Immodesty Blaize by Tigz Rice Studios
Happy New Year!
I was asked the following question in a recent interview. In light of a recent rash of what was labeled feminist criticism of burlesque from men and women alike, I am publishing my response to this question.
Q. Burlesque occasionally gets accused of representing women as mere objects, as it draws attention to their sexuality. Is this a misconception, or is it more complicated?
A. One of the points of burlesque is having a highly developed persona and character, being individual and unique, not interchangeable… the exact opposite of an object. In fact burlesque is one of the few performance genres which breaks the fourth wall – it’s hard to be an object if we communicate (verbally or not) directly with our audience, with our genuine personality. I’ve yet to hear the same hype about objectification directed at the modeling industry (using women as mannequins to display clothes) or other performers who use their bodies integrally in their work such as actors, dancers and circus performers. To be clear, burlesque’s primary purpose is theatre, and always has been throughout history. Burlesque included stripping during the most recent 80 years of its life, but to represent the genre as strip alone is wholly inaccurate. It’s a rich genre of variety. The late burlesque legend Tura Satana once said, “The schtick is as important as the strip”. But even if it was striptease alone, what then..?
To try to shame anyone for using sensuality as part of a theatrical performance is hypocritical given that the same criticism is not being applied to actors performing simulated sex scenes in mainstream films, comedians using blue material in their skits, classical or modern art for depicting nudity, music for using sexual suggestion in its pop videos and shows, sensuality within dance forms such as Egyptian dance, Turkish dance, Latin dance, or nudity within ballet. Using sex references, or sensuality does not define the purpose of the piece as an exercise in sexual arousal of the audience.
I cannot speak for anyone else but myself, but I inform you that It’s my choice, not obligation, to present a sensual persona within my performance, and it’s the audience’s choice to buy a ticket or not. We are all sensual and sexual beings, it’s in all of us, it’s how we came to be here, it’s essential to life. To repress that reality or resent those who acknowledge it, is in itself an unnatural act. I own my sexuality, and it’s my right to express it if I choose, without shame. This does not transform me into an object. My sexuality is a valid, healthy, human, harmless facet of me. Neither is anyone’s sexuality or sensuality dependent on class, education, or financial situation. I have the same rights as any other person in the world to express a natural facet of my being, and to choose to express it within a theatrical genre does not make me any kind of victim. I hadn’t felt the need to take it so seriously before, but since the issue has been raised, the need has come to state these facts.
I’ve often noticed over the years there are certain types of people who find it much easier to accept sexuality when it’s presented as gritty, edgy, aggressive, mocked, or intellectualised, yet perversely find it much more confrontational and uncomfortable when it’s presented with unabashed glamour, smiles, celebration and incredible costume! I do not shoot jets of fire from my tits or simulate suicide on stage, so perhaps there is some positive cultural snobbery at play that our sexuality should be ridiculed on stage, sent up, made extreme or made edgy. Perhaps I should be crawling out of a post modern vagina sculpture barefoot or some such pseudo-profound reference, or I should only perform in clubs with sticky carpet singing Weimar songs with ripped fishnets, fake blood and a Barbie strapped to my g-string whilst angle grinding it in a defiant facile ironic statement - perhaps the problem with my sensuality all along has been for me to be happy, to smile, to love it, to enjoy it, to put it in big sparkling theatres with amazing music and lights and wear fabulous costumes at the same time.
I will not be ashamed of my femininity or my femaleness, any more than I would expect a man to be ashamed of, or to not acknowledge his masculinity. I embrace glamour as my own power switch; my choice, my glamour, my body, my face, my rhinestones, my prerogative. If someone chooses to admire me in the process that’s also their free choice – I don’t demand it, and they don’t own me, nor me them. If I admire an actor he doesn’t become an object simply because I’m a fan. Neither do models cover their faces lest anyone look at them and think they own them.
But let’s not lose sight of the basic point that seems to get lost somehow- because it’s so simple. Burlesque is theatre, and I am an entertainer. I’ve performed in venues from Royal Opera House, to Sydney State Theatre, to Victoria and Albert Museum, to Blenheim Palace, in shows with some of the world’s most famous music artistes who I admire and respect, and I count royalty and Hollywood stars in my audiences. I’ve traveled the world and worked with incredible and fascinating people. I’ve written books, made films, presented on TV and debated at Oxford University. I earnt my career myself, won my awards myself, and earnt my money myself with 15 years of hard work building audiences before Facebook pages existed, and breaking down barriers for stage space when ‘legit’ theatres and boards of trustees used to turn their noses up at the mention of the word burlesque. I didn’t do this by being bland or trying to be all things to all people, I did it by being good and working hard. Neither do my audiences come because they think I have some mythical hidden talent for business. They come to see me perform. They like my shows. Simple. I’m not owned by other people, or a boss, or a project manager, or an editor, or a head of department, neither am I owned or controlled by the opinions of feminists or whatever critics call themselves. I own myself.
Burlesque is finding its feet as a genre again, and maybe people have seen a re-emerging form as an easy target to take the moral high ground. I say “ever onwards”; for in history, ballet was originally scandalised as a genre for being ‘vulgar’ so it’s not the first time a form of entertainment has suffered from judgement.
Naturally with any genre, a question of taste comes in to play. I don’t enjoy watching every kind of dance or theatrical form, or all comedy or cabaret - but that’s my personal taste and preference. There’s also a question of talent, style and ability -there’s good theatre and terrible theatre, funny comedy and unfunny comedy, and good burlesque and bad burlesque. But personal taste is no excuse to write off the concept of an entire genre. Burlesque is not meant to be all things to all people, and it never set out to be. It also has many facets and styles within the genre. It’s okay to like some and not others. Let’s not lose respect for the fact that other people have different tastes, and let’s be mindful that one person’s taste is no more valid or more important than anybody else’s. Audiences have the right to choose what they watch or buy tickets for. Jedward and David Bowie can be in the top ten at the same time and the world won’t stop spinning, it’s ok to like different things. Not everyone will enjoy the same music or performers or genres, not everyone finds the same things beautiful or sexy or funny or interesting. Thank god!
So please, if one wants to take the moral high-ground over burlesque, please someone, anyone, come up with a more intelligent premise than that which says we are objectifying and demeaning ourselves. In fact one of the most demeaning and objectifying things you can do to someone is to try to force them to express your opinions, your belief system, your lifestyle, and your tastes, instead of their OWN. I leave you with a comment on live burlesque sent to me from prolific New York artist Scott Ewalt.
"I always think perfection is the most defiant thing a person can do. So when you and a handful of others hit that note, it’s the most feminist thing you can do." Scott Ewalt
Come and see me in Zurich! www.plaza-zurich.ch for tickets
Sophia Loren c. 1955