Burlesque

I found out via a phone call from Anne Mayne that Rape Crisis was benefiting from a burlesque revue (and did in fact receive around R36,000 if memory serves). My initial reaction was disbelief and then a sort of creeping horror. I simply could not understand that what I felt was the objectification of women’s bodies and sexuality could be used to raise funds for an organisation like Rape Crisis, founded by a radical feminist and sustained through the first really tough seven years by radical feminists, with a feminist analysis of rape as a tool of the patriarchy. Surely it should be obvious, I thought, that women stripping themselves of their clothes for entertainment was the very antithesis of feminism?

This was a gut reaction−I had heard of burlesque but had no real idea about it beyond an instinctive aversion.

But, no, I was told, these women feel empowered; they are reclaiming their sensuality; some of them are rape survivors and this is an expression of their healing; it’s very tastefully done; the only men in the audience where there by specific invitation and all the performers and technical staff were women.

Frankly, that sounded like capture by the patriarchy to me, but I didn’t have any clear counter arguments and it was obvious I had to do some research. So I did, and ended up even more convinced that an organisation with a feminist analysis of rape could and should not accept donations from a burlesque show.

This is what I realised:

For some women to say that it’s OK and it’s their choice and it’s liberating is to deny the reality of millions upon millions of women who have no real choice in the matter and who are vulnerable to a multitude of abuses as a result.

Nicole Deagan, who is highly critical of burlesque performers, said “play(ing) with the role of ‘empowering’ an objectified woman performing for an audience is really telling about how disconnected they are from the actual lives of women who live in true poverty and how traumatizing it is to be living in a racist, sexist, classist world where women are sexually used by men who have access to privileges and entitlements that many women can’t even dream of.”

For some women to claim that this is personally empowering is to forget that feminism is not only about personal empowerment but also and essentially about challenging the very fabric of a misogynist patriarchal system which has at its bedrock the objectification and ownership of women’s bodies (and their agency, intelligence, capability and humanity).

For some women to claim that burlesque is a feminist and empowering choice is to fail to understand that ‘choice’ was, as the second wave of feminism took root, about abortion and reproductive decision-making by those whose bodies carry babies to term, NOT a ‘choice’ to strip and gyrate in sexually suggestive ways for the ‘enjoyment’ of others.

So I am afraid I remain unconvinced. And I feel really sad and very angry that Rape Crisis has lost its radical feminist roots−once the reason for its existence.

I am impressed by so much of what Rape Crisis is doing and the huge difference it is making in the lives of individual survivors. The organisation under Kath and the current board is doing absolutely wonderful and necessary work, but the radical feminist edge has gone. To me this feels as though the blood we sweated in the face of extreme opposition back in the early days and the care we took about our political positions and who we would and would not engage with has been disrespected and discounted.

It may be true that this is a path Rape Crisis has had to follow to survive−indeed, to be celebrating 40 years is a remarkable achievement; but I cannot shake the sense that the price has been high, that my early contribution and that of many women who (like me) cut their feminist teeth in the organisation and went on to challenge the patriarchy in their daily lives, has been dishonoured and that these days Rape Crisis is more about delivering a service and ensuring justice for rape survivors (noble aims indeed) than about changing the weft and weave of a society which constructs masculinity as sexually aggressive and femininity as sexually passive.

My research has confirmed my instinctive reaction. The Rape Crisis which I was instrumental in establishing and of which I was the first-ever director is no more. So I remain sad, angry and feeling that it is no longer a place where I am proud to be.

 

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Carol Bower

A founding member of Rape Crisis in the late 1970’s, she rejoined as the first director in 1996. She is currently the director of LINALI Consulting – Protecting Children’s Rights.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at kath@rapecrisis.org.za 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.

11 thoughts on “Burlesque

  1. Being told what is, and what is not appropriate when it comes to my body or indeed what I may or not find empowering goes against everything I know or understand of Femisim. I’m not sure why one would think it’s any less offensive or problematic simply because it comes from a woman and not the men we more commonly hear it from. What’s more, I have never once felt objectified as a Burlesque dancer, and quite frankly whether there is a dodgy uncle in the back who is doing just that is not my fault or even my concern. And suggesting that I am responsible for that uncle is a small step away from saying I asked for it. Burlesque is sensual for sure, but good Burlesque is also powerful, funny, silly, makes you think and some dancers have mean skills that go beyond the ability to remove a glove. It also allows us to play with different versions of ourselves-most of which are hardly passive. Anyone who has attended an actual Burlesque show should be able to see that the power sits squarely with the performer- to reveal what she chooses, when she chooses and how she chooses, with out fear. The aesthetic is also female driven, its not about some narrow mainstream patriarchal vision of femininity as ‘only’ blonde, skinny, big breasted, polite, shaved, shy, sexually passive and contained etc etc, but allows you to come as you are or construct a complete alter ego if you so wish. The women on stage are reclaiming their ownership of their bodies and the stories that have been written on them (by men and clearly some women), and continuing to police what women wear and do serves no one but the patriarchy itself. To reduce it to gyrating and suggest that the primary goal is the enjoyment of others, is to ignore all of the above simply because its not palatable to you. And while it may not make sense to all women, it has made a huge difference in the lives of all the performers I’ve worked with, myself included, not to mention RC itself. And that IS worth something. Plus it’s hellava lot fun to do.

  2. What a wonderful outpouring of support for two such worthy causes. I am a supporter of both independently, and when the partnership was announced at a show, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. It felt like synchronicity.

    Reclamation is the theme that informs this synchronicity. Rape Crisis helps rape victims reclaim their lives after sexual assault. Burlesque gives women an opportunity “to explore their own sensuality and reclaim their pleasure in their own bodies”, as Kathleen Dey wrote.

    What these organisations have in common is brave women. Their courage is an inspiration.

    “The show’s not over yet.”

  3. There is nothing more concerning than women patrolling and policing other women’s bodies, presiding over what is and isn’t acceptable and who has the right to support victims of rape and sexual assault. Surely THAT is ‘capture by the patriarchy’?

    Where does it end? A skirt that is too shirt, a woman sunbathing in a bikini, a dancer in tassels? How many victims of rape have had to endure that? That too is the patriarchal crap we need to smash.

  4. Hi Carol

    I suspect I would be considered a very bad feminist in your books. I write about sex, support the new wave of feminist porn, and believe that the more the individual woman is empowered to stand in her own strength, follow her own desires, and speak her own truth, the better for the people around her, the children she raises and the men she educates. And the better able she is to contribute to her community. I understand that this sort of self-care talk is abhorrent to ‘second wave feminists’ and certainly many radical feminists today, but there you go.

    So I’m putting this upfront so that you don’t take up your valuable time reading another woman whose viewpoints don’t align with yours. See, I imagine you’re not in the habit of wasting your time on women like myself because it strikes me that you haven’t directed this conversation with any of the women who dance, haven’t been to a show, haven’t taken the time to learn how this has changed their lives or supported them through their own journeys and helped heal their own traumas. If you had done any of this you would be more aware that the figure raised for Rape Crisis since 2013 sits closer to R140 000 and that at every show Tenille spends time talking about Rape Crisis and the work the organisation does. You’ll also know that at each show there is usually talk about appropriate spaces, body acceptance and even boundaries.

    If you had done any of this, you wouldn’t have had to react on an ‘instinctive aversion’.

    The fact that the donation comes from ‘women who take off their clothes for entertainment’, fills you with ‘disbelief’ and ‘horror’, that your work feels ‘disrespected’ and ‘discounted’, that you feel ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ would find better relief from engaging with the women you so blithely disparage than finding research to support your feelings.

    Because this is, ultimately, about your individual feelings. Feminism and how it expresses through each generation, in each collective, for each woman/womxn will change. There is no law book about what it is or isn’t. The feminist net can either be pulled tightly around ‘radical feminists’ or broaden to include and support every expression that flies against the ‘misogynist patriarchal system’. Trying to control it is the job of academics and while they tie themselves up in knots about definitions and whose in and whose out, the rest of us will do the best we can.

    And the best some of us can do is to learn how to have fun with our bodies and sexuality, own our expression, enjoy our women- and queer-friendly spaces and show our bodies shamelessly to strangers because we can, challenging at every turn those other two bedrocks of the misogynist patriarchal system: shame and guilt for looking the way we do, making noise the way we do and having sensual bodies the way we do.

    Does this help the marginalised? Does it tell every woman’s story? No. It can’t. No one person can do that. No one person can fight a system by themselves. The system isn’t fought on only one front. We do the best we can with what we have. We move forward by sharing our experiences and learning from each other.

    There are millions of women who weave their personal stories into the work they do for the betterment of the women around them. You did your work with the dark and painful side of supporting the women wounded by the collective. Some do the work in their own lives (which is enough of a struggle). Some choose to have fun with it. In South Africa, in particular, we have a lot of work to do and vast selection of choices to work in.

    You say: ‘We aren’t all out for ourselves here. And individualism just doesn’t work for the marginalised.’

    I disagree. If each of us strengthens ourselves we are better equipped to offer help where it is needed, in ways that are valuable to us. And it needs to be valuable to the individual woman, because why perpetuate the patriarchy by expecting women to be faceless objects without needs, desires, thoughts or feelings that serve a purpose for a collective.

    I’m not writing this for your response or to change your mind in anyway. I know this isn’t a debate or an equal sharing of perspectives. I’m writing this for the women I dance with and for Tenille; for myself and what I’ve enjoyed with the burlesque experience (of which the least is actually being on stage). And, of course, because it makes me ‘sad’ and quite mad when I see women judging and disparaging other women in the name of feminism. Especially when this happens without engaging with them face to face to hear their stories.

    I’d like to thank Kathleen Dey for her measured and inclusive response to your post.

  5. “Seek first to understand and then be understood” – Stephen Covey.

    We are daughters, some of us are mothers, we have husbands and wives, we are widows and some are still looking. We have daily lives and routines which might or might not excite us; we raise children, care for pets and contribute to our country, its people and economy. We are culturally and religiously diverse. We are academics, students, musicians, accountants, doctors, journalists, movie makers and estate agents. We are short and tall, we are skinny and we have back fat, we are blonde and brunette, ginger and grey. We are 21 and 60. There are a million permutations of who we are but most importantly: We are women.

    As a woman I have exercised my fundamental human right to choose and I have chosen to do burlesque. I am not an exhibitionist, I am not interested in gratuitous nudity, I do not want to be the centre of attention but I am a dancer. I love it in all its forms (be it burlesque or ballet). More than any other dance form that I have encountered burlesque allows me to respect all those facets of myself and still allows me to be accepted, have (enormous amounts of) fun and feel connected and loved.

    The burlesque community is relatively small and in it I have found women that I love and care for more than I ever thought possible. Never in my life, have I experienced wholehearted, unconditional support like I have experienced through this community, it is definitely a pro-women community. I have experienced the total acceptance of who I am even when I don’t know myself and the acceptance of my body type even when I don’t like what I’ve got. In a little over a year I have developed friendships with women that I can see having in my life until my last breath. We give each other buoyancy when we need it, a talking to when it’s needed, understanding, advice, and we push each other to test our own boundaries.

    I have not been violated by rape, but if I was to be, I know with the same certainty of sunrise that any one of these women would break the sound barrier and every road law in existence to come to my aid. And so would I for them. It might be simplistic but Is that not what it means to support each other as women? Respecting women and feminist principles starts with me and it starts with you.

    The so-called research that was conducted while putting together the above blog is quite clearly flawed and shows a total lack of education. In my opinion it is irresponsible of a fellow woman to criticise burlesque dancers having never been to a show or spent time in a class or experienced what it feels like to sit on the shoulders of these powerful women. I cannot fathom why a self proclaimed feminist, not a man, has chosen to demean and belittle women, her own. On top of that demeaning women who raise TENS of THOUSANDS of rand for their cause. Let’s not forget that people who support Rape Crisis do so because their lives have (sadly) been touched by it, otherwise they would donate to the SPCA.

    Those who know me know that I am not the maternal type but right now I feel like a lioness. I am bitterly disappointed and incensed with this blog post and feel unsupported and disrespected by a woman who has quite clearly dedicated her life to women’s rights and without me knowing it paved many paths for me as a young woman. There are some people in this world that deserve criticism for many things but the ladies of the Rouge Revue aren’t them.

  6. This controversial debate began with the fact that Burlesque academies in Cape Town are donating money obtained from their shows to the Rape Crisis Centre.
    And I am wondering, will it be more acceptable to receive donations from big corporates, companies and foreign official organizations with impeccable reputation but run by male CEOs who constantly underpay and undermine the abilities of hardworking women? Will someone investigate, research in depth or even question those companies/ organizations? Allow me to doubt that.
    Burlesque might not have the reputation that it deserves, but the women that decide to do it deserve to be respected.
    Women should unite and support each other instead of criticizing each other, that is what I have always believed should be the main principles of feminism …I might be wrong.

  7. Perhaps Carol Bower has not actually experienced the liberating joy of owning her own sexuality, her own femininity and her own sensuality. Perhaps she has. I don’t know. I’m assuming she hasn’t actually danced burlesque. I can understand her perspective – it is the one that many women have as an outsider to the burlesque community… but when you dance burlesque, you realise it has its roots in the rhythms of the Divine Feminine. It has its roots in Belly Dance – which was danced by women to entertain other women. It was danced for fertility, for thanks-giving, in honour of The Divine Mother. It’s a sacred thing. All women carry this sacred knowledge of the sensual, but modern women have forgotten it: Buried it so as not to disturb either men or fellow women. It’s been suppressed by the patriarchy and by rules, regulations, judgements, religions. We’ve allowed the sacred to become the objectified and as a result we’ve allowed the patriarchy to call the shots, make the rules and suppress our own female nature. How controlling is that? Burlesque takes back our ancient birthright. We don’t dance to titillate. We don’t dance for men. We don’t even dance for women. We dance for ourselves because it is the lost part of our female power.

    People often project their deepest insecurities onto others. They project their own disownment of their own sexuality onto others – hence the disgust with these glorified ‘strippers’. “They’re just whores, aren’t they? Making it worse for everyone? Inciting men to do terrible things?” No. Wrong. My husband and I have watched burlesque together and he’s watched me dance. He thinks it’s (quote) “Cute. A lovely energy about it.” It wasn’t a great perverted sexual turn on. Saying burlesque is anti-feminist is a little like saying someone deserved to be raped because they were wearing a short skirt. Nonsense. Nobody deserves to be raped. It’s the man who is at fault, yet the woman gets the blame. Where is the equality in that? Where is the feminism in that? The world needs to be re-educated!

    This article is saying that burlesque dishonours feminism. It’s just the opposite. Being “appalled” that rape crisis has accepted a considerable donation from burlesque is in fact dishonouring the sisterhood along with the love and compassion that the dancers have for their fellow women.

  8. As the director of The Rouge Revue Burlesque Company it is my belief that a huge part of feminism is allowing women to make their own choices, free of judgment.

    Female sexuality has been dishonored and turned against us by a patriarchal society and through burlesque; we reclaim our right to be sexual beings and to express our sexuality through any means that we choose.

    Our audience is 70% female and one of the most wonderful things about burlesque is that we reject society’s beauty ideals which tell us that we’ve never thin enough, young enough, pretty enough… I believe that this is why burlesque is so popular with women, both performers and spectators. We set the terms.

    I am often saddened by the terrible things happening in our world and left seeking a practical way to make a real difference to the lives of other humans suffering. That is why I choose to donate money from every show to Rape Crisis. Because as a group of women within the burlesque community, we are able to do what we love and express ourselves as we please, and we are able to use this platform to try and make a difference in the lives of women who have been abused, not only through financial donations, but by inviting Rape Crisis to use our shows as a platform to create awareness about what they do.

    Burlesque means different things to different people, and I wholeheartedly accept that it is not for everyone, but it is a very large part of my life, something that I love dearly, and I am grateful that I am able to use something that means so much to me to contribute to the invaluable and important work that Rape Crisis does.

    Thank you to every woman who has given of her time and talent to contribute to the donations that The Rouge Revue , The Grand Exhibition and The Feminine Divine has made to Rape Crisis over the last 3 years, I salute you.

    • There is much about what is claimed to be feminism in the 21st century that sits uncomfortably with me, and I am, like many of the older generation of feminists, those who came from the revolutionary 2nd wave am deeply disappointed in the notion that feminism is about individual empowerment. Not to me, it isn’t. This isn’t a “hey whatever makes you feel good” movement. Of course you can feel good and be a feminist, but feminism is a movement, not a self-help, feel-good event for (or movement for that matter).

      Feminism and neoliberalism do not go well together. Feminism is, in large part, about changing those dominant systems that hold up neoliberal ideology. We aren’t all out for ourselves here. And individualism just doesn’t work for the marginalised.

      • And how exactly does a group of women dancing burlesque detract at all from other feminist activities that address marginalisation directly? How does burlesque even equal neoliberalism?

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