Friday 8 July 2011

What is burlesque?

SebastiennePosted by Sebastienne

If I tell you that I'm going to start this post by remembering the first time I came across burlesque, what does that lead you to expect? The reminiscences of the burgeoning sexuality of a bisexual teenage goth, flaming into life at the sight of Dita von Teese's leather and lace?

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I first came across burlesque in a GCSE English lesson.

We were studying "The Beggar Woman" by William King, and the teacher described it to us as "Low Burlesque" - the use of an irreverent, mocking style to take on a serious subject! We also learnt about "High Burlesque", which as you might expect is the inverse - the use of an overblown literary style to talk about trivial or inappropriate things. So burlesque, when I first came across it, was a way of creating comedy in literature through a disjunction between the subject matter and the 'appropriate' register for discussing that subject. The grotesque juxtaposition of the serious and the comic, exposing absurdities. In the case of the poem we were studying, what appears to be a romp of a poem about a quick shag in the woods turns out to be a moral tale about the differing consequences of such a liaison for a rich man and a poor woman. The expected consequences are turned on their head when the man is left, quite literally, holding the baby!

I next came across burlesque through my first serious girlfriend. Now, this was the neo-burlesque of Dita and her ilk; this girlfriend was very much into the retro glamour of that scene, all corsets and rosebud lipstick. I'd seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show at a formative age, and at 18 was very ready to accept the message that empowerment and self-fulfillment came from the wearing of ravishing and provocative outfits.

This was my first year at university, and I was just finding my feet with the student drama scene. When I read the casting call for a weekly student burlesque show, I knew I'd found something that would me to follow my Rocky Horror mantra: "Don't Dream It - Be It".

I auditioned with my housemate. We stood out, in the audition line-up; me a size 18/20 and her under 5 feet tall. But the directors assured us that they wanted to display diversity, "real women", and we both got parts.

That housemate has since written about her experiences with burlesque for the Guardian. I can't comment on the particular events she's talking about, as I had left by then; I was sick of being a punchline, or playing matronly types, while the conventionally attractive women were doing the strip acts. There didn't seem to be much that was diverse or subversive in being pigeonholed because of my body-type.

The same year that I was doing this, I also managed to be involved in a Rocky Horror "Floor Show" and a production of Hedwig & the Angry Inch - if there was subversive, queer glamour to be found in Oxford, I got myself involved with it.

So when I heard that one of the colleges was organising a "Queer Cabaret" event, I knew that I had to get involved. I pulled together a group of performers I'd worked with in one show or another, and we became 'Girlesque'. We romped through the classics - Gypsy, Cabaret, Chicago - all jazz hands and coy suggestion. And then, for the first time, I tried writing my own material.

There wasn't much to it, I thought; taking a well-known Cole Porter song and bringing out the kinky subtext that was already present in the lyrics. You're the Top was born.

But then someone came up to me after the show. Well, lots of people came up to us after the show, we were a hit - but this woman was different. She sought me out as the writer of the piece, and thanked me profusely - she'd never seen someone expressing submissive desires before in a way that gave them choice and agency. Our frilly little show had given her a narrative with which to talk about herself, to enjoy sexual submission without denying her the freedom to choose how and why she wants to do it.

And then I finally got it. THIS is why burlesque is meant to be empowering - because it deals with elements of human experience which are on the fringes of mainstream acceptability, giving voices to the voiceless, like the "Beggar Woman" in William King's poem. So while sexual puns might have been radical in a Victorian social context, and striptease might have been radical in the early 20th century, these elements can hardly be said to be subversive in our current, sex-saturated environment. And yet, they are the elements which get the most attention.

Where once Burlesque was a literary technique that could be used to draw attention to absurdities - a potentially dangerous thing, when turned against an absurd power structure like the kyriarchy - now we dismiss it as frilly, frivolous, "stripping for posh people". Isn't that an interesting progression?

So Girlesque carried on for a few years, gigging here and there, but there was a growing gulf between what I'd realised about burlesque and what everyone else had signed up for. There's nothing wrong with simply enjoying getting to be a bit naughty on stage - I've done enough of it myself! - but I knew that I wanted more. I particularly remember having to console one member who'd been offended by an anti-Tory joke made by the organisers of a queer DIY event we were performing at - she didn't take kindly to the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, with a history of Section 28 and other Tory awfulnesses, we queers might just have a valid reason to mistrust Tories. The problem, I realised, was not that my ideas for acts were too radical; but that I was trying to perform them with the wrong people.

While these issues were chewing on my brain, I got a lift home one weekend with my uncle and my little cousins. They were listening to an Enid Blyton audiobook on the way, and I thought this was a great idea - I had such fond memories of identifying with George, the butch girl who demands a boy's name and status and likes nothing better than to go on adventures.

So imagine my shock and displeasure when I heard this character - my childhood role model, someone that I had aspired to be like - described as being "almost as good as any boy". Is that the best I can expect to be? If I'm really lucky, or I work really hard, I might get to be ALMOST AS GOOD as a member of the dominant social class? And that's not to mention all the really squicky racism that I noticed for the first time that afternoon.

I couldn't believe that something I had embraced so unquestioningly as a child contained so many problematic elements. That I'd swallowed these prejudices so happily, and allowed them to contribute to making me who I am today.

I knew that I had to do something to combat this artistic brainwashing, that I had to create something that worked the other way: entertainment that - instead of embedding prejudice and hatred - worked from the implicit assumption that all human beings deserve to be afforded equal dignity and respect. It's a notion that I once thought was pretty universal; these days I've learned that to believe it apparently makes me a "radical".

So I ranted, to anyone who would listen, about the things that Enid Blyton had left in my psyche; and, at some point in one of these rants, I happened to trip over the the phrase "Lashings of Ginger Beer". (Purists would wish me to point out at this juncture that Blyton herself never used this phrase; it was in fact invented by a group of alternative comics in the 1980s.) I noticed that it carries a few unintended connotations - the 'Lashings' referring to BDSM, 'Ginger Beer' being cockney rhyming slang for 'Queer', and the initials spelling 'LGB'. It seemed the perfect name for something - still unformed and nebulous at this stage - which I would use to fight back against the cultural orthodoxies which damage us.

If I couldn't get the burlesque artists to engage with my politics, then it was time to get the political people to engage with my artistic approach. I put out feelers into queer and political communities, saying that I wanted to put together something radical, unoppressive, and unapologetically entertaining. And the rest, as they say, is history. At least, you can read about it on the history page of our website.

Some people ask why we still call Lashings a burlesque show, when we've moved so far from my beginnings in neo-burlesque. But the fact is that there's no other word that describes what it is that we do:

We take well known pop songs, or styles of cultural expression, and we twist them around until we've exposed the absurd assumptions on which they are based. We do this because it's funny, and we do this because it helps us to break our social conditioning, just a little bit. And if we can use it to help audiences to see some of the stuff they've internalised without even noticing, well - job done.


  1. Loved reading this. Really eloquent. I'd love to see you perform some day. I wrote about something similar on "The Anti-Room" blog a while back.

  2. Hey Ciara,

    Thanks for your comment! I think it's really sad that so many people think 'burlesque' means 'middle-class strippers' - but by the time it was watered down enough to feature as an "empowering new trend" in women's magazines, that's pretty much all that was left of it.

    Maybe if we keep on making creative, mind-changing satire then we can reclaim the word, eh?

  3. Just linked this in the comments on my site - then re-read it, and remembered just what a fab article it is. Your Lashings origin story makes me so happy. :)