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May 2005
Neo-Burlesque: a Feminist Ideal

By Linsey Lindberg (a.k.a. Mama Lou)


Images: Sweet Dirty Parla

As women artists and revolutionaries, we believe that the visual image communicates with people and expresses the tone of a movement in a special way that cannot be filled by words because people communicate through art and because art is part of the growing revolutionary counterculture.—Stacy S. of the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective

In the early 60s women of the feminist movement were fighting for reproductive choice, educational and occupational options, legal rights and pushing the levels of acceptability in personal relationship power struggles. Today’s neo-burlesque scene speaks to all these issues.

Here in NYC, if you slip into the back room of some small bars on any given night, you are likely to find something of the “burlesque” sort going on. But why are hip communities of people all over the U.S. warmly embracing it? After all, burlesque was the original strip tease. If “old burlesque” was the equivalent of a trip to Scores Strip Club, then why the comeback? And why are so many smart and ‘normal’ women flocking not only to see this art, but also to participate? The answer is fairly simple and absolutely wonderful. The resurgence of burlesque has to do with reclaiming an art that has garnered a negative female stereotype for so long.

Traditionally, women have been told that their body and sexuality is something to be seen and enjoyed only by men, that we are not allowed to be both smart and sexy for our own pleasure, and that in order to be “beautiful” the female body must measure up to the standards codified by our Britney and Paris-crazed society. These are the ideas that neo-burlesque challenges by recasting those stereotypes. Watch a burlesque dame strut her stuff and remove key articles of clothing and you will see a confident, smart, sophisticated woman who is unafraid of social pressures and proud of her body and her sexuality. She mocks and makes jest of the role women have played in men’s fantasies—changing it over to ask the more important question, what role do I want to play in my own fantasies?

Let’s look at an example of the subversive mocking and re-casting of neo-burlesque. Burlesque starlet Peek-a-boo Pointe created an act where she is dressed as a 1950s housewife. In this piece, Ms. Pointe’s happiness is found doing her husband’s ironing. As she dutifully irons she beautifully mocks the pseudo-happiness of the Donna Reed age. She continues her task, quickly becoming fixated on the crotch area of her husband’s trousers. Inhaling the wafting sent from his pants’ crotch, she becomes exceptionally randy. This aromatic must inspires her to undress and begin ironing her own clothes in lovely sardonic fashion.

Do we challenge being part of a separate stereotyped “feminine” sphere by drawing so much attention to it and effectively mocking it? Absolutely. Are we promoting the agenda of the women’s liberation movement? While it may not be intentional, it speaks inevitability of a step forward in feminist thinking. It emerges in an art form like burlesque because everyone is ready for it to. And performers are interested in sharing this synthesis of sexuality and creativity with all women.

Burlesque is about bringing women together through our mutual sexuality, common fantasies and the natural beauty of each individual female body. One of the best things about burlesque is that the women who perform don’t fit into a cookie cutter mold of “appropriate body-type.” We are all women, all curves, some more on top, some more on bottom, every single one of us has cellulite, we eat cupcakes, candy, drink sodas on stage… After all, we aren’t trying to “be” anything other than normal women who are also sex goddesses.

Ultimately, the “meaning” of burlesque is up to the viewer. But if you listen to what I’m saying—watch what I’m saying—when I’m on stage you’ll start to notice the difference between burlesque and stripping. I’m not saying, “Look at me because I’m a female and I can get you sexually excited.” I’m saying, “I’m letting you look at me because I’m okay with my body and I am a sexual and creative creature and what I offer is a gift to all I give it to.”

The point is we open ourselves up in order to discover our own freedom and power. We go against everything we have been brought up to believe is “good” for self-respecting girls. But I’ll tell you, I have more respect for myself now than I ever did before I started performing burlesque. I have challenged myself, my self-image, my standing in society and with my family. I’m risking a lot, but I’ve gained so much more. If you’re performing burlesque for the right reasons you’ll never be looked down upon by anyone who is worth being seen by, because it is the inner beauty that shines in spite of the presumptions and the “dirty” connotations it holds for some. The fact is, if an audience member isn’t comfortable with female bodies (specifically your own body) then please don’t come. I can’t make you see your own fat thighs as beautiful. I can only show you that I think my fat thighs are.

Art can be a revolutionary and powerful voice of the feminist movement without requiring stylistic standards. Women love burlesque because it allows them to make the connection that it’s okay to be the best most fabulously sexual woman you can be.

Mama Lou is a character-driven performer who uses clown, commedia, mask, and buffon training to produce burlesque performances that are funny, sexy, and above all entertaining.

Out at the Movies
The Satya Interview with Steven Jenkins

At a time when mainstream media either ignored gay or lesbian themed film or distorted it to promote pre-existing stereotypes, Frameline stepped in to give artistic voice to the vast and diverse LGBTQ community. From film festivals to college campuses to first-run theaters, people are watching and discussing queer films. Foremost in the industry is the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival—the world’s oldest and largest event of its kind. This year’s 29th annual event presented by Frameline kicks off on June 16th and offers a showcase of the best of LGBTQ culture and cutting-edge films. Now an 11-day event that takes place at four venues, it attracts about 80,000 spectators.

After decades of media activism—and over 175 titles for rental and sale—Frameline’s mission to “support, develop, and promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer visibility through media arts” still holds true. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Frameline’s Associate Director, Steven Jenkins, on the upcoming festival and the political side of film.

How did Frameline begin?
Frameline began back in 1977 with a need perceived by three local impresarios and film mavens for a festival exclusively devoted to lesbian and gay films. This was in part to combat stereotypical images that were being seen in mainstream media at the time…if at all. It started with a small festival—with only a handful of films—and was accepted with open arms by the community who were very eager to see more represented images of themselves. It has just grown ever since.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film and video makers are encouraged to apply for the Frameline Film and Video Completion Fund. Can you tell us about this program?
We currently grant $20,000 annually to filmmakers whose work shows enormous promise. We recently awarded four $5,000 grants to filmmakers to complete their works—usually they are moving into the post-production phase when they apply for the grants. This year we will be showing two of the grant works at our festival. We are looking to increase the grant money because this is really an important part of empowering filmmakers locally, nationally and internationally.

With Frameline’s video distribution, what has the reaction been from the educational community? How are the videos perceived?
Very well. We distribute widely to the educational market—from university to K-12. There aren’t too many companies dealing with this type of media as distributors, especially in the education-oriented titles. We are about to publish a catalog that highlights our collection so that the education market can get a better sense of what we have available. As well, we distribute to television and cable. We do broadcast sales and now have a limited but soon to be expanded home video distribution plan.

Does Frameline host any free screenings in San Francisco?
We have a program at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center on Market Street with free screenings each month. They tend to deal with social issues—for the community to further their education—and as a way to engage local audiences. For example, we are showing Jeremy Simmons’ documentary School’s Out, A Life of a Gay High School in Texas, which deals with eight students in America’s first private gay high school. Last month we screened of a series of shorts, Mind If I Call You Sir: FTM, Butch and Beyond in the Bay Area, which dealt with female to male transitions and issues of butch identity that played to an absolutely packed house. And after each screening we have a panel with filmmakers or community organizations who can speak on these issues more in depth.

Do you view film as a form of political art?
I think film is certainly an example of that. Our films are meant to galvanize viewers and get them thinking and acting more about the issues on view—gay marriage, gay bashing, trans issues or gay youth issues. We are also devoted to ensuring that the LGBTQ community remains in power over its own images—that no studio or network go unchallenged when they manipulate images to make a buck.

Do you think political uses of film have changed mainstream media’s portrayal of the community?
Sure. There has been an explosion within the media with things like Queer Eye, Queer as Folk, The L Word, and LGBTQ—well, LG anyway—characters popping up on prime time sitcoms. Most still tend to be comfortably packaged for more mainstream consumption but people are pushing a bit. You see much more interesting advancements with works made by LGBTQ artists—where coming out issues and issues of acceptance are not the focal point anymore, where maybe 15 years ago that’s what all the pieces were about. It’s sort of a given now that people are out and all kinds of other stories are being told instead. And that’s really refreshing.

What are your hopes for the future?
I think we are going to see higher quality feature films that represent the community and all of its diversity. The industry realizes there is a large audience for works with LGBTQ issues.

For more information on Frameline and the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival visit For more information on LGBTQ film festivals in your area see


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