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When Patriarchy Attacks (and addressing it through Burlesque)

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.


Scaling Back: On Scarcity and Being Good Enough

Earlier this year I started to set my 2015 intentions and, while prioritizing different goals in my life, I was surprised to discover that I wanted to scale back on burlesque. Last year I threw myself into burlesque- I applied and performed in festivals, pushed for shows, and put more resources (like a lot more) into my acts. I was all about more more more. It was a fun year and I enjoyed the process immensely, but as 2014 came to a close I found myself missing other parts of my life, creative outlets, people, and focuses.

More importantly, I realized that several of my big time life goals had suffered from the attention I gave burlesque. I closed out 2014 really thinking about priorities: what that meant to me, how many I could have (priority is technically a singular concept but, hey, I’m a wild rule breaker), and how I needed to manage my time. As I reflected, I became comfortable with two things. One- burlesque is not my priority in 2015. Two- I want to scale back my performance schedule.

So I picked a number, a personal number of shows that I wanted as a cap per month, and committed myself to it for the year. I felt good about it…until I put this number in practice.

The number felt good in theory, reasonable and doable, but when I started booking shows and looking at my calendar, it felt empty. I color code my calendar and, as I stopped seeing lots of purple boxes throughout the month, worries of scarcity ensued, followed by the panic that comes with it.

Somehow, in the last 5 years of performing, those purple boxes have become directly linked to my feelings of self-worth as a performer. Lots of purple boxes mean I am a good performer. Only a few purple boxes mean I’m not. And even though I’m intentionally booking less shows, seeing less purple boxes on my calendar makes me feel bad, like all the growth I achieved in 2014 is dissolving, replaced by my own personal culprit: the feeling of “not good enough”.

Given the significance our society places on quantity, it is no wonder that seeing less shows on my calendar makes me feel less than. We are quantitatively driven towards more- more money, more stuff, more rhinestones, and more shows. The sudden change to less, the reverse of what we are compelled to achieve, made me feel unaccomplished. Because if more shows and more money aren’t my goal as a burlesque performer- what are? How do I measure my value as a performer? And a better question- is it even something that needs measuring?

Asking myself these questions I realize that money and more shows were my goal in 2014 but now they aren’t. My goals this year are to book more quality shows (ie shows I really love performing in) and have a reserve of emotional energy to draw from during my performance so I am projecting to the audience.

I also acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with setting quantitative goals. Number aren’t evil and they can be helpful indicators. I think the danger comes when we believe that numbers are the only way we see ourselves as a performers and limit our goal setting options to measurable items.

Looking at my panic about scarcity and not being “good enough”, I’m finding non-quantitative ways to remind myself of my value. Some of my methods have been:

  • A list of my favorite acts and why I like them so much
  • A list of my all time favorite performances and why they were so great (hint: none of them were because of the money)
  • Going back to lists I made when I first started performing, rereading my non-quantitative goals, and acknowledging what I’ve accomplished
  • A list of my other (muggle) life goals, writing why they are important and how they nourish my well being (this has been my most helpful list)

By focusing my attention away from the number of purple boxes on my calendar and the how many, I find my panic subsiding. I say subsiding because I don’t want to pretend to be super human about this- the panic is still there and I still have impulses to contact all the producers and fill up my calendar. This impulse comes from a lifetime of hard wiring to value more above all else and will take time to unlearn. But instead of acting on my impulses I go back to my lists, gently remind myself about the other ways I find self-value as a performer, and move on to my 2015 priorities.


Why I Don’t Talk About Weight: And other thoughts on body talk

I am writing this post as a response to the Black Girl Dangerous post “From One Skinny Girl to Another: A Few words on Fat Phobia” – which if you haven’t read –STOP READING THIS NOW AND GO READ IT. In truth, I have wanted to write this post for a long time but always felt unsure about how to articulate myself and if this conversation would be welcomed.

The Black Girl Dangerous post brought up a lot of my own feelings about the ways women interact with each other’s bodies. I spent a good portion of my young life hating my body and being cruel to it as a result of that hate. Having moved into a place of acceptance and healing, I have also reflected on ways this hate became internalized from outside messages. What I realized is that the ways we speak with other people’s bodies is one factor in internalizing body hate and fat-phobia.

As one person I don’t believe I can change the massive amounts of fat-phobic body hating messages women receive on a daily basis, but I can, out of love and respect for my friends and other women, change the way I speak about bodies. About a year ago I adopted two rules when it comes to body talk. The first is simple: I don’t comment on people’s weight.

As women I often feel the first thing people notice about us is our bodies and thus our weight. How many times have you run into an old friend on the street and they say, “Look at you! Did you lose weight?” (whether you have or not). Or you are getting ready to go out with friends and someone says, “That outfit makes you look so skinny”.

The default compliments about women always seem to revolve around our bodies and weight. Whatever happened to saying to a woman, “Wow- you seem so happy!” or “That outfit is just like your personality- bright and spunky”? It is no wonder so many women fixate on their weight, when all around us we are being sent messages that that is the first, and only, thing others notice about us.

I avoid talking about another’s weight because it isn’t the first thing I want to notice about my friends.  I’d rather notice if they are smiling, frowning, laughing, or angry. Even when a friend comes up to me, gushing about how much weight they have lost, I focus on positive actions instead of their bodies.

“It’s great that you have fallen in love with eating kale every night! It’s so good for you!”

“It sounds like you are having a lot of fun at (insert exercise program here) and really enjoying yourself.”

I do this because women spend enough time obsessing about their bodies on their own and it is nice to feel like there are people in our lives who aren’t scrutinizing our weight under a microscope.

My second rule is I never associate losing weight with “looking good”. The first reason is obvious- who is to say what looks good? Lots of fat people look hot! And lots of skinny people look hot! And lots of lanky people look hot and lots of muscular people look hot and lots of tall people look hot and lots of short people look hot and lots of average heighted people look hot- what they have in common is they look happy and confident.

The second reason is that not all weight loss is voluntary. Last year I had a stomach condition that made it impossible for me to eat most foods without ending up in bed for hours in pain. Due to a limited diet and a fear of eating I lost weight rapidly. Every time someone said to me, “Wow you’ve lost so much weight! You look so good!” I wanted to slap them.

I couldn’t eat, and when I did I was in pain. I missed work and school on a weekly basis and I was scared because my doctor didn’t know what was wrong. I remember one day, after eating half a cup of oatmeal and ending up in pain, I burst into tears with my girlfriend in the park because of the exhaustion of being in constant pain. Does that sound good?

During this time it was my girlfriend who taught me to be concerned about this weight loss. Up until this point I was used to thinking about weight loss as good, desirable, sexy, yet when my girlfriend looked at my body, she wasn’t turned on, she was worried. When I began to recover I mentioned to my girlfriend that I was gaining back the weight I lost and she said, “Good. You were so sick and losing too much weight.” For the first time in my life, “good” was associated with gaining weight.

Six months after I recovered I was talking to a friend about how I bought a dress for an event during that time period that no longer fit. I said I was okay with it because I was too thin and my friend replied, “Well I thought you looked cute.” This comment, meant to be a compliment, made me feel like crap. Now that I was healthy and able to eat a normal diet, was I no longer cute?

My friend wasn’t being malicious, in fact, she was trying to be complimentary- but she was also speaking to me the way we are programmed to speak to other women about their weight. You were thin, so you were cute. You lost weight, so you looked good.

It was this moment that truly solidified my rules of body engagement. Words and language are powerful messengers and what we say to each other impacts the way we interact with our bodies, especially when it comes to our weight. Often we talk about weight unconsciously, in the social norm women have become accustomed to, but to me, remaining unconscious and complacent in this norm is a form of fat-phobia and perpetuates body hate.

The crux of the Black Girl Dangerous blog is a call to action- urging women of all sizes to step up against body hate and fat-phobia. For me, my rules of body engagement are just the beginning in my part in this call. I hope that by writing this others will be encouraged to step up to this call- maybe by examining the language they use when talking about bodies with others or adopting some of their own rules of body engagement.

And if you already have some- what are they?

Excellent Resources on this Topic:

Black Girl Dangerous- “From One Skinny Girl to Another: A Few Words on Fat-Phobia”

You’re Welcome- “Why I’m Fat Positive”

The Queer Fat Femme’s Guide to Life

How Far is Too Far? A Word on Dita.

Yes, I’m going to talk about Dita. Before I continue, I want to say that this post is not about putting down Dita, rather I use her act to reflect on larger questions about art and burlesque.  I know some people will disagree with my reading of this performance, and that’s great, because it is important that we open a dialogue about these types of performances to better inform ourselves about the type of art we want to create.

For those of you who did not attend the show, her finale act, entitled “Opium Den”, takes us to China, the curtain pulling back and revealing Dita, with long black hair in a “Chinese” robe, lying in a den of pillows. She is bathed in the red-orange glow of paper lanterns smoking a sparkly, rhinestoned opium pipe. As the act goes on, she stumbles out of her opium den and, in her opium haze, slowly peels off her clothes.

One of the most obvious issues in Dita’s act is the issue of culture. Is it appropriate to represent a culture that isn’t “ours”? And how do you know what culture “belongs” to whom? One could make the argument that artists draw inspiration from-well- everything- and by limiting our sources of inspiration, we limit our expression.

For me, I focus on how others are representing a culture. Dita’s act concentrates on a historically destructive aspect of China- opium, reducing the enormity of opium’s effect on China to a mere sparkly prop. For many of us, the opium dens of China are far removed; yet, I wonder, if someone did an American Indian act as an alcoholic- would it go unnoticed? Would a sparkly headdress and glittery liquor bottle make it passable?

I believe cultures can be wonderful inspirations, but I would rather see us honoring cultures and paying homage to the very beauty that sparked our creativity. The world has so many splendors to offer, why not celebrate them? And for those who want to point out issue within cultures, or break down cultural stereotypes- do it!- but with intentionality and in a way that is not hurtful to the culture.

The second, and more personal, issue for me was the use of opium in the performance. Personally, I have had a tumultuous relationship with opiates: from working at the needle exchange for 7 years and seeing my clients end up dead or in jail to reviving a partner, blue and no longer breathing, from an overdose.

It is extremely difficult to put these experiences out there, yet I do because, like the opium dens of China, we often feel far removed from people who use drugs. I hope that by sharing my experience it will help other’s understand my reaction and the need for thoughtfulness and, there it is again, intentionality, in our acts.

Honey Lawless has Cookie Monster act where she cooks up, ties off, and shoots up cookie dough. I LOVE this act, I think it is brilliant, and I ask myself why this act excites me while Dita’s act bothers me. One reason is that Honey’s humor and absurdity help me to break down the heaviness of addiction. Seeing it in a big blue furry suit pining over cookies rather than on the streets late at night is cathartic.

Another reason is that Honey points to Cookie’s addiction the entire act. She goes big with references to shooting up, nodding off, and the pleasures of Cookie’s high. Unlike Dita, who uses the glittery opium pipe dismissively, Honey’s over sized props make Cookie’s drug process the focal point of the act.

To me, Dita’s act lacked consideration of the issue of drug use. Instead of pointing to it in a thoughtful, humorous, or critical way, she used the opium high as a vehicle becoming sexier and more provocative.  She portrays the opium dens of China in a romanticized and eroticized way, creating a glamorous spectacle, while ignoring the seriousness of opiate addiction.

Reflecting on Dita’s performance, my biggest take away is that it comes down to responsibility and that our work, no matter how offensive, subversive, or edgy, carries a level of conscientiousness. We should absolutely be doing acts that push boundaries and make people uncomfortable, but I hope that in all our acts we are thinking about the layers of meaning we create. I think of this as an unwritten contract between performer and audience: while we ask for the audience’s respect hen we are on stage, we respect them back, with conscious, intentional acts that are thought provoking rather than thoughtless.

Note: Since I posted this last night, there have been a few comment threads on FB about this article. Please also post comments here! It is great that people are weighing in (negative and positive) and I want other readers to have a chance to read these thoughts as well.

You’re Too Pretty to be Gay

Andi Stardust PRIDE

In my Performance Art class we are working on identity performances and recently did an exercise focused on the perceived authenticity/inauthenticity of our identities. Having outed myself on the first day, I now hold the distinguished title of “that gay girl” in class and this is what I have centered most of my performances around. Working in small groups, I reflected on the ways in which I feel inauthentic within my queer identity. A well-meaning classmate offered her help:

“Yea, when I first saw you, you know on the first day of class, I never would have thought you were gay- or queer as you say.”

 “Really? This is interesting. Can you tell me why?”

 “Well, you know, you’re really feminine and I’ve never seen a gay girl dress feminine.  Also, you’re not flamboyant, you know, you’re mellow and don’t show off that you’re gay. And you’re really pretty. I’ve never seen a gay girl as pretty as you. I thought you were too pretty to be gay.”


My first reaction to my classmate was horror, not because of how grossly uninformed she is, but because I realized the majority of the class probably felt the same way. I didn’t carry any of the markers of their version of a gay girl. I showed up on the first day in tights, a dress, and a canvas tote and I duped all those unsuspecting fools whose only reference for gay is a dyke in Caterpillar boots or a man in a feather boa singing show tunes.

My horror heightened when I thought about my intro performance, when I started off as a punk rock feminist activist and ended as OMG-CAN YOU BELIEVE SHE IS GAY?! No wonder all the girls, except for the pothead, stopped sitting by me.

Thinking outwardly, beyond my own sinking popularity in class, I realize that while my classmate’s words ram a spear through the heart of femme invisibility and heteronormativity, what concerns me the most is her final statement: You’re too pretty to be gay.

I’m too pretty to be gay?

Since when did physical attractiveness have anything to do with sexual identity? And when did HER taste in physical attractiveness set the bar for sexual identity? What did she think gay looked like? Was gay some far away land where ugly people went to lay their bed and shrivel from society? Did I somehow get lost on my way as a pretty person, stumble upon the doom of gay, and get trapped in a world of ugly?

Of course, my classmate’s comments are about gender. In the hierarchy of identity, for her, my gender trumps all else; therefore when my sexual identity misaligned with her perception of my gender, it befuddled her. In her world my gender is limiting- it means I can only be one type of person- a straight girl dating Bradley Cooper.

As my dear friend Micah pointed out, for my classmate, pretty is a word associated with femininity (although I often use it to describe fruits and vegetables). Really, when she says I am too pretty to be gay, she means I am too feminine to be gay. It goes back to that tired song and dance, that we base our knowledge of The Other on stereotypes intended to marginalize and disempower othered groups of people. The less of us pretty gay girls there are, and the uglier our subculture looks, the better. The safer.

So what does this have to do with burlesque? Everything. Because although I think I’m running around with a big rainbow flag plastered on my forehead, I realize I am not.  And in this realization I see how important it is for me to bring my identity into burlesque, an art form that celebrates femininity. I want a big honking QF stamped on everything I do because I don’t want to be complacent in this stereotype, I don’t want to just leave it alone and hope it goes away. I want to be an active player in bringing visibility to queer femmes as FEMMES and creating a new context for gay.

Incidentally, after I started writing this post my classmate came up to me in private and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about being queer and starting to wonder about my own identity and if queer is a better fit for me. I am also questioning my own femininity and how it connects with my sexuality. It’s something I really need to think about.”

I smiled, because igniting thought is the first step to change.

She’s Got the Beat

She’s Got the Beat

Photo by Johnny Crash Photography

Reflecting on 2011 (yes, still!) I have wanted to write a post about the top five things I learned about myself through burlesque in the old year. Yet, going over the year in my head, I am unable to come up with a suitable list, always coming back to just one thing: That I have rhythm. Not earth shattering, I know, but delving deeper I realize the significance. The story goes like this:

In 2006 I lived with a depressed housemate. Not mopey, puppy dog eyed depressed, but angry, poison spitting depressed, the type that turns self loathing outward toward others. In this time of my life I also loved to dance- free, unstructured, pure movement dance- the only type of dance you can do without self-consciousness or worry. One slow night my friend and I decided to put on some music and dance, just for the fun and sheer joy of it. And dance we did, from rock to hip hop to tribal electronica, we danced and danced and danced. It became an impromptu dance party in my kitchen, other housemates coming to join, including angry depressed guy. After one particularly spirited song he turned to me and said, “It’s really a shame. You have all the right moves, but no rhythm. You could be a good dancer.”

I stopped dancing. I dreaded dancing. I refused dancing. I avoided places where I knew I would have to dance. That moment drained all the joy, fun, and magic dance held for me and turned it into an enemy, one that became a constant source of anxiety and shame.

In the beginning, I never danced. I stood on the sidelines at parties or clubs until I was drunk enough to stop caring and move. The next day I would chide myself for what a fool I must have seemed. Next, I went through a rebellious phase, where I danced, dammit, whether I was off beat or not. These were my fuck-the-system-of-rhythm days. Finally, I went through what I believed was enlightenment, where I accepted that I was without rhythm and a bad dancer. I believed this the final chapter in my bad dancer saga, that the ultimate acceptance of myself was the final frontier.

The hardest thing for me about starting burlesque was allowing myself to be seen dancing. For years I internalized what angry depressed guy said to me. And for years I let somebody else tell me who and what I was. The final twist in my bad dancing story was that through burlesque I realized I did have rhythm and was not a bad dancer, I had only let someone else tell me I was. This moment came when I watched the video of my debut of my cow fan dance. This was the moment I finally saw myself as a dancer through my own eyes, letting go of someone else’s idea of me and embracing my own.

Reclaim, Reframe: On femme, burlesque, and the media

Last weekend I attended a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary examining the ways in which the portrayal of women in the media creates unrealistic standard of beauty, disempowering women on multiple levels. These images are used, instead, to create an influential consumer group of women who invest in beauty products, clothing, surgeries, and diet supplements in an attempt to meet these standards.

Watching the film, I asked myself how susceptible I am to this cycle. Certainly my femme identity adores my wardrobe, makeup brushes, nail polishes and hair dye, and the performer in me even more so. I enjoy mimicking an idealized type of woman and worried that this meant I was a puppet of advertising. I realized, however, that if I had asked myself this question 5 years ago, I would have struggled to accept my answer. Yet now as I watched the film I felt a growing sense of control over my femininity and presentation, both on and off stage.

When I began coming out as queer I was unsure of how to approach my gender. I knew I was femme- but I didn’t know what femme meant. Reading through queer-femme theory, I realized that, to me, a queer femme identity meant I was controlling my femininity.  I had a consciousness about what I was presenting and, although my tendency toward sequin berets remains unknown, I am in control of how I portray myself as femme. From high femme in spiky heels and mini skirts, to dirty femme in torn jeans and knit sweaters, each portrayal comes from a thoughtful process about my gender.

Burlesque is much in the same. We perform characters thoughtfully crafted and presented. Many of us perform femininity in a way that is well developed, a way that chooses the most powerful aspects of the female experience and highlights them. Although we may mimic images we see in the media, we are taking back assumptions about femininity and reframing and reshaping them to reclaim our power.

I once took a workshop with Scotty the Blue Bunny who said on stage we are in ultimate control. We invite, if not demand, the gaze of the audience and our consciousness of holding this gaze is what gives us power. Media and advertising pimp out the image of a woman and create a gaze to which we have not consented. Yet, as performers and femmes, we take back this image, redefine it on our terms, and choose the gaze we wish to invite. We are in power and we are fighting power- one rhinestone at a time.

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