‘We’re using our image for our own empowerment and fighting to exert control over our own bodies and how we represent our own sexuality.’
Her biography describes her as a ‘fierce, formidable and a feminist fatale’ and a ‘dream machine made of curves and cream’. Miss Alyssa Kitt has been performing burlesque since 2008. Her work also extends off the stage as a journalist, historian and founding editor of the Australian Burlesque Journal. She is a regular contributor to 21st Century Burlesque Magazine and is developing some exciting research projects combining her training in media representation, feminist discourse and sexuality. She dropped by Victory Lamour for a chat about burlesque, feminism and body positivity.
Victory: Burlesque has a long history, but a lot of the burlesque people think of is the 20th century style in America aimed largely at male audiences and male ticket buyers, often called ‘striptease’. Though many attendees to burlesque events are now women, the public perception that burlesque is for the male gaze is still strong. Why do you think the audience for burlesque today is so strongly female?
Alyssa: Historically, yes, you’re entirely correct in that the striptease style of burlesque that was prominent throughout mid-century America did largely cater to a male audience. Despite the male bias there were still women who attended burlesque shows during this time…Today, when a neo-burlesque performer stands on stage and engages with the audience, there is a sea of female faces starring back at them, and I would say that there are a number of reasons for that.
Firstly, our bodies are visible; visibility is a huge aspect for burlesque, we inhabit this space onstage that we can use not only as a platform for our bodies, but as a platform for our message too – that we deserve to be visible, that we deserve space in society. That we deserve to speak up and take control.
Secondly, it’s very candid; performing live means that we can’t be airbrushed, photoshopped or digitally manipulated, the audience can see every jiggle and we love that – if it jiggles we’re going to take it further, highlight it and often put a tassel on it. The audience can see us embracing and celebrating what are traditionally deemed skin and body flaws or imperfections, like stretch marks or cellulite.
By being open about our bodies on the stage, women in the audience can usually see a part of themselves being confidently displayed, and relating to another woman like that is an incredibly empowering experience. It’s why so many women come to burlesque classes, because we’re up there loving ourselves and sharing this message that it’s ok to love yourself, it’s ok to not be someone else’s idea of “perfect” because we’re all happy in our own skin. We’re proud to show our bodies and celebrate being both sexual and naked.
Humans are curious creatures and it’s natural to want to see other bodies, especially women. Our bodies have been censored or only existed behind closed doors for centuries. Women want to see a diverse range of body types and ones that they can relate to. Women have been trained to nit-pick not only their own bodies, but the bodies of all women around them. This is why the female gaze is so important in this space and why we actively encourage the audience to enjoy the presentation of our bodies.
Women are embracing the pleasures involved in embracing their bodies, their sexuality and their femininity. It is also departing from the realm of what is expected of us in an everyday sense. Jacki Wilson puts this so perfectly in her book The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque, that the presentation and performance of burlesque “basks in the deliciousness of living in both a sexual and a sexualized body.”
Essentially I agree with Wilson and argue that burlesque and pin-up as communities are counter-cultural movements are subverting the stereotypical image of women for a new generation of feminists. We’re using our image for own empowerment and fighting to exert control over our own bodies and how we represent our own sexuality.
Ultimately the radical act of choosing to display our bodies like this can prove contentious, or as Anne Helen Petersen put it, in her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, “Women can consider themselves free, feminist and liberated in so many ways – yet still be controlled by the notion of an ideal body of which their own continually falls short.” We’re in an uphill battle against centuries of depreciated self-worth, for me it’s about damn time that we can keep pushing back until we can stand on stage with our tits out, shouting, ‘”my body is perfect just the way it is!”
How do you see the tensions between the male gaze aspect of burlesque’s history versus neo-burlesque today?
While burlesque in it’s golden age, the period in where the artform was at it’s zenith of popularity, when there were multiple dedicated burlesque houses in every major city in the United States, with a established international touring circuit, the performance houses were indeed catering to a predominantly male audience. It was all about sex and scintillation. The legends of burlesque challenged all that was considered appropriate during the post-war period. Society was dealing with men returning from war and wanting to go back to their jobs and the conservative cultural pushback was aiming to get women back into the homes. This period celebrated all things domestic, and the chaste, submissive housewives were the champions of that social phenomenon. Women in burlesque were considered debaucherous – they were visible, confident in representing their sexuality, and their bodies on stage at a time when these things were seen as abhorrent to conservative society.
Yes, we are in a different period in history now but I still argue that burlesque legends and other prominent sex symbols of the era were paving the way for of this generation of feminism.
I’ll quote Anne Helen Petersen again here, “Few things enrage, confuse and repulse audiences more than the suggestions that the primary visual purpose of a woman’s body is not the pleasure of men.” I believe that both burlesque and pinup are modern feminist countercultural movements that reclaim these tools of femininity for our own pleasure. If men don’t like the way we dress or do our hair or makeup – well frankly, I just don’t care.
We both identify as feminists – believing in gender equality is vital. Glamour, physical presentation and women’s sexuality are still fraught spaces, even in 2018. How do you see the tensions around feminism and burlesque?
Contemporary feminism remains fractured on a lot of issues around the presentation of female sexuality, around things like porn, sex work and roles where women are both visible and vocal. As such, I believe that burlesque is positioned in a way that is in opposition to traditional feminists. For example, audience members may come to a show with a pre-conceived notion that we’re stuck in an internalised power struggle of a patriarchal paradigm, because of the assumption that we’re getting naked and displaying our sexuality for the men in the audience.
However, in my opinion, we embody the spirit of sexually liberated womanhood, and present a potent image of emancipation. Burlesque in and of itself isn’t meant to be palatable to all, we’re using our sexuality and our bodies to be subversive of power structures, and to cast off the shackles of patriarchal oppression. I do believe that burlesque performers need to be politically self-conscious, mindful of being both sexy and subversive. I’m outwardly sex positive, body positive and all about reclaiming space and power for myself and other women, and that’s what our generation of burlesque is all about, and that aligns with this current wave of feminism.
I’ll quote Jezebel Express who is an incredible performer from New York – “Having a female body is political. Making a decision with it is political.”
What initially drew you to burlesque?
I remember the first time I saw the word burlesque – I was fourteen and a friend had Dita Von Teese’s book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese. (To read our interview with Dita Von Teese, here.) I was immediately enamoured with this glamorous woman who preached wearing lingerie for one’s own pleasure and not for a man. It was revolutionary to me. I was enthralled with this secret world of female self-expression – it was almost like playing dress-ups for grown-ups. The plumes of feathers, the impossibly big skirts made of hundreds of metres of tulle, gloves studded with jewel boxes of fancy cut Swarovski crystals…
When I was young I honestly thought that the only two gowns I’d ever wear would be to my formal and my wedding. Nowadays I own more evening gowns than fit into my wardrobe and often have handmade couture for red carpet events. Nobody is born glamourous – there is a process of transformation and anyone can create this.
‘Nobody is born glamourous – there is a process of transformation and anyone can create this.’
What were your first experiences as a burlesque performer?
I began burlesque in 2008 after my dance school in Brisbane began a course run by Brisbane veteran of burlesque Lena Marlene. Before I knew it I was creating my own solo performances and getting onstage one night at a venue underneath Hope St Bridge in West End called The Smoking Joynt.
At the time the neo-burlesque revival had been going in the United States for well over a decade, but there was only a handful of notable performers in Australia and an even smaller number performing in Brisbane. Many were buxum but relatively small and would be considered what society deems as conventionally attractive, but simultaneously counter-cultural. They had tattoos, died black hair and fair skin, big rolled hair, red lips and cat’s eye makeup. I identified strongly with them but felt that I presented a different body type altogether. Then, I was a size fourteen and felt noticeably bigger than most of the bodies onstage. But the audience praised me for “bravely” owning my body and being confident enough to be naked on stage. It seemed a new concept to many that someone could be happy and confident in their own skin. (This was often the newsworthy angle in a lot of early press that I appeared in as well).
At the time that feedback was so valuable to me. As women, we are pulverised into submission by mainstream media as to how we should look, behave and present our voices. As my confidence grew from within and supported by more and more positive feedback both from my audience members and on social media, it made me understand that I could create the woman I wanted to be – both onstage and off. This positivity pushed me to want to represent a different way to be beautiful.
I started doing art nude modelling at fine art institutions, creating more burlesque routines and connecting with more artists. I felt a deep connection to the body positive movement in which the burlesque community deeply embraces.
My body has changed a lot since I first started performing burlesque but I’m so proud to see an array of body types represented on stage – doing amazing things, portraying their own version of beauty and inspiring the next generation of performers who embrace burlesque to do the same.
How do you see the body politics of the current burlesque movement?
When you go to see a burlesque show you never know exactly what you’re in for. The nature of our shows is one quite closely linked with cabaret and vaudeville, it’s a mixed bag of solo performers, duos, troupes, sometimes live music, all held together by an MC. It’s all live, real, visceral and metres in front of you.
I remember when I first started performing a few producers said that big bodies weren’t what audiences wanted to see. Now we aim to be as inclusive as possible and this kind of talk isn’t accepted within the community. By and large we are independent producers creating our own shows, booking performers that are entertaining and presenting something different onstage.
The neo-burlesque revival is filled with diversity and difference. And the discussion surrounding body politics is deeply aligned with the body positive movement.
Taking up space, being visible, extending oneself and being vocal is an incredibly difficult thing. I teach a number of burlesque workshops that incorporate elements of building body confidence through body positivity, with an aim to perpetuate feminist discourse. I’m never surprised when many women come to my classes who cannot look at themselves in the mirror. I aim to teach them that it’s ok to connect with your own gaze, look at our own naked bodies without being negative and judgemental – accepting and loving what we can do in that particular moment.
Thank you, Alyssa. See you on stage at the next show or research talk…