Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show
Writer, taxidermist, graphic designer, MC and supporter of his local Burlesque scene, Bobbu shares his thoughts on the taboo of the female nipple
Burlesque is about stripping. That’s a fact that you can’t get away from, no matter what kind of performer you are – whether you prefer classical burlesque, neo-burlesque, or even Star Wars burlesque, it almost always involves the steady revelation of flesh.
Of course, burlesque is more than just about stripping. It’s about having fun; it’s about beautiful, confident women revelling in their beauty; the appreciation of the human body in motion; celebrating the imagination of performers who contrive the most wonderful concepts behind their acts. Many dancers I talk to also put a lot of emphasis on The Tease, which is certainly an essential part of burlesque if ever there was one – but without bare skin there simply isn’t any tease.
The variety that this allows within the genre is truly amazing. During my years working in the burlesque community, both on stage and off, I have watched hundreds of performances. Every single one has been different: they have varied in the skill they are performed with, the ingenuity of the premise, the style of music they are performed to, and the amount of skin that is shown. There are those who will walk off stage in a corset, frilly knickers and stockings; some will complete their act in nothing but pasties and a merkin; I have even seen performers who finish their show wearing more clothes than they started with. From all this variety is seems clear to me that the level of nudity involved does not define a burlesque performance.
However, I have only ever seen one burlesque performer who ended the show entirely nude. I’m sure there are more burlesque performers who are comfortable showing off their naked bodies on stage, but I haven’t come across them in my travels. So watching this particular dancer completing her act to the usual raucous round of applause made me wonder – why is it that nudity is generally frowned upon in burlesque?
We’ve all seen performer’s pasties come unstuck, and the embarrassment expressed by ladies who accidentally show a nipple on stage is almost universal. But what makes the nipple such a private, shameful or offensive part of the female anatomy that it should not be proudly on show alongside legs, stomachs, cleavage and buttocks? And the vulva – what makes it so terrible a thing to show to an audience?
There are a few arguments for why nudity is an unwelcome feature for a burlesque performance, but I find most of them far from satisfying.
Of course, the most effective barrier between burlesque and nudity is the legality of it. If your performance involved showing nipples or pubis, then the majority of venues out there cannot legally allow you to perform, because they don’t have a licence for nudity. I’ll accede that this is a damn large, very practical point, but I’m also going to fume slightly over the fact. After all, doesn’t it strike you as absurd that spaces for adults to gather have to have a licence for people to be naked?
I can understand the cultural reluctance for children to be exposed to nudity, or for people to see the naked form without being forewarned. I might not entirely agree with it, but I can understand it. But for it to be illegal for someone to be naked in a place where only consenting adults have gone to be in each other’s company? What’s so terrible about the naked form that it is a legal requirement for it to remain hidden?
Of course, I fully appreciate that there are only a limited number of people in the world who want to see me naked (mad, all of them), but that is no reason for me to feel that I should have to hide my body to protect others from something that they perhaps would rather not see. You’re offended by the nude human form? Well to quote the great Mr Stephen Fry – “’I am offended by that,’ well so fucking what?”
One of the least pleasant, but most frequent reasons I’ve heard given for the absence of nudity in burlesque is that burlesque is for women, so it doesn’t need nudity to excite its audience. This argument is a big part of what I’m going to dub the ‘false feminist defence’. You see, it may well be true that burlesque doesn’t require nudity – as its purpose isn’t just to titillate and excite randy men – that does not provide reason to exclude those who do go nude from the genre: just because something isn’t necessary doesn’t mean it should be unwelcome
I have to say that I find the reasoning rather perplexing, too. I don’t feel that all my entertainment requires nudity just because I have two spheres dangling between my legs – so why should it make sense that women wouldn’t want nudity? My female partners are all far more sexually-charged than me, and they are certainly not going to react negatively if the beautiful ladies on stage take all their clothes off. So when you hear someone saying there’s no nudity in burlesque because “it’s for girls,” remember – girls like naked girls too.
This false feminism is also often revealed when burlesque dancers struggle to differentiate themselves from strippers: “No, we’re not strippers, we don’t get naked,” is something I’ve often overheard (granted, usually with more words). But again, I don’t think the level of nudity involved in a performance has anything to do with whether or not something is burlesque or not. A better distinction would be that modern burlesque performers don’t put on their shows for the benefit of anyone other than themselves, or simply that a burly girl puts on their events in an entirely different context from your usual stripper.
However you draw the line between burlesque dancer and stripper (if you do draw one at all), this approach is more harmful to women performing than any degree of misunderstanding of burlesque could be. Even if we did want a definition of burlesque that strictly excludes nudity, there are better ways of drawing that distinction than criticising other women who take their clothes off for a living.
This is why I call it ‘false feminism’. I have seen too many performers attack the choices of other women, under the guise of supporting women’s rights. Too many times I have heard criticisms of stripping from burlesque dancers. If you believe in & support your own right to perform burlesque without criticism or judgement, then ladies who want to be strippers have just the same rights. Attacking their professional choice in the interests of validating your own choices is negative, shaming and shameful behaviour in my eyes.
So the next time someone asks you if is burlesque stripping, why not turn the tables on the usual response; don’t deny it vehemently, kicking your fellow women to the dirt so you can seem superior. Instead, embrace it shamelessly (because there’s nothing wrong with stripping), but clarify what kind of stripper you are – one with a better sense of humour, much more tasteful style, and classier audience!
Stepping back from all these arguments I begin to see a pattern forming. Could it be that all the negative reactions to nudity being an accepted part of burlesque are based on a fear of how the public might perceive it? Burlesque may exist on the fringes of acceptable entertainment at the moment, but it is certainly something that performers can be proud to be. Are we really scared that accepting performers who go fully nude will change the public perception of it as a whole? Maybe we should be less worried about that, and more concerned with having fun however we want to? Or just maybe it might be that if we confidently support those performers who do choose to go nude, we might help to change the taboo around nudity in general. After all, burlesque has managed to make a kind of stripping socially acceptable over the past decade or so.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince anyone to take any more of their clothes off than they are comfortable with: if you don’t want to go nude on stage, then I see no problem with that whatsoever. But if you do feel that you are comfortable celebrating the entirety of your body, then I would encourage you to do so, where legally possible.
Why do I encourage it? Quite honestly, because I enjoy seeing beautiful, talented women, who are proud of their appearance; and I think that if they want to show off their bodies there should be no reason for them not too.
And let’s be fair – from the reaction to just that one performer stripping down to her birthday suit, I can safely say that the audience really doesn’t care if you go naked or not. They just want to see a wonderful show.