Queering the Corset

A subculture within a subculture: Lashings of Ginger Beer bring queer, radical burlesque to the Fringe

Feature by Morag Hannah | 20 Jul 2010

Here is my confession: I don't like burlesque very much. And not just because I'm a grouchy feminist.

Burlesque, in my experience, necessarily combines a couple of my least favourite things. The first is women in corsets – I just prefer the way they look without them. Secondly, call me old-fashioned, but when I am watching a performer described as a 'dancer', I would like it if they had a sense of rhythm.

Burlesque has always seemed to me to boil down to a pretty simple equation: take one or more performers, strap into corset, push on stage, jiggle a bit, remove corset - ta-da! The crowd goes wild! Oh, there are exceptions – there's humour and farce and fun-poking, good acts and bad. But it's not terribly thought-provoking – nobody wants to think too hard about enjoying what is essentially a vintage strip-show.

Whether I like it or not, burlesque is having a resurgence, and so with corsetry and feathers and fishnets and frilly knickers gracing the boobs and bottoms of more and more mainstream performers, it's ripe for a subculture reinvention. It seems that this is beginning with the likes of Oxford-based troupe Lashings of Ginger Beer, bound for this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

"Women's magazines see the burlesque revival as 'empower yourself by taking pole dancing lessons; impress your man with frilly knickers'," says Lashings member Sebastienne. "Initially it seems to have picked up on certain aspects – specifically the girls in corsets – and left the politics behind, but the politics seem to be coming back in now – we're one of a number of feminist burlesque acts around. Maybe it's getting back to its roots."

So is 'feminist burlesque' an oxymoron? When presented with the concept of a 'Queer Radical Feminist Burlesque Collective' (or QRFBC), my first question was how they rationalised using the terms 'radical feminist' and 'burlesque' in the same breath. Don't most self-identified radical feminists hate them right from their feathery fascinators down to their fishnetted toes?

Only at first, apparently. "We've had people complain about us getting booked," says Sebastienne, "saying 'We don't think burlesque is appropriate for a feminist festival', who then turned into fans when they came to protest our show!" So what brought them round?

"We’re trying to reclaim the word 'burlesque'. It’s only since the 70s that it’s come to mean 'stripping in a corset'. We are a variety show. There is some striptease. But primarily what we are doing is holding a mirror up to society, using exaggeration and parody to point out the ridiculousness of many of the attitudes that it holds. This is what burlesque was in music hall – a kind of political commentary. We parody the popular imagery of burlesque and striptease, twinning the visual performance with songs whose words highlight the anti-feminist implications of performing, watching and enjoying such a spectacle."

Which all sounds rather serious. The average burlesque show may not be deep, but it does tend to be a knowing, tongue-in-cheek affair. By approaching it as an opportunity to educate, aren't Lashings in danger of falling into the much-mocked 'feminist comic' trap, where they treat the issues so respectfully that they cease to be entertaining?

Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive, I'm reminded. "Many of our acts use humour to make a serious point. For example, 'Are You Sure You’re Straight?' highlights how ridiculous – and downright offensive – some of the questions asked of queer people are, by reframing them as questions about straight people, in a way which is simultaneously funny and thought-provoking."

Which brings us to the 'Q' in QRFBC. There are an awful lot of labels here...

"Our labels are all there for a purpose," says Sebastienne. "We use 'radical feminist' with the intention of discussing the nature of radical feminism. We use 'queer' to show that we reject the heteronormative paradigm – the word takes in much more than just the LGBT umbrellla. People can be 'queer' because they’re kinky, because they’re polyamorous – anything that diverges in terms of gender or sexuality from the romantic-comedy norm that boys and girls are brought up thinking is the only thing they are allowed to desire."

Lashings believe that power dynamics go to the very root of society, and that we need to radically reimagine gender and sexuality before society can be truly equal. "The patriarchy is structured around a gender binary. To fight it, it is helpful for us to recognise the binary, even if this is in terms of 'people who benefit from this inequality' and 'people who are oppressed by this inequality'."

A member of the troupe, transfeminist stand-up Sally Outen, addresses these issues directly in her act – including taking great comic power from the ridiculousness of ideas of trans women as 'undercover men' bringing down feminism from within, empowering audiences by tearing apart street harassers, and discussing what she learned about the patriarchy from subtle differences in how she was treated pre- and post-transition.

It's a tall order – pleasing all the radicals at once is hard enough, but a bunch of random festival-goers sheltering from the rain (you know it's going to rain) could prove more difficult still. Are Lashings up to it?

"I think it's possible to be very funny and very thought provoking," says Sebastienne. "If you're having your ideas about the world challenged, it's easier to take if it makes you laugh." With an act that includes songs as diverse as Vagina Dentata, about tabloid representations of radical feminism, a Sapphic reworking of Taylor Swift's Love Song, and a version of Cole Porter's You're the Top that takes on a meaning Porter probably didn't originally intend, one would hope that everybody will find something to entertain.

"Our hope is that everyone – radical activist or Daily Mail reader – would leave our show with a little more strength and understanding to go out and make the world a better place."

With that sort of mission even I might watch women jiggling about in corsets. Provided they have a sense of rhythm.

9.35pm, 15-30 August, C Central, Carlton Hotel, North Bridge, Edinburgh. £10.50/£9.50.