The Explicit Body as Palimpsest

Thank you to MICA who Commissioned this article and has allowed for it to be reposted here.  It originally appeared in their Catalog, “Workin’ the Tease” (April, 2014). 

The Explicit Body as Palimpsest

By Dr. Lucky

It’s the late 1990s, and Angie Pontani has asked me to perform on the boardwalk after Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade.  Glue-gunned costumes are parceled out to six showgirls.  We rehearse.  The day of, we put on way too much makeup that will later melt in the sun.  Afterwards we sit on the curb in our showgirl regalia, our heels stabbing the piles of post-parade garbage.  We laugh at the incongruity, eat corn dogs, and limp back home on the crowded subway.

This was my first public performance as a showgirl, and my introduction to the exaggerated presentation of self that is a central motif of burlesque.  I never imagined then that burlesque would turn into an international movement, one that warrants a college curatorial class to choose it as its subject.  I never imagined burlesque would become part of American popular culture.  I thought it was simply fringe people doing weird things in unexpected locations.

It has been exhilarating to be part of burlesque’s transformation.  With this has come increased public awareness of burlesque’s history and its many modern incantations which celebrate excess, self expression, and beauty in its multiple forms.  From concept to costuming, from choreography to promotion, burlesque performers are in charge of creating and performing their own persona.  What you see is what they created.  This self-authorship can be radical, especially for women who are still fed and often internalize narratives about how they are expected to behave as women in the public sphere.

These narratives of normalization can be powerfully shattered in burlesque through parody.  In his seminal study of burlesque, Horrible Prettiness (1991), Robert Allen highlights parody as the driving force behind burlesque, also serving to freak out nineteenth-century commentators about Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes:   they were not men nor women, but rather “’creatures of an alien sex, parodying both’” (25).  Burlesque provides an upheaval of binaries, a true Derridean deconstruction where the high becomes low, the low becomes high, and in that displacement, the hierarchy embedded within the terms of the binary becomes destabilized.  Burlesque thus becomes a way of thumbing your nose at social conventions, and doing so in a way that is totally self-authored.  Furthermore, the audience is invited into the critique and is in on the joke, allowing performer and audience to collaborate on the rebellion.  This is part of the lure of burlesque, and why so many self-possessed, intelligent, creative people are drawn to it.

In our modern age where body- and sexual-shaming are still the norm, burlesque is a way for women to transgress the double bind of the virgin/whore dichotomy.  This may seem like a paradox, as the unveiled female form on stage may never be able to extract itself fully from what it signifies in the larger culture.  Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean women are contributing to their own oppression, nor are they turning back the rights for which feminists before them fought.

Instead, the explicit female body on stage can be read as a palimpsest.  The body is a glorious scroll that may retain imprints of prior writings, but that body-as-scroll allows for one to redraft and reinvent.  Those shiny, exposed, celebratory bodies on stage are there to entertain, to please, but their ultimate message far exceeds the sum of their parts.  For through burlesque, women have found a way to communicate, to scream loudly on stage perhaps without ever speaking a word.  Allen argues that women literally and figuratively “lost their voice” in burlesque when the striptease emerged, but I would counter that movement is vocabulary and the body can speak – louder than words.  Not only does it speak, it can scream.  Loudly.

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