Burlesque: Subversive or not?

Is Burlesque still subversive? Or is it just porn for middle class people? Our Theatre Editor gets his dictionary out for the crowd

Feature by Eric Karoulla | 05 Nov 2013
  • An evening of burlesque

Burlesque. What comes to mind is women in vintage-style clothing, featuring corsets, a great deal of glitter, and feathers of different colours. This is not an entirely inaccurate depiction, although things obviously vary from act to act. 

As The Skinny’s previous theatre editor pointed out in an article in 2009, burlesque is a grassroots movement often associated with feminist and queer thought. However, through this, it has also been associated with subversion and not being mainstream. Yet the latest variant of a cabaret night is coming to the Theatre Royal, titled An Evening of Burlesque. That is not to say that it can’t be subversive, but the programming of this particular venue is not known for its controversial or subversive content. So has burlesque become co-opted into mainstream culture?

First, this begs for a definition of subversive.

sub·vert 

1. To destroy completely; ruin: "schemes to subvert the liberties of a great community" (Alexander Hamilton).

2. To undermine the character, morals, or allegiance of; corrupt.

3. To overthrow completely: "Economic assistance ... must subvert the existing ... feudal or tribal order" (Henry A. Kissinger)." [source: Free Online Dictionary]

What do we mean when we talk of the subversive nature of a performance, though? Most likely, definition number two, that is, it would be a performance that undermines the character, morals, or allegiance of whatever it is discussing. The question is, how does it do this? And where can this be found? Is it innate due to the content, or due to the way it is performed? Or is it relevant to the location or the expected audience and its prejudices? After all, what is subversive in Scotland in 2013 might not be so subversive in any other place, at any other time.  

Looking back at 2009, it seems around the time there was a split in feminist thought about burlesque; some feminists took the view that it had turned into a mainstream event that regressed into the objectification of female sexuality, while others supported burlesque’s subversive identity. This 'split' wasn’t dualistic as it appears to be presented here; there are many more strands of thought in between and around these two poles. However, it remains an issue to be resolved, even to this day.

It seems to be that umbrella terms like burlesque, cabaret, queer, or feminism, and other words cannot possibly be an umbrella term for the community they claim to represent. There is such a huge spectrum of thought and ideas and styles of presenting those ideas that it seems inappropriate to bunch them all together and claim that it is a community. Then again, doing this forces quite a few debates to happen and ideologies to move forward. Also, it can serve to strengthen a community and bring people together. 

Having been in the reviewing world for only two years, certain things are not as clear as they appear to be. Perhaps my issue with it is with the way they are talked about; after all, it is perfectly possible to have subversive and non-subversive burlesque over the duration of one evening. I guess the core question I am really asking is who decides? Is it up to the critics to say “that is subversive”? What gives them more weight than anybody else with a laptop and an internet connection? After all, an act that appears subversive for one person might not be for another.