Burlesque vs. Stripping: The Feminist Wars


I just finished reading this article over on XOJane (filed under "Unpopular Opinions") about burlesque being boring and sexist. As a dancer and sex-positive feminist, the idea of burlesque has always appealed to me, but as I read the article, I realized that I kind of agreed with the author, and it got me thinking:

Why is burlesque considered "more feminist" than plain old stripping? It's essentially exactly the same thing, with nicer costumes and maybe a wider, more mainstream appeal and longer documented historical tradition.

Now don't get me wrong, I'd choose burlesque over stripping any day, mostly for the costumes and routines (hey Xtina!) but I don't know that I think it's any more empowering or feminist.

It's getting (nearly) naked. Onstage. For people to look at you.

And while it can definitely be fun as a woman to take control of your own sexuality in a society that does everything it can to repress expressions of female sexuality, doesn't putting that very sexuality on display (usually for the largely anonymous male gaze) kind of cancel out the feminist intentions?

So I thought about why I preferred burlesque. Costumes and routines, sure! But I realized that the societal implications of burlesque are often positive, while the implications of stripping are not. Think about it. How do people react when someone tells them they're a burlesque performer versus if they told them they're a plain old stripper?

So then I started thinking about the racial demographics of burlesque performers and strippers, and the larger implications that stem from that reality, and the way in which those racial disparities affect the way we perceive female sexuality onstage. Because I think it's safe to say that most burlesque performers are fairly well-off white women, while most strippers are less well-off minority women. And I don't need to remind you of the ways in which the sexuality of minority women is often inherently demonized or fetishized. This quote in particular stood out to me:

Lady after lady after lady walking on to a stage, dancing around for two minutes before stripping down to her thong and shaking her ass (albeit with different props than the lady who proceeded her) is not creative, interesting, or revolutionary. The only difference between strippers and burlesque dancers is that burlesque dancers are well-off enough to call their strip shows a "hobby."

And there you have it. Not only is the difference in demographics usually rooted in race, but often, (because, intersectionality) it's also rooted in class. For white women, burlesque can be an escape: an opportunity to objectify their bodies on their own terms, as they see fit. They way it should be. But for them, that is a privilege. For many minority women who turn to stripping, it isn't a choice made in search of womanist empowerment. It's an economic necessity. For those women, stripping is a way to leverage the only commodifiable asset they have, in order to make money: their bodies. They do not always have the luxury of "their own terms" because their financial needs sometimes require them to sidestep their dignity.

And that is not to say that strippers are all poor, broken birds, reduced to taking their clothes off for money. That isn't true. There are women who genuinely enjoy stripping, and have parlayed the fame they gained into larger business ventures. But that doesn't change the fact that most women don't dream of becoming strippers, largely because of the negative connotations attached to the profession.

So what do you think? Burlesque: Feminist or not?