Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘burlesque

Misogyny at Carnival Divine

The love interest in my novel is a burlesque dancer, and writers have to research. So, hardship as it is, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time watching girls take off their clothes. I’ve clapped encouragingly through some truly terrible routines, I’ve bought earplugs to cope with the noise at Slippery Belle and I swear that next time I’ll remember to take a lemon of my own, because, as the bartender put it, “this isn’t the sort of establishment that puts lemon in gin.” I thought I knew the worse bits of the scene. Then, last week, I went to Carnival Divine.

I’d heard good things about Carnival Divine and the calibre of the performers was obviously higher than at my usual, sticky-floored, lemonless hang out. I booked a table and I wore my shiniest shoes. Sipping my strawberry daiquiri, I waited excitedly for the show to start. The acts were good. The costumes were beautiful. Kitty Bang Bang is one of the best performers I’ve seen, and when she stepped off the stage in her paw-print pasties, leaving one or two audience members with milk splodges on their clothes, I clapped and cheered with everyone else. The next act was Puppetual Motion. A man behind a taped-together cardboard screen readied his finger puppets.

I won’t go into everything that wasn’t politically correct, because I don’t really know what the non-racist’s response should be when people make fun of Frenchmen, and I’ve no clue what the sponge-puppet’s accent implied. I’ll tell you what made me really angry. It was the song about domestic violence.

The puppet told us he’d had a girlfriend and said he, “came home to find her sucking my best friend’s dick.” His reaction was to try to ruin her life in every way he could, from getting her sacked to downloading child porn on her computer. I didn’t find it funny, because the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed, but I do recognise that anger at infidelity is not uncommon. It was when he sang that he was going to smash his guitar in her face that I felt the burning in my gut. It was a comic song about a man beating up his ex-girlfriend. People laughed and cheered. They applauded Peter Kennedy as he crept off the stage, concealing himself behind his piece of cardboard. I couldn’t clap. There was a buzzing in my head. I was so angry. I’m still so angry.

I expect to come across jokes about violence and misogyny in my everyday life. I expect to hear that women’s sexuality should be policed violently. Years ago I did the number crunching for this report and found that 10% of Northern Irish students thought violence was acceptable if your girlfriend nags, flirts or refuses to have sex. That’s slightly higher than the UK average. In the room of, say two hundred people the other night, perhaps there were fifteen who held those attitudes. And if they think that punching your girlfriend is a reasonable response to her asking one too many times if you’re going to do the dishes, something more than that is probably appropriate for when she has a sexual encounter with your friend. The man on stage, and all the people cheering him, surely reassured those people that they are right.

I’m angry and upset, more than I would be if I’d overheard a stranger’s conversation or seen it on the television. I’ve seen burlesque as a space where women’s sexuality is accepted. I’ve seen performances by fat women, skinny women, heavily pregnant women, trans women, women in drag, lesbians and queers: Women who don’t do what they’re told, from dieting to sleeping with men to putting on a nice skirt. And I thought I was in a place where they were recognised as attractive people, people with agency, whose sexuality we (for want of a better word) celebrate. It took the lover to point it out to me, but the reason I was so upset was that the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up. Unfortunately I do expect that in many places. I just never thought I’d hear it at a burlesque show.

I’m angry, and I doubt myself. Surely by the logic that says Peter Kennedy is promoting violence or contributing to a culture in which it is normal and acceptable, I should judge other humorous songs. What about Tom Lehrer’s narrative of murder and mutilation, which I’m quite happy to laugh at? Is that allowed, since cutting off your girlfriend’s hand is rare, while women are injured and killed trying to leave their partners quite often? And how much defence does humour provide? How do you judge the delicate balance between showing a character and supporting the character’s views? I have a degree in English Literature, an MA in Cultural Theory, and very nearly another MA in Creative Writing, and I still can’t answer that question.

I started to doubt myself a little less, reading Kitty Stryker on the subject of FetLife tweeting a “drunk hooker joke”:

When people call you out on the entitlement that often comes with such humor, reflect on why it’s so important to you to cling to your “joke.” Is it that important to you to tell drunk hooker jokes? Really? Is that an important part of your sense of humor? Why? Does freedom of speech include hate speech? Should it? Where do you draw the line on what constitutes such speech? If you say something offensive, is it really so terrible to apologize? Is that “political correctness gone wild” or just being a polite human being who doesn’t like to inflict hurt on others and apologizes when things they do or say adds to institutionalized violence?

On the night of the show, I tweeted:

I was shocked that @carnivaldivine hosted an act, Puppetual Motion, with a misogynistic song about domestic violence. Empowering women?!

I received the reply:

Every act is a parody, even the finger puppets.

It had been deleted by morning. So my question is, Carnival Divine, is it that important to you that Peter Kennedy gets to tell his beat-your-girlfriend jokes? Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. Perhaps I should try to see the funny side. But I doubt that I’ll see the satirical humour of the next song about the joys of domestic violence, either. I doubt the other people in the room who’ve been subject to violence from a partner (one in four women and one in six men, so a probably significant proportion of those present) appreciate the sparkling wit of such songs. With Puppetual Motion as Carnival Divine’s “resident puppeteer”, I’m going to have to think very hard about giving up going to one of Manchester’s best burlesque nights. Given the empowering, celebratory atmosphere of the burlesque world I know, I think that’s really very sad.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

September 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Easily Led

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It’s the time of year for making resolutions, and I’m making none. I’d like to resolve to give up supermarkets, but I haven’t worked out where to buy reasonably priced breakfast cereal. I could resolve to write a novel, be more organised and buy more lingerie, but I already recognise the necessity of doing all these things, and they’re no more urgent now than they have been any time in the last few months. Instead, I am giving serious consideration to which forms of dancing to try this year. It’s more “I’ll try this form of exercise and see if it’s fun” than “I’ll join a gym and lose three stone” but there’s value in being realistic.

I spent New Year’s Eve with people who do Lindy Hop. I’ve been thinking about trying Lindy for a while, mostly because of the clothes. I know I’m not the only one who takes up dancing styles in order to dress up: I met someone recently who had started ballroom because she wanted more sparkly chiffon in her life. I can’t see the attraction, but the clothes of the Swing Era have a lot going for them. In deluded moments I imagine myself getting slim enough to pull off a flapper dress, but if I’m honest the real attraction is full skirts, net petticoats and seamed stockings. My seamed stockings will have been kicking around in the draw for so long that they’ll be genuine vintage soon.

I have to catch myself on and remember, though, that I’m not actually that good at dancing. I went to modern jive for the first time because the alternative was another evening in. I surprised myself by not being the utter disaster I was sure I would be. Almost a year later, I’ve almost erased the effect of the sound of my friends’ laughter accompanying parodic impressions of my dancing when I was sixteen. It helps to be one of the few twenty-something girls in a room full of middle aged divorcees, and it helps even more to wear a bright red dress. Suddenly, strangers are commenting on my elegance; judging by their gaze, they often mean “cleavage”, but I’ll take my flattery where I can get it.

I am sometimes upstaged, of course. I was shocked, one week, to see one of my pet partners (those who can be relied upon to dance a second time, without regarding it as a step towards marriage), dancing for a third time with a young, slim, fresh-faced blonde. Who, it turned out, trained in ballet and gained an attractive glow as she danced (I just sweat. Lots.). That was also the evening I first tried Lindy Hop. After an hour of trying to remember where my feet went, get my head around dancing off the beat, and tactfully explaining to my partners that I wasn’t would rather they didn’t throw me across the room until I got to know them better, I was very glad when the lesson ended and we could all get back to modern jive again. I stood at the sidelines, sipping water, when the fresh-faced girl appeared. “That was great!” she said, “I want to know where I can learn Lindy.” I certainly didn’t. I solidified that when the tutor offered to help me with the jumps and I managed to kick him, twice.

Modern jive being so simple, I sometimes forget that I’ve failed at almost every dance I tried, from the ballet class I got too tall for at age six to the Bollywood routines I ruined by being unable to memorise the mudras. There’s a part of me that says I should stick with what I’m good at, but another which reasonably points out that using that logic I would never have tried jive in the first place. Maybe I’m secretly a natural at tango and will never find out.

I must, therefore, try a new form of dancing, so as not to be boring. It would preferably be one with a younger crowd, so as not to be groped. And Lindy looked pretty good. On the other hand, so many people have asked if I do salsa that I feel I ought to give it a go just to get out of all the confused looks when I say I’ve never have. Since salsa involves choosing a style (Cuban, Colombian, etc), unfortunately make no progress by picking that, only open the door onto another labyrinth of decisions.

Not all dances are partner dances, of course, or at least, the partners are sometimes off-stage and referred to as the audience. One of my main characters has decided she’s a burlesque dancer, and the couple of workshops I’ve attended aren’t really going to cut it in terms of background knowledge. Unfortunately, my character is much more confident than I am, unlikely to hide at the back of the class and panic when the routine requires a180 degree turn and she finds herself at the front. Burlesque, unfortunately, is more the sort of thing I’d like to be good than the sort of thing I can reasonably expect to gain any proficiency in. I resent that, and I covet the outfits.

The last class on my list is pole dancing. I know, it’s tacky and vulgar. Sometimes, though, I think tacky and vulgar can be good, especially those prone to pretension and snobbishness, as there’s no disputing I am. I enjoyed my one pole dancing lesson, but, like burlesque, there’s little chance of me being good at it. When you have to lift your own body weight, being small and slim is a definite advantage; I am neither. However, I keep thinking of my empty threat to punch the groper on Portland Street. If I was strong enough to swing myself around a pole, I’d be strong enough to sock him. I can almost feel a “pole dancing for self-defence” class coming on.

To summarise, under consideration are salsa, modern jive, Lindy Hop, burlesque and pole dancing. Wasn’t I meant to write a novel this year? If I can’t decide, perhaps I could pretend I’m giving up frivolous things like dancing to concentrate on literary pursuits. Otherwise, I’d best pick just one. All three people who’ve expressed an opinion so far have been Lindy Hoppers, and—guess what?—they’ve all cheered for Lindy. I’m easily led in more than one sense; Lindy’s gaining ground. Do you support them? Or think I should pick one of the others? Perhaps you would like to complicate matters more by throwing another dance into the mix? Help me, please, because I simply can’t make the decision.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 2, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Meeting My Inner Stripper

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I don’t like pole dancing. I don’t like exotic dancing, and I certainly don’t like lap dancing. I recognise that there’s some gradation from artful spinning around a pole to grinding a man to orgasm with your naked buttocks, but I’m sorry, I don’t like it.

I’ve had to confront my dislike of it in the last two weeks. One of my characters got a job in a gentlemen’s club. I can’t actually go to one myself, because they require women to be accompanied by a man, and I don’t have any local male acquaintances I would be willing to ask. I could take pole dancing lessons, though. I haven’t so far, because I have been able to find an excuse every Wednesday.

Next month there’s a burlesque workshop on in Leeds.  I’m so excited! It’s much further away, longer and more expensive than the pole dancing, but who cares? I could learn burlesque! I can see myself in heels and stockings, learning how to sensually slip elbow-length gloves from my fingers. I have a burning desire to be a burlesque dancer.

Surely if I find pole dancing repulsive, I should feel the same about burlesque. The purpose of both is to make entertainment for men out of the female body. They are, at core, commodifying and objectifying. I’ve always assumed that my objection to strip-clubs was a feminist one. Now, I’m not so sure.

Given that I love burlesque, could my objection to pole dancing be based in class? Pole dancing is trashy. Its fabric is nylon and its heels are Perspex. It is available in every town to everyone (male), the staple of sleazy middle-management men and stag parties. Burlesque, made of silk and satin, is an entirely different beast. Or do I resent the pressure that pole dancing puts on me, as it becomes more popular and its looks become more mainstream? No one wonders why I’m not dressed like a burlesque dancer (to the best of my knowledge) but high heels and thongs seem to be expected. Is my love of burlesque simply the effect of nostalgia on something equally terrible?

I’ve been going around in circles like this for weeks. Tonight, I identified my feeling about pole dancing. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell my father what I’m making for dinner, and he says “I’d rather have beans on toast.”

It’s sadness, rejection, disappointment, betrayal. I’m quite a good cook. I bake my own bread. My scones are light and my pastry crisp. My meringues are little white crumb-bombs, as they should be. Last week, I even made my own butter. So why does he reject my offering in favour of a tin of beans coated in sugar and salt, topping shop-bought bread?

I can recognise a diversity of tastes I don’t share. You may eat pheasant, or fancy blondes. Fine. The thing is, though, that women are great. They vary. They can be sexy, and funny, and acquire skills like martial arts or meringue making. The whole culture around pole dancing, lap dancing and stripping seems to conspire to make women less than they are. I’ve come across numerous dancers saying they dumb down to please the guys. It’s not just that they are reduced to a body, but that they dress up in cheap fabrics and trashy shoes to embody a fantasy, and that there’s nothing clever or subtle about that fantasy or it’s practice (although I bet it’s hard work). It’s the sexual equivalent of beans on toast.

So that’s why I don’t like pole dancing. I spent all this time learning to make meringues, and I’m disappointed there’s no one here to eat them. All the same, recognising that this is a journey, I’m going to give it a go. I’ll go to the pole dancing class, as well as the burlesque class, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh, and if you know anyone in Yorkshire who’d like to take me to a strip club or a burlesque show this weekend, do let me know.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 25, 2010 at 11:59 pm