Burlesque 101: Sexy and Feminist

A woman -- with perfect make-up, blown-out hair, stilettos -- strikes a power pose in a skintight jumpsuit, gun or bow in-hand. It's not enough that she's a badass. She has to be a bombshell too.

As a film programmer at a college arts center, I try to choose films which have strong, independent female characters and encourage the audience to think critically about the relationship between power and gender. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Emily Blunt in Live. Die. Repeat, Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation. These characters are sexy, and the film's success depends a great deal on people perceiving them as such before they even see the film.

They feel like strong, feminist characters, pursuing goals that are more interesting (and admittedly more dangerous) than trying to find Mr. Right, but even so the exploitation of these women's bodies is pretty disgusting -- unless we see their sex appeal as a skill requiring incredible creativity, as empowering rather than degrading.

But sometimes I wonder if I'm paving my way to feminist hell when we choose films like those in The Hunger Games series, where celebrating a woman's prowess seems inseparable from objectifying her.

On the other hand, I'm all in favor of celebrating the power of female sexuality, and women who are smart, talented and adroit are sexy. Even Furiosa from Mad Max, who is nothing like the glam gunslinger I described earlier -- but she is sexy because she is powerful, not because she is inviting the gaze.

As a sexual assault survivor, trying to change the perception of women's bodies as passive and available, if not a man's entitlement, is urgent, but films are only one medium of many in which women's bodies are on display (I almost want to say "are consumed"). Deciding that examining other media might give me a new perspective on film, I recently found myself at the New Orleans School of Burlesque, learning how to remove a glove with my teeth.

Burlesque lessons. I'm convinced every woman's life would be improved by meeting a burlesque dancer. I took a women's history of New Orleans and mentioned to my guide that I was taking a class in burlesque later that afternoon -- and it turns out my guide had taken a whole course. She was a breast cancer survivor, and she said that burlesque helped her rediscover her body's sensuality after surgery.

I felt a similar dissociation from my body after being raped. Hearing this feminist describe how empowering her burlesque experience was, I realized that I had assumed that the kind of empowerment that comes with feeling sexy is a sense of "power over" instead of "power to."

I brought two friends with me -- one an extremely confident, creative 30-something who had lost 20 pounds, but was still self-conscious about her body, and an extremely confident, hyper-capable woman who was gorgeous at 50, but self-conscious about her body because she had the misfortune of being born a WASP. (I, for reference, am an extremely confident overachiever who is self-conscious about her body because she had a baby at 20 and didn't use cocoa butter.)

After tucking my stretch-marked stomach into my booty-shorts, I click-clacked in rarely-worn high heels to my place in front of the mirror, where each of us had a chair set out to play with.
It is at this point that a linear narrative doesn't quite work for this story, but here's what I learned about sexuality and power in burlesque:

1. Pussy Magic. I am not kidding. Our instructor Bella Blue used this phrase within the first five minutes of class. She described this area as the creativity center. It's where people's eyes go when you dance, so it should be where all of your good ideas come from. But when Bella said "pussy magic," I felt as though this creativity was a skill I could use in every part of my life -- cooking, choosing birthday gifts, copy-editing -- and not just dancing.

One thing that immediately clicked was the fluidity of the dance, its non-linear nature, its unpredictability. The performance was able to reflect my own version of sexuality, and the movements and gestures became words I could use in a new language. Nothing will convince you more than learning the language of burlesque that choosing gender identity and sexual preference is a first amendment right.

2. Burlesque vs. Stripping. I don't have any first-hand experiences with strip clubs, but I've always imagined that kind of stripping as almost violent. So I asked Bella. Her take was that strip clubs and burlesque shows have completely different goals, and this informs the performance.

"A strip club," she said, "is all about making transactions happen, so it's very much in your face. The stripper is trying to get someone to request her for a lap dance or private show, so the stripping is really quick and there's girls coming out bam bam bam. Burlesque is all about distance and control, and taking your time. It's a teeeease. It's about the process, not the end result."

With a little more distance and with the dancer in control, burlesque not only seems less exploitative than stripping for the actual dancers, but it projects a different idea about power dynamics in sex. In a strip club, the women are prizes to be won or bought -- in burlesque the dancer invites a partner to join her for a mutually sensuous experience.

3. Objects. One of the sins against feminism of which I am guilty is instinctively thinking of myself as an object when it comes to thinking about sex. I suppose I assume that is how men will think of me, so when I'm looking at photographs of myself, getting dressed in the morning, or forwarding articles from The Onion to a group, I think about whether I will be perceived as desirable. What I loved most about learning burlesque was how, contrary to all my expectations, I did not think of myself as the object as I strutted and posed. I was the actor.

Bella said that part of the "pussy magic" was that as we straddled the chair and raked our fingernails over its back, we would make the audience want to be the chair. "You will make them want to be those inanimate objects you are touching." Rather than imagine draping the dancer over a chair to have their way with her, the audience will want her to want to do that to them.

And while playing off an audience (of one or 20 or a hundred) certainly adds something, it felt pretty damn good just to be doing it for myself. Without needing another party to objectify me, the burlesque dance I learned was something I would want to do just for myself, to make me feel awesome.

So, back to the badass bombshell dilemma. Burlesque taught me it's possible for a female character or actor to be perceived as sexy without her necessarily being objectified. If the audience finds themselves fantasizing about a crafty spy inviting them back to her penthouse for a drink, or thinking, "Boy, I'd really like to be that shotgun she's priming," then the film is doing more good than harm.

Films have the potential to change what people, men and women, think is "sexy" and how they imagine people should behave in the bedroom. Every young person who grows up believing that women are collaborative and creative sexual subjects instead of gatekeepers to circumvent will slowly change this culture for the better.