All posts in circus arts and burlesque

aerial yoga with andrea featured on fit or fad!

LOVING this great video just released on Fit or Fad with comedian Kelly McFarland, with help from some amazing friends and yoga students! (I couldn’t figure out how to embed the video here, but you can click on the image below to be taken to it.)

aerial snapshot

This was a BLAST!! You can read more about the class in this blog post by one of my students.

Thank you to Kelly, to Fit or Fad, and to all the students who participated!  And a big thank you to South Boston Yoga for letting us use your awesome aerial room!

Try Aerial Yoga MA at Barre & Soul, Melrose Yoga Studio.

my first aerial routine – rehearsal video

my first aerial routine – rehearsal video

Hope you all had a great weekend!  Mine was pretty full with teaching, family, and working on the new business.  I admit, I can get a little obsessive with work projects so I took the kids to the Boston Rock Gym for a little climbing and some time on the silks.  There’s nothing like physical exertion to get you out of your head for a while!

Thought I’d share this video of a basic aerial routine I’m working on — it’s actually my first!  I’m no Cirque du Soleil performer yet but I’m so glad I picked up this hobby and look forward to continuing to develop my skills.

It’s never too late to start something new — the first time I touched the silks I was 29 or 30.  Not that that’s old!  My point is I didn’t grow up doing this, or even doing gymnastics for that matter.  My favorite quote:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The next best time is today.”
-Chinese Proverb

Have a great week!
Andrea

You can experience Aerial Yoga MA at Barre and Soul, Melrose, MA

vamps’ night out recap

A quick (belated) post to say that Vamps’ Night Out was a blast and a huge thanks to everyone who made it possible!  We had a great turnout and all of the lovely vamps who participated couldn’t have looked more radiant, happy and confident!  Success!!  And just as important, this event helped to raise $1,700 for yogaHOPE’s Project Haiti.

This was the first installment of Vamp Camp, my most recent creative endeavor.  My vision is for Vamp Camp events to encompass different aspects of body empowerment and self-expression.  Going forward, I see Vamp Camp continuing to be a vehicle to empower not only the participants but to help raise funds for women’s charities.

I’ve been thinking about returning to Haiti with yogaHOPE to complete my trauma-informed yoga training next April — the fundraising requirement for this trip is $10,000, but thanks to you I’m already on my way toward reaching it!

The beautiful Julie Potvin was our makeup artist and eyelash glue-er extraordinaire! You can find Julie at Dellaria salon in Andover and Davis Square, Somerville.

My favorite colorist Patty Martin led the team of talented stylists from SHAG to create gorgeous vintage hairstyles for our vamps.

 

Julie Sterling of Oh Lah Lah Boudoir photography and Lucie Wicker captured the amazing images to make this event unforgettable!

A giant thanks to SHAG salon for providing the hip and inviting venue for our amazing night!  THANKS!

And THANK YOU to all who donated their time and funds to this fabulous event and incredibly worthy cause!

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 6

Author’s note: If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 - 5 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

bearded lady

No, it’s not Super Mario Bros. It’s me! Waiting to take the stage as a ‘bearded lady.’

Playing Gender Roles

From its very first incarnation, burlesque has always played around with gender norms.  As Robert C. Allen (1991) explains in the seminal Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, “taking on the markers of masculinity, the burlesque performer was licensed to act in a very unladylike fashion” (p. 148).  He goes on to explain,

“Burlesque produced not the unproblematic sensual display of the ballet dancer but a monstrosity, a ‘horrible prettiness,’ that provoked desire and at the same time disturbed the ground of that desire by confusing the distinctions on which desire depended” (1991, p. 148).

This tradition can still be found in the burlesque performances of today.  UnAmerika’s Sweetheart Karin Webb performs one strip tease in which she enters the stage in character as “Rico,” a mustached, swaggering male who smokes a cigar and directly addresses the audience with condescension.  Rico declares that anyone can do burlesque and decides to show the audience that he can outdo the female performers at the art of striptease.  He begins putting on stockings and high heels, removing his army jacket, tank top and jeans.  At some imperceptible point during the striptease, the lines blur, and by the time he has applied a wig and unwrapped the ace bandage from his chest, he has become an attractive woman.  As the viewer watches this performance, it goes from ridiculous, even grotesque slapstick, to provocative erotic display.  The performance challenges the audience to ponder their own reactions, causes discomfort and encourages questions.

By behaving in ways not traditionally considered feminine, female burlesque performers are “able to transcend the social boundaries of [their] own gender, and therefore to say and do things of which so many other women would not dare to conceive” (Fargo 2008).  For many, this is the exciting potential of resurrecting the art form.

The old-time “‘stars’ and ‘queens’ of burlesque were perhaps the first female performers to realize the influential power of the mass media as a tool for pulling in the crowds and promoting transgressive modes of ‘femininity’ that seduced and tantalized precisely because they broke existing moulds” (Willson, 208, p. 40-41).

In his book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007), anti-porn writer Robert Jensen asserts that the real problem with our society is masculinity itself.  He says that, “traits commonly associated with masculinity – competition, aggression, domination, and repression of emotion” cause them to subjugate women as a response to their own insecurity and fear of inferiority (p. 138).  For Jensen, attempts to reinvent masculinity in more positive terms will not suffice.  He radically asserts that masculinity should be “abolished” (Jensen, 2007, p.138-139).

After all, Jensen asks, doesn’t encouraging positive masculinity actually serve to keep men separate from women? And aren’t all positive masculine traits such as bravery or assertiveness simply positive human traits?  Jensen criticizes a campaign which used the slogan “real men don’t rape” on the basis that it “entrenches a commitment to masculinity” that assumes some moral or psychological difference between men and women, positioning masculinity as a biological trait rather than a social one (Jensen, 2007, p.145).  These campaigns don’t challenge men’s sense of themselves as dominant (Jensen, 2007, p. 146).  Even the seemingly positive masculine quality of protectiveness is steeped in patriarchy and control. As Jensen (2007) puts it, “Women and children don’t need to be protected by men – they need to be protected from men” If men want to help, he says, they should take their place within the feminist movement. (p. 147).

pole dancer

According to Jensen, while we can never rid the world of sex categories in the biological sense, we would do well to eliminate gender: the psychological and social differences commonly associated with one’s sex.  To be more precise, he does not take issue with the existence of femininity, which he doesn’t see as causing harm to anyone, only with masculinity; however, he acknowledges that one would hardly exist without the other.

“It’s likely there are other differences rooted in our biology that we don’t yet understand… but making claims about deeper intellectual and/or emotional and/or spiritual differences between males and females based on those physical differences… should be quite controversial” (Jensen, 2007, p. 140).

The fact that our biological differences have allowed patriarchy to be constructed does not speak to our ability to “construct a society that mitigates the effects of such differences” (Jensen, 2007, p. 140).  He says that it is impossible to blame biology for the havoc wrought by men when patriarchy has been in place to explain their behavior the whole time.

Co-opting Masculinity

If traditional masculinity impedes the development of an equitable society, why are modern women trying so hard to be like the guys?  In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005), journalist Ariel Levy explores what she calls “raunch culture,” a climate where “women…make sex objects of other women and of themselves” (p. 4).  The popular Girls Gone Wild soft-core porn films are made by a traveling camera crew who visit college campuses and popular spring break locations.  For nothing but a Girls Gone Wild T-shirt, young women eagerly flash their breasts and engage in sexual acts with each other in the hopes of getting into one of the films.

Why do these everyday women want to be porn stars?  Some might say that in a post-Madonna world they are able to acknowledge their sexual appetites and indulge them.  They are sexually empowered, proud of their bodies, and want to show the world.  However, if the friend they are kissing for the camera was previously just a friend, and not a sexual partner, then it would seem that they are not acting out their own fantasies, but performing for some other reason; the sexual act is a performance, designed to prove their sexual adventurousness, or perhaps to render impotent one of the common weapons of patriarchy – sexual exploitation of women.  In other words, perhaps these young women are trying to convince themselves and men that they enjoy this kind of display in order to save face and avoid looking like they’ve ‘been had.’

 

Part of the reason for women to embrace what Levy refers to as “raunch” may come from this desire to co-opt patriarchal power and use it ironically, rendering it meaningless.  Metaphorically speaking, we women are invading the gentlemen’s club, putting up our feet, and lighting a cigar.  We have had the one-night-stands, and we can boast about losing the poor guy’s phone number afterward.  Just as Hip-Hop culture appropriated the word “nigger” and made it their own, “nigga,” girls make a joke of calling themselves and their girlfriends “sluts” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 210).

Unfortunately, these young women may simply be acting out old stereotypes while convincing themselves they have chosen these roles to avoid seeing themselves as the victims of a misogynistic culture.  Levy argues that these “Female Chauvinist Pigs” find it “cooler” to take a one-of-the-guys approach than to appear uptight, or admit to feeling defeated.  “Why try to beat them when you can join them?” Levy (2005) asks (pp. 90-92).  The women on the hit TV series Sex and the City frequently acted out modern women’s attempts to have casual, guilt-free sex ‘like men,’ and the results were often painful for them, because for the most part, they were not just looking for sex, they were looking for relationships.  It is time, Levy (2005) says, to admit that “The emperor has no clothes” (p. 197).  Instead of trying to be more like men, we should just try to be more like ourselves.  The medium of burlesque seems to provide an avenue for this because it does not cater to popular expectations of what is sexy, but allows each performer explore and express an individual statement.

Girls and Girly Girls

Among some of the “Female Chauvinist Pigs” Levy (2005) studied, she found that the concept of the “girly girl,” had an extremely negative connotation, and was regarded with contempt by some women (p. 101).  However, there are many third wave feminists who embrace their femininity.  In the seminal third wave text ManifestA (2000), Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards wrote about what they called the feminist “Girlie movement.”  Although the term “Girlie feminism” has not become widely used, the characteristics they describe are familiar traits of many modern feminists.

As Baumgardner and Richards (2000) put it, “Girlies are girls in their twenties or thirties who are reacting to an anti-feminine, anti-joy emphasis that they perceive as the legacy of Second Wave seriousness. Girlies have reclaimed girl culture, which is made up of such formerly disparaged girl things as knitting, the color pink, nail polish, and fun” (p. 80).

This embracing of the “girlie” is only possible because of earlier feminist movements.  Women today have benefited greatly from the efforts of feminism’s First and Second Waves.  We can vote, we have access to birth control, legal abortion, and crisis centers, for starters.  Because of this, “Girl Culture assumes that women are free agents in the world, that they start out strong and that the odds are in their favor” (Ann Powers, as cited in Baumgardner & Richards, 2000, p. 134).

While Girlies are not ashamed of their femininity, they also want in on the territories of men such as rock and roll and yes, porn (Baumgardner, Richards, 2000 p. 80).  Richards and Baumgardner (2000) note that feminist publication Bust magazine, at the time only a “zine” in 1993, was printing “buxom images from vintage soft-core porn, images now in the control of women.  In Bust, porn was demystified, claimed for women, debated” (p.133).

They go on to state that “Girlie culture is a rebellion against the false impression that since women don’t want to be sexually exploited, they don’t want to be sexual…against the anachronistic belief that because women could be dehumanized by porn…they must be” (p. 137). The problem with Girlie culture, according to Baumgardner and Richards (2000), is that it is just a culture, not a political movement (p. 141).  There are still women’s issues worth fighting for, and not enough young feminists are organizing to promote the changes that are still needed.

burlesque troupe

Conclusion

Because sex has been so literally perverted by those in our culture who would use it as a tool to oppress, it is easy to write off public displays of sexuality altogether, but then we risk reinforcing the stereotype of the anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-male feminist.  We also miss out on a valuable opportunity to teach people that women are sexual beings and we are more sexually empowered than ever, and that it is not a certain low, ‘other’ woman who possesses sexual desires.

In the past, feminists were vocal about their positions on topics they felt passionate about, such as sexual objectification.  The feminist movement needs more sex-positive feminists to have an intellectual voice, to speak not only with passion but with rational debate. We need thoughtful analysis on the issues surrounding sexuality.

We must not simply react, turning away from feminism because we disagree with the views of our mothers’ generation.  We need to create a space where like-minded people of this generation can feel included in feminism too.

Puritan attitudes which make sex a shameful thing are dangerous to women.  We need to be willing to be seen as whole women, and that includes publicly acknowledging our passion for sex as well as our passion for feminist politics.

Collectively, feminists need to look at terms like ‘sexually empowered,’ and figure out what they mean.  One of the most important things that can happen is that we shift toward a concept of sexuality that recognizes the whole woman, her feelings, passions, and identity, rather than allowing women to be mute sexual objects.

Burlesque provides a venue where sexuality can be performed without shame in a woman-centered, non-exploitative environment.

Not every burlesque performance seizes on this opportunity.  Nor can every performance, no matter how well-intended, be guaranteed to deliver the experience to the audience that the performer envisioned.  No performer can know how each audience member will experience their art.  Modern feminism is based in individual choices and preferences, and new burlesque is just one of many ways we can make our voices heard.

Thank you for reading Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque.

References

Allen, R., (1991). Horrible prettiness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Baldwin, M., & Evans, D. (2004). Burlesque and the new bump-n-grind. Denver: Speck Press.

Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bergner, Daniel (2009, January 22). What do women want?. The New York Times, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?_r=2

Brumberg, J. (1998). The body project, an intimate history of American girls.  New York: Vintage Books.

Buszek, Maria. Pin-up grrrls. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Celizik, M. (2009) Her teen committed suicide over ‘sexting.’ Todayshow.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/

Clements, A. Power to the penis or viva la vulva? The Feminist Stripper, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.geocities.com/alysabethc/feministstripper.html

Comella L. & Queen, C. (2008). The necessary revolution: Sex-positive feminism in the post-Barnard era. The Communication Review, 11.

D’Amato, A. (2008). Porn up, rape down. Northwestern University school of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913013

Dworkin, A., (2006). Intercourse. New York: BasicBooks.

Ensler, E. (2004). The good body. New York: Random House, Inc.

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. New York: Random House, Inc.

Fargo, E.L., (2008). The fantasy of real women. Master’s thesis, Ohio State University.

Goldwyn, L., & Augustyn, J. (2006). Pretty things. New York: Regan Books.

Hartley, N. (1997). In the flesh. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Jensen, R., (2007). Getting off. Boston: South End Press.

Levy, A., (2006). Female Chauvinist Pigs. New York: Free Press.

Lykins, A.D., Meana, M., Strauss, G.P. (2008). Sex Differences in Visual Attention to Erotic and non-erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(219-228).

Meana, M. (2009). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire. Manuscript in preparation.

Merriam Webster Online. Definitions retrieved March 17, 2009. Web site: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Nagle, J. (1997). Introduction. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Nevid, J., a., S., & Greene, B. (2007). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rand, A. (1961). Pride. The Objectivist Ethics. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from Ayn Rand Lexicon Web site: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pride.html

Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, D., (2007). Sisterhood Interrupted. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Timmons, D. (Director). (2009). A wink and a smile [Documentary]. USA: First Run Features.

Tyler, C. (2009). Personal interview. See Appendix C of this document.

Urish, B. (2004).  Narrative striptease in the nightclub era. (Received via personal communication December 2, 2009.)

Willson, J., (2008). The Happy Stripper. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wolf, N. (1996). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Doubleday

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 5

Author’s note: If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 - 4 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

Honey Suckle Duvet

Honey Suckle Duvet

Politics in Performance

Michelle Baldwin (2004) aptly defines burlesque as “the divine mixture of the sexy and the satirical” (p. 38.)  One of the things I wanted to find out in my interviews was whether my assumptions were correct:

Were the people performing burlesque the feminist intellectuals I had imagined them to be, and did gender and social politics play an important role in their performances?

I found that yes, in fact this was often the case, but not always.  Many in the burlesque community, such as UnAmerika’s Sweetheart Karin Webb, feel it is imperative that burlesque performance make a statement, staying true to the old tradition of burlesque as social commentary even in its modern reincarnation.  Fargo (2008) points out that, “In our sex-saturated modern society, public display of the body can no longer be counted as inherently transgressive, so performers have to seek more extreme means in their quest to question mainstream social norms and gender roles.”  Honey Suckle Duvet (2009) explained:

For me doing a dance in front of people who don’t look anything like me or… people who have not necessarily historically appreciated me… that’s making a statement.  And I think that a woman who’s coming from a place of needing to overcome things or having a back-story that’s… ingrained in really deep issues when she gets up there and she’s doing something that’s ‘just cutesy…’ for her that’s a statement and there’s power in that.”

Still many others are not troubled by whether or not there is a message to burlesque and are content with what Jacki Willson (2008) calls “politically naïve” performance (p. 2).

During the second wave of feminism, “the personal became political” (Siegel, 2007, p.2).  This concept meant that the private issues with which women struggled actually tied in to the larger social structure in which they lived.

Today, “for many women in their twenties and thirties, ‘politics’ refers to elections or politicians – not necessarily the underlying currents that shape their personal lives… Individualism seems to have trumped collective action – not just among women, but throughout American culture more generally throughout the past thirty years” (Siegel, 2007, p. 5).  During the seventies there was backlash against protestors and people began to lose faith in political structures.  They ‘went internal,’ seeking out new age religions, meditation and fitness, and self-help (Siegel, 2007, p. 27) (Baumgardner and Richards, p. 62).

Three of the five burlesque performers I interviewed, when asked if their personal politics played a role in their performances, did not connect this question with ‘feminism’ until further prompted.  Only two had ever heard of pro-sex or sex-positive feminism.  One, Honey Suckle Duvet (2009), who runs workshops entitled “Burlesque for Better Body Image,” surprised me by answering that she did not consider herself a feminist, stating, “I don’t want to be a part of any group…  I don’t want a label because there’s a weight to that, and there’s an expectation with that.”

When pressed to elaborate on why many modern women might choose not to self-identify a feminists, she stated,

I think that something that turns people off from feminism and something that I’ve found, not with feminism on paper but the way that I’ve seen it in my life is a pressure for me to redefine myself and not accept or respect things that I’ve grown up with as a part of my culture that I choose to still have.  And there’s a pressure for me to… be offended more than I feel I am, and to fit a mold because the old mold was bad so the answer is to find a new one (Duvet, 2009).

As Siegel (2007) points out, there has never been a time when all feminists universally agreed on everything, including labels.  However the one point that has been particularly sticky is the topic of sexuality.

Mary Dolan

“Mary Dolan”

Jill Gibson, a comedic burlesque performer and female-to-male drag actor who does not perform striptease, spoke of the significance of her character, burlesque emcee “Mary Dolan,” an eighty-six-year-old woman whose character is loosely based on Gibson’s late grandmother, who had been a vaudeville performer.  Gibson (2009) pointed out that she can say things to an audience through Mary Dolan that Jill Gibson could never say, that people responded better to Dolan’s maternal presence than they would a “raging dyke waving a rainbow flag.”

When asked what role burlesque is currently fulfilling in American society, Gibson (2009) responded,

“I hope its role will be to inject some sex into modern culture, because right now our culture is afraid of sex.”

While anti-pornography feminism has sought to protect women from sexual abuse, it has served to reinforce the lack of openness about women’s sexuality.  Jill Nagle (1997) writes that it is “time to stop reproducing the whore stigma common to the larger culture.  These practices dilute much of feminism’s radical potential” (p. 2).

As long as women continue to be fearful of expressing their sexuality, the few who do will continue to appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, exposing them to stigma and abuse. Our culture could use more sexuality.

The media and popular culture have an incredible influence over American culture, but what we need is more authentic expression of women’s sexuality, not a continued dependence on the stereotypical, voiceless images of women we have traditionally been served.

Subversive Voices

Our feminist foremothers might have taught us to “downplay [our] sexuality in order to be taken seriously” (Goldwyn, 2006, p. xiv).  However, many intelligent, independent women choose to do just the opposite.  As Maria Elena Buszek points out in her book, Pin up Grrrls (2006)  “although feminist thinkers have consistently drawn upon women’s sexuality as a site of oppression, so too have they posited the nurturance of women’s sexual freedom and pleasure as an antidote to the same” (p. 4).  Burlesque serves as a platform for “opening up a dialogue between the private and public sphere,” honoring the feminist tradition of seeing the personal as political (Willson, 2008, p. 161).

 A burlesque dancer is able to breathe life into the stereotypical sex-object image, to animate her and allow her to be seen as a whole sexual being.

The intelligent burlesque sex symbol asserts that, contrary to what Dworkin says, sex does not erode us, we are self-posessed, “not broken, and our desires aren’t simply booby traps set by the patriarchy” (Baumgardner and Richards, 2000, p. 137).

Perhaps the most famous queen of the old burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, marketed herself as the “literary stripper” or “striptease intellectual,” and engaged in witty repartee and intellectual commentary as she disrobed (Fargo, 2008). During the last two decades of old burlesque (1945–1966), there emerged a tradition called “narrative striptease” (Urish, 2004).  Narrative striptease does not necessarily refer to performances like those of Gypsy Rose Lee using spoken word, rather it refers to dancers finding their ‘voice’ by telling a story with the performance.

With stages often set like plays, narrative striptease was striptease with a plot worked in – the performer would undress because she was getting ready for a date, because a mouse had run up her leg, and so forth.  The narratives were often about heterosexual relationships and used a surrogate male to assert the performer’s authority over the male, and by extension, her audience.  Sometimes the male figure was a puppet, sometimes an empty chair, or an imagined person on the other end of a telephone.  As these women performed, they “became paradoxical entities, ‘active objects’ in the process of undercutting their objectification as that very objectification was performed. They may have been forced to play the patriarchal game, but they were finding ways to subvert the game as it was played” (Urish, 2004, p. 160).  Emily Layne Fargo (2008) talks about the subversive power of the burlesque performer:

A scantily-clad, or even unclad, female was socially acceptable on a public stage so long as she remained still, functioning as a static piece of art to be contemplated. But the moment she began to exercise physical mobility and vocal subjectivity in addition to her physical charms (as burlesque performers did), she became a serious threat that had to be stopped and silenced. The female burlesque performer thus brought together two controversial components – an eroticized body and an outspoken voice.

The tradition of narrative striptease is quite popular in today’s burlesque as well, and it is one of the elements that truly distinguishes burlesque from strip club performance.

Please stay tuned to this blog for the conclusion of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!

References

Allen, R., (1991). Horrible prettiness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Baldwin, M., & Evans, D. (2004). Burlesque and the new bump-n-grind. Denver: Speck Press.

Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bergner, Daniel (2009, January 22). What do women want?. The New York Times, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?_r=2

Brumberg, J. (1998). The body project, an intimate history of American girls.  New York: Vintage Books.

Buszek, Maria. Pin-up grrrls. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Celizik, M. (2009) Her teen committed suicide over ‘sexting.’ Todayshow.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/

Clements, A. Power to the penis or viva la vulva? The Feminist Stripper, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.geocities.com/alysabethc/feministstripper.html

Comella L. & Queen, C. (2008). The necessary revolution: Sex-positive feminism in the post-Barnard era. The Communication Review, 11.

D’Amato, A. (2008). Porn up, rape down. Northwestern University school of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913013

Dworkin, A., (2006). Intercourse. New York: BasicBooks.

Ensler, E. (2004). The good body. New York: Random House, Inc.

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. New York: Random House, Inc.

Fargo, E.L., (2008). The fantasy of real women. Master’s thesis, Ohio State University.

Goldwyn, L., & Augustyn, J. (2006). Pretty things. New York: Regan Books.

Hartley, N. (1997). In the flesh. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Jensen, R., (2007). Getting off. Boston: South End Press.

Levy, A., (2006). Female Chauvinist Pigs. New York: Free Press.

Lykins, A.D., Meana, M., Strauss, G.P. (2008). Sex Differences in Visual Attention to Erotic and non-erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(219-228).

Meana, M. (2009). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire. Manuscript in preparation.

Merriam Webster Online. Definitions retrieved March 17, 2009. Web site: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Nagle, J. (1997). Introduction. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Nevid, J., a., S., & Greene, B. (2007). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rand, A. (1961). Pride. The Objectivist Ethics. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from Ayn Rand Lexicon Web site: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pride.html

Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, D., (2007). Sisterhood Interrupted. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Timmons, D. (Director). (2009). A wink and a smile [Documentary]. USA: First Run Features.

Tyler, C. (2009). Personal interview. See Appendix C of this document.

Urish, B. (2004).  Narrative striptease in the nightclub era. (Received via personal communication December 2, 2009.)

Willson, J., (2008). The Happy Stripper. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wolf, N. (1996). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Doubleday

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 4

pinup

Author’s note: If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 - 3 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

[photo: new york times article - what do women want?]

Female Desire

Sexologist Marta Meana’s work was featured in a January 2009 New York Times article which probed the mystery of female desire, and specifically why women and men are both attracted to the female form.

Dr. Meana and her colleagues had found that when hetero-sexual male and female participants are shown pictures of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay, the male participants stare longer at the women in the pictures, but the female participants stare equally at the man and the woman in the images.
Men looked at opposite sex figures significantly longer than did women, and women looked at same sex figures significantly longer than did men… men had a strong visual attention preference for opposite sex figures as compared to same sex figures, whereas women appeared to disperse their attention evenly between opposite and same sex figures (Lykins, et al, 2008, p. 219).

This was true for both erotic and non-erotic images.  Results were interpreted as potentially supportive of recent studies showing a greater non-specificity of sexual arousal in women.  Meana (as cited in Bergner, 2009) has various theories about her findings, such as one that proposes that women are more arousing to both sexes because their bodies hold the promise of sex at all times while men’s bodies only look provocative when aroused.  The authors of this study note that “Sexuality remains one of a number of areas in which significant and persistent sex differences…abound” (Lykins, et al, 2008, p. 219).

These observations may explain, to some degree, the reason for the large proportion of burlesque fans who are female.

Dr. Meana recently completed an article on women’s sexual desire and pointed out some interesting findings.  It had not yet been published by the time of my research, but she was kind enough to send me a manuscript when I informed her that I was anxious to read her latest work.  Dr. Meana (2010) asks, “What if being desired and desiring are turn-ons for women, in and of themselves?” (p.4)  Of course, anyone well-versed in feminist theory will quickly point out that one’s cultural upbringing could have fostered this preference.  Andrea Dworkin might say that because we know no other way, we believe we enjoy this.  Jacki Willson (2008) reminds us that, “The truth of the matter is that our culture and childhood are littered with references to who is the fairest of them all – the fairest being the one who gets to marry the Prince or win the coveted prize” (p. 115).  However, Meana (2010) also points out that, while “appetitive behaviors” usually precede “consummatory behaviors,” there is animal research that suggests that evoking desire may have its own rewards (p. 4).  Meana refers to a study in which female rats caused their male partners to pursue them, apparently enjoying the attention and response they were able to elicit, even though sexual reward was not being achieved.  Furthermore, Meana states that pacing the “intromissions” can increase the chances of conception, which would provide a biological explanation for this behavior.

She writes that it is “speculative but not unreasonable” to say that women perhaps “enhance their ability to select a partner and pace the course of relationships through the enactment of parallel behaviors.  That they would find these behaviors to be rewarding and arousing would logically follow…the role of sexual object has its own important version of agency and control” (Meana, 2010, p.4).  She has been careful to identify herself as a feminist, and acknowledges the uncomfortable and often politically incorrect implications of her work (Bergner, 2009).  Meana’s point might be better received if she used the term “object of desire” rather than “sexual object” to keep the meaning of this statement from being lost on some readers.

Sexologist Meredith Chivers also notes that “there is something really powerful for women’s sexuality about being desired” (as cited in Bergner, 2009, p. 4).

Also supporting this notion is the statistic that 47% of women in a 1998 study “reported the fantasy of ‘seeing themselves as a striptease dancer, harem girl, or other performer,’ and 50% had fantasized about ‘delighting many men’ and being an ‘irresistibly sexy female’” (Meana, 2009, p.9).

Interestingly, this study also found that men too are very aroused by being desired.  “Stranger fantasies” are equally prevalent in both male and female subjects, suggesting that external validation of desirability may be an important part of desire for men and women, and such validation may carry extra weight when it emanates from individuals who are not institutionally bound to them (as in marriage).” (Meana, 2009, p.8)

Meana’s manuscript also brings up the interesting theory that women may become aroused by their own sexiness.  Given what many feminists already know about the prevalence of body image insecurity, it is not surprising to learn that “in one study, approximately one-third of female college students indicated that they experienced body image self-consciousness during physical intimacy with a man…” which was a predictor for sexual avoidance, nor should we be shocked to find out that “women reported more appearance-based distraction during sex than did men” (Meana, 2009, p.10).

What is interesting is that when self-perception is positive, “self-consciousness can be a boost to desire” (Meana, 2009 p. 10).

One small study recently revealed that almost half of the female participants  “reported arousal to contemplating themselves nude, wearing sexy lingerie or clothes, [engaging in] grooming activities, imagining that others find them irresistible, and so on” (Meana, 2009 p. 10).

“Women… who were asked to adopt a positive self-schema prior to viewing erotic stimuli demonstrated significantly greater subjective arousal and vaginal response than women in a negative schema condition” (Meana, 2009, p. 11).

Even men have reported that a woman’s self-perception is an important factor in male arousal (Meana 2009, p. 10). We can interpret Dr. Meana’s findings to say that women (and men) enjoy being desired.  We needn’t misconstrue this to mean that they enjoy being objectified.  

Exhibitionists

It should also be noted that although the burlesque performer may enjoy baring her body, this does not fit the clinical definition of exhibitionism in the pathological sense.  Consider these words from an abnormal psychology textbook:

Exhibitionists are motivated by the wish to shock and dismay unsuspecting observers, not to show off the attractiveness of their bodies.  Therefore, wearing skimpy bathing suits or other revealing clothing is not a form of exhibitionism in the clinical sense of the term.  Nor do professional strippers typically meet the clinical criteria for exhibitionism.  They are generally not motivated by the desire to expose themselves to unsuspecting strangers in order to arouse them or shock them.  The chief motive of the exotic dancer is usually to earn a living (Philaretou, as cited in Nevid, 2008, p. 378).

With this said, it is incorrect to assume that there are no underlying psychological reasons to choose stripping.  In my interview with burlesque and drag performer UnAmerika’s Sweetheart Karin Webb, she recounted a story of how she asked her mother once as a child, how did one get to be a stripper?  Her mother responded that no one wanted to be a stripper or chose it freely.  Webb knew this couldn’t be true, because to her it seemed like a thrilling prospect; she regularly invented pretend performances even from a young age.

UnAmerika’s Sweetheart Karin Webb in her workshop, displaying one of her handcrafted puppets.

Webb’s attraction to non-clinical exhibitionism is not uncommon.  Jacki Willson (2008) comments, “It appears acceptable, commendable or even commonplace for many young women to want to feel the empowerment, excitement and danger that comes from openly going to see a risqué female performance or the sexual dominating sense of power, control and desire that comes from revealing their bodies as objects” (p. 5).

Perhaps this desire to display one’s body is both a product of and a reaction against the ‘porn culture’ in which we are immersed, according to authors like Ariel Levy and Sarracino and Scott.   Sexualized images surround us, and the idols females grow up seeing in the media and popular culture are often stereotypically sexy.

We search for a balance between sexiness and feminism.  Amid this tension, some burlesque troupes wish to distinguish themselves completely from conventional stripping.  One Boston troupe, in an advertisement for new dancers, made clear that they were looking for professional dancers willing to learn how to strip, not strippers wishing to learn how to dance.  (I spoke with a few of their members and brought up this point.  They back-pedaled, saying that they were not necessarily looking for trained dancers, they were looking for dancers with a professional attitude, willing to attend twice-weekly rehearsal and put in thirty minutes a day at home practicing.)  It is possible that some of the women of burlesque are resentful toward the conventional stripper image because they feel excluded by the narrow range of body types represented in strip clubs and the media.

Burlesque and Body Image

Although there is sometimes discrimination against women who have had cosmetic surgery by troupes such as L.A.’s Velvet Hammer with its policy excluding professional strippers, “fake” breasts, and porn stars, and Minneapolis’ Le Cirque Rouge de Gus who hang a sign outside their venue which reads, “No Fake Boobs, No Stripper Moves”, new burlesque is characterized by its greater diversity of body types (Baldwin 2004, p. 51).

burlesque presents a more diverse array of beauty

The sight of confident, natural-looking women of various shapes and sizes, and the audience’s positive reactions to them is enough to provoke “a radical mind shift” for some women in attendance when they see women with ‘imperfect’ bodies being cheered on by the audience, causing them to feel empowered about their own bodies (Baldwin, 2004, p. 133.)

“Big Moves” is one troupe, with chapters in Boston, Montreal, San Francisco and New York City devoted to featuring plus-sized women whose sex appeal may not have been traditionally respected and celebrated by main-stream culture.

At the 2009 Great Boston Burlesque Expo, Honey Suckle Duvet performed a burlesque piece before an imaginary mirror, which spoke to the topic of self-acceptance.  The number ended with the audience on its feet cheering, and Ms. Duvet took away the “Most Beautiful” prize at the evening’s conclusion.

Honey Suckle Duvet

Honey Suckle Duvet

During our interview, when I asked how she felt about winning the award, she expressed indifference. “It doesn’t imply that there’s any talent, it just implies that somebody thinks you look good, and I think that pinpointing it to ‘best earrings’ would make more sense to me, but I appreciate that something was recognized in my dance, that there was a message behind it about beauty and that that was rewarded made me feel good” (Duvet, 2009).

The ‘Good’ Feminist

Issues like body image and beauty are often at the heart of feminist debate as well.

Feminist icons like Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir warned women not to get caught up in their physical appearance, for it would take up time and energy that could be better spent.

In her feminist rant “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Wolf (1996) notes that “many are ashamed to admit that such trivial concerns – to do with physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair, clothes – matter so much” (p. 9).

These matters are not trivial.  Beauty is as natural to humanity as eating, sleeping, love, and sex.  It is time for feminists to get comfortable with their love and desire for beauty.

The brilliant feminist playwright Eve Ensler (2004) opens The Good Body with a shame-filled introduction explaining why she would choose to write a play about her fixation on the size and shape of her stomach:  “…Whatever the cultural influences and pressures, my preoccupation with my flab, my constant dieting, exercising, worrying, is self-imposed. I pick up the magazines. I buy into the ideal. I believe that blond, flat girls have the secret.” (p. xii ).   What is most troubling about Ensler’s statement is her guilty self-indictment for experiencing concern about her physical appearance.  Wolf and Ensler both express a shame and guilt over perceived vanity and “narcissism” (Ensler, p. xii)  Ensler (2004) sees her desire for the beauty ideal not as natural, but as personal baggage, a pursuit for “goodness” programmed somewhere in childhood.

However, she does not realize that the shame she experiences because of this desire has been programmed, not only by the starched, sanctimonious culture of the 1950s and the lingering Pilgrim effect, but by second wave feminist culture as well, a kind of dogma that makes caring about one’s appearance a ‘sin’ against feminism.

The desire to put one’s body on display is seen as a betrayal of feminism.  Women who choose to do so are seen by old-school feminists as brainwashed, identifying with their oppressor.

The notion of ‘vanity’ as a source of guilt smacks of religious shame.  Vanity is defined as “inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance” (Merriam-Webster, 2009).  Is pride antithetical to feminism?  Not according to this definition:

Pride  1: the quality or state of being proud: as

a: inordinate self-esteem

b: a reasonable or justifiable self-respect

c: delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship (Merriam-Webster, 2009)

Esteem, respect, or elation with oneself would seem to be things feminists would encourage and celebrate.  Like many other so-called vices, pride in oneself is actually an essential part of our nature. The controversial philosopher Ayn Rand (1961) wrote, “The virtue of pride…above all means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty”.

Feminism strives to free women from the bondage of patriarchal social structures, but when it comes to celebrating our bodies and our sexuality, women are not free.

Beauty in Popular Media

One important and deeply troubling consideration for women is our portrayal in the media.  In advertisements and ‘entertainment’ we can find women reduced to essentially headless sex objects, and worse, due to the prevalence of violent films and television shows, women as expendable victims.

I found this upon searching google images for “desire.” All I can say is… “Why???”

These images hurt everyone, though many of us are so accustomed to this poison, we may fail to notice it, or to notice what we have internalized as a result.  Girls learn that the most important thing is to be sexy, and they also see that it can be sexy to be a victim.  Boys learn from these images too, and they are certainly not lessons about mutual respect or partnership.

In addition, the bodies of models and actors represent an increasingly small fraction of the population.  Their looks are unlike those generally found in nature, but when a person grows up on these images they begin to imagine this is how everyone should look, believing their own bodies to be unacceptably flawed.
victorias secret models

Even these models get a digital editing upgrade. This photo looks like something out of “Avatar.”

One of the most harmful trends in the media is the glamorization of extreme thinness, an ideal constructed to keep the gold standard just out of reach.  Historically, in cultures where only the rich could afford to eat to excess, plumpness was in vogue.  In our culture, poor people are more likely to be overweight due to the high cost of many healthy foods and fewer resources to devote to physical fitness, while the very rich have access to special diets, personal trainers, liposuction, and more time to spend honing their bodies.

Because thinness is currently idealized in our culture, and reinforced on an exaggerated scale by stick-celebrities, many girls and women at healthy weights feel compelled to lose weight.  In fact, even girls who are already underweight often seek to lose more.  Poor body image and low self-esteem are bad enough, but even worse problems such as disordered eating can result from this unhealthy ideal.  Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are life-threatening, life-long ordeals many women and girls have to face in pursuit of thinness.

As Nancy Etcoff (1999) points out, fashion models are genetically in the minority, because although they are very thin they still have roughly .7 waist-to-hip ratios, a curviness impossible for someone who is anorexic and starving.

The fashion and film industries have a vested interest in protecting their preternatural beauty ideals.  They are selling not just products but an image, an ideal of almost god-like proportions to many women.

In order for this mojo to work, they must give women something to covet and pursue.  While the desire for attractiveness is a natural, even defensible drive, there is no room in an evolved society for predatory and deadly fashion trends.  There are now “pro-ana” websites dedicated to defending anorexia as a lifestyle choice based on personal aesthetic preferences.  This environment is toxic.

Cultural Nostalgia and the Return of the Pinup Girl 

Part of the appeal of burlesque may be the prevalence of an old-fashioned beauty aesthetic and its comforting sense of innocence and nostalgia.  By borrowing the easily recognizable sex symbol image of the pinup girl, the burlesque dancer brings the voiceless, two-dimensional image into real life.  She shows us that there are no erotic bodies without whole people inside, makes clear that no matter how familiar the image, each person owns a unique voice to be heard.

When I interviewed various neo-burlesque performers about their opinion as to why the 1940s and 50s pin-up look dominates the burlesque scene, their answers varied.  Honey Suckle Duvet (2009) expressed that “the romanticized aspect of burlesque is from those eras, and so when people think of [burlesque] and want to recapture it, that’s what they want to recapture.” Carrie Tyler’s (2009) opinion was that in those days women were less empowered than women today, but that these historical periods were “a time of great beauty… where women really did take the time to put themselves together and there was a certain sense of show… It’s very attractive for us to reach back to that time and then say, ‘Okay let’s do that again, but let’s do it in a more empowered way.’” Crissy Trayner (2009) said the forties and fifties were a time when women began to be sexually empowered.  Others cited the pin-up look as the reclaiming of curves.  Jacki Willson (2008) posits that “pre-feminist” aesthetics might serve as a foil and give an ironic edge to the sexually empowered women embodying them (p. 121)  Maria-Elena Buszek has written an entire doctoral dissertation, which was later turned into a book, Pinup Grrrls, on the mysterious allure of pinup images.

It seems likely that the reclaiming of the pinup image may stem from a rejection of the now-popular centerfold image featured in men’s magazines and beer commercials.  This stereotypical image looks a lot like the Barbie dolls many of us played with as children: long blond hair, thin noses, tiny waists, curvy, but not too curvy, hips and breasts.  The unattainability of this ideal for most women may have prompted a rebellion against it and a desire for a different aesthetic interpretation of sexiness.

Before the sexual revolution, women used external supports like corsets and girdles to make their bodies look more attractive in clothes, but as women became sexually empowered, by the 1960s and 1970s they were comfortable wearing more revealing styles; fashion got closer to the body, and fewer undergarments were worn (Brumberg, 1998).  As Jacki Willson (2008) notes, “The length of a woman’s skirt has slowly risen with each feminist battle won” (p. 133).  Eventually women began to change the body itself to look better in clothes (or, perhaps, to look better naked).  Rather than wearing a girdle, women dieted, toned their abdominal muscles, and now sometimes they have surgery.  This process continues to unfold.  Until recently, when a woman was in the nude, the only ‘accessory’ she wore was her hairstyle.  Now she might be ‘wearing’ breast implants, carefully sculpted muscles, tattoos, body piercings and even the way she chooses to groom her body hair.

Because of the now widespread availability of cosmetic surgery, and the lack of ‘flawed’ bodies in the media, some of the cultural nostalgia present in neo-burlesque may be a reminder of a time when all a woman needed to look glamorous were well-made undergarments and lipstick.

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 5&6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!

References

Allen, R., (1991). Horrible prettiness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Baldwin, M., & Evans, D. (2004). Burlesque and the new bump-n-grind. Denver: Speck Press.

Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bergner, Daniel (2009, January 22). What do women want?. The New York Times, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?_r=2

Brumberg, J. (1998). The body project, an intimate history of American girls.  New York: Vintage Books.

Buszek, Maria. Pin-up grrrls. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Celizik, M. (2009) Her teen committed suicide over ‘sexting.’ Todayshow.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/

Clements, A. Power to the penis or viva la vulva? The Feminist Stripper, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.geocities.com/alysabethc/feministstripper.html

Comella L. & Queen, C. (2008). The necessary revolution: Sex-positive feminism in the post-Barnard era. The Communication Review, 11.

D’Amato, A. (2008). Porn up, rape down. Northwestern University school of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913013

Dworkin, A., (2006). Intercourse. New York: BasicBooks.

Ensler, E. (2004). The good body. New York: Random House, Inc.

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. New York: Random House, Inc.

Fargo, E.L., (2008). The fantasy of real women. Master’s thesis, Ohio State University.

Goldwyn, L., & Augustyn, J. (2006). Pretty things. New York: Regan Books.

Hartley, N. (1997). In the flesh. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Jensen, R., (2007). Getting off. Boston: South End Press.

Levy, A., (2006). Female Chauvinist Pigs. New York: Free Press.

Lykins, A.D., Meana, M., Strauss, G.P. (2008). Sex Differences in Visual Attention to Erotic and non-erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(219-228).

Meana, M. (2009). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire. Manuscript in preparation.

Merriam Webster Online. Definitions retrieved March 17, 2009. Web site: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Nagle, J. (1997). Introduction. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Nevid, J., a., S., & Greene, B. (2007). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rand, A. (1961). Pride. The Objectivist Ethics. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from Ayn Rand Lexicon Web site: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pride.html

Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, D., (2007). Sisterhood Interrupted. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Timmons, D. (Director). (2009). A wink and a smile [Documentary]. USA: First Run Features.

Tyler, C. (2009). Personal interview. See Appendix C of this document.

Urish, B. (2004).  Narrative striptease in the nightclub era. (Received via personal communication December 2, 2009.)

Willson, J., (2008). The Happy Stripper. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wolf, N. (1996). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Doubleday

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 3

porn industry

Author’s note: If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 and 2 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

porn industry

The Porn Wars

Pornography is an issue that has dogged the feminist movement for decades, causing feminists to split into warring factions and ultimately weakening the impact that could be achieved through greater solidarity. Second wave feminists fought against pornography on the basis of what they believed to be harmful and objectifying treatment of women.  Today, many women who consider themselves sexually empowered are not only consuming pornography, they are emulating adult film stars in their clothing and behavior, and calling it freedom.

How can this one topic produce such opposite reactions among those whose shared ideals are women’s liberation and equality?  For one thing, not all sexually explicit material is created equal.

There is nothing necessarily misogynistic about sexually explicit content; if women are to be truly free to enjoy sex without guilt or judgment, they should feel free to participate in and consume this material if it appeals to them.  However, there is a great deal of pornography which does in fact exploit women by erasing their identities and using them as sexual objects, and much worse in some cases, violence and degradation being sold under the guise of entertainment and pleasure.

Our conflicted feelings about porn reflect part of the struggle of the Third Wave to find “a new approach to feminism that acknowledges women’s sexuality, and even the desire to be sexy, while at the same time remembering the fine line between sexiness and objectification” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 183).  Condemning all pornography will not do us any good.  Porn and its derivatives abound on the internet, television, and throughout popular culture, and would be nearly impossible to expunge.  Besides that, it can be downright unattractive for the feminist movement to present an excessively prudish or restrictive image if the goal is to have men and women self-identify as feminists and to contribute to the movement’s goals.

A History of American Pornography

It is shocking to think that the most violent and degrading pornography today may have had its roots in a seemingly innocuous staple of childhood: the comic book.

During the 1940s and 1950s comic books were hugely popular, and were actually read primarily by adults, not children.  Roughly 30% of women and 40% of men were regular comic book readers (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 61).  Popular storylines featured patriotic themes, and the American male was the hero often sent to save the helpless “good girl” from the enemy ‘other’ (Nazi or Japanese soldiers were often the villains in these stories).

rosie the riveter

When American men returned from World War II, they found that ‘Rosie the Riveter’ had come along and changed society, reducing men’s economically dominant position.  Women in the workforce caused a “crisis of American masculinity” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 67).

The resentment we can imagine these men experienced is exhibited in the comic books of the time.

The danger presented to female victims gradually took the place of the hero as the focal point in the typical comic book plot.   Sexual brutality toward women in comic book stories increased.

wonder woman

One very noteworthy exception was that of Wonder Woman, a comic book heroine who was created around this time by William Moulton Marston.  She was designed explicitly as a feminist superhero and never made into a sex object.)  In other comics though, for sins such as infidelity, maternal laxity, and choosing career over marriage, women were punished by such fates as stabbing, strangulation, decapitation, electrocution, and suffocation (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

In 1954 the government cracked down with the Comics Code Authority to rid comic books of “sex, violence, gore, sadism, crime, and horror” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 62).  Afterward, comic books fell out of favor with men, and were replaced by men’s adventure magazines, something of a mix between pulp fiction and a literary magazine.  For fifteen years, these popular magazines offered stories and illustrations, often featuring women in lingerie being menaced by various threats, and by 1960, the reader was no longer associating with the thrill of heroism, but with the sadism of the villain.

Women were often whipped bloody on the covers of these magazines, when they were not being dismembered, dipped in acid or molten metal, or beheaded (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

Men’s adventure magazines, which sold “fear and anger” with stories like “The Homosexual Epidemic,” were the opposite of the glossy, hip, Playboy, which debuted in 1953, and sold “pleasure and joy” with advertisements for the latest stereo equipment and interviews with intellectuals and celebrities (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, pp. 13,72).  Another important figure of the nineteen-fifties was the famous Bettie Page, who appeared in many photos and short films involving themes of BDSM (bondage/domination/sadomasochism.)

bettie page

Bettie Page’s images were fairly harmless and playful, even tongue in cheek.  There was always a certain knowing smile and agency in her work.  She was “both an active participant, enjoying acting out the erotic scenario with other female actors, as well as blatantly communicating to her viewer the absurdity of the whole scenario” (Willson, p. 149).

Much of the burlesque and some porn of the mid-century showcased the women’s identities and relied on their performances; however, Playboy has always favored an uncomplicated and arguably vacant though decidedly non-violent portrayal of women.  As Playboy founder Hugh Hefner put it in a 1967 interview:

We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy.  The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well washed with soap and water, and she is happy (Hugh Hefner, as cited in Levy, 2005, p. 58).

This ‘girl next door’ image is still the one favored in the ever popular Playboy today.

The floodgates of pornography opened in 1972 with the unprecedented success of Deep Throat, the first Hollywood-like pornographic movie.  The ‘plot’ was based on the premise of a woman whose clitoris was located in her throat.  The film used humor to “tell us to lighten up, not to take it seriously” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 15).  Linda Lovelace was its star (a.k.a. Susan Boreman, who later went on to join the feminist movement and described her experience in Deep Throat as riddled with hard drugs, spousal abuse, mobsters, and threats at gunpoint).  Another popular porn film followed, called Behind the Green Door which also featured a new star, Marilyn Chambers.  This film used hip music and made a celebrity of its leading lady to make people feel more comfortable.  These new, glamorous films helped open the door for pornography to work its way out of the fringes of American culture and move toward the mainstream (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

Backlash Against Pornography

Pornography has always come under fire by patriarchal religious groups still espousing puritanical attitudes toward sex.  Ironically, these views of sex can still be found in modern porn – sex is ‘dirty’, ‘nasty’, the women who engage in the sex acts are often referred to as ‘sluts.’

In addition to religious groups, feminists too have taken issue with pornography since the 1970s, for its treatment of women as ‘sex objects,’ the questionable treatment and safety of its performers, and for the effect it may have on the society that consumes it.  However, for some years feminists were more concerned with issues like abortion, leading up to Roe v. Wade in 1972.  In 1975, when Susan Brownmiller wrote Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she commented that “There can be no ‘equality’ in porn…[which,] like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to the object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition” (Brownmiller, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 173).  The movement at the time believed that violence was inherent to working in porn films, and they assumed that pornography represented rape.  Feminist groups, such as Women against Violence against Women, Women against Pornography, and Women against Violence in Pornography and Media rose up against this threat.

In 1983, feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin led the anti-porn crusade.  They drafted an ordinance in the city of Minneapolis that would make porn a civil rights violation against women, arguing that pornography should not be protected under free speech, because it was not just speech, but an action carried out on female victims.  The ordinance was shot down, but the conservative politicians of Indianapolis soon asked for their help in cleaning up their own city.

Although these Reagan-era Republicans opposed abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, feminist leaders Dworkin and MacKinnon aligned themselves with them on the pornography issue.

The ordinance was signed into law in 1984, but it was soon overturned by federal courts on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.  They had succeeded at raising awareness about the darker side of porn; unfortunately they had produced rancor and dissention within the feminist movement by getting into bed with the right-wingers.

The politics of Dworkin and MacKinnon were too severe for many feminists, even prompting the use of the term “MacDworkin extremism” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 179.).

dworkin book intercourse

The message in Dworkin’s book Intercourse, published in 1987 was widely interpreted as ‘all sex is rape,’ although Dworkin has said that her intent was to point out that domination is always an aspect of sex in an unequal society.

Below is an excerpt from Intercourse:

Intercourse occurs in a context of a power relation that is pervasive and incontrovertible.  The context in which the act takes place, whatever the meaning of the act in and of itself, is one in which men have social, economic, political, and physical power over women.  Some men do not have all those kinds of power over all women; but all men have some kinds of power over all women; and most men have controlling power over what they call their women – the women they fuck (Dworkin, 2006, p. 158-159).

Another harsh passage reads:

[W]omen feel the fuck… as possession; and feel possession as deeply erotic; and value annihilation of the self in sex as proof of the man’s desire or love, its awesome intensity….sex itself is an experience of diminishing self-possession, an erosion of self.  That loss of self is a physical reality, not just a psychic vampirism; and as a physical reality it is chilling and extreme, a literal erosion of the body’s integrity and its ability to function and to survive…  This sexual possession is a sensual state of being that borders on antibeing until it ends in death. (Dworkin, 2006, p. 84)

In her lifetime, Dworkin had been a sex-worker, as well as a feminist activist and academic, and suffered from a great deal of abuse in her life, much of it sexual abuse.  This wide range of experiences would lend credibility to her words, but they seem to describe what a person might feel regarding rape rather than consensual sex.  Applying these ideas to include all sex between men and women is to grossly overstate the point.  Given the irrational nature of her sweeping claims, it is hard to believe her words could have had as much impact as they did.

This kind of exaggeration not only contributes to a stereotype of hysterical and paranoid feminists, it would have been difficult for many women to relate to such statements.  Therefore, not only did this approach alienate those outside the movement, it also scared away existing sympathizers and cost the movement the loss of some potential new supporters.

Feminist conferences, such as the Barnard Conference of 1982 got ugly as factions formed (Comella & Queen, 2008).  Feminists who did not support the anti-porn movement felt they were “being denied space and credentials to speak for [them]selves” (Comella & Queen, 2008, p. 280).

They began using the term ‘sex-positive feminist’ to differentiate themselves from the anti-porn movement, despite the fact that anti-porn feminists were thus incorrectly categorized as ‘anti-sex’ by default.

Since this controversy, sometimes called the ‘sex wars’ or the ‘porn wars,’ feminism has never been as unified as it once was.  By the end of the 1980s, feminism was greatly dispersed. The anti-porn feminists who have carried on are still sometimes dogmatic and intolerant of others’ opinions, such as at a recent national conference where anyone not identified with the anti-porn stance was excluded (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 181).

American Porn Thrives

As the feminist movement lost momentum, porn gained it.  Since the boom in the seventies, pornography has crept further and further into the mainstream.

Today, porn is a ten to fourteen billion dollar a year industry (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 9).  Certain popular media have helped make porn seem more ordinary and acceptable, such as the sexed-up music videos featured on MTV.  Arguably, the pop culture icon who has had the most influence on sexual attitudes was Madonna.  Whether or not you are a fan of her music, her public persona, or her political antics, it is difficult to deny Madonna credit for all she did to shake up ideas about women’s sexuality during the heyday of her career in the 1980s and 1990s.  Madonna associated herself with the gay community before it was considered cool.  Gender-bending has been a popular theme in Madonna’s work.  “I think I have a dick in my brain.  I don’t need to have one between my legs,” she has said (Madonna, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 96).  She brought highly sexualized images into mainstream culture through her music videos, live performances, films and books.  She created an image of empowered female sexuality, even domination.  In 1990, feminist dissenter Camille Paglia wrote “Madonna is the true feminist.  She exposes the Puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode” (Paglia, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 94).

Madonna

Madonna’s brand of feminism helped shape the attitudes of third wave feminists, prompting such proclamations as that of Elizabeth Wurtzel in her 1998 book Bitch, “These days putting out one’s pretty power, one’s pussy power, one’s sexual energy for popular consumption no longer makes you a bimbo.  It makes you smart” (Wurtzel, as cited in Baumgardner & Richards, 2000, p. 141).

Sarracino & Scott (2008) cite Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video as a prime example of this sexual power, where she posed as a peep-show performer.

Yes, she seemed to be saying, you can view my performance, you can even thrill to my body, but in doing so you give me control over you…The audience…must pay to keep open the panels through which they gaze… The power…is completely unshared.  It is Madonna’s alone (p. 95).

Another strong media presence to push the sexual envelope was radio talk show host Howard Stern.  Stern’s show, which was nationally syndicated for many years and is still available on uncensored satellite radio, regularly featured adult film stars as guests.  It was Howard Stern who gave porn star Jenna Jameson the publicity that would eventually lead her to have the most successful career of any adult film star.

Jenna Jameson has become famous for ‘crossing over’ into mainstream pop culture, by appearing in guest spots on the E! Channel and in films like Howard Stern’s Private Parts (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 105).  Her industry peers laud her abilities as an actor (Morgan, 2006), and her autobiography was a bestseller in 2006 (Levy, 2005).  Her unique career has made her a much-discussed figure in the study of porn’s increased public acceptability.

One of the things that might make Jameson more likeable in the mainstream is that her work does not feature blatantly cruel treatment of women, and she typically looks like she is enjoying herself onscreen.  Surprisingly, her films also tend to contain themes of female self-empowerment (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 108).  In 2005, Jameson starred in a remake of The New Devil in Miss Jones where the main character’s damnation is based on her failure to take control of her personal, professional, and sexual life.  This theme is actually quite popular in high-end pornography, and would seem to suggest there is some progress being made in these areas (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 112).

Gays and lesbians have helped pave the way to changing the range of what is represented in porn.  LGBT activists have used pornography as an important tool in their activism as sexuality is central their politics.  Now feminist porn has emerged, and is growing with companies such as Candida Royalle’s Femme Productions.  Today, there are even Feminist Porn Awards.

Feminist porn is characterized by things like beautiful settings, attractive lighting, more seduction with less mechanical-looking close-ups of penetration, more real orgasms, and more average body types.

Of course, most importantly, feminist porn does not feature women being treated badly. A history of porn would lack integrity if it did not acknowledge the existence of a deplorable side to pornography.

Merriam Webster offers three definitions for pornography:

1:  the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement
2 : material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement
3 : the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>

(Merriam Webster, 2009)

The ‘dark porn’ that falls under the third definition has little, if anything, to do with the first two definitions.  It is not sex that is being sold here, but the truly obscene: violence and degradation.  Dark porn actor Bill Margold offers this insight:

My whole reason for being in the Industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don’t much care for women and want to see the men in my Industry getting even with the women they couldn’t have when they were growing up… I believe this.  I’ve heard audiences cheer me when I do something foul on screen.  When I’ve strangled a person or sodomized a person, or brutalized a person, the audience is cheering my action, and then when I’ve fulfilled my warped desire, the audience applauds (Margold, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 117-118).

Gory horror films sell the same brand of ‘pornography,’ even when explicit sexuality is not a factor.  If porn is becoming more mainstream, does this mean that the darkness of violent porn will follow suit?  One could say that it already has.

Going back to the comic books of the midcentury, we could follow the trail of sensationalized violence up through the ‘slasher movies’ that have been selling out box offices for decades.

The overall effect on society is difficult to measure; however no study has proven that porn causes increased violence toward women (Jensen, 2007). In fact, strangely, between 1993 and 2005, rates of reported sexual assault dropped anywhere from sixty to eighty-five percent, despite the increased availability of porn via the internet (Sarracino & Scott, 2008) (D’Amato, 2008).  It has even been suggested that this decrease in rape may be attributable to internet pornography (D’Amato, 2008), but no one has convincingly proven any correlation between the two.

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 4-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!

References

Allen, R., (1991). Horrible prettiness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Baldwin, M., & Evans, D. (2004). Burlesque and the new bump-n-grind. Denver: Speck Press.

Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bergner, Daniel (2009, January 22). What do women want?. The New York Times, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?_r=2

Brumberg, J. (1998). The body project, an intimate history of American girls.  New York: Vintage Books.

Buszek, Maria. Pin-up grrrls. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Celizik, M. (2009) Her teen committed suicide over ‘sexting.’ Todayshow.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/

Clements, A. Power to the penis or viva la vulva? The Feminist Stripper, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.geocities.com/alysabethc/feministstripper.html

Comella L. & Queen, C. (2008). The necessary revolution: Sex-positive feminism in the post-Barnard era. The Communication Review, 11.

D’Amato, A. (2008). Porn up, rape down. Northwestern University school of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913013

Dworkin, A., (2006). Intercourse. New York: BasicBooks.

Ensler, E. (2004). The good body. New York: Random House, Inc.

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. New York: Random House, Inc.

Fargo, E.L., (2008). The fantasy of real women. Master’s thesis, Ohio State University.

Goldwyn, L., & Augustyn, J. (2006). Pretty things. New York: Regan Books.

Hartley, N. (1997). In the flesh. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Jensen, R., (2007). Getting off. Boston: South End Press.

Levy, A., (2006). Female Chauvinist Pigs. New York: Free Press.

Lykins, A.D., Meana, M., Strauss, G.P. (2008). Sex Differences in Visual Attention to Erotic and non-erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(219-228).

Meana, M. (2009). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire. Manuscript in preparation.

Merriam Webster Online. Definitions retrieved March 17, 2009. Web site: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Nagle, J. (1997). Introduction. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Nevid, J., a., S., & Greene, B. (2007). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rand, A. (1961). Pride. The Objectivist Ethics. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from Ayn Rand Lexicon Web site: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pride.html

Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, D., (2007). Sisterhood Interrupted. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Timmons, D. (Director). (2009). A wink and a smile [Documentary]. USA: First Run Features.

Tyler, C. (2009). Personal interview. See Appendix C of this document.

Urish, B. (2004).  Narrative striptease in the nightclub era. (Received via personal communication December 2, 2009.)

Willson, J., (2008). The Happy Stripper. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wolf, N. (1996). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Doubleday

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 2

 

Members of the Boston Babydolls get retro glamorous backstage

Author’s note: If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!

Old and New Burlesque

The original period of burlesque occurred in America from about the 1890s to the 1950s.  In the irreverent, satirical tradition harkening back to fifteenth-century Italy’s commedia dell’arte, burlesque featured dancing, music, acting, and comedy that parodied high culture and society.  In the early days, it was seen as essentially a more risqué version of vaudeville theatre.  In an effort to compete with high-quality vaudeville shows, burlesque incorporated striptease, something their “family-friendly” competitors could not offer (Fargo, 2008).  Even though striptease was not introduced until the second half of this burlesque period, by the end of the 1920s, stripping was the main draw of burlesque.  The rest – variety acts, comedy – were just filler (Baldwin 2004, p.9).

As burlesque became more salacious, it drew negative attention from the public, as well as the law.  The police frequently raided burlesque theatres throughout the 1930s.  When burlesque was outlawed in New York City in 1937, (ironically, New York City would later become a place of burlesque’s rebirth), it lived on throughout other major American cities and with national tours (Fargo, 2008).

Burlesque fizzled out in the 1950s and 1960s, possibly due to the increasing popularity of television.

One of the permutations of burlesque that did survive was go-go dancing in the 1960s, where women danced in cages or on stages, which eventually morphed into strip club dancing. Eventually, pornographic films and strip clubs offered full nudity, making the burlesque performances that had once caused a stir to appear quite innocent by comparison.  “By the early 1980s, the art of revealing a woman’s body had become more like a gynecological examination” than a sultry, suggestive entertainment.  Stripping was becoming “big business, not show business” (Fargo, 2008, no page number available).

The rediscovery of burlesque in the 1990s may have been due in part to the ‘cleaning up’ of Times Square by New York City officials, such as then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who closed down the neighborhood’s sex shops and peep shows.  Burlesque shows, which seemed higher class, rose up in their place.

On the heels of the swing dancing craze, “retro-lovers” were drawn to burlesque’s classic aesthetic, and a tattoo-adorned subculture sprang up around its reinvention (Baldwin, 2004, p. 18)  In 2002, neo-burlesque even found its way into mainstream culture when its icon Dita Von Teese, who was married to rock star Marilyn Manson, graced the cover of Playboy.

Why Bring Back Burlesque?

Michelle Baldwin (2004) states eloquently, though not with complete historical accuracy, “In what can only be described as a moment of collective subconscious, these young women, whose mothers had burned their bras, discovered that they actually liked their bras and thought they might look lovely covered in sequins, taken off, and tossed into the stage lights” (p.47).  Despite the fact that the ‘bra-burning feminist’ is only a mythical caricature that popular memory has drawn of the second wave feminist, Baldwin makes an interesting point.  Historically, burlesque had catered to a working-class male audience, and to stereotypical male fantasy.

“If early twentieth-century burlesque was ‘everyman’s’ entertainment,” Baldwin (2004) argues, “then new burlesque is ‘everywoman’s’ entertainment.  Women come to burlesque looking for what they think is sexy and what can make them feel like they’re sexy too” (p. 129).

What prompted this generation of women to take an interest in reviving the lost art of burlesque?  Perhaps, growing up after the sexual revolution, this generation was looking to exercise their newfound sexual freedom.  “Within the striptease routine, the power oscillates between the audience and the performer.  The performer can feel the power that comes from manipulating the audience with her sexual energy as well as knowing that their voyeurism is only made possible through her willfulness” (Willson, 2008, p. 138).

Nina Hartley – porn star, sex educator, and registered nurse, lists the many positive qualities of sex work.  While the term “sex work” more commonly refers to prostitutes, porn stars, and others that engage in actual sexual contact in their work, many of these attributes would seem to apply to burlesque:  “Enhanced self-image, sexual variety, creating a platform for my ideas about sex and society, creative erotic expression, exhibitionism, fantasy fulfillment, and economic gain.” (Hartley, 1997, p. 58).  Similarly, many dancers consider their work in traditional strip clubs empowering.  In my former career as an exotic dancer, I recall feeling an enormous sense of economic empowerment, and a certain freedom in rebelling against the unwritten ‘rules’ of society.  However, the typical strip club does not put the dancer in control.  To the average club’s management, dancers are a dime a dozen, and are to be regarded with indifference at best.

Perhaps what taints strip clubs the most is the emphasis on monetary exchange; the woman strips, the man tips.  Because of this structure, both the dancer and the patron have a certain advantage over the other, and there is a constant need for negotiation that often threatens the pride of both parties and keeps them fearful of being ‘had.’  While new burlesque rarely provides the same earning potential as ‘stripping,’ it does provide a platform for mature entertainment in a more respectful, positive environment.

Jacki Willson (2008) asserts that “burlesque utilizes the controlled act of veiling and unveiling to question stigma, to question shame, to question restrictive disempowering roles and sexual, gender and class relations in society” (p. 131).

The new burlesque has many advantages over the type of performance available in strip clubs.  It provides a place for sexual expression on a woman’s terms.  The costumes are better made, the acts more inventive.  The audience is generally a mix of diverse, respectful men and women, often encompassing a full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identities.  The dancing is better choreographed and better performed.  The sets are more creative.  There are typically no greedy, pimpish managers.

Although for most new burlesque performers it will probably never pay the bills, without the emphasis on money the dancers are free to express themselves without compromising their self-expression.

Sex and the Modern Feminist

The term “postfeminist” has been used by some writers, implying that since the sexual revolution, feminism is no longer needed, and the generations that would follow would not identify themselves as feminists.  It was Rebecca Walker who wrote in 1992, “I am not a postfeminism feminist.  I am the Third Wave” (Walker, as cited in Buszek, p. 331).  Third wave feminists have grown up in a post-sexual revolution era, but there are still many of us dedicated to women’s freedom and equality.

Where does the Third Wave stand in terms of our sexuality?  For one thing, we are more vocally pro-sex; we don’t want to be denied access to our sexuality by social taboo or ignorance.  However, we struggle with the notion of ‘sexual empowerment’ and what it looks like in practice.  How public should our sexuality be?  How much attention do we want to pay to our appearances, and how much attention do we want to receive?

Our convictions here as a movement are fuzzy.  At a Women’s Studies Conference in 2007, Third wave feminist icons Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards gave a talk addressing such questions as “Can feminists wear lipstick?” and their answer was essentially that feminists can do whatever they want, that the movement needs and wants as many people as possible to identify themselves as feminists.  There is no need for anyone to feel excluded simply because they are heterosexual, because they get their pubic hair removed through waxing, or even because they oppose abortion.  It is true that every woman should ultimately make her own informed choices.  However, as feminists have long pointed out, ‘the personal is political.’

The personal choices we make take place within the larger context of a shared society, and our struggles can and should be shared.

 

Objectification

A male pole-dancer in Boston’s ‘The Slutcracker’

 

The main criticism against sexualized displays of women’s bodies such as stripping and pornography is the ‘sexual objectification’ of women.  Anti-pornography scholar Robert Jensen (2007) provides a good definition of sexual objectification: “the way in which women’s full humanity is lost and they are reduced to the sum total of their body parts, and the sexual pleasure men get from that” (p. 112).  However, not everyone sees objectification as necessarily bad.  In the film A Wink and a Smile, burlesque performer Miss Indigo Blue states that as part of a process of “radical self-acceptance,” the burlesque performer “invites herself to be objectified” (Timmons, 2009).  Nina Hartley (1997) makes some interesting points in her essay “In the Flesh.”  She describes her process of entering sex work as an avid feminist, asking herself, “What were the gaps of logic in feminist criticisms of objectification and was objectification ever okay?… Could I defend my position with feminist philosophy and arguments?” (p. 57-58).  She explains how she came of age in the seventies, when “the received truth on sex was that men’s objectification of women was the root of all gender inequality… At the same time, other women suffered for never being the object of anyone’s desire” (Hartley, 1997, p. 63).  Hartley (1997) grapples with the problem of objectification reasoning that, “Since we can’t experience most people on deeper levels, everyone is, at least initially, an object to others.” (p. 64).

Though sexy media images, and even pornography are not necessarily bad, most popular sexualized representations of women strip away the woman’s personality, effectively reducing her to a pretty, but vacant body at best.

Alysabeth Clements (2009), author of the “Feminist Stripper” website, argues that it is acceptable for the woman to be invisible in a strip club because she is in the service industry.  However, such representations reinforcing in their male audience unhealthy beliefs about women; in the extreme they are likely to contribute to the incidence of violence and rape perpetrated by men who see women as less than human.

I do not propose that we rid our culture of sexual material, only that women be represented as whole, autonomous human beings.

Michelle Baldwin (2004) notes this distinction as well, commenting that “the burlesque performance is about sex and issues related to the body, but it’s not focused on the audience’s sexual gratification… it instead gets the audience members thinking about the entire woman and what she’s thinking, feeling, and creating, and the ideas around the act she’s doing” (p. 53).

Much of this gnashing of teeth over the issue of objectification could be avoided by observing a simple distinction: that to be the object of someone’s sexual desire and a sex-object are not one and the same.

When a woman is seen as a sex object, she has no agency, no voice.  She is not viewed as a whole person, which makes it easier for an abuser to excuse him or herself for mistreating her.  Alternatively, to be the object of sexual desire simply means that someone desires you, not that they devalue your other human qualities.  To make sure my point is clear: when a woman’s body is used for sex with no regard for her as a person, she is being objectified.  When someone is taken advantage of, or coerced into doing things she is not comfortable with, she is being exploited.  However, when someone looks at a woman and finds her sexually appealing, without losing sight of the fact that she is a real person and deserving of respect, she is simply being desired.

Writer Emily Layne Fargo points out that for the neo-burlesque performer:

sexual display is transformed from something ‘passive,’ where they offer their bodies up for visual consumption, into “a complicitous and reciprocal pleasure.”  The audience at a neo-burlesque show may enjoy looking at the performers; it may even turn them on. But the performers are looking right back, and deriving just as much pleasure from the experience. Neo- burlesque performers delight in “explor[ing] their very objectness,” putting into vital practice a statement made by Joanna Frueh in her book Erotic Faculties: “[a]s long as I am an erotic subject, I am not averse to being an erotic object.” (Fargo, 2008) (Frueh, as cited in Fargo, 2008).

Again, the use of the word “object” in this last sentence is not intended to refer to dehumanization of the “erotic object.”

 

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 3-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!

References

Allen, R., (1991). Horrible prettiness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Baldwin, M., & Evans, D. (2004). Burlesque and the new bump-n-grind. Denver: Speck Press.

Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bergner, Daniel (2009, January 22). What do women want?. The New York Times, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25desire-t.html?_r=2

Brumberg, J. (1998). The body project, an intimate history of American girls.  New York: Vintage Books.

Buszek, Maria. Pin-up grrrls. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Celizik, M. (2009) Her teen committed suicide over ‘sexting.’ Todayshow.com http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/

Clements, A. Power to the penis or viva la vulva? The Feminist Stripper, Retrieved May 14, 2009, from http://www.geocities.com/alysabethc/feministstripper.html

Comella L. & Queen, C. (2008). The necessary revolution: Sex-positive feminism in the post-Barnard era. The Communication Review, 11.

D’Amato, A. (2008). Porn up, rape down. Northwestern University school of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913013

Dworkin, A., (2006). Intercourse. New York: BasicBooks.

Ensler, E. (2004). The good body. New York: Random House, Inc.

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. New York: Random House, Inc.

Fargo, E.L., (2008). The fantasy of real women. Master’s thesis, Ohio State University.

Goldwyn, L., & Augustyn, J. (2006). Pretty things. New York: Regan Books.

Hartley, N. (1997). In the flesh. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Jensen, R., (2007). Getting off. Boston: South End Press.

Levy, A., (2006). Female Chauvinist Pigs. New York: Free Press.

Lykins, A.D., Meana, M., Strauss, G.P. (2008). Sex Differences in Visual Attention to Erotic and non-erotic stimuli. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(219-228).

Meana, M. (2009). Elucidating women’s (hetero)sexual desire. Manuscript in preparation.

Merriam Webster Online. Definitions retrieved March 17, 2009. Web site: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Nagle, J. (1997). Introduction. Whores and other feminists. Nagle, J. New York: Routledge.

Nevid, J., a., S., & Greene, B. (2007). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rand, A. (1961). Pride. The Objectivist Ethics. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from Ayn Rand Lexicon Web site: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pride.html

Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, D., (2007). Sisterhood Interrupted. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Timmons, D. (Director). (2009). A wink and a smile [Documentary]. USA: First Run Features.

Tyler, C. (2009). Personal interview. See Appendix C of this document.

Urish, B. (2004).  Narrative striptease in the nightclub era. (Received via personal communication December 2, 2009.)

Willson, J., (2008). The Happy Stripper. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wolf, N. (1996). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Doubleday

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 1

 

Honey Suckle Duvet and other performers in Boston’s Holiday Burlesque show: The Slutcracker.

Dear Readers,

I wrote this piece and took the accompanying photos for a research project while completing my degree in Women’s Studies in 2009-2010, therefore some of the research is out of date. I’ve been wanting to share it and decided to do so here on my blog.

I’ve abridged the piece slightly and broken it up into sections to make it a little more digestible.  I’ve got a short version of “Why I love Burlesque” planned, but in the meantime — here’s the long version!

I hope this sparks your curiosity about burlesque – if it does, be on the lookout for a burlesque workshop series with yours truly coming SOON!!

Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque

Most people would not make any distinction between the neo-burlesque movement that is gaining popularity all over America and the type of performance done at a typical strip club, perhaps imagining slightly better-made or more retro-inspired costumes.  You might be surprised to learn that today’s burlesque is closer to ‘fringe theater’ than it is to stripping.  In fact striptease, though often a part of burlesque, is not all there is to the art form.  Historically, burlesque has encompassed many types of performance.  It was originally a more adult version of vaudeville, and the many traditions used included music, dance, acrobatics, pantomime, drama, comedy, clowning, and more.  This tradition carries on to this day, making burlesque difficult to define, but it is characterized by the use of comedy and political satire, sometimes with racy content, and often including striptease.

Many performers and fans of new burlesque find these performances empowering, even feminist, because they allow women to publicly express themselves sexually, on their own terms, and often in ways that subvert popular expectations.

In twenty-first century America women struggle with cultural expectations that are evolving, and at times confusing.  Compared to women in previous generations, we have overcome many obstacles that traditionally kept women from experiencing independence and equality; however, as double standards loosen, as women gain autonomy and freedom, our society still reflects lingering discomfort with women’s sexuality in general.  Sadly, sexually empowered women seem easier for society to deal with when they are treated as objects (less than human), than when they are given a voice and social power.

A few years ago, 18-year-old Jesse Logan took her own life after being labeled a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’ when she used her cell phone to send her boyfriend a topless photo of herself, which he later distributed to other students at their school.  Though her parents and the media blamed the tragedy of Jesse’s death on the problem of ‘sexting,’ (a word used to describe erotic text or picture messaging via mobile phone), her suicide was probably more directly caused by the problems of bullying and shaming (Celezik, 2009).  Jesse was bullied for acting on perfectly natural sexual desires.  Teenage sex is nothing new.  Unfortunately, the considerably pronounced mistreatment of teenage girls who act on these desires is nothing new either.  Since the days of the Puritans, our culture has punished ‘sluts.’

Feminists may espouse differing opinions on specific issues, but most would agree that feminism is an ideology defined by its support for the fair treatment of women in society.  If this is so, why doesn’t everyone, especially women, proudly call themselves feminists?

Some would chalk it up to apathy.  Although modern feminists do seem more personally motivated and less politically oriented than feminists of previous generations, there are other reasons for the unpopularity of the feminist label.

One of these barriers lies in feminist stereotypes that many find unattractive.

The feminists of the late sixties and early seventies had a colossal task trying to create new possibilities for women outside the traditional role that Betty Friedan referred to as ‘happy housewife.’  These radical women questioned the status quo and rejected institutions that did not serve their interests.  Sometimes they rejected the things associated with traditional femininity to help promote radical social change.

The image of the unfeminine feminist persists, and it can scare away women who wish to be identified with traditionally feminine gender traits.

Today, the essence of porn shows up everywhere in American culture, and women’s willing participation in this trend of sexualization has prompted some critics such as Female Chauvinist Pigs author Ariel Levy (2006) to conclude that women would currently rather exploit themselves than admit defeat at the hands of an ever-dominant patriarchy, (a word used to describe a male-dominated social system).  These critics say that today’s young women are selling out rather than fighting for their rights the way past generations did.  However, it is not necessarily the culture or media that have caused these women to embrace seeming self-objectification; it may instead be the new-found sexual freedom, the waning of Puritanical values that causes these women to choose sexual self-expression.

In addition, we may need to revisit the concept of objectification and stop using this as our rote response to all things sexual in our culture.  Rather than continuing to condemn sexually explicit media, we might embrace opportunities to publicly honor our sexuality, and the re-emergence of burlesque seems to provide an outlet for this.

Others disenchanted with traditional second wave feminist politics are those who espouse ‘sex-positive’ or ‘pro-sex’ feminist values.  Carol Queen defines sex positivity as the recognition of sex as “a potentially positive force” in people’s lives (Comella & Queen, 2008, p. 278).  Sex-positive feminists are generally seen as “Less academic and less theoretical than the anti-pornography group,” drawing their convictions on the premise that they do not wish to be censored or have their sexual behaviors proscribed for them (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 179).

I embarked on this research to find out why I, and many other educated feminists were not only un-offended by burlesque, but in fact attracted to it.  My attraction to burlesque left me conflicted.

As a ‘classically trained’ feminist scholar, I felt there was something hypocritical about being drawn to something that on the surface seemed un-feminist.  However, my previous experiences working in strip clubs, the work of burlesque performers I had seen and read, and my collaborations with burlesque performance troupe Iron Heart Circus left me wondering if feminists were mistaken about the issue of objectification.

Perhaps some types of bodily display could be feminist and empowering.

Jacki Willson took on the issue of objectification versus empowerment in the new burlesque movement in her book The Happy Stripper, but was ultimately unable to resolve the debate.  “This is a tricky issue… The system both empowers and exploits,” Willson (2008) writes in her conclusion (p. 174).  It seemed that this movement needed a more definitive stance than this.  Willson’s (2008)problem with burlesque is that “Without being coupled with an ironical, critical or reflective questioning of sexual power, erotic display risks falling immediately back into unchallenging, stereotypical ‘off the shelf’ readings of female sexuality – vulnerable, silent and fake” (p. 148).  When I began this research, I feared that despite my fondness for burlesque, this was probably the case – that it did tread too close to the line between sexual freedom and perpetuating stereotypical notions of women as sex objects.  Having researched the matter, I have now put these fears to rest.

Research Methods

To get to the root of burlesque’s potential as a political art form, I thought it best to speak directly with performers about their personal politics.  First and foremost, why did they choose to perform burlesque?  Did these women self-identify as feminists?  Did their personal politics, feminist or otherwise, inform their work?  Was exploitation or objectification ever a problem for them as performers?  Did they see burlesque as empowering or dis-empowering, and could they convincingly defend their positions?

I conducted qualitative interviews with five neo-burlesque performers: Boston solo artist Honey Suckle Duvet, Carrie Tyler and Crissy Trayner, co-founders of New Hampshire’s Iron Heart Circus, and UnAmerika’s Sweetheart Karin Webb and Jill Gibson, burlesque and drag perfomers, and co-creators of Axe to Ice Productions, a Boston-based company which puts on cabaret and burlesque variety shows.

My other research included participating in rehearsals and performances and writing new material with Iron Heart Circus.  I also attended and photographed numerous burlesque performances by various artists, and informally interviewed burlesque fans and performers including members of the Boston Babydolls and the cast of Boston’s “Holiday Zeitgeist Spectacular,” The Slutcracker.

 

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 2-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!

 

 

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