One of the drawbacks to becoming relatively popular as a blogger is that suddenly what I say and write actually gets noticed, and affects people. When I started this blog I never imagined I’d have more than a couple dozen readers: I just wanted to document my costumes.
Then, gradually, more and more people started reading, and now I meet all sorts of people in real life who say “Oh, I read your blog”, and I thought “Eeek!” People now have an impression of me without ever meeting me, and (very occasionally) quote my research and opinions.
My first reaction to this was to feel I couldn’t write anything controversial, because I hate arguments and controversy. Lately though I’m beginning to feel that I have an obligation to say what I believe in, and write what matters to me. I’ve done it a bit in the past, with my post on ‘real women’ and ‘universally flattering’ looks (that aren’t), and the sky didn’t fall in, and I didn’t get too many virulent comments (oddly, my post on sewing with acrylic, which I thought was quite innocuous, resulted in far more angry emails), and most of you actually agreed with me and thanked me for saying what I was saying. And if I lost some readers, that’s OK. I’d rather have the ones that will at least consider my opinion, even if they don’t agree with me (and of course the ones that do agree with me are also awesome!).
So here is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time, and have been attacked for even hinting at in some circles in Wellington, but have finally decided is too important not to say.
I don’t like burlesque.
In fact, I don’t just not like burlesque, I think burlesque is just stripping with better clothes, and that it is horribly detrimental to the ongoing struggle to achieve true gender equality and justice, and to women’s status as a whole.
Before those of you who are burlesque fans start telling me I am wrong, and that I don’t really understand what burlesque is, I think that you should know that my initial introduction to it was quite positive. I watched a girl who had discovered burlesque go from being quite insecure to quite self confident, and I thought “that’s awesome”. And friends who taught and took it told me all about how it was about developing poise, and subverting the usual ideas of feminine objectification, and I thought “those are excellent things.” And, for as much as I knew of it or was exposed to it, I approved of it and thought it was quite worthy.
Unfortunately, the more I saw of burlesque, the less I was able to find these supposed ideals. Instead, I saw the same old objectification of women: the same old treating women purely as items to be looked at.
The burlesque poses and performances were all the same tropes that you see in Victorian peep-shows and 1950s pin-ups (and, from what I gather, modern lightly-clothed magazines). You have your choice of A) the child-like female who is surprised and astonished to be caught with her skirt blowing up to reveal her knickers (the big-eyed “Oh!” face), B) the confident, sexually aggressive woman (usually in black or animal print, sometimes with a whip) who enjoys taking off her bits for the sake of the audience, or C) the girl who find that playing with other girls is just a bit more fun than she though (but only if men are looking on).
Yes, the audience at many burlesque shows is mainly women, but I don’t think that women objectifying other women is all that much better (if at all) than men objectifying women.
Finally, after a long and difficult struggle with myself (I have friends who I respect in all other matters who are very involved with burlesque). I decided that no matter how it was phrased, and how it was dressed up, anything that was primarily about presenting women primarily as objects to be viewed, and to be judged based on their physical attractiveness (even if it allows for a broader range of physical attractiveness) isn’t OK with me.
So I have to say it. I don’t like burlesque. Yes, there are the occasional burlesque routines that are witty and clever and not about objectification and do subvert the usual stripping paradigms. These, however, definitely seem to be more the exception than the rule. I do acknowledge that there are women who have gained a lot of confidence, and to be comfortable with their own body, because of burlesque, and that’s great. However, I maintain that there are other ways these women could have gained this confidence, and that on balance, burlesque is hurting women more than it is helping them.
I am appalled that the world is holding up Dita von Teese as an inspiration to girls, and I certainly don’t think she should be a role model. Sure, she overcame a drug addiction and went on to have a ‘productive’ life, but plenty of other women have overcome drug addictions and gone on to really help the world. Sure, she’s built up a successful life, but if you want a female business model, there are many better choices. When it comes down to it, there is only one big thing that I respect the grande dame of burlesque for, and that is for saying that when it comes down to it, she’s just a stripper. I respect honesty.
On the same hand, because I dislike burlesque because I see it as objectifying women, and reducing us to primarily physical roles, where we are judged on looks, I dislike extreme modestly, like the all-enveloping ‘wholesome’ swimsuits that Elise posted a few weeks back. It may be on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it also reduces women to physical objects, with bodies so tempting they must be covered up lest they lead men astray. They are two sides of the same coin, and neither gives women space to be interacted with as people, not just viewed as objects of desire.
As a woman, as a person, I want to be judged as a person, for my personality and my thoughts. I may be a woman who thinks a lot about bodies and clothes, but I want the people who I interact with to realise that I really am thinking about bodies and clothes (just as I might think about cars, were I a mechanic, or policy, if I worked for the government, or programming, if I were a computer scientist), not just being a body with clothes that should be shown off or hidden, at the whim of the current (usually male) powers that be.
So, as an occasional seamstress and corseteer for hire, and the someone with friends who do burlesque, what am I actually going to do about it as a person?
Well, I’m not going to take any burlesque commissions, because that involved me in it, but in the end, I do think morality has to be a personal choice. I’ve chosen not to drink, and to be vegetarian, but those were my personal choices. I don’t sit at dinner with friends who eat meat and have a glass of wine and condemn them for their choices (but I also won’t buy their alcohol). I chose to be chaste until marriage, but I don’t look at my unmarried friends and their partners and think “you slut” – that’s not what morality is about.
I firmly believe people have to choose what their own actions are, and what actions they are happy with, and as long as their actions don’t overly impact on others who can’t agree to it, that’s fine (sleeping with whoever you choose, as long as they can reasonably consent = fine, your choice, private. Sleeping with someone who can’t properly consent because of age, state of inebriation, species = not fine. Drinking a reasonable amount = fine, your choice, private. Drinking and driving, or drinking enough that you loose control and might attack someone = not fine).
So I choose not to be involved with or condone burlesque, but if you do, that’s your choice. However, I do need to speak up. I just can’t nod and smile and pretend to be OK with it any longer, because in the end, I think it is making it that much harder for me, and for all women, to be judged primarily as a person, for their intellect and personality, rather than as an ornament or a temptation, to be enjoyed or avoided for my body and looks. If you need to stop reading this blog, or move on from me as a friend, because of this, that’s OK.
But, if like me, you felt that you couldn’t really say “Hey, I don’t think this is so great after all”, please feel its OK to do so.
There are so many people in the vintage community who adore burlesque and I’m definitely not one of them. I’m all for women being comfortable and confident about their bodies but one of the reasons I love vintage fashion is that it is more modest than modern fashion (usually) and burlesque is so opposite of that. So I won’t be seeing any burlesque shows (and I certainly won’t let my husband go either!), but if someone else likes it, I’m not going to think they’re a terrible person either.
Thanks so much for sharing. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
You’re welcome. I like vintage for all the connotations of being a ‘lady’, with the intertwining of morals, virtues, honourability and dress (but without the occasional awful classism).
Part of what gave me the confidence to write this is realising how many people actually do feel this way, and how, weirdly, so many of us feel like we can’t speak up. At the best, we are prudes. At the worst, judgmental.
You’re not a prude, and you’re not judgemental. You’re a lady, and that’s not something you should have to feel ashamed of.
No way you are a prude! You still find humor in sex. What about that clitoris dress you showed?
Which one? 😉
I appreciate you speaking up, and making clear how you feel. It’s no fun sitting by and “hiding” ones own beliefs… particularly to those who we interact with regularly. It’s so good to hear others express their feelings, without judging or condemning (when the said behavior isn’t causing injury to others)… Thank you!
Thank you for your insight. I’m glad I managed to convey my opinion without judging.
It’s funny. That mindset: “Does it harm others? Then I won’t do it”, is what I miss most about Europe and Hawaii. In the states, it’s every person for himself or herself. The right to be bad is more important than the right to protect others. (I didn’t notice it until I moved back, though, and there are lots of exceptions of course!)
It does seem people are absorbed in their right to do what they want, say what they want, look like they want. And anyone who has a complaint can go to **** … Though, I think a big reason it seems so prevalent is because it’s what’s sensational, and gets into the media.
Personally, it’s not something I’m combating in my everyday (first hand) life. I do live in a pretty quiet area, at least an hour from a large city, maybe I’m being sheltered, if so, that’s okay with me.
It would be a lot more pleasant (in my opinion) if people were more focused on “How does what I do effect those around me”… why… “Because I care about how they feel. Because I also want them to care about how I feel”…
And if we did respect other’s desires/wishes as being as important as our own, we’d make sure to be careful to be non-judgmental when asking someone to change their behavior. They’re not “wrong or bad” for doing something we don’t like (so long as no one is getting injured) … 🙂
MANY years ago I was asked to create a “look” for a Virginia Slims ad. It took me about a nanosecond to politely decline. I found it ironic years later I ended up taking care of someone who became violently ill from smoking. Nightmare, nearly did ME in.
I don’t hang out with people who smoke any more, I just can’t. There are times I feel like yelling at them but I don’t. I just excuse myself and keep as far away from them as possible.
Like you I don’t eat meat. The way I explained it to the people around me was “If I can’t kill it I won’t eat it” and then they understood. I do have meat eating friends and many of them DO raise their own meat but they never ask me if I will join in. They get it.
It’s tough to put your personal feelings about something out in a public forum, it takes courage to draw a line. Good for you. If people can’t accpet that then you don’t need them in your life. This week I can’t even begin to talk about sexual harrassment/abuse, I’m just not going to make much sense but there has to be a better understanding of what it REALLY means to women. Thumbs up : )
Thank you Loran. I really value your opinion and perspective on this. You’ve got so much experience in the industry, and life.
For some time now I’ve wondered why burlesque seems to be such a big part of the “vintage scene.” Most of the women I know that are involved with vintage clothing and fashion history seem to be progressives who believe in human equality, so it doesn’t make sense to me as a woman in the 21st century that burlesque would appeal to other women. I spend a lot of time looking at images from the past, and frankly, the faux-innocence of many pinup drawings and photos just makes me feel a bit creeped.
That said, I agree that people need to make their own decisions, and far be it from me to tell another woman what is right for her.
On other topics, I think that once a blog community has been built, that is the time to open up on opinions with which others might not completely agree. It makes for lively discussion as long as everyone acts adult about it.
I don’t really understand the vintage and burlesque crossover either.
Interesting perspective on blog communities and discussions. I’m suspect I agree, but am going to have to consider it.
I suspect that the same sorts of women who are thoughtfully examining their fasion choices in a historical context and seeking ways of dressing attractively outside the commercial mainstream are also looking for perhaps non-mainstream ways of being sexy in a way that aligns with their own self image and their personal feminisim.
Some women find this in burlesque. Some find it within their marriages. Some of us find it in both, or neither.
The large overlap of the burlesque scene and the vintage scene doesn’t surprise me at all.
Thats a very thoughtful and interesting explanation Sarah. I did consider the idea of women exploring their sexuality, but since it still boils down to the same three options (little girl, dom, lesbian exploration) used by male consumed sexualisation of women, albeit with different clothes than what is used now, I found it a pretty disappointing exploration.
Once again, I have a different point of view. I’ve seen a lot of burlesque shows, and I disagree that burlesque boils down to three tropes — the woman as child, the dom, and the lesbian exploration. I hardly ever see these. I’ve never seen lesbian exploration at all, dominatrix maybe once, and woman as child maybe twice, depending on interpretation.
But I have seen a woman dressed as a banana strip (or peel?) to Carmen Miranda, Batman strip to reveal a Wonder Woman bikini, a stunning tribute to the 1920s movie Metropolitan, zombies, monsters, bogans, housewives, robots, astronauts, spiders, witches, police officers, Valkyries and someone playing a ukulele. I’ve seen a woman strip out of rugby gear and PUT ON traditional burlesque gear (a very personal story of her deciding to stop hiding her femininity). I’ve not seen but heard of acts that start as a lobster or a t-rex. And within this there are acts I like, acts I love, and acts I don’t enjoy. Burlesque performances are as unique and personal as the people performing them and the performers are quite capable of finding ways to perform other than those three options.
In fact, if I had to pick a trope that does reappear with frequency I’d pick the femme fatale. The strong, confident woman, often in a slinky evening dress oozing power and sexuality. And I personally have no problem with a woman owning her own sexuality.
Having said all that, I have to say that if a woman is choosing to explore her sexuality through any of those three options, then she should feel free to do so. My dominatrix and LGBT friends get just as much of my respect as my missionary loving, hetero friends, whether they share this on stage or not!
Although I don’t agree with you 100% about burlesque (though I do about 65%), my respect for you has greatly increased because you took the time to point out both extremes–no clothes vs. “wholesome” extreme covering–having the same net results. Extremely modest standards could be a whole rant of my own, but it really does all come down to objectifying women in a different (yet also remarkably the same) way.
Also, the fact that you’re coming at this from a researched (so to speak) view point rather than “ewww, mostly naked women are so immoral” says a lot about your character. I have stopped following bloggers or let friendships die with people who aren’t willing to learn about things before dismissing it straight away as against their values, or without acknowledging that things that other people like are often personal choices that don’t affect the “ewww” person’s life.
It’s nice to associate with people who agree to disagree and move on to joint passions and adventures.
Thank you. I appreciate hearing from someone who feels a bit different, at least in part. I’d love to hear how you feel 45% different.
It was very, very important to me to convey that it is the objectification and sexualisation of women’s bodies, from either end, that really upsets me, not the nudity.
Life and blogs would be so boring if we all agreed.
Only 35% of disagreement, Leimomi. 😉
I’m very much like Cassidy on this – I did not have much opportunity and reason to form an opinion on this. I’m kind of a “prude” by default, yet I also grew up considering nudism a fairly normal, if eccentric lifestyle (the lake we used to go to when I was a child had a separate nudist beach, and a child accepts things as they are). Life’s so confusing sometimes. Coming from this standpoint, I really appreciated your thoughts.
I didn’t really think about burlesque until it became a big part of my life by default (I get almost weekly emails about making burlesque costume, plus friends who do it), so when it did, I had to really think about it.
I have no problem with nudity or nudism, just the objectification and sexualisation of nudity.
I get your standpoint. I was just talking about the confusion of mine. 😀 Which, in the end, is very similar to yours, I think.
What a lovely closing sentence Rae. We will never agree with anyone 100% but sharing the things we love makes for strong bonds and friendships.
Yes, exactly. I haven’t thought much about burlesque (my social circle not happening to include anyone with ties to it) and haven’t experienced a show myself, so I don’t really have much of an opinion on it. But I do appreciate the double look at both extremes – the modesty end being one I have more of an opinion on – and the “researched viewpoint”.
Extreme modesty scares the crap out of me. I once had a pastor who told us that women should cover up because men can’t help themselves. A few years later, I heard that he committed suicide after raping two 15-year-old girls.
Something tells me that he wasn’t ready to face other people telling him that it was HIS fault, and not the girls’.
Still, “She was asking for it” is too often part of the culture here in the States.
I absolutely agree! And I think burlesque (sometimes) is a way to take a stand against that attitude of “she was asking for it.” It allows women to embrace their sexuality and act/dress “naughty” while also announcing, “This is for ME. I’m doing this because it gives me joy, and it has nothing to do with the audience.” At least, I think this is how a self-reflective, critical burlesque dancer must think of it. And in that way, it’s similar to women who go out scantily clad to protest rape violence. Those women probably don’t dress that way on a regular basis, but they are making a point: we shouldn’t have to change the way we dress and act out of fear of being objectified or assaulted.
Burlesque might not be the most effective form of activism or the best way to change attitudes toward women, but I also think that burlesque dancers and what they represent are a completely different thing from your local shady strip club. They are definitely accomplishing something, in their own way.
All that said Leimomi, I appreciate your very thoughtful post and the excellent discussion you have started.
I have to say I don’t know much about burlesque and I haven’t given the matter any thought. (My social circles are more of the nerd variety). Now, I will. Thank you for your really well thought out post. As far as I am able to judge, i agree with you. There’s a quite widely used ‘message’ that sexual display and lack of inhibitions is freeing. Sometimes it may be, and sometimes in hindsight that looks and feels like abuse. (Beloved of commune leaders, pornographers and manipulative boyfriends. The photographer in the series PanAm got Laura to do nude shoots by telling her it would make her feel more free). If burlesque reinforces this message then i would have serious reservations about it.
I agree with your comments about extreme modesty too. (Though I am not thrilled when I see a photo with my nipples showing through my t-shirt, or my skirt rucked up to show my thigh, that’s not because I fear those things provoking desire). Giving women responsibility for men’s behaviour and self-control has been a pretty widespread practice. I’d hate to bring up a boy in that environment,. How do you instil self-control if there’s a huge get out of jail free card there, and how do you teach respect for all people if respect for half the population is conditional on fabric placement?
Good on you for sharing your views. Keep doing it.
I think Wellington is so small that it is impossible for circles not to overlap. The burlesque community has a big overflow into vintage, and into steampunk, and into nerd.
I didn’t make it far enough into the PanAm series to see the episode which you speak of, but I agree that’s often used as an excuse, and women are never the ones who benefit.
I’m not thrilled when a bit of garment slips either, but that’s about me likely to look very tidy. I’m equally grumpy when I discover a stray thread or a smudge!
I agree with some of the previous comments in that I am displeased that the Burlesque is such a great part of the vintage community! I on the other hand, prefer vintage style because of its modesty, femininity, and certainly NOT for its pin-ups, because they are the complete opposite of the vintage-era’s values! Thank you so much for posting about this.
I don’t actually agree that burlesque is opposite to vintage-era values. While modesty was more common and honoured in past decades, sadly, in every era and culture there have been people who exploited women and celebrated sleeze . As a vintage lover, I am careful not to forget that in a lot of ways things are MUCH better for women than they were 50 years ago (or 75 years ago, or 100). The past wasn’t all rosy.
I celebrate and maintain those parts of the past that were better than today, but am glad of the parts that have been left behind. And I work for the ideal world that I want to live in, that is better than the past or the present. I don’t think burlesque is helping this aim though.
Thank you so much for speaking your mind and standing up for what you believe in. Sometimes in the struggle to be politically correct and tolerant we forget to stand up for what we really think or believe. I appreciate that you have morals and you are willing to stand behind them. Bravo.
Thank you Lucy!
I’m pleased that I did, and very pleased with the response. Of course not everyone agrees with me, but we’ve all been so thoughtful, and considerate, and reasoned in expressing our differing opinions.
Damn! I wrote a long and oh-so-thoughtful comment and pressed publish and it seems to have disappeared into the ether. But, I still wan to say, thank you for this post. It’s a recurring message in our culture that sexual display, lack of inhibitions or whatever, will make you feel more free. Sometimes this may be true. Sometimes with hindsight it feels like abuse (think communes).
I’m not going to retype the rest, but I also want to say, you must have started writing this at 5am. Wow!
You’re comment just got sent to spam because you used the P word (thanks to the topic, every 1 in 7 comments is getting sent to spam). I fished it out and restored it.
I’m afraid I’m not such a perky early riser as you give me credit for! I actually wrote this earlier in the week. It came to me fully formed in the middle of something else, and I just had to drop what I was doing, sit down, and write it. But it made me nervous, so I programmed it to post a few days later, so I could check and make sure I hadn’t said anything stupid (I corrected a few grammer errors later, but nothing else changed).
Mainly, I’m all “Hey, it’s your blog. You do what you want.” 🙂
But, I’m also kind of lost. Perhaps it’s because I don’t own a TV, or maybe it’s because I’m an expat living in Germany? Possibly, it’s because I only follow a few sewing blogs… but I had no idea burlesque had become an out-and-out “thing”! And Dita von Teese is now a children’s role-model?! Whaah? Did I miss something somewhere? When did it happen?
The last time I checked in with burlesque scene they were still somewhat tied to a special, almost fetish-ized community. It’s been a while, and your post really moved me to comment and wonder what I’ve missed in the in-between time!
If burlesque really were only about women being able to gain self-confidence or female empowerment, then the burlesque community and it’s supporters should be able to applaud not only those continuing to support them, but also a woman who feels empowered enough to stand up against a popular opinion and say she doesn’t like it and why she holds that opinion. I like the idea of a show with pretty costumes wittily presented, but after considering going to a Burlesque show some time ago, I decided against it, preferring, after all, not to watch something where I would probably enjoy part of what is going on, but not approve of another (public nudity and the objectification of persons that it brings with it). The world is full of more modest (though possibly less popular) options for entertainment. There are avid supporters out there saying that Burlesque is a wonderful way for a woman to gain self-confidence; I wonder how many women are out there who have tried that route to self-confidence and found that it didn’t work for them, but who, because of that lack of self-confidence, aren’t out there telling people about their version of the Burlesque experience. There have to be better options for building self-esteem and self-confidence in women (and girls!) than having them take off their clothes in front of random people, whether the setting is Burlesque, magazine photos, plain-old strip club, or the annual town naked bike ride.
I am shy and was told that acting and dressing sexy would make me more confident. It didn’t at all, and at best I just felt silly. What HAS made me gain self esteem and self confidence is starting martial arts. It was a much better path for me!
That is so cool! I did karate for 17 years before my knees gave out! I love it! Team Women in Martial Arts!
I do believe that there is something different in Burlesque as opposed to the legs-spread-closeup of porn. More importantly, the singing, the acting, the dancing, the fact that going to a Burlesque show is not likely a place for human trafficking.
My solution isn’t really about nudity as much as it is about regulations. I know strippers, prostitutes and burlesque performers. Many do it because they like it/money/performance. I just think that the sex trade in all forms should be regulated, licensed, and checked to keep the victims and violence down.
It’s nice to hear some other perspectives. It’s also nice to hear that you choose to be a vegetarian and not drink. When I got to college, it suddenly was very weird that I didn’t drink. Even my professors thought that was weird.
I would love if society got to the point where a part of a woman’s value didn’t come from how decorative or ornamental she is.
Thank you for a really clear opinion piece. Generally, I agree – to each their own, but drawing attention to one’s body in public is really not my thing.
Like Rae above, I’m glad you see the parallel between this and some of the more ‘extreme’ versions of modesty. Drawing that much focus to physical looks (by act or omission) is a really foreign concept to me.
Bravo! I’ve always felt this about burlesque and the valorisation of pin-up figures like Betty Page. We need to find ways of celebrating the beauty and femininity of vintage style without condoning and repeating some of the deeply objectifying attitudes that are often intertwined with it.
Thanks for speaking your mind!
Hello! I have been following your blog for a while now but I think this is my first time commenting. I really enjoy reading this post, even though I have little idea about what burlesque is. I agree with your definition of morality and I really admire this paragraph:
As a woman, as a person, I want to be judged as a person, for my personality and my thoughts. I may be a woman who thinks a lot about bodies and clothes, but I want the people who I interact with to realise that I really am thinking about bodies and clothes (just as I might think about cars, were I a mechanic, or policy, if I worked for the government, or programming, if I were a computer scientist), not just being a body with clothes that should be shown off or hidden, at the whim of the current (usually male) powers that be.
As a female who enjoy clothes–especially beautiful dresses–because I’ve just found out that nice dresses that fit me actually exist, sometimes I feel confused and a little “guilty” for enjoying fashion items (“Is this dress okay? Am I objectifying myself and my gender by wearing/wanting this?”). Your post make me feel better about liking clothes. I’m a visual person, I studied design for 5 years, it’s only normal if I appreciate fashion items because they’re visually pleasing. Thank you for this insightful post.
Beautifully put. I cannot understand how burlesque (or pole dancing, or stripping, or similar) can be called “empowerment” and held up as an example for young women. I see objectification, like you. You have written this post superbly – thank you.
Really appreciate your thoughtful reasoning…..well stated….
Yeah you!!! I would like to add to this that “anime” is basically “burlesque” in cartoon form. As a mother of a nearly 14 year-old son, I am increasingly aware of how casual many of become about what does and does not affect the way people think about ‘others,’ be they a different sex, or belief system. Anime mangas (books) have become the bane of my existence, between the overt sexual objectification of both sexes and the violence and in some, the casual use of alcohol, drugs and smoking, I’m ready to scream. I spent several hours pointing out what I was seeing in the drawings to my ex-husband. He and I divorced because he came to realize that he was homosexual and it wasn’t fair to either of us to remain married. It took me a long time to become okay with this and now I find that I have to point out the various items (blow-up sex-doll with mouth opening, pornographic magazines and videos, alcohol bottles, cigarettes, bong, cat-o-nine tails and leather hood) in just one of many drawings of a teenager’s room in the first manga of a series of FIFTEEN. My ex-husband swears he looked through them before buying the ENTIRE series for our thirteen year-old. This was all as a prelude to explaining to him that the main character is beating people (male and female) up every day. He’s also seducing underage girls by posing as a teacher, providing them with alcohol and drugs. My ex didn’t see it at first because he, “doesn’t see women that way.” I asked him how he would feel about it if that girls were boys and the pornography was objectifying men. Then he got it! What really gets to me is that, our son had had these mangas for three weeks and had been hiding them from me. We are having nearly daily talks about why most women do not want to be viewed in that way. As an upshot of this situation, I’ve made a similar decision to yours, I will not make costumes based on these characters for anyone. I do make apparel for a Muslim friend of mine, because she has always been a very modest person and she is just plain more comfortable wearing this style. One of the things that I respect about ‘hijab” (a code of modesty that is more than just the hair covering) is that it is supposed to apply to men as well as women. There is a lot of room for personal expression in style and embellishment that doesn’t have to scream, “Look at me.” Personally, I wish more people would opt for modesty. I’ve seen more than enough of other people’s underwear to last me for a lifetime, not to mention the ever present “crack problem.”
Like you, I also choose not to drink alcohol. I find it very strange that people are more accepting of the idea that I cannot drink because of medication I take, than that I choose not to drink. I also choose not to take illegal drugs or smoke anything. I usually don’t preach about any of these things, but when it comes to what others choose to do, I do have to speak up about smoking. Not only have I lost loved ones to cigarette smoking (first and second hand), but I can’t breathe when others smoke near me, or even have smoked recently. The other night I nearly had to leave a restaurant in an ambulance because the waitress came straight to our table from her cigarette break, and the smoke trapped in her clothing and hair triggered an asthma attack. What really got to me was that the waitress acted as though I had personally insulted her by becoming so ill. I’ve had the same thing happen in other public locations. I try very hard not to be judgmental, but it is difficult when someone’s choice, is making it difficult for me to continue living. I feel much the same about pornography in any form. It belittles people and endangers them by that belittlement. I was raped in college by a man who thought, to quote him directly, “All women are like that. Why else would there be all those pictures and shows?” Yes, rape is about power not sex. But a person has to have a very low view of others in order to force them, and pornography definitely has the effect of demeaning others.
In light of all that, I love clothing and textiles of kinds, regions and ages, but I love the ones with more coverage and less ‘in your face,’ best. I forget who said it but there is a great quote that says something to the effect of, “Your clothing should fit you close enough to show you’re a woman, but loose enough the say you’re a lady.” May we all be ladies and gentlemen and treat all others with respect.
P.S. Leimomi, breathe! Yes, I read your Facebook post and rushed right over to see what was up. I shall return, for however long you choose to share your thoughts and inspirations. We modest folks have to stick together and stand up for ourselves and each other.
Amen! I don’t get the whole being a sex object is empowering thing either. If a woman can’t be confident in herself apart from getting applause for stripping, then the problem is with how women are viewed in a society, not with her inability to take her clothes off in public. I agree with you that it’s something I cannot support, but I don’t like the opposite extreme either. I think there’s a middle area found in many vintage styles, and that’s why I like it. You can be dressed femininely, and yet modestly without losing style or looking plain for fear of tempting others to lust. I like that vintage styles often flatter the not so perfect bodies without showing every little dimple and square inch of skin. I do like that they hearken back to a time when women were valued and viewed as ladies and treated courteously. I understand that there were jerks back then, too, but one only needs to have known a man from the WWII generation or beyond to see that women were in many ways treated with more respect than they are now. General politeness and chivalrous manners are gone, yet I wonder if it’s partially my fault for not acting like a lady in the first place. Which brings me back to the idea of burlesque. The objectification of women as only having value based on their sensuality only brings more sexual objectification. If we want others to view us as more than our bodies, we must first view ourselves as more than a sex symbol. I am not merely the sum of my parts.
Sorry I was so long-winded.
I’m sorry, this is nothing but a rosy-coloured fantasy of the past. There has been no time in which women have been universally honoured.
In every era there have been women who have ben deemed acceptable – nice girls, ladies, gentlewomen, if you will, – and women who have been deemed culturally unacceptable – harlots, slatterns, whores, hos, actresses, artists’ models. Often this correlates oh-so-closely with economic status – how come the word “slut”, once a respectable term for “cleaning woman” shifted via “dirty woman” to “sex worker”?
Likewise, there have always been men who have been both willing to and able, usually with limited personal repercussions, to exploit and abuse those women.
No, if we’re going to look for a fair deal for women – all women, not just certain classes – we’re not going to find it in the past. Bring on the time when “stripper” has the same about the same negative connotations that “actress” has now.
Thank you for saying this, Sarah.
This. Just this. Thank you.
I’m sad that you can’t see the inherent misogyny in your argument. You want others to view women as “more than a sex symbol”, not “merely the sum of my parts” … but then you wonder if you are not treated with respect for “not acting like a lady in the first place”. You also imply that modern fashion “tempts others to lust”.
Yes, women should be viewed as people, not as bodies for objectification. BUT! That should not be something only allowed to women who act like “ladies”.
Some women want to be modest (me), restrained (not me…) and “refined” (so not me!). Others want to be otherwise. Some even want to view themselves as sex symbols. ALL are deserving of respect, equality and simple human decency.
(I also agree with the other Sarah – you have an exceedingly rose-tinted view of the past.)
“For fear of tempting other to lust” is a phrasing that I have a big problem with. That is one of the most inherent flaws in the way women are treated – that the mere act of showing off our bodies is too “tempting” for men to resist. It’s the same as saying that the way a woman dresses means she “was asking for it.” Modesty should be a personal choice, not something you need to practice to protect yourself from “fear of tempting others to lust.”
youtube.comExactly. It’s down below, but worth sharing here. This Scottish PSA handles it great:
I was under the impression that burlesque was stripping with better clothes. In fact, I thought that was the whole point. Sometimes a spade is a spade; it’s not a polygonal ferrous metal digging implement. It isn’t something I’ve put a lot of thought into – I suppose some people do find it empowering, but it’s certainly a form of sexual objectification.
But as you say, burqas are a form of sexual objectification too. I don’t think that topic gets as much attention as it should, so thank you for raising it.
Thanks for putting links up back to your ‘real women’, ‘universally flattering looks (that aren’t)’ and ‘sewing with acrylic’ posts! I haven’t been following that long so I hadn’t seen them yet. And as a fellow acrylic-detesting, circle-skirt-disliking, ‘not-real’ woman, I hear everything you’re saying right there.
I’m not comfortable with burlesque either. I’ve even seen a performance featuring a man and I didn’t go away thinking ‘oh great, some gender equality in burlesque!’ rather, ‘didn’t he think his mime act was strong enough to carry the show by itself?’ Then I saw his agent lurking around. Slimy guy. And this was part of a fairly big, well-regulated festival. Makes you wonder…
Anyway, even if someone doesn’t agree with what you’re saying, this is your blog, so you’re entitled to put your opinion on it. Besides, everything you post is so eloquently and thoughtfully put; I’ve seen less well-balanced opinion pieces in print from professional journos. Standing ovation.
As a nerdy steampunk aficionado who also does some burlesque activity, I shall chime in.
I’d much rather have people front up that they don’t like burlesque, or just aren’t interested. Some of my best friends are as far away from burlesque as you can get. Knowing where my friends stand keeps me from committing faux pas, such as asking people to attend events, or do valuable work for something they don’t support.
And how I agree that burlesque is a form of stripping! I’ve often stood up for this, on the grounds that burlesque performers should support everyone on the ecdysiast continuum, and not play “holier than thou.” I don’t think that taking clothes off on stage is the be-all and end-all path to modern female liberation and body comfort for all. But I think that a great deal of the value of burlesque is permission to play with femininity and sexuality, in a culture that devalues the female and exiles the sexual. It can be a way to reclaim a voice through a spectacle.
I also find it intriguing that women took to the burlesque scene in droves at the same time that online smut became a significant cultural force. Almost as if all these women were saying, “Look at me, the REAL me, in live performance, not the airbrushed pixels!”
I’m troubled by The Dreamstress saying, “Burlesque is hurting women more than it is helping them.” Every burlesque negative we can list — objectification, sexualization, excessive attention to a woman’s appearance, women bullying other women in the subculture — is present in myriad areas of society, and I suffered from them the most in the 1990s, when burlesque wasn’t even A Thing. I recognize that burlesque is a lens that brings all these things into focus, so…do you have any recommendations for making burlesque less hurtful?
Why burlesque + vintage? Many commenters here speak favourably of the relative modesty of “vintage.” For many of the women attracted to burlesque, it seems to me that adding or aspiring to a vintage aesthetic makes burlesque SAFER. It takes burlesque a step away from the modern stripper and towards the candy-colored romance of the pin-up painting or the glamour of a black and white movie star photograph.
At the worst of the burlesque + vintage overlap, you get endless retro clones and people with no cultural context for what “retro” or “vintage” really mean. Hey, you kids! Get outta my yard!
At its best, burlesque + vintage = reframing the past and reconstructing a new way to be feminine. For GLBQT pride here in Wellington, I produced a butch-femme PG-rated burlesque act that we billed as “The 1950s…the way they should have been!”
Butch-femme burlesque act with a 1950’s theme? Wow!
I also think that we are in a time when women are exploring “what they like” in sexuality. Burlesque performers–and their other sex trade colleagues–present one way of viewing the world, and others can decide if it is right for us or not. Personally, I think it is important. I hate objectification, but I don’t know how to find a balance between opening sexual mores or not….do you?
Thank you for not being afraid to speak your mind. On the burlesque issue I only agree 50%, I have mixed feelings on the issue. As an ex-dancer (not burlesque only ballet,modern, hip-hop), I do see the art in it. Unfortunately a lot of the burlesque I have seen has not been art, the ladies were not real dancers. And my 50/50 on the issue has to do with my feminism, i see both the objectification and the empowerment. I think the connection with vintage gals and burlesque comes from the fact that burlesque is from that time. It’s kinda like the Bettie Page obsession among the vintage community. I get both sides of the issue.
But that is beside the point. The point being that you have a right to express your opinions. I applaud the fact that because of your feelings on the subject you stand by your beliefs and don’t take burlesque commisions.
If someone chooses to stop reading your blog because of it, you didn’t want that person as a reader anyway. Personally, I’m a firm believer in the whole “agree to disagree” system. No two people will agree on 100% of everything, life is more interesting that way. The only time I don’t hold to the agree to disagree thing is when the other person is a racist, other than that, other folks opinions make the world go round.
Well said Lynn.
Nicely written Leimomi, I like having intellectual and reasonable points of view put across.
I don’t agree with you, I like burlesque, and have never thought of it as more than high-class stripping.
It’s about showing off your body, teasing, and being the centre of attention. If that’s what you enjoy, go for it. I don’t see much difference between the hoardes of teenage girls parading up and down the beach in their bikinis. Only they aren’t selling tickets.
Do I do it? Nope. Although I do have a rather wicked streak in me, and in another time and place I think I would make a great burlesque dancer.
The difference between stripping and burlesque is that no women are forced into burlesque due to poverty, desperation or drugs. Women choose to participate in it, and enjoy the attention, so I don’t see that is degrading at all. People may watch and think whatever they want to think, and objectify all they want, but that’s their problem.
Also, objectifying naked women…… Burlesque celebrate boobs and bums on a woman as items worth cheering and celebrating. Because really, boobs and bums are awesome and we should be proud of our girly bits! Stripping is just so men can imagine shoving their thing in there, that’s objectivity.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Boobs and bums are fabulous and we should indeed be proud.
Hooray too for wicked streaks.
A little bit of wickedness goes a long way :-p
But Leimomi is perfectly justified in having her opinion of burlesque, it’s a well measured, informed opinion. And I like her post, especially the bit on extreme modesty. I despise that and the justification behind it – bodies are sinful and shameful, and women need to be hidden away and seperated from the powerful men. It’s a tool to disempower women masquerading as religion or culture.
I like a bit of modesty but those extremes I hate, especially the smug superiority lots of conservative christians have about being ‘modest’ and labelling people who aren’t so modest as ‘whores’.
Personally, I don’t like birds in cages. I just don’t, in my gut I feel it is sad and wrong. I don’t even like jewellery or motifs that have a bird in a cage. My family has had canaries, friends have had whole aviaries full of beautiful birds, but I simply can’t agree with it. Which is a shame as budgies and finches are so cute. But I’m not going to join PETA and rain down scorn upon people who do have pet birds.
And Leimomi hasn’t slated Burlesque, just talked about her feelings on it and why she doesn’t take Burlesque commissions, and that’s perfectly reasonable and respectable, regardless of how others feel.
Exactly. She’s not turning away ethnic minorities, or older people, or LGBT persons.
Besides, as an artist, it’s important to know what kind of art you feel comfortable creating.
Yay for boobs and bums and girly bits! Thanks for this – I really agree there should be much more celebrating of boobs and bums and girly bits and much less banning of the scientifically correct (s in not a cuss word) V word in schools and congress. When the very existence of a biological body part can bring shame on to the owner of said body part, that owner can never expect to achieve equality or feel pride in themselves or that body part. It’s an inescapable trap. So yes, pride and appreciation for all of ourselves is essential!
(Personally, I have no problems with the V word but I’m not sure how easily embarrassed the spam filters are on this thing!)
When did it become a crime to have opinions that are not “all-accepting”? It seems like only those who have more “conservative” views are not allowed to express their opinions. You expressed yourself very well. Modesty is relative, influenced, I think, by what we have been exposed to over our lives. What one may consider modest, another may consider risque. Both opinions should be respected. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t happen. You mentioned you are vegetarian. I just read an article this afternoon that spoke of plants having feelings and I had to chuckle. If we choose not to kill animals for food, and choose not to kill plants for food, what is left for nourishment? Oh, wait, the grocery store is full of “manufactured foods”. My bad. lol Anyway, good for you for sharing your feelings and being strong enough to stand behind them. None of us should be made to feel bad for disagreeing with anything or anyone. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but that doesn’t give us the right to put someone else down who has a different opinion.
That being said, I agree with your opinion on burlesque. I have similar feelings about a style of dress in our hobby – cowboy reenacting. Many of the women choose to dress as saloon girls. This means corsets barely containing their “assets” and panties barely covering their lower regions. Having done extensive research on this time period (mostly 1870s – 1880s) a woman of that profession was more likely to wear a loose-fitting shift and probably nothing else. The object was to make money and time is money. Time spent getting in and out of a corset and stockings was time that could have been spent more wisely simply lifting the shift and getting the job done. Add to that the generous percentage of the audience that are children. I have personally seen children get angry when their father has stopped to talk to, or have his picture taken with, a “saloon girl”. I think they feel Dad is cheating on Mom. Not a good message to be sending. But it is a part of the hobby.
It’s your blog, so you’re entitled not just to discuss whatever topics you like, but to express whatever opinions you have about them. You have done so clearly and forcefully.
That being said, I have no opinion about whether or not burlesque objectifies women, since I’ve never seen a burlesque performance. I do think that there are phenomena that *do* objectify women and girls in much more dangerous ways, such as beauty pageants and the use of sexual imagery in advertising targeted at teens. Relatively few people become exposed to burlesque, either as performers or spectators.
I don’t agree that it is harming women. I don’t think it has enough presence in the kinds of social circles where it could. Seems to me that performers and audiences have some kind of mutual agreement about its place and purpose.
Having said that, I totally get your point of view about it, given who you are and how you live and your values. I can relate to it, I support those who do it but it’s not something I would do myself.
But I still like it. It has a context and I like that context. It makes sense to me. Context matters. It’s like so called “belly dance” – a cultural phenomenon that in its home cultures happens at family weddings and celebrations, not in smoky night clubs in Baghdad – the context alters the perception of it considerably.
I also think that there is a continuum between total social responsibility in every thing we do and total individual freedom regardless of a bigger picture. I feel that on the whole, burlesque is still in balance somewhere in the middle.
And, I love all my friends no matter how they see the world.
Leimomi, great post and fabulous writing, as always. Thanks for sharing — and don’t worry about a backlash from such a measured and well-balanced post.
This paragraph resonated with me:
“…because I dislike burlesque because I see it as objectifying women, and reducing us to primarily physical roles, where we are judged on looks, I dislike extreme modestly, like the all-enveloping ‘wholesome’ swimsuits that Elise posted a few weeks back. It may be on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it also reduces women to physical objects, with bodies so tempting they must be covered up lest they lead men astray. They are two sides of the same coin, and neither gives women space to be interacted with as people, not just viewed as objects of desire.”
I completely get what you’re saying, and I find it disturbing that in certain cultures (some Arab, some Mormon fundamentalists, et al.), women’s bodies are downgraded to being a collection of titillating appendages. And men are equated to rutting beasts. Not fair for either gender.
As someone who gets paid to take her clothes off (granted, not in burlesque, but in life modelling), I have to say that being the naked (or, in burlesque’s case, semi-naked) person in the room isn’t as scary or horrible as it might seem. It can even be fun! Yes, I’m the “item” to be looked at, and for some people in the room I might not be exactly a ‘real’ person with thoughts and feelings, but it’s actually helped quite a lot with my body image. Contradictory? Maybe. I’m okay with that.
Personally, I’d like to see our culture shift back 2,000 years and start objectifying MEN a little bit more, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Now, *that’s* true gender equality!
P.S. Just a couple of typos my keen editrix eye caught: “C) the girl who find[s] that playing with other girls is just a bit more fun than she though[t]”
What a thought provoking blog this week. I don’t know where to begin. I have a Facebook friend who is a burlesque queen and I have come to admire her as a performer and an artist as she posts about wardrobe mishaps, inspiration for her costumes and looks, other performers in cabaret and her PhD studies. She is an exceptionally talented woman and one who I would consider an excellent role model for anyone. She emphasises the art of burlesque and teaches classes for others to learn routines. She is not objectified. She loves what she does and it is wonderful to see that enjoyment. I hope to see one of her shows when I visit the UK in June.
Although I do not agree with your views on this topic Leimomi, I do admire you for speaking out. One of the things that makes us stronger as women is confidence to say what we feel and believe. You should not fear how others will react to your opinions. Your blog has become a place where we can air our views without the usual fierce backlash one reads on other websites and your readers show respect for each other and your posts.
I feel very fortunate to be in the acquaintance of two very talented women. You both inspire me by sharing the things you love and I thank you for enriching my life with your posts.
(And all three of us love our cats).
Thank you for the post! I thought it was very interesting and well-argued. And you certainly shouldn’t have any qualms about expressing your opinions on your own blog. After all, that’s what blogs are for. 🙂
I personally find burlesque fascinating as a cultural phenomenon. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s easy to see why it’s becoming popular. I would think that what’s liberating about it is the performance of hyperfemininity (drag is very similar in that way). It’s pageantry. In burlesque you literally perform femininity. Maybe some feel that through constructing this hyperfeminine image on stage they can push back against the constant pressure to perform femininity in everyday life (I’m playing fast and loose with Judith Butler here).
And you make a very apt point about ‘modesty’ – it is just another extreme on the objectification scale. The idea of ‘modesty’ is problematic because it still suggests that a woman’s worth is connected to her body. If she manges to hide her body well, that makes her ‘good’ and ‘pure’, if she fails to do this, she is ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’. We should not ascribe value to women based on how they’re dressed. Whether you prefer a mini skirt or a full-length skirt, you’re a human being and should be treated as such.
Great post, Leimomi! I really hope to see more opinion pieces like this one.
Thank you, Mrs. Bertin, for pointing out that the concept of modesty is a construct of society and therefor a relative term depending upon the era (or even area) in which you live.
I also truly appreciate your well thought out post, Leimomi, as you have inadvertently added to an ongoing discussion my husband and I have been engaging in on and off. He doesn’t understand why there is a public uproar any time a woman is praised for her “appearance” in a professional and/or public context. I’ve tried several times to explain that the underlying message of that kind of comment is that a woman’s looks are part of how she is judged and make up part of the skill set that got her to where she is today.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the root of the problem here is a woman’s relative modesty or nudity–women are being objectified despite the clothes they wear or don’t wear. We continue to place the blame for sexism on women when we vilify how they dress.
Do I personally enjoy burlesque? Not particularly. But I don’t take issue with it the same way I do magazines, advertising, and TV shows that train young women to see themselves as objects and condition young men to treat them as such.
Teresa, couldn’t agree with you more about the constant appraising of a woman’s appearance in a professional/public context. It becomes so apparent in politics, where female politicians get just as much press about their clothing and their hair and makeup as their policies, whereas male politicians are exempt from such scrutiny. Even when running a country, a woman is still objectified every time an article about her new cut makes the news. It makes me so mad!
Sometimes I think the mindset behind burlesque becoming trendy is the same one that causes bodice ripper corset wenches in historical reenactment, chain mail bikinis in gaming and catsuit super hero cosplay for comic geeks. It’s objectification and pandering but one women have convinced themselves is on their own terms and have control over. A paradox and illusion in one; sort of like how certain pop stars and celebrities call themselves empowered while essentially begging to be seen as desirable. Like all fads the wannabes will eventually find some other semi exotic subculture for their validation hunger and I bet sincere self aware burlesque artists will be glad to see that day.
Like you, I use my opinion about things as a moral guide for myself and not as a tool to judge others. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I can say “your smoking, your clothing choices are doing bad things for you”. They can turn around and say that my weight is doing bad things for me. We all have the right to make choices-even choices that are in the long run bad for us.
As to the burlesque question. I think it is good that we should feel good about our bodies no matter what size we are. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. But, I didn’t need to strip to learn that. If our definition of a body worth liking is a body that others want to see in a sexual manor then we are reducing ourselves to sex objects to get that self worth. I want my body to be a reflection of who I am on the inside. If they like what is on the inside, they will like my outside…even if I lost all my limbs and both breasts….
I don’t really have a comment other than that, as a chap, I don’t feel like I really ought to comment either way on this. But I will, anyway.
I have to say that I did meet Immodesty Blaize at an exhibition opening a few years ago, and I thought she was incredible – very confident, very self aware, and came across as quite together and sharp. (although I didn’t expect her to pop down the back of her dress so I and my friend could see the label when my friend asked if she was wearing a vintage Sarah Whitworth corset dress. She was, and it was a FABULOUS example of one, well spotted us, but that’s beside the point.)
I think if someone knows exactly what they’re about, whatever it is they’re about, then that’s all that matters. Which is exactly what you’ve done here, you’ve said “this is who I am and what I think”, not “This is who I am and what I think And You Will Be Like Me…”
That’s admirable. Unless someone is really obviously off base (like a vintage dealer who I recently came across who was saying the most jawdroppingly judgemental things about how she despised calling disabled people “special” because they weren’t and that she had no time for anyone with a disability…), or is making assertions of fact which are demonstrably false, misleading, or otherwise off the mark, I usually don’t bother arguing with them. But having an actual thought-out, considered opinion on something? No, absolutely nothing wrong there, not even if I disagree with it. I might say that I don’t agree, and why I don’t agree, but I won’t inform them they need to change their mind – unless their reasoning is based on demonstrable falsehoods/lies, in which case I might point that out.
Anyway. I’ve never seen a burlesque (or even a female striptease), but I mean, if someone is doing it for themselves and knows exactly what they’re doing – and is absolutely fine with themselves – that’s what matters. If it’s out of obligation or duty, or forced, or somehow untrue, that’s a different story – as is pretending to like or support something when you don’t.*
I mean, there may be reasons (in politics) where you have to pretend, but I don’t think what a person does with his or her body or what someone thinks a person should do with his or her body should ever be politicised. Guidelines, yes, and respect and understanding of those guidelines, but certainly not laws ordering everyone to go around with frilly (and probably apocryphal) piano-leg covers over their elbows and knees…
I have absolutely no problem with burlesque or anything like that, in its place, as long as everyone involved also doesn’t have a problem with it. And ultimately at the end of the day, if everyone’s fine with something in context, and appreciates that out of context, not everyone else will be fine with it, that’s what matters.
* This does not apply to, shall we say, tangerine, lime green and puce, bobble-trimmed, fringe-embellished Fair-Isle hand-crocheted pull-overs presented to you by your grandmother** for Christmas. In such cases, fake the likingness unreservedly
** My grandmother doesn’t crochet/knit, just to make it clear that I’ve never received such an enchanting-sounding garment in my life ever.
Ugh, I REALLY need to do something about my habit of echoing myself….
This will be drowned, but I just wanted to say that you REALLY gave substance to my own thoughts regarding Burlesque (and said it better than I could). Thanks and keep on being awesome!
Though I mostly agree with you, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the subject of objectification. First of all, women are often objectified regardless of the status of their clothing, work, what they happen to be doing– walking down the street, while doing their (entirely un-erotic) job, and so on. And I find that despite this, often women themselves are charged with the task of not making themselves the target of objectification, not the culture or persons doing the objectifying. Certainly, there are professions and practices that more directly contribute the objectification of women than others, and women often (happily!) participate in them (see: patriarchal bargain). But I nonetheless find it problematic to delineate in any sharp terms what is and is not objectifying activity in all or most circumstances, in part because objectification is always a process that takes places between subjects, and so can occur anywhere and not occur in places and moments when you might expect (I may not be making sense here– sorry!).
Simply gauging how much or how little clothes someone has on is not sufficient criteria, not only because standards of modesty change, but because context changes, and because at some level the reduction of a person to an object is in the eyes of the beholder, and is a product of power relationships, though certain performances serve to facilitate and encourage that reduction. It’s these performances that you note– the girl with her skirt up, wide-eyed, the cougar, etc.– where I find you most convincing, and those performances probably don’t have a lot or much to do with clothing.
Additionally, as you note, motivations might be more important here than simple appearances. For instance, your decision to not have sex before marriage could be interpreted as instance of participating in a culture of objectification, depending on the rationale for making that decision. I don’t know why you made that decision and so I’m not going to make assumptions about your motivations, but among evangelical communities in the US, for instance, often the language that is used to promote abstinence specifically configures women (and less frequently men) as reducible to their virginity. This becomes their defining feature and their worth, it becomes the object of value that they can trade or not trade in (literally their pearl or purity or some such other nauseating analogy). It’s often just another form of sexual objectification.
Following up on my last comment, here is one example that occurs to me that illustrates the very complicated nature of objectification and the limits of women’s ability to resist participation in that process or to fight against it is this:
A women decides to not have sex before marriage. She does this for any number of reasons– because of her health, her faith values, because of the nature of her relationship with her partner, whatever– and in choosing to do so (choosing is key) she doesn’t participate in the denigration of other women who make different choices (labeling them sluts), nor does she define herself by her virginity (as it being the most important thing about her), nor does she consider it part of contractual exchange with her partner (reducing herself or her body to a “gift” to a current or future partner). (quick disclaimer: I’m not making fun here; I don’t have any interest in disparaging decisions that are as personal as what we do with our bodies and our sexuality.) However, this woman likely still lives in a deeply sexist world. However self-affirming this decision was for this person, there are other people who will twist that and use it as the basis for objectification– consider the all too frequent jokes about how “hot” virgins are, not to mention slew of pornography, devoted to fetishizing virginity and the taking of an woman’s (it’s always a woman) virginity.
It’s that gap between the woman making choices and the objectifier that really concerns me, and the tendency to place the burden on the woman to do the impossible task of not risking objectification. I think we need discussions like this, but the answers are not going to neatly fit into boxes about what does and doesn’t constitute sexual objectification. We need to challenge ourselves to think about our own participation in that culture and to look for ways to change the conversation.
It seems to me …
If no one is getting hurt, or forced into anything, then why shouldn’t they be able to do it. I want to respect that everyone has the right to live their life how they like. And whatever the consequences are, we all can learn from it (such as being objectified, etc.). And then live our lives the way we like.
If someone judges me based on how others behave, only the judger is responsible. If a “blond haired woman” has stinky feet, and in turn someone assumes that because I’m a “blond haired woman” I also have stinky feet, it’s not the original woman’s fault that someone unjustly judged me based on their foot odor/behavior. 😉
There isn’t much to be added, everything seems to have been said already.
I don’t have an opinion on burlesque other than I don’t find it esthetically pleasing. Red lips paired with pale skin scare me off, tight and overtly sexy or revealing clothing may well be a personal choice but none that I can relate to. But hey, live and let live, right?
The only question that I would pose is, what does it tell of our times that burlesque is going mainstream and Ms Teese is soon a household name? Women back to home? With massive unemployment looming large this would be the next logical step.
youtube.comGreat post. I’m surprised that the extreme modesty bit resonated with you, and then with so many others. Thank you—it feels good to know that I’m not alone.
Speaking of clothes and objectification, check out this Scottish PSA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h95-IL3C-Z8
Do I agree with your statement? Not quite. Who cares! You’re an artist. You’re not breaking the law. You contribute positively. Besides, you write so beautifully that disagreements pale.
I usually steer clear of conversations that I feel are more geared towards women, but I really felt like chiming in on this one.
My knowledge on Burlesque is relatively close to zero, so I don’t really have anything to say on that subject in particular–I make it a habit to never form an opinion on something (or someone, though I don’t usually form opinions on people) I know nothing about. I don’t think that’s fair. What I did wish to mention is how I completely agree with you about having your own opinions but keeping them in reference to yourself and not others.
I’m in college at the moment, and compared with the general student body (and I’ll admit to it being truthful even out of that context), I’m The Great Prude. I’m fine with that, but I often feel as though people may think that because I have a certain plan for my life that I think they should have it too–something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I may not drink, I may be chaste until I get married, and I may dislike using profanity, but if someone else does like to do all of that, then more power to him/her. I’m not one to give my opinions on much of anything (especially to people I’m not really close to) because I see no reason in expressing it (like you, I hate arguments and fights about belief systems, etc.–the fact that there may be someone else who has a different opinion than you is what makes the world such a great place; it adds so much more flavor to life). I have friends who are the exact antithesis of me, and I get so worried that they may think I’m being judgmental just because I do things differently than they do.
I’m sure there’s something behind this post–more than just stating an opinion you have (it is, after all, stating why you dislike burlesque, not just a passing comment) and I greatly respect your courage to put this out there.
Is this comment even on topic? I’m beginning to wonder if it is, but I’m a little on the tired side right now, so not much is making sense to me. Also, this is kind of randomly placed, but while I’m thinking about it, why on Earth did you get backlash over disliking acrylic fabric?
This is my second time posting as a longtime reader. I think Sadie and Daniel articulated my feelings on Burlesque quite well. It boils down to: Do What You Want With Your Body. And I know you pretty much said this yourself, Leimomi. Where I think we disagree is on the matter of whether Burlesque hurts other people. I think there are times when it *can*. But the same is true of many kinds of work. I often see similar arguments against outright sex work-stripping, acting in pornography, and prostitution-it objectifies the performer’s body, there is so much exploitation and abuse in those lines of work, and there is such a long history of women in particular being objectified and sexually exploited, how can we not understand it to be inherently harmful?
Thing is, just because sexual performance and sex work have historically been abusive and exploitative, it doesn’t mean those are qualities inherent to the work. Another group of working women who have been deeply exploited and abused through history, and continue to be to this day in many, many countries is seamstresses. People who sew for a living are in fact some of the most abused people on the planet. That doesn’t make the act of sewing inherently harmful. It doesn’t mean that by choosing to sew, any of us are endorsing the culture of abuse and exploitation in the garment industry.
I hope my argument makes sense. And thanks for welcoming disagreement, Leimomi. I most certainly will not stop reading your blog because we don’t see eye to eye on this-it’s one of the highlights of my day. I deeply admire your intelligence and the quality of your research. Thanks for sharing your work!
I love your argument. It’s a perfect example. Thank you!
Kathryn, this is so insightful, and in about a quarter of the words I used is also beautifully eloquent. Thanks so much for this comment.
Thank you so much for standing up for your convictions and thereby leading by example….that is something that is sorely lacking in this day and age.
Along the same lines, in the States we have these awful reality shows about children in beauty pageants. They are made up to look like adult, sexy women, with fake hair, teeth, make-up etc. The term “Prosti-tots” has been coined to describe them….
Here’s the rub ~ As a costume designer, I could make so much money making their little pageant dresses….people pay up to $3000. usd for each one, for a 3 or 5 year old no less….. I too agree with you and have made the choice not to take on these commissions…..even though I could dearly use the money….
So, thank you for freely expressing your thoughts and opinions. It is really appreciated.
How do you feel about men who do Burlesque or are striptease performers ??? I perform mainly with a full lineup of Burlesque girls all over the UK and I am 99.9% of the time the only man on the bill – Does it make you think differently about what women do if men are doing exactly the same thing?
My Burlesque performances are a mixture of androgynous, feminine, high glam and also camp at times and I am most definitely inspired by women of the past and who I am lucky enough to meet and perform with.
Does this maybe add a new layer to your thoughts on women who take their clothes off ???
Thank you for posting this. I really appreciate your thoughtful post on this subject, and all the thoughtful comments, and I’m not being at all diplomatic about that. It’s really helping me work through something, which is that I somehow 100% agree with you that burlesque is just stripping and that it has the potential to be objectifying, but I don’t actually have any problems with burlesque. I’m not sure I’ve quite got it yet but I think this is the basic framework:
I am very frustrated with the way that women are objectified in today’s society. I’m sure that objectification has existed all through human history, and was probably worse during a lot of it. However, I think it has become more obvious in recent years that women are still objectified, probably because of the movement for women’s equality. Of course I think that women’s equality is a good thing. The problem is that it created a lot of reactionism. For example, “feminism” at it’s most virulent wanted to somehow suggest that women are in all ways completely equivalent to men (which is an unrealistic expectation); certain conservative movements were unable to accept the new roles of women and tried to force them back into western traditional gender roles. I think society is still struggling with where women fit, and how to allow women more social and professional freedom without taking away their essential femininity. I think what I sometimes see happening is this idea that you can be a “pretty” woman, or you can be a “smart, successful” woman, but you somehow can’t be both. And it’s frustrating. I think it’s equally objectifying to be thought of as only a brain as to be thought of as only a body. I want it to be OK that I am a beautiful, sexy, intelligent, motivated woman (yeah, I know it’s not fair that I’m all of those things 😛 ). I don’t want anyone to tell me that I have to be sexy and I don’t want anyone to tell me that I can’t be sexy (just like I don’t want anyone to tell me that I have to be a successful career woman or that I can’t be a successful career woman).
I think that’s why I’m OK with things like burlesque and pole dancing. I feel like it is an expression of women trying to take control over their sexuality, and celebrate that despite all of our social progress women are still different than men. I respect that (much like I have some level of respect for courtesans in previous eras, who sort of turned gender roles on their head in a lot of ways). I like to hope that ultimately these sort of behaviors will help us as a society better cope with the problems that have come with the increased freedom in female sexuality. I suspect I’m in the minority here, and that’s fine. And I might be totally wrong and out of line, and that’s fine, too. But I really love the discussion.
I am actualy delighted to read all these comments and Leimomi’s post that started it all. I have been trying for awhile to work out how to incorporate steampunk and victorian with taste and elegance instead of what I think of as the sexy burlesque look that I keep finding when I search the internet. Same for goth clothing . I love the beautiful fabrics and gorgeous trimmings that are often used but not the styles.
I started thinking that I was in the minority and maybe I was too prudish. I prefer clothes that cover and the more research I do the more I prefer it that way. So it’s good to read a variety of posts on this subject.
One of the reasons’ I didnt go to some of the events at the steampunk convention in Wellington last year was because I didnt feel comfortable with the burlesque acts. I did enjoy Leimomi’s victorian gown talk as that’s one of the areas in steampunk that I am interested in. There certainly does seem to be more interest in burlesque in New Zealand in the last few years but I still think it is a mix of showgirl/stripper dancing with victorian style clothes. Okay if that’s what a person likes but it’s not for me. And I dont want to make them even though I love the fabric and trims. So I understand Leimomi not wanting to make them as well.
I’ve been back and forth on my feelings on the content of your post. Reading through the comments, I see there isn’t many pro-burlesque comments, so here I am.
There are several comments you made which I may have audibly uttered a “hell, yeah” especially concerning extreme modesty. I really enjoyed “listening” to your point of view. I respect and can accept many of the opinions you stated without agreeing 100% with them. Your voice is clear and respectful and because of this, it makes me even MORE interested in sticking around and seeing what else you have to offer.
The only comment that made my hackles rise was the single word “stripping”. Yes, they are removing their clothes, but there is a BIG difference. Here in Vancouver, exotic dancers (or if you must, strippers) go full monty (nude). For the most part, their performances consist of starting in a “fantasy” costume, stripping down to a string bikini and then rolling around in the nude. Some of them look like they they’d rather be at the dentist instead of having some drunk man stare at their boobs waving a $5 bill in hopes they will get closer.
Burlesque is much different. There is a performance, there is a story, there is coyness, there is class. The performers work hard on their numbers, their costumes, their persona.
My experiences with burlesque have been nothing but empowering and – as AN ADULT WOMAN – inspiring (In my books, I’d take Dita Von Teese over Rihanna or a Kardashian as a role model. Dita has shown she knows that being overtly sensual has it’s time and place – on stage. Most teens aren’t mature enough to know the difference and feel they must flaunt all the time).
I have attended the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival for the last four years. I have met several of the established performers. I have friends who are novice performers. I have taken classes for fun. These women are hard working, artistic and talented.
One of my favourite performers is one of Vancouver’s original burlesque icons – Judith Stein is 64 years old and is still performing!
The board of directors for the festival have several member who just last year opened up their own studio where they teach burlesque, yoga, Pilates, several kinds of dance and fitness. They work in and give back to their community.
I have no problem admiring and applauding this group of women who take an art form they love and perform when, where and how they choose to.
I’m curious if some of your objections towards burlesque carries over to belly dancing, some contemporary ballet or interpretive dancing? There isn’t usually a removal of clothes, but there is a lot of skin seen…
Thank you for being so open and if someone decides to leave your site for this, well, maybe it’s a good thing they left.
Although I don’t wholly agree with you, I have great respect for the careful and considerate way you’ve expressed your convictions.
That’s why I’m particularly interested that you’ve chosen to use the word “chaste” to describe your decision not to have sex before marriage. To my mind, “chaste” implicitly contains a value judgment, with its connotations of purity and its long history of being used as, well, a value judgment. I take you at your word that you don’t feel yourself as seeing your decision in that light, so I’m just wondering if there’s even a vocabulary for talking about these kinds of heavily freighted decisions *without* setting up a hierarchy of value.
There are a ton of comments on this post already, and I do hope that you see this one–I don’t think I know a single person who’s made that decision (at least, not one who can talk about it with clarity), so I really am interested to hear what you say.
That may well depend on the value judgements that you yourself put on the word “chaste” and “chastity”. If you see chastity as something that you choose for yourself, rather as something that is foisted upon you (fathers locking up their daughters) then it is not judgemental of others.
From the perspective of someone who tried to remain celebate until married (and fell wide of the mark once I met my husband): Anyone who has chosen that path knows the judgement that some others will pour upon them for it (I had friends who tried to set me up for one-night stands, who told me that I just needed to get out there and lose it). It’s sad that society would treat a 21 year old virgin as anything other than a young woman who has made her own well thought out decisions about how she engages with her sexuality, but it happens.
Overall, I understand, and pretty much agree with a lot of what Leimomi has posted here. In addition, as someone who has had to deal with harrasment of a pretty serious nature, I find the idea of playing with sexual objectification as a means of empowerment doesn’t sit comfortably with me.
As one of your burlesque enthusiast friends, I appreciate your openness and honest as well as your general thoughtfulness on the topic. As Sadie says above, it is nice to know amongst your friends your points of similarity and your points of difference to avoid awkward social moments.
But I must disagree that burlesque is hurting women, or womenkind because I don’t believe that burlesque IS “about presenting women primarily as objects to be viewed, and to be judged based on their physical attractiveness”.
I believe that burlesque is no more about judging women on their physical attractiveness than belly dancing, hip-hop dancing, ballet, juggling, contortion, hula hooping, or doing headstands. The purpose of burlesque is for a performer (of either gender) to use their bodies to entertain — just as a dancer or circus performer uses their bodies to entertain.
When we go to watch ballet dancers or circus performers, do we do it to judge the dancer on his or her attractiveness? They’re also onstage with nothing but their bodies, their skills, and maybe some props?
I’m not denying burlesque has a focus on sexuality, nudity, and femininity (or masculinity) that you might not get in other types of physical performance. There are boobs and bums. There is no doubt that burlesque as a genre is shaped by its adult themes. But “presenting women primarily as objects to be viewed, and to be judged based on their physical attractiveness” is not true. They are there to be judged on their ability to perform and entertain. The medium they choose (emphasis on choose) to entertain is burlesque, and within burlesque there is variation and the performers choose what they are happy with. There can be a lot of nudity, very little nudity, and the occasional performers don’t take anything off at all. In some acts people put on clothes. Acts can be happy, sad, funny, political, or sexy. Some combine elements of other styles such as hip hop, belly dancing, singing, or circus. Regardless of the elements, the performers use music and costume and their face and their body to deliver a performance. And they are judged on THAT.
Heck, if burlesque was about “judging based on physical attractiveness” then at least half the women I know who do burlesque wouldn’t be on stage. The fact that they’re SPECIFICALLY NOT being judged on their appearance is part of the appeal — any woman, any size, any shape, can get on stage and be appreciated for her ability to perform. To me, assuming the scene is about judging women on their looks and ornamental value disregards the enormous effort that the performers put into their costumes, their choreography, their connection with the audience, and their skills as performers.
So no, I can’t see that burlesque as a genre is hurting women. As Kathryn so wisely said above, I will not deny there are times where it could and undoubtedly has hurt some women and as Sadie said, ideas to reduce this are appreciated. But I don’t think that burlesque as a genre is contributing to the continuing objectification of women.
No, what really gets me fired up, what I think REALLY contributes to the continued objectification of women, the continued valuing of them as ornamental items is the little, insidious, evil things. Things that we all participate in. The magazines that have best and worst dressed lists or Oscar write-ups that somehow think that it’s ok to have a photo of a woman, who presumably looked in the mirror before she left her house and felt good about herself, with a score out of 10 about how well she lived up to someone else’s opinion about fashion/style/looks and some snarky commentary. (Can you imagine how distressing this would be if it happened to us? I am constantly grateful that getting scored out of 10 on my looks or dress choice is not something I have to face – at least not in print.) The articles that talk about how to have a swimsuit-ready body (tip — to have a swimsuit ready body you need one thing. A body. Arms and legs optional.) The ongoing commentary about Helen Clark’s wardrobe, hair, and makeup as if that is somehow relevant to her job. Comments that we make amongst ourselves about “if I had her thighs I wouldn’t be wearing THAT skirt” or “oh, women over 60 shouldn’t wear miniskirts” or “that woman’s skirt is so short, do you smell skank?” or “this style of top is great because it hides those horrible bingo wings” as if there were some sort of set of universal rules that women have to learn and follow to look just right – and their ability to follow these rules is up for discussion and assessment by everyone who ever sees them. That to me is objectification.
I think I’ll finish (and I really should) by sharing an experience I had last year. I took a dear friend, a gentleman in his late 60s, to his first and only burlesque show. He was a charmer, an old fashioned chivalrous gentleman. At the end, he said to me, “you know, it’s just so nice to watch women who are just so obviously enjoying themselves.” To me, that is burlesque.
Well said! Thank you for posting – it is hard to decide to come right out and talk about our opinions, in life and in our blogs. But I’m more interested in your blog because you are so open-minded and secure in your vision. Keep up the good words!