Recently, in one of the most important parts of my professional life, I realized that I had been engaged in an ongoing dynamic where male entitlement and authority had played an ongoing role. I wish the realization came at some highly self-reflective moment where I audited the patriarchy in my life, realized that this situation was a glaring example, and disengaged gracefully- instead the realization was the result of a full out fight. If you are trying to read between the lines, this is not about a lover but rather a professional relationship that is collaborative one (ie no one is anyone’s boss or manager).
For the last 18 months I had fallen prey to a common dynamic women often find themselves in. Myself, and several other women involved, acted like a caretaker for the job, nurturing it and tending to its needs. The only man involved did nothing, insisting that his role was to “guide” us with his knowledge. When we vocalized our need for support and actual work, he dismissed our requests and insisted that he was most valuable by telling us what we were doing wrong. He informed us that his time was valuable (the underlying sentiment- more valuable than ours), guilted us into feeling an exaggerated sense of gratitude for his involvement, and set his boundaries while ignoring ours.
Sound familiar? If you are female-identified person or have lived at some point in time as a female-identified person, then you may recognize this dynamic. Simply put, we accepted this man’s unwillingness to contribute, accepted his unwillingness to meet our needs, accepted his sense of authority over the job/our ideas, accepted his dismissal of our knowledge and experience, and overextended ourselves to compensate for it. Our impulse to be responsible and not to THE “bitch” (you know, the one who calls it as it is) kicked in and we silently trudged along with the rationalization, “This is how it is.”
But here’s the thing. We are a group of self-identified feminists, working on a job that is centered around empowering women and breaking down systemic injustices towards them. Yet it took us 18 months to realize that we were living the very thing we were combatting. When my female colleague asked me, “How did this happen?!” I had to think for a moment. Was I a bad feminist for engaging in this dynamic for so long? Were my powers of self and organizational awareness slipping? Was I becoming complacent?
Thinking about these questions made me cringe and laugh. So many of my burlesque performances are centered around addressing issues and inequalities that affect women and queer folks. One of the reasons I do burlesque is to have a performative channel in which to call out these issues. Feminism- it’s like my thing.
But, I am also a woman living in a time where harmful messages are subtly and overtly pushed upon women (and men!). As I told my colleague, these dynamics are so ingrained in us that they can sneak into our lives because they feel natural and even comfortable. Often we are so focused on picking up the pieces that we forget to check in about how they were scattered and by whom.
Art has long been used as a catalyst for individual and societal shifts. Burlesque can be powerful ally in the move towards greater openness and accountability about issues affecting people of color, queer and trans folks, women, body positivity, disability justice, and other issues affecting our world. By its very nature, burlesque is a political action- peformers are reframing the way our bodies are viewed and reimagining the idea of sexy and sex. When fused with subtle or overt poltical themes, burlesque can be a playful, yet potent, avenue for poltical discussion. The nature of the reveal, what we see on the surface and what lays beneath, visible and invisible, can mimic the very challenges we are facing.
I think we often scurry away from political burlesque for fear that we might offend someone in the audience. While that always remains a risk, it may be helpful to think about political burlesque as less about telling people what they are doing wrong and more about bringing to the surface questions that may not have been asked lately. Performance softens the edges of these questions and can help make them more digestible for the audience while also providing a compelling narrative.
Reflecting on my struggle with my colleague, I realized that I had forgotten to, or perhaps was afraid to, question patterns and roles in my own life. And herein lies the power of political burlesque, because it too acts as a catalyst, carving out a space for the viewer to question their own patterns and dynamics. By creating pieces that speak to our lived experiences (which are often the experiences of others) we invite the viewer to reflect on if or how these issues affect them. The results can be surprising as so many patterns are deeply rooted in our day to day relationships and go unnoticed. It isn’t until that weirdo, absurd, or dark burlesque piece takes to the stage that these questions move out of the shadows and into the light.