Burlesque isn’t sexist, it’s a diverse and engaging art form

Maria Smickersgill 21 November 2013

Some view burlesque as a sophisticated form of stripping which inevitably provokes discussion amongst critics, fans and performers alike.

Defenders would argue that it allows its stars to act out more complex narratives in the process of removing their clothes; performers can come in all shapes and sizes and as such it is a truly creative discipline which allows for female empowerment through displays of unrepressed female sexuality. Critics of burlesque, such as Natasha Walter writing in her 2011 book Living Dolls, have countered that argument, suggesting that burlesque is restrictive and degrading to performers as it is the anticipation of the final reveal that keeps the audience interested.

What goes unmentioned in much of the discussion surrounding burlesque is that this is an incredibly limited perspective on a diverse and engaging art form. Traditionally, burlesque shows and performers sought to parody high culture through exaggerated cabaret. These days many companies and performers continue to use burlesque as medium for social critique or political satire touching upon issues ranging from obsession with body image to animal rights to raising awareness for diseases such as HIV/AIDS or breast cancer. For these performers, the aim is not to titillate and tease their audience but to use theatre as well as stripping to make a statement.

This week the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society presents Burlesque!, and the organisers intend to order to honour the tradition as well as challenge the popular misconception that burlesque is little more than a glorified strip show. The show’s director explains: “some people may think we haven’t grasped that we could be objectifying ourselves – but I can assure you, we are incredibly sensitive to this. Burlesque! is a forum for persons of all genders and sexual orientations to enjoy themselves and say whatever the hell they like. Frankly, if you come to see Burlesque! to objectify women, you’re in for a shock!”