though it’s not. They slap each other’s asses, check how they look with one another and ask for help applying pasty glue.

The rejection of men from the space, presumably heterosexual cis-gendered men though this is not explicitly stated, subverts the notion of a passive femininity. For Viola Vice, negotiating her queer identity through Neo-burlesque has been a relief. She says that she has always ‘presented very femme’. However, she notes the changes after she came out: ‘I moved away from that idea of myself because it didn’t feel queer enough to me.’ Viola Vice’s former way of thinking and her current one indicate how (Neo)-burlesque has helped her come to terms with her gender performance and her queer identity. Formerly she had conflated queerness with a rejection of traditionally feminine gender performance. (Neo)-burlesque ‘helped with that part of my identity that I really struggled with’ by allowing her to come to an ‘understanding that feminine can still be queer’. She credits her teacher Lady Magnolia with this shift, stating that she is the ‘epitome of femininity, the goddess of The Rouge Revue’ and that ‘never once has her queerness been questioned, and she’s never seen as weaker because of that’. Pictured below is Lady Magnolia (centre) and the Rougettes, the professional performers in The Rouge Revue who performed the final group act on 1 July 2017.

fig 5 burlesque

Figure 5- Ilze Kitshoff, “The Rougettes”, 2017.

The ‘goddess’ discourse of powerful femininity emerges again here but this time in reference to its implications for queer identity. Viola Vice notes that (Neo)-burlesque ‘drew me back to being okay with being queer and being feminine. And not thinking that one invalidates the other’. She had felt that the production of femininity invalidated her queerness, which implies her formerly held conceptions of one’s sexuality as being connected to and informed by one’s gender. (Neo)-burlesque seems to have concretised a theoretical position through a contemporary gender theory discourse that allows for a multiplicity of femininities by asserting the disconnect between gender and sexuality.

For Ziggy, femininity is the ‘deweaponisation’ of their body. They use the term ‘deweaponise’ to refer to their transition from a male-identifying person to a non-binary transgender person at the beginning of 2017. The diction interpolates violence in the conception of masculinity, implying that femininity constructs a body as less dangerous. Referring to a solo performance they were working on at the time of the interview, a part of which is pictured below. Ziggy talks about attempting to disrupt gender roles by destabilising the distinctions between masculinity and femininity:

My dancing right now is trying to take moves that are commonly associated with masculinity, like anger, and combining it with sensuous and feminine sort of stuff, and bringing them close together so that the audience can’t distinguish them.

Ziggy’s articulation here positions anger within the discourse of things that are typical of masculinity while sensuality is articulated as a trait of femininity. Their talk suggests Figure normative and stereotypical notions of what gender performance entails, though they use these terms to talk about how an androgynous performance might disrupt the gendering of different emotions.

fig 6 burlesque

Figure 6- Ilze Kitshoff, “Ziggy’s Stardust in The Rouge Revue”, 2017.

Androgyny can be used powerfully in (Neo)-burlesque by performers such as the French performer Louise de Ville and The Rouge Revue’s own Casual Harry, who begins as a Drag King before dissembling into a woman. What Ziggy suggests by bringing masculinity and femininity ‘closer together’ is not this kind of gender switch, but rather a performance that destabilises notions of what constitutes femininity and masculinity. This, Ziggy says, is an attempt to reconnect with what they term their ‘masculine hangover’ from before their transition. ‘I want to reconnect with it on positive terms,’ Ziggy says. The implication is that these positive terms are feminine and that through an engagement with their femininity they can work through the violence they construct as inherent to masculinity because femininity is ‘everything that wasn’t toxic or undesirable’ Ziggy says. Here an essentialised femininity is being produced by Ziggy’s articulation, one that they willingly acknowledge as ‘idealised’.But this is not the femininity that they personally embrace because they note that even within (Neo)-burlesque they ‘didn’t need to strictly assert the femme part’ of their identity. This negotiation of the different parts of the self in the process of producing an alternative femininity implies a fluidity that allows Ziggy to play with the different iterations of femininity they encounter and to explore without the rigidity that firm articulations of identity might inscribe in their evolving conception of self.

Embodied Activisms

The disruption of prescriptive notions of femininity is articulated as a kind of embodied activism by several of the participants. Seven of the eight participants articulated their performance as part of something larger than their own experience, implying an activist discourse. Miss Kitty Kat says that ‘just being in the audience is very affirming’. Missy Meow constructs her performance of (Neo)-burlesque as a resistance saying that ‘if you can get that message across to even just one woman, you win’. What is being resisted could vary from resisting prescriptivist notions of beauty to women’s internalised misogyny and body shaming. Winning in this articulation is constituted as making women in the audience feel like they too can be ‘powerful, and sexy and in control’, regardless of their physical appearance says Missy Meow.

Jezzy Bell notes that ‘burlesque has become part of my activism’ and that she sees her persona as a ‘role model on stage’, whereas Ziggy articulates their performance of Neo-burlesque explicitly as an ‘act of solidarity’, invoking a discourse of allyship and support for a broader project of empowerment. Ziggy says that they ‘felt like an ambassador’ following the feedback that they received after their first show because straight men had expressed feeling conflicted and confused by their attraction to them. Ziggy articulates this ‘ambassadorship’ as educational as well because the straight men in the audience ‘had their feelings challenged in a really positive way’ Ziggy says.

Constructing their performance of (Neo)-burlesque within an activist discourse implies that they perceive a problem that needs to be countered, and so one discourse implies another – rape culture and body shaming need to be challenged. Jezzy Bell recounts her experience of how her performance changed from being a personal exploration of identity to a more political act and says that she has received audience appreciation that expresses gratitude because her performance as a bigger woman makes others feel more accepted:

Because I am a curvy person and a larger girl, I got a lot of feedback from the audience from people saying that ‘I had not expected to see a woman of my shape onstage, when I came to burlesque I thought I’d see Christina Aguilera type things, I thought I was in for this cabaret sort of thing, but seeing you on stage and your body isn’t perfect like mine, and you’re so sexy and everybody was enraptured by you and you were my favourite person in the whole show and you have encouraged me to love myself a bit more’.

Her articulation captures both the traditional sense of what burlesque is, as made popular by the film Burlesque starring Christina Aguilera and Cher,[21] and the fact that audiences of The Rouge Revue found Jezzy Bell’s performance encouraging and empowering. Jezzy Bell’s experience is ‘being able to be a role model for people who are not necessarily socially acknowledged as beautiful or the norm’, implying that she does not consider herself traditionally beautiful or ‘normal’ either. Through her performance of (Neo)-burlesque she says she can ‘show people that you can be feminine, you can love yourself, you can own your sexuality even if you’re not skinny and beautiful’, an articulation that constructs her performance as an embodied activism. ‘Skinny’ and ‘beautiful’ seem to be conflated here, implying that even within her talk about resisting beauty standards and normative notions of what is attractive, she is interpolated by an ideology that valorises ‘skinny’ women as typifying feminine beauty. Her articulation shows an awareness of normative discourses of physical attractiveness. It is implied that what women are ‘used to seeing about themselves’ is that fat women are unacceptable and are excluded from what is considered beautiful or sexy. Jezzy Bell then presents her performance in opposition to this discourse by showing women an alternative narrative about their bodies, a narrative that is a live performance of sensual physical attractiveness by a woman with a bigger body. Jezzy Bell’s articulation implies that through her performance she can establish a different narrative about alternative bodies and disrupt the discourses that prescribe what is and is not beautiful.

This articulation signals the empowerment narrative that (Neo)-burlesque claims as constitutive of its feminist project. The question of who the performance is expressly for becomes pertinent in the question of empowerment, and here competing discourses emerge. Missy Meow notes that when she was in a relationship (with a man) she would ‘dance with him in mind’ but that when single she says ‘you dance to improve yourself’. Viola Vice says that for her the first audience are the other performers, but she frames (Neo)-burlesque dancing as a ‘gift’ she has given herself. Lady Magnolia uses the same word, ‘gift’, but in reference to the audience, saying that her performance is a ‘gift, and that she is willingly ‘giving’ to the audience. This doubled construction of (Neo)-burlesque as both a gift to the self and a gift to the audience invokes simultaneous discourses of self-care and of consensual sharing of the self.

Discussion

This article’s key findings include the productive power of the tensions that emerge in the participants’ talk about (Neo)-burlesque and the complexities for the genre that emerge out of reading (Neo)-burlesque performers’ articulations alongside the academic literature. The tensions and contradictions in the analysis seem to be productive of new discourses that use the diction of the discourses of emphasised femininity and queer discourse to construct new ways of thinking and talking about the production of the feminised self. The inevitably contested question that emerges is whether or not the genre can be read as subversive, and the genre’s claim to feminism hangs on this question. Burlesque in its vintage iteration is not considered feminist in the literature, but (Neo)-burlesque is a contested site of feminist debate and this article engages with the question by complicating rather than resolving that tension.

A key finding of this article is that the subversion of femininities and invocation of feminism in the genre of (Neo)-burlesque emerges from the individual’s performance and experience, and not from the genre itself. While all of the performers stated that the genre is feminist, building on Kay Siebler’s argument that while not all burlesque or Neo-burlesque is feminist, some can be, through the performer’s intention,[22] I would suggest that the feminism of the genre is located in individual performers’ intentions when they experience it as a feminist act or as something that makes them feel feminist. The introduction of brackets in the term indicate the ambiguity of the genre that does not always subvert traditional notions of femininity and cannot always be feminist, but which has made significant strides in creating a feminist space in Cape Town and which takes genuine and intentional action to be feminist, regardless of the results. The production of normative femininities contradicts the genre’s claims to subversion and the tension that emerges from this problem in the analysis is further complicated by the production of alternative femininities that the performers articulate.

The ‘Neo’ of (Neo)-burlesque refers to the contemporary period but also to the subversion of the genre that is related to the queerness of the space. When a performance uses the discourses of normative and emphasised femininities in a way that also challenges those discourses, for example through queerness, parody, humour or overt sexuality, it has the power to subvert normative ideas of femininity and sexuality and in doing so can rewrite the inequality of the power dynamic between femininity and masculinity. Much of the diction examined in the analysis suggests a reclamation of queer sexuality and a subversion of traditional femininity within the narrative of women’s empowerment, allowing multiple discourses to operate simultaneously. This simultaneity of discourses is productive specifically because it allows (Neo)-burlesque performers to use the materials and discourses of normative and traditional femininities to subvert the oppositional dichotomy of masculinity and femininity and thereby create a new discourse of (Neo)-burlesque femininity that both accepts and rejects normative notions of womxn’s behaviour and appearance. This kind of merging of multiple discourses has the potential to generate a new discourse that can reshape notions of what femininity and sexuality signify both within and outside the genre.

Neoliberal and postfeminist imperatives that seek to control feminist movements and women’s rights to their bodies are undermined by the genre if the (Neo)-burlesque performance subversively deconstructs normative notions of emphasised femininity. Unfortunately, by engaging with the feminist politics of identity and representation the genre is inevitably subject to criticism that highlights the hierarchical class and race concerns that limit the genre’s claim to be intersectionally feminist. The choice inherent in giving a production of the feminised self as a gift and constructing (Neo)-burlesque as a gift to the self is complicated by a neo-liberal agenda that limits the agency of the performer. The politics of who is excluded from the space by virtue of the financial and social commitments of the performer also imbricates the genre in neoliberalism.

This article hopes to contribute to the literature by presenting a position that refuses a binary of feminism versus postfeminism. It does not seek to determine that Neo-burlesque is or is not feminist or to argue that the femininities in the genre are or are not produced in problematic ways. Instead, by allowing the performers of (Neo)-burlesque themselves to speak, an approach that the current literature lacks, this article examines the ways in which the genre could be both feminist and problematic. It also explores the potential for new discourses with which to work through the production of femininity as notions of gender roles and social systems are increasingly deconstructed and popular psychology popularises acceptance of fluidity in identity construction.  By highlighting the ambiguity of the genre’s feminism through a renaming by the addition of brackets to (Neo)-burlesque, this article indicates the productive possibilities if tensions are acknowledged and sustained as sites for further engagement on the topics of femininities and feminisms.

[1] Annie Blanchett, 2014, “Revisiting the ‘passée’: history rewriting in the neo-burlesque community,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 17(2), 158.

[2] M. Buszek, 1999, “Representing ‘Awarishness’: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-CenturyPin-Up,” TDR (1988-), 43(4), German Brecht, European Readings (Winter, 1999), 141–62.

[3] Blanchett, 2014; K Siebler, 2014, “What’s so feminist about garters and bustiers? Neo-burlesque as post-feminist sexual liberation. Journal of Gender Studies, 24(5), p.561–73., C. Nally, 2009, “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender,” Textual Practice, 23(4), 621–43; B Hartman, 2013 “Playing the Fool? The Challenges of Conducting Ethnographic Research on Stripping,” International Journal of Communication, (7), 2482–94.

[4] ‘Womxn’ is a commonly used term in gender studies to refer to female-identifying people, regardless of biological sex, sexuality or gender presentation.

[5] R.W. Connell, 1987, “Hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity,” Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics, 184.

[6] Connell, 185.

[7] Mimi Schippers, 2007, “Recovering the feminine other: Masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony,” Theory and society, 36(1), 85–102.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Ibid., 95.

[12] Shelley Budgeon, 2014, “The dynamics of gender hegemony: Femininities, masculinities and social change,” Sociology, 48(2), 323.

[13] Ibid., 325.

[14] Ibid., 326.

[15] Debra Ferreday, 2008, “Showing the girl: The new burlesque,” Feminist Theory, 9(1), 47..

[16] Ibid., 48; R Klein, Klein, R, 2015, “Laughing It Off: Neo-burlesque striptease and the case of the Sexual Overtones as a theatre of resistance,” IC – Revista Científica de Información y Comunicación, (11), 245–65.

[17] K Siebler, 2014, “What’s so feminist about garters and bustiers? Neo-burlesque as post-feminist sexual liberation. Journal of Gender Studies, 24(5), 562.

[18] S Hesse-Biber, and P Leavy, 2006, The Research Process. In The practice of qualitative research, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 45–82; U Narayan, 2004, “The project of feminist epistemology: Perspectives from a nonwestern feminist,” In The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 213–24; Patricia Hill Collins, 1990, Towards an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, New York: Routledge.

[19] C Ramazanoglu and J Holland, 2002, Feminist Methodology: Challenges and Choices, London: Sage, 16.

[20] Non-binary-identifying people do not necessarily subscribe to the gender pronouns of ‘he’ and ‘she’. Ziggy’s chosen pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’ and so I will refer to Ziggy as such when referring to them.

[21] Burlesque, 2010, California, Sony Pictures.

[22] Siebler, 2014, 562.

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