Burlesque

Laurie Essig. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 

Burlesque, like nearly all of American popular culture, began in the hurly-burly of the Victorian age. Industrialization, the creation of a large working class in opposition to a newly powerful middle class, a new mass culture of consumption, and a system of racial and national hierarchies within an empire created the perfect climate for burlesque, a working-class entertainment in which all rules could be broken for comic effect and profit. Indeed, it was exactly this “slap in the face” aspect of burlesque that made it such an important part of the growing entertainment industry. Burlesque routines rewrote so-called higher art forms, such as opera, as comedy and farce. For instance, one of the most popular burlesque acts in America was Lydia Thomson and the British Blondes, whose 1868 production of the Greek myth Ixion attracted large crowds not because of its classical cachet, but because all the women in the show wore body-revealing costumes.

Thumbing their noses at the pretentiousness of bourgeois culture was surely part of burlesque's appeal, but its real naughtiness, and therefore its real attraction, was how it laughed at the Victorian myth of the ideal woman. The ideal woman was emotional (not rational), engaged in the domestic sphere (not the market), innocent of sexual desires, and lily white. (Women of color were not part of this idealized version of femininity because part of the cultural work of the ideal woman was to show that whites were superior.) Burlesque slapped the ideal woman in the face by allowing white women to strut their desires and their bodies across stages all over North America and Europe. Not only were the actresses scantily clad, but they were also aware of their sexual power in ways that made critics rage and audiences blush. In Victorian America, these vamping women in flesh colored tights could shock and thereby attract huge crowds.

As the Victorian age dissolved into the twentieth century, however, competition from other forms of entertainment, including a burgeoning movie industry, pushed burlesque from a primarily satirical art form to a primarily erotic one. The evolution eventually resulted in what has become known as the striptease. Although no one knows exactly when or how the striptease developed, by the late 1890s, burlesque performers were regularly disrobing on stage. Perhaps stripping began accidentally, when a performer's strap broke, as many sources would have it, or perhaps it began at Chicago's Columbian Exhibition in 1893 when a Syrian belly dancer, Fahreda Mahzar (1849-1902), billed as Little Egypt, set off a national craze of hootchy-kootchy dancers.

Regardless of how the striptease began, the incorporation of scantily clad women into popular culture owed much to the carnival midway, dime museums, and other displays of curiosities. One of the first such erotic acts was brought to the American public by none other than P. T. Barnum (1810-1891). As early as 1864, Barnum was looking for a woman from the Caucasus to display in his American Museum. Playing on Victorian notions of racial types and purity, Barnum sought the whitest of white women, thought to be from Circassia in the Caucasus (thus the term Caucasian). Because the Caucasus were imagined as the center of white racial purity and were simultaneously next to the Ottoman Empire, Barnum concocted a story of a girl nearly sold into sexual slavery to a Turk, but rescued by white men and brought to New York for his audience's viewing pleasure. As Linda Frost notes, “The unsullied purity of the Circassian Beauty therefore seems in part to represent a Northern anxiety about racial mixing, particularly in regard to the anticipated effects of emancipation” (Frost 2005). The quote might help explain why the hundreds of Circassian beauties who popped up around the country were, in fact, not clearly white given that they always had large, bushy hair; nor were they clearly pure, given that Circassian beauties were also displayed in their undergarments.

The craze for Circassian beauties in the 1860s set the tone for consuming white women as sexual objects while simultaneously reinscribing them as racially and sexually pure. (The beauty had been saved from the beastliness of the Turks who would have sexually enslaved her.) The fact that the Circassian beauties were also clearly gaffs, that is, fakes, who spoke English, but had mysteriously forgotten their native tongue, was part of Barnum's general mode of display. In Barnum's freak shows, it was all completely true unless it was not, and then it was a good joke. This Barnumesque wink and nod was so thoroughly familiar to a Victorian audience, that the humor of burlesque was derived directly from Barnum and the American tradition of displaying bodies for fun and profit.

Thus as the striptease developed into the central component of burlesque, it was always mixed with the comedic, “just in good fun” character of earlier modes of display. By the 1920s and 1930s, burlesque was enjoying its golden age, with comedic starts such as Jackie Gleason (1916-1987), Red Skelton (1913-1997), and (Bud) Abbott (1897-1974) and (Lou) Costello (1906-1959) in addition to striptease legends such as fan dancer Sally Rand (1904-1979) or Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-1970), who paired stripping with highbrow recitation, making it both funny and sexy. However, as with many working-class pleasures, a moral panic developed among middle-class reformers about the supposed dangers of burlesque. In New York City, the center of burlesque, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) managed to shut down the last of the remaining burlesque theaters by 1937. By then, many performers had moved from burlesque and vaudeville into the film industry. Those who did not make it in Hollywood moved from the theaters of burlesque to the backrooms of strip joints and into the two-dimensional spaces of illicit photograph and film.

Although in the 1970s there were still approximately 7,000 women working as stripteasers, the occupation was considered to be dirty and immoral, even by the performers themselves. Burlesque as a grand theatrical expression of working-class mockery of bourgeoisie prudishness was dead. As a ghost of its former self, stripping survived at the edges of so-called respectability, refusing to disappear. Yet, stripping could not be incorporated into popular culture the way other pieces of burlesque had been. Then, in the 1990s, just when cable television and satellite dishes made stripping and pornography as everyday as sitcoms, burlesque was reborn. The New Burlesque came out naughtier, more clearly critical of the ruling elites, and funny enough to make nearly everyone laugh. At the same time burlesque was being reborn, so were many of the other earlier forms of mass culture, such as freak shows and circuses. In part, people interested in live theater were interested in saving these dying art forms. In part, a post-feminist, post-politically correct, and highly ironic sensibility allowed people to both perform as freaks and hootchy-kootchy girls and simultaneously make fun of the racism and sexism that created these performances in the first place.

One of the best examples of this New Burlesque and its illegitimate marriage to the New Circus is the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a New York City troupe started in 1995 as a hybrid of vaudeville, circus, burlesque, and sideshow. Early Bindlestiff performances included classic burlesque routines, such as plate spinning, but the plates were spun not with fingers, but by attaching the pole to a dildo, inserting the dildo into the vagina of Ring Mistress Philomena (Stephanie Murano), and by the contraction of Philomena's kegel muscles. Other New Burlesque performers started showing up for regular Friday night performances at the Coney Island Sideshow, a traditional ten-in-one freak show started in 1983. Coney Island Friday night burlesque also included old burlesque routines, such as Dirty (Linda) Martini's fan dance, and bathing the dancers in red wine at the end and serving it to the audience after their bodies had been washed in it, a homage to an early twentieth-century Coney Island performer named Tirza.

These acts were not necessarily for the audience's unadulterated pleasure. Often New Burlesque was just as interested in invoking disgust as it was desire. For instance, Bambi, the Corn Star, would come out dressed like a chicken (itself a homage to Tod Browning's [1880-1962] classic 1932 horror film Freaks), squat, lay a hard-boiled egg out of her vagina, peel it, and force-feed it to an audience member. Across the country, in Los Angeles, Michelle Juliette Carr, creator of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, was putting on shows with post-punk and postmodern performers of all shapes and sizes debating feminism and swilling champagne in G-strings and pasties. All this edgy performance occurred alongside a general critique of the government, capitalism, and greed as well as a variety of novelty acts from sword swallowing to playing music on tampon applicators.

Unlike the shocking burlesque of the Victorian era, or the sleazy burlesque of the early twentieth century, the New Burlesque has attracted a variety of middle-class fans, from artists, photographers, and performers, to academics and activists. It is both straight (the majority of acts are still performed by genetic females) and queer (the production of straight femininity is poked fun at, for instance, by female to female impersonator BOB). The audiences are mixed women and men, straight and queer. The New Burlesque is generally controlled by the women on stage (i.e., not necessarily exploitative) and it is not necessarily for profit (i.e., none of the performers are getting rich on burlesque).

If burlesque has come back to reintroduce the promise and pleasure of the striptease, it has also come back to reinvent that striptease as a way out of the messiness that seemingly comes along with flesh and desire. In a culture where there is an increasing demand that all bodies look the same and all female bodies be constantly on display, the New Burlesque puts women of all shapes, sizes, and bodily configurations on stage who can hootchy-kootchy even while they make fun of themselves and their audience for wanting them to perform. These are women able to laugh at femininity and the heterosexual imagination even while they celebrate it. Most importantly of all, it shows women who cannot liberate themselves from the chains of sexism and racism, but who can, nevertheless, twist and turn and even jump rope with those chains, all the while tying their audience into knots of painful laughter.