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Burlesque Idol 2010 at Madame JoJo's

Thursday 13 January 2011

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Fluffy Bustiers and Sequin Nipple Tassels… Is this what a Feminist looks like?

In a culture adorned with raunch, of glamourised porn stars, young girls with Jordan as their role model, and women still being objectified and harassed on the street – just how ‘feminist’ is the Burlesque revival? Dita Von Teese, the Don of the tease, always replies by saying,

‘Having your own choices, having equal rights – how is it not being feminist?’

The obvious response being that, well – you are still making a living by taking your clothes off. If stripping and lap dancing deeply objectifies women – what makes Burlesque any different?

As both a feminist and a self proclaimed lover of the feathers, lingerie and glamour, it is certainly something that has always been on my mind. I have read countless articles, dived into various debates. And I realised that amidst all this theory, my mind could not be made up until I’d seen it for myself.

Burlesque Idol at Madame JoJo’s, Soho. An inexpensive solution away from the expenses of a one woman show, and as I knew the club before (as both a feminist and a self proclaimed fag hag, how could I not?) I knew that it wasn’t sleazy. And after a quick Google, I found the night was hosted by ‘Lola La Belle’, a performer who proclaims that her ‘deeply feminist burlesque offers more than just a breath of fresh air, it promises a revolution.’ Perfect.

The evening was great. We watched 7 finalists compete for the crown of Burlesque Idol 2010, each introduced to us by our delightfully camp host and met with evaluation from a panel of judges (Labelle included. She did not perform herself tonight, so my induction to her deeply feminist revolution will have to wait) and the audience then voted for their favourite. Like a low budget X Factor, with feathers.

But amidst the fun I was having, I paid attention to the key ingredients that I’d read made Burlesque an art form, and not just posh stripping.

The audience. I’ve read that the main audience for a Burlesque show is in fact Girls and Gays. Neither of which want to have sex with the performer in question, thus she is not being objectified. The lack of slathering middle aged men brandishing notes is what makes it not a strip joint. The audience tonight was indeed predominantly female, but we didn’t massively outnumber the male hetero contingent in the room. There was a stag do, but thankfully no chauvinism. It seems it’s impossible to be a dickhead in a club where the ceiling is painted with butterflies.

The girls. One of the reasons the practise is firmly distinguished as an art removed from a profession of stripping is that women of any shape or size can perform. Far removed from the skinny with tits philosophy that dominates stripping. And this is something that I can heartily verify from all the women I saw. A comfortable size range of 8-20 was on display tonight.

And it is these factors that make for Burlesque as an endorsement female sexuality, embracing the art of seduction and thus feeling empowered as a result – as opposed to taking your clothes off for money. And my night confirmed these factors to be true.

But my case sample may have been somewhat anomalous. In a light hearted competition in a cheeky Night Club in the heart of London’s gay village, it’s unlikely any of these woman are going to feel anything but fun on that stage. Maybe if I had the chance to interview each of them I’d know for sure. But it would seem redundant – truth be told, every one of them looked like they were having a blast. I feel I may have not chosen an event that gave me the most accurate insight into the real world of Burlesque. Much as an alien wanting to learn about Pop stars should probably not begin his or her education with a viewing of The X Factor.

As strip club culture endorses a the manicured, skinny and fake tanned, Burlesque still very much projects a particular idealised feminine image – in this case that image being the porcelain skinned hourglass. For every lap dancer told to gain an orange complexion and drop a dress size, perhaps there is a Burlesque performer painting herself in factor 500 and wearing a circulatory disorder inducing corset.

The inherent theme still remains. All of these women have our attention because, fundamentally, they are taking their clothes off. The act that thoroughly delayed the stripping with a musical number was the act that got the least attention. Needless to say, the induction of a giant marrow finished by a finale of Union Jack nipple tassels got it back.

It is also interesting to note that our host this evening had to make the introduction with a verification that, yes, what they are doing IS art. Clearly my scepticism doesn’t stand alone. That same host, however, was a total joy, and as an audience member writing a review on my night, it was a fantastic one and a great place to lose my B Plates.

And if the cynics of today may judge the revival of Burlesque as having lost sight of everything our 20th century sisters have taught us, then it may be interesting to note that the most classic act was the one that won.

But the bigger picture still remains. Whether this is still an art form that is as female empowering as it claims to be, and not just a repackaged symptom of our raunch culture, I’m still unsure.

Oh and FYI, I voted for the one with the giant marrow.

Nicky Marchant