I Created a Problematic Burlesque Act And I Learned My Lesson

The burlesque community was recently buzzing again with comments on a white European burlesque performer having a routine featuring a stylized feather headdress or a war bonnet typically worn by chiefs of tribes during war and/or sacred ceremonies. This comes roughly two years after another white performer did a routine, a ‘tribute’ to Nina Simone which featured applying dark paint all over her skin and wearing an afro-style wig.

The problem is that a lot of performers do not understand how their acts can be viewed as offensive and reject any criticism directed towards their art. And the hard truth is – this needs to change. Right now. And by this I mean white burlesque artists performing Geisha, Native American, Santa Muerte, Hawaiian acts, using blackface onstage and calling it a ‘tribute’ as if that word absolved them of responsibility for how their acts commented on the culture they used for entertainment.

Thre is a legal princuple in our Western (more or less) court system called “ignorantia juris non excusal”, which essentially means that lack of knowledge about the law does not excuse a person from responsibility for committing a crime. Even if your lack of knowledge is understandable. The same way your lack of deeper knowledge about the culture you’re using onstage does not excuse the way in which you might offend a member of this culture. It just doesn’t. And I know this from my own *cringe* experience.

The Act

lola noir

A couple of years ago I created an act. I performed it several times. The act was quite simple. It was a Halloween act performed to a mashup of “I Put a Spell On You” and “She’s My Witch”. I was a stereotypical ugly witch, clad in black clothing and a pointy hat, with a fake nose – warts and all – attached to my face. She bemoans the fact that she’s ugly, and therefore unable to find love. She drinks a magic potion that turns her into a pretty woman. She strips, enjoying the newfound sexiness. In the act finale she finds out she has a vagina dentata. Horrified, she screams and runs offstage.

What’s the Message?

At the time I didn’t really think about the underlying message of the act. I was really excited about the vagina dentata finale and I spent quite some time sewing a mouth and teeth onto my panties. I was also really excited about the prospect of being ugly onstage – I had a fake nose, as well as fake green armpit and pubic hair that I made out of cheap marabou boa. It felt liberating to go on stage wearing all this and saying ‘Hey, this is burlesque!’.

But then, at some point, I started thinking. My character for this act, the witch

  1. thinks she’s ugly,
  2. thinks she needs to change into a conventionally pretty girl to find love,
  3. goes on with the change.

This transformation has me remove the ugly nose and the armpit hair, as well as strip into a classical 50’s inspired burlesque costume (bra, panties, shimmy belt with panels, stockings). I abandon my ‘ugly’ costume for a traditional sexy garb.

Why Is The Message Important?

Let’s start with the hair. Personally I like to remove all hair that isn’t on my head but I’m definitely supportive of the idea that women can do whatever the hell they want with their bodies. That includes whether or not they want to remove any hair. But in my act I removed armpit hair to signify that I consider myself prettier without it! Armpit hair was part of the ‘ugly’ costume. Is that really the message I want to send?

The vagina dentata finale is also problematic. It’s my witch pussy. I should know it has teeth, right? I should not be scared of it. If anyone, it’s men who should be scared of it. Why am I the one running off screaming?

Why did I have to be an ugly witch to begin with? And why these signifiers of ugliness?

Using Stereotypes

Look, we all use stereotypes in our train of thought, everyday. It’s how we survive. We minimize the processing of each and every situation by making generalizations derived from single examples. We are more likely create stereotypes when there is a clearly visible and consistent attribute that can easily be recognized. This is why people of color, police and women are so easily stereotyped. What is more, we often accept stereotypes from other people. This helps us agree on how to understand and act towards various groups of people in a consistent way.

I largely based my look (the nose, green hair, green makeup) on the most popular ugly witch I could think of – the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” (not even “Wicked!” How dare I call myself a musical theatre fan!) I did not think to research the look further. However, at some point I read a blog post linking the stereotypical representation of a witch – green/olive skin, prominent nose, black clothes – with the historical negative stereotypical depictions of Jewish women.

I was horrified.

Of course, some dispute these claims and say they are tenuous at best. The witch stereotype expresses hatred towards women – old women, women who don’t conform to societal beauty norms, etc. Nevertheless some agree that some of the features linked to traditional stereotypical depiction of witch (which informed the look of the Wicked Witch of the West which inspired me) may be derived from the stereotypical depictions of Jews.

And I don’t want to make fun of someone’s ethnicity. I have Jewish friends, damn it! I try to educate myself and be sensitive and mindful of how what I do might be received and I still did something wrong.

Another thing is, I don’t want to send a message to the men, and especially the women in the audience that you should try and make yourself conventionally pretty and be horrified if you can’t.

That’s why I’m never performing that act again.

Local Inspiration

One of my favourite acts that I created takes inspiration from my own folk culture. Since it was created in response to the political situation in my country, I felt it was appropriate to take from my own culture, to signify my identity and my message. Not only did I base my costume on a simplified version of a folk outfit, I also tried to incorporate some steps of traditional folk dance into the choreography (with different results, since I’m not a professional dancer).

To this day it’s one of my favourite, most powerful and personal acts that I perform. I really want to create a version, or a variation of it that would be accessible to people from different countries. The prospect excites me – traditional Slavic culture is not something you see on the burlesque stage often!

The Takeaway

White burlesque performers need to do better.

That’s it.

We have to stop fetishizing cultures we perceive as ‘other’ to make ourselves more ‘exotic’. We also need to do more research before using something that does not belong to our culture. And lastly, we need to be open to constructive feedback about the message our art is sending into the world. You can strip out of your clothes and still do it in a smart way.

But What About The Fallout?

In today’s prevalent shaming culture it’s easy to feel like someone who committed cultural appropriation or an act that is offensive in another way should be banned from performing forever.

I do not think this should be the case.

I know from my own experience that I did not set out to create act that would be offensive or unfeminist. I learned my lesson on my own, but if someone else pointed the offensive stereotypes my act perpetuated, would I have defended it? I like to think I would have listened to them and acted accordingly. So I created a little helpful list for my fellow white performers who can find themselves in a situation where they created something offensive.

  1. Admit your fault. You created something that caused offence. Even if that was not your intention, that was the result.
  2. Apologise. Do not offer a non-apology (“I apologise if anyone felt harmed” is a conditional apology.). You do not get to decide that someone shouldn’t have been offended by your act. Their feelings are theirs.
  3. Retire or change the act. There is no way around it. Either remove offensive elements, rethink the concept or retire the act altogether.
  4. Go on creating new art with more knowledge than you had before!