Fifty Shades of Feminism

This photograph from the Rio Olympics sparked debate quickly followed by a storm of outrage and an even hotter debate when France went on to ban the burqa.


Feminists were at odds about what this means for women, for religion and for our freedoms. Not all Muslim women oppose wearing the burqa but feminists see it as yet another oppressive rule imposed on women by men. Yet even they are not certain that a ban is the answer since empowering women must involve respecting their religious and cultural traditions.

There is no question that what constitutes a feminist approach to issues is debated, and sometimes heatedly, within groups of people who all claim, and rightly so, to be feminist.

One such debate has arisen within Rape Crisis, after the organisation accepted money from a burlesque dance company called The Rouge Revue, which involves women dancing, wearing sexy clothes and almost but not quite going naked. The younger feminists in the organisation participate and feel it to be empowering and many of the dancers are rape survivors who use this dance form to explore their own sensuality and reclaim their pleasure in their own bodies and some of the dancers are gender non-conforming. Some older feminists think that this is completely mad because radical feminists do not dress up as male fantasy sex objects and perform titillating routines.

Of course all are feminists. But, and this is key, from different eras. Different kinds of feminists have defined themselves in different ways over the years and been undermined by men in different ways in very different times. The first wave of feminists were the suffragettes who fought for women to be able to vote and won. The second wave of feminists, rejected the unspoken social rules around women shaving their body hair, wearing killer heels, wearing lots of makeup and doing the ironing with a cheerful smile in a fresh apron before their husbands got home from playing their role as the main breadwinner of the household. They were part of setting up collectives of women who supported rape survivors, produced feminist media like Agenda and Ms Magazine and who rejected housework as the second shift for women in the workplace. They rejected pornography and sex work as exploitation and argued for women’s equality particularly when it came to wages. They went into the workplace as part of the battle for equality, often being the first woman to hold a position and having to do it with very little support from their colleagues. They were accused by men and other women of being militant, ugly, aggressive, loud and worse. But they fought and, to a large degree, they won.

This paved the way for the third wave of feminists to experience certain freedoms. They wore the killer heels and the lipstick and made their partners help with the ironing. They took on the workplace in greater and greater numbers, and in so doing laid bare the unspoken expectation of the workplace that women workers would behave like men who have wives taking care of things at home on the domestic front. They demanded better child care, paid maternity leave and the right to wear makeup and skirts and still be taken seriously. They have been subject to a far more subtle form of undermining. They were put under intense pressure to buy into all of the accessories of being pretty, feminine and sexy and were shamed for not wearing a bra or shaving their legs. On top of that they were still expected to get the good degree, hold down the high status job and have children, sometimes all at the same time.  In the United States they became subject to the highly sexualized “raunch” culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another and are encouraged to objectify themselves and in so doing become Female Chauvinist Pigs, embracing a sexuality as aggressive as that of the very patriarchy whose rules they seek to defy.

And then there is what may one day be called the fourth wave, where the one who wears the skirts and heels is the subject of a whole different discussion, and sex, gender and sexual orientation are part of a fluid identity which makes defining yourself in a binary way start to seem old fashioned. Caitlyn Jenner happens. Men wear skirts, Caster Semenya becomes the subject of extended debate as to whether she is actually male or female, we recognise men marrying men and women marrying women, and not always needing to be too clear on the difference. Now sex is everywhere and nowhere, and women do the slut walk in order to make the point that they can dress any way, in any place, at any time and it’s not an invitation to rape. We are called upon by the “fourth wave” to recognise in addition to sexism the intersecting multiple oppressions of race, class, a restricted view of gender, poverty, sexual orientation and many more.

But our second wave feminists look at all of this and they talk about the objectification of women in raunch culture and ask why women would disable themselves by wearing high heels unless for men’s pleasure. They point out that while women may be able to wear sexy clothing in the boardroom, the boardroom itself is still dominated by men and nothing’s changed. For them a man who identifies as being a woman is not even a thing because women are women and the subject of oppression, and men being women is just playacting in an offensive way. And that, to go back to where we started, a burlesque show, which involves women dancing, wearing scanty, sexy clothes and then donating money to an organisation like Rape Crisis, is complete hypocrisy on the part of both giver and receiver. Worse, it is in fact capture by the patriarchy because we’re doing exactly what they want us to be doing.

And that’s a point of view. Biological determinism, which says women are in fact superior to men, is a view. But it’s from a particular place, and a particular time. In the current age women expect to be able to dance on tables in very little clothing, or none at all, make money from it, drink like fish, proposition the men they want to have sex with, vote, run companies, come first in the Olympics and run countries regardless of their race, religion or any other social identifier. That’s why we say that if you want to raise money for rape survivors by belly dancing or burlesque – go for it. We love it, we embrace it, and we’ll proudly say we accept your donation because this is the time we are living in and it belongs to all of us.



Kathleen Dey

Kathleen is director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to her at for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.


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About rapecrisisblog

We have a vision of a South Africa in which rape survivors suffer no secondary trauma, and are supported throughout their interaction with the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Our mission is to promote an end to violence against women, specifically rape, and to assist women to achieve their right to live free from violence. Rape Crisis Cape Town seeks to achieve its mission through counselling and training of women, thereby reducing the trauma experienced by rape survivors, and encouraging reporting of rape and the conviction of rapists.

7 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Feminism

  1. To begin, the title of the blog post has my feminist blood boiling. Yes, the populist book had a catchy title, but inside the cover and on the pages was the antithesis of strength nor did it have very little to do with ‘the personal is political’ motto of the feminist movement. Read the ‘Sexual Life of Catherine M,’ now that is an honest vulnerable sex empowered tale.

    To the focus of the article, in my blatant gut reaction, the fact that this is even up for debate is against what I have been taught is a feminist. Feminists are a rainbow, women, lesbians, working moms, stay at home moms, stay at home moms who are lesbians, men who are supportive of women, anyone who has the appreciation and commitment to fight for any individual who does not feel part of the status quo. Feminism is the concept that humans have the right to have power and be empowered, regardless of their lifestyle choices. (Obviously without the intention to harm others.) They can wear nothing or everything.

    At the burlesque evening in Cape Town, I volunteered at the door. I found the evening to be one not to my liking. It was not my taste, not because of the nudity but rather the aesthetic. But they most likely do not care about my opinion. No one should tell them what to do or what they should look like.

    As an Iranian American who has spent a great deal of time in the Arab world, I have heard countless women defend the hijab and burka and I have had young Arab students who find it annoying. Personally, it bothers me when the face is covered yet I have no problem when the hair is under scarf. But this is just my opinion.

    Feminists have opinions.

    Burlesque is not for me, a burka is not for her, ok, that is fine.

    A couple of years ago in Switzerland when the burka was banned, my best friend and I made an art video, ‘Be whoever you want to be’. We took the bus in a swimming costume and a burka and then swapped. Be whoever you want to be.

    Yes, anyone taking away the power of someone is problematic and then we should be ready to defend that human. We should gather our feminists swords and fight. But in the end, the talk of ‘fashion’ is just that, it is fashion, and it is just a matter of taste and style, one opinion to another.

  2. I used to be one of those girls that would judge the burlesque girls saying they’re doing it for attention and they just want to get the men going. Boy was I wrong! I started Black Orchid Burlesque classes in February to open my mind and I have never looked back. My classes are my sanctuary and I have learnt so much self love and appreciation. Every women has some sort of issue with her body and I have begun feeling so much more comfortable in my skin since doing classes. Burlesque is not for anyone else but yourself and how it makes YOU feel. If the audience reacts and enjoys it too, that’s a bonus! It saddens me to think in 2016, women coming together for sexual abuse against women is an issue because of how it’s done. Do you know how liberating it is to take off your clothes and be like this is my body, no matter what has happened to it, I’ve taken it back and it’s all mine to enjoy now?! That’s the purpose. That’s why we do what we do. The fact that there is an issue or what some may call a contradiction because of women taking their clothes off for rape crisis is mind blowing! These women who have an issue are being just like the men who have oppressed women because now it is offensive that we take our clothes off, tastefully, I might add. Why? Because we are giving the wrong message of how we should be treated by men because of our lack of clothes? So once again, it’s women’s fault for how men react to us irrespective of what we have on! I have never once felt uncomfortable at a show or in class and I started out very shy. Why is there a stigma attached to wanting to feel sexy? What is wrong with wanting to share your sexuality with an audience? Why do women constantly get looked at like everything we do is for a man and to get his attention? Why do women always have to be careful of what she says or does because of a man’s reaction? Sorry boys, it’s 2016 and you are not the center of our universe. I never started classes with the intention of my partner benefiting from it. It was for me and will continue to be for me. No one is forced to be on stage. Every performer has chosen to be there and enjoys it! I am forever grateful to have been part of The Grand Exhibition, to see so many women coming together showing how proud they are to be who they are.The burlesque community are filled with women and men who empower and support each other like you’ve never seen! I have so much love for this community and all it represents. Empowered women empower women!

  3. Thank you for this Blog post! And thank you for the work you do. xxx

    Time to get real. I know personally at least 5 of my performers/students who have been raped, molested or abused (Not to mention the ones sexually harassed in some way just by existing in this messed up misogynistic society).
    Each of these brave and beautiful souls have found solace in Burlesque, either via their involvement in a network of strong and supportive women, or by reclaiming their bodies and sexuality by choosing what to reveal to an audience- or not!
    In other words, from our perspective here at Black Orchid Burlesque SA, we believe in women expressing themselves on their own terms. It’s their choice. I have never, and will never, ever force a performer into (or out of) costumes they aren’t comfortable in. The performer is in control the entire time. There is a reason we have a 60% FEMALE following at our shows. When will women stop judging women?!?
    The Grand Exhibition International Burlesque Benefit is the entire South African Burlesque Community standing up and fighting (through performing) for a good cause. Let’s hear their stories…”
    -Headmistress and Owner, Diva Disastar – “S.A.’s Dame of Burlesque”

  4. The collaboration between Rape Crisis and The Grand Exhibition Burlesque Benefit, is the most amazing experience I have ever been part of.
    I may be new to burlesque but I’m not new to feeling unworthy, un-loved or not special. I have felt weak, unsexy, not valued or cared for. Coming from an abusive, manipulative and violent environment, this is how I felt. Through dancing, which has an effect like laughing which expands throughout all your body, facing the mirror with other amazing people I have learnt to feel special, unique, lovable, beautiful, sexy, important, worthy. I have learnt to like, love and embrace who I am.

    By undressing I don’t dishonor my body, on the contrary, I’m saying I like it, how beautiful it is, ALL bodies are and ALL bodies need to be respected, honored and cared for. And is not easy because with time the body gets loser, if you are pregnant it gets bigger, we are extremely critical of our bodies and that is what burlesque showed me, we are NOT a body, we are beautiful human beings. Feel good, feel happy, take care, respect, feel the love we all deserve.

    Burlesque is the most empowering experience I have encountered, it is a journey of no return because by loving and honoring who I am, I could heal wounds, accept, let go and give more love. I am extremely honored to be part of Rouge Revue, and feeling that not only I am helping myself but others makes all the steps even more joyful.

    I will never forget a show day, where a lady, older than me, came to backstage with a smile cheek to cheek thanking me for dancing so wonderfully, she said: “you have empowered me”, she took off her necklace and put it around my neck. Me. Me?? I couldn’t believe it! She felt happy and wonderful to be a woman.

    The power burlesque gives is difficult to put in words, is something I recommend to everyone to experience.

  5. As a Spanish woman residing in South Africa for the last 17 years, I have experienced an immense change in the way feminism has evolved in this country. The epitome of that evolution is perfectly represented in Burlesque: a safe space for women of all sizes, races, religious and ages to freely express their sensuality and sexuality. A sisterhood based on mutual respect, admiration, empowerment and love. A platform to express our creativity in a way that conservative minds still struggle with. Burlesque has helped me to connect with my body, with my femininity and with an incredible group of women who are supportive of each other and I am proud to call my “glittermates”.

  6. I’ve identified as a feminist for most of my life, and now in my 40s I also identify as a dancer. Burlesque is a key tool for me to fully inhabit my body, accept it and claim it as mine, on my own terms. I grew up in a very religious household and did not feel comfortable around nudity and sexuality. As I’ve got older it has become important to me to celebrate my whole self. It is also a powerful form of self-expression. I was initially skeptical and concerned about the potential for objectification by the audience, but time and again I’ve seen the majority of people – both women and men – responding positively and with surprise to the joy and beauty of self-confident, unique women that they experience in burlesque performance. I can only think this is a victory for women’s rights and a challenge to those who try to disempower us and turn sex into an act of violence.

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