Burlesque is back with a bang - but is it striking a blow for female sexuality or upholding stereotypes? asks Jacki Willson . The lights dimmed and there was a hum of chatting. I was at a performance of Show Off by artist Ursula Martinez seated amidst a mixed- sex audience.
The show began. Striptease music started up and a stilettoed leg poked its way tantalisingly between red theatrical curtains. For three excruciating minutes, I sat watching as Ursula took off every morsel of clothing. I was transfixed and felt excited, awkward, angry and even confused. Winking and smiling, she stripped down to absolutely nothing but red lipstick and high heels. You had to give it to her, the girl had balls!
She then told us that that was it, the show was over and we were now going to have a question-and-answer session. After this "post-show discussion", Martinez stripped again, but this time we were responding to her as an individual. No longer protected by her sexuality as a shield, she was left incredibly vulnerable and exposed. This was a show that was sexy, intelligent, comic and audacious; a performance that was both serious and fun. This was in 2001. When I left the theatre I had many questions, and the experience became the impetus for my new book, The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque .
Burlesque has triumphantly crossed into the mainstream. Smiling, winking curvaceous ladies in nipple tassels, stockings, corsets and thick mascara sit astride a glittery carousel or rocking horses, powdered breasts jutting out from boned underwear. These women are somehow having a bit too much fun. This phenomenon is not purely about the strip; it is more about tease than sleaze. In fact, apart from my first example to the contrary, with burlesque, you barely see much at all. It is innocent fun with an ostentatious use of costume and sexuality that is both pleasurable and risque. However, a key question is what the current interest in prominent burlesque figures such as Immodesty Blaize (UK), Lola the Vamp (Australia) and Dita von Teese (US) tells us about the present state of feminism or indeed anti-feminism. As icons of contemporary sexuality and empowerment, these burlesque performers flag up pertinent issues with regard to pleasure, gender, objectification and representation.
Sexuality, the meaning of pleasure and women's objectification have always been the contentious snag in the fabric of feminism that has laddered its way through to the present day. The "puritanical" strand of feminism that has had difficulty with overt sexuality can be tracked back to Mary Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 chastised young women for dressing to please, for preening and prettifying themselves for marriage and a life of dependency. If women continued to degrade themselves in this way, they would remain childish and underdeveloped.
So where do young or youngish women, who want to look and be looked at as sex objects, now position themselves when this long, rich tradition appears to bear absolutely no relevance to their historical moment? When I first saw Martinez in Show Off , I was not sure whether I should be cheering her on for her postfeminist panache or lambasting her for her sexual display. My 1980s feminist politics informed me that intelligent, powerful, sexy women kept their clothes firmly on. Contemporary burlesque, however, seems to be bridging the gap between traditional foes. It takes delight in but also parodies sexual attraction, objectification, chivalry and exaggerated displays of femininity.
Burlesque brings to a head many key feminist issues that are still bubbling furiously under the surface of pert-and-pretty advertising, size- zero cinematic imagery and vacuous celebrity magazine photo shoots. The phenomenon is fuelled, it seems, by a desire to re-image female sexuality and offer up a wider palette of glamour. By appropriating the persona of the prostitute, the showgirl, the stripper, the courtesan or the slutty bad girl, burlesque performers do not necessarily depart from stardardised versions of sexiness. But by pushing against the limited boundaries of these cliched codes, they ask pertinent questions of our contemporary visual culture. Whether it be Honey Corday dressed as a stripper in black pants, bra, tights and slippers standing astride her "pussy" cat or the fuller-figured burlesque troupe, the Fat Bottom Revue, with their humorous take on Wonder Woman, these female performers are expressing an exuberant sense of cheeky fun, but this is also tinged with "knowing" irony. This is sexy satire.
Burlesque performers' penchant for pre-feminist styles is similarly embedded in contradiction. By bringing fashions that simmered with only just contained sexual energy into the present day, burlesque performers are asserting their unashamed eroticism. We see this illustrated by Australia's Imogen Kelly, who, attired in aristocratic crinoline, ridiculously tall yet almost edible pink wig, white face paint and beauty spot, cheekily strips off layer upon layer of pants. These acts are fun and sexy but they also ironically stress that, at this postfeminist point in history, we still lack new visual erotic codes.
In the 1970s, feminist performance art acknowledged this stalemate. Carolee Schneemann argued that the imagery of female eroticism was trapped within sexist models. So how do you image female sexuality without simultaneously upholding stereotypes? In the same era, the lithe and glamorous Hannah Wilke's use of the pin-up and striptease genres testified to this ambivalence. She left the viewer uncertain as to whether her work was criticising or conforming to conventional imagery and ideals. Likewise Lynda Benglis's performance - naked and greased up, a dildo held to her genitals - was both a push for pleasure and an overt criticism of that "fascist" streak within feminism that appeared to crush female heterosexual pleasure and agency. The imagery, however, also registered hesitancy; her pleasure was still bound to and experienced through stereotypical models.
What is so refreshing about burlesque is that it breathes life into flat and lifeless stereotypes. But without humour, without a wink or a smile, is the imagery of, for instance, the perfectly pretty Dita von Teese liberating or does it just add to the visual onslaught? Much burlesque performance is charged with charisma and plenty of oomph but also with ambivalence. This is a spectacle that straddles subversion and coercion, a spectacle of paradoxical pleasures that resonate through one's body and mind long after the performance has finished.
Jacki Willso n is affiliated to Loughborough University as a tutor and final-year doctoral student in the art and design faculty. The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque is published by I. B. Tauris at £12.99.