An Evening of Sin
Burlesque seems to occupy a strange middle ground in the performing arts that makes it an outcast from theatre, dance, strip tease, and storytelling, though it incorporates elements from each of these realms to accomplish its various goals. The Evening of Sin series in Ottawa features performers of all calibers and experience levels, and runs throughout the year as a fixture on the burlesque scene. At the Fringe, the Evening of Sin takes on the daunting challenge of the largest venue at the festival by offering six performances with unique themes throughout the week.
I attended the Nerdlesque show on Saturday evening, which was also my first burlesque show ever. In Nerdlesque, the performers take on characters from the universe of comic books, cult movies, and slightly non-mainstream television and tease the audience with ever more exposed skin as they tell their stories, briefly, through song and dance. I feel it’s important to note that all the performers on Saturday (and, I gather, the vast majority of all Burlesque performers, though there are, apparently “boy-lesque” performers) were women. The show was fun, but I spent most of the time thinking about the larger context of burlesque performance, and what I was doing there.
I identify and am identified as a cis-male, and as such I occupy a position of privilege in the ongoing patriarchal dominance of society, no matter how ardently I wish I could step outside of this. This has more import than usual in the context of burlesque, because of how intimately bound up it is in the ongoing discussions of sex, sexuality, the body, and society’s interaction with and authority over these aspects of an individual’s life. I kept wondering to myself whether watching this show was doing good work in the world, or somehow perpetuating the dominance of the male gaze. I should also note that there were a high proportion of female audience members, who no doubt had a very different experience from my own.
On the one hand, the female performers are holding themselves up as objects of desire, or at the very least are playing with tropes of the sexual desirability of the body: elaborate hosiery removal, strategic bends, and the occasionally well-timed shake. The movement is clearly sexualized. The audience is encouraged to hoot and applaud with the enticement that the more noise they make, the more clothes might be removed before their eyes. The other places this happens in our society are strip clubs, and the back-alleys (read statistically huge proportion) of the internet.
I think that, on the surface, the “Nerdlesque” theme of the performance I saw exacerbates this problem by situating it within another male-dominated realm of society; it is fairly well acknowledged that a large proportion of nerd culture is founded on misogyny that is only now beginning to be destabilized.
It seems to me that the problem is linked with the inexcusable catcalling and un-personing dominance of patriarchy we see in videos like “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” and that many people experience to their daily discomfort.
Of course, this is only partly true. The context of performance allows performers to reclaim their bodies from the controlling influence of society. They select their own alter egos, they take off exactly as many clothes as they want, dance in exactly as provocative a manner as they choose, and then they declare the performance’s end.
For me, this was a strange balance. The performers play with the idea that their body, and particular parts of their body, are to be coveted by the eyes of the audience. They say, “I won’t show you this. It’s not for you.” This is a good thing to remind people of. But I also feel that it might be contributing to the perpetuation of the body as a sexual object, separate from the human individual of whom it is a physical manifestation.
The appearance of a female Ash (Evil Dead) makes for a distinct and interesting line of thought because it bends the gender of an alpha-male idol of nerd culture. In addition to the unspoken message of the other acts, her appearance quietly says, “I’m badass enough to cut off my own hand and kill zombies with a chainsaw and shotgun. You want to be me, as well as be with me.” The “straight” gendered acts lacked this level of meaning for me because I don’t generally think about how cool it would be to be a woman comfortable enough in her own body to take off my clothes in front of strangers and friends. Probably this is a shortcoming on my part, but my cis-male identity, as well as my privilege tells me not to think this way.
It is only now, as I write and think about what I saw that I can identify this nuance of the “straight” gendered performances. In the moment of the all the performances I felt pressure to shout encouragement and look at the performers (rather than the performance as a whole), and I wondered if I was responsible for sexualizing something which is truly about pushing the limits of the body as a vehicle for storytelling. Was I teasing myself, or were they teasing me?
I am hardly in a position to pass judgment about any of this, and I have attempted not to, because that would perpetuate something far worse than any of my qualms about this show. I guess my only reaction is uncertainty and disquiet about what sort of reaction I am supposed to be having. But I wanted to share the thought-paths down which some of my wonderings have led me.
Venue 3 Academic Hall
Evening of Sin Presents