Part 2 of my "why burlesque is a feminist act" series, brings you...
Humour, the most powerful feminist act of all. As Nellie McKay sings, tongue-in-cheek, "feminists don't have a sense of humour". Enter burlesque! As I mentioned in the 4 Cardinal Rules of Burlesque, to "burlesque" is to joke, ridicule or mock something that people take altogether far too seriously. Like sex. And how women are supposed to look and act. And what we are allowed to do with our bodies.
Women and the funny. There's a general attitude out there (slowly but surely changing) that a woman can't be both "attractive" and certain kinds of funny. You know what I'm talking about: the coveted girl in the comedy is always the stupid hot girl and the funniness happens around her and to her, and even more humiliatingly, she's usually portrayed as being too dense to even get the joke. Humour that puts a lady at a wrong angle, questions comfortable stereotypes or shows some real, human expression on her face - that, gasp, causes us to see a forehead wrinkle! - is still pretty rare. Burlesque is so satisfyingly... alive. The first burlesque show that I went to was my first real-life exposure to women exposing unedited bodies (it's impossible to airbrush a live performance) and being unselfconsciously really funny and poking fun at a history that buttoned-up and tried to hold-in all the innate, sexual, creative, free energy in women. Doesn't it make you want to go see a burlesque show RIGHT NOW?
Women and all our women rules, am I right? The recurring commentaries I often hear after a burlesque show, particularly from people who are being freshly exposed to this performance art form, are about the bits when the women in the show didn't look "attractive". You know: "inappropriate" kinds of body types, expressions or gender-bending humour, like a burlesque performer dressed as Santa Claus stripped down to her pasties but still wearing the flowing white beard. Of course it's inappropriate according to current cultural norms: that juxtaposition is EXACTLY THE POINT. For me, good burlesque is about pairing the expected with the unexpected and freeing the audience to explore different definitions of beauty and, ultimately, what it is to be a woman. Yes, I agree: it kind makes your eyes and brain go Fizz-Pop! the first time you see burlesque, because you don't know what to do with it, what category of experience to put it in. If this was your first reaction, give it some time. You might find that your definition of "feminine" changes from a one-dimensional screen or paper apparition to a flesh-and-blood multidimensional human with charm, wit and a wicked sense of humour.
Let's get touchy... Starting a fisty-cuffs battle or yelling match doesn't usually do much to enlighten the other team to your point of view. You'd think a human history full of blood and centuries-old grudges would have taught us that by now, not to mention current divorce rates... Talking about touchy subjects is never easy, but (as close as they may have come) I've never seen Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live, Nellie McKay or a Bizarro comic start a war. Despite the distinct lack of black eyes, they've still somehow made us re-think a number of sensitive topics (religion, sexism, equal rights and racism to name a few). Oh yeah, and made us laugh.
Burlesque takes common preconceptions and turns them upside-down, while making us giggle. Now that's as powerful a feminist act as you'll ever find.
Updated Jan 2015