“I’m not indecent!” –Bettie Page, sex-positive feminist before it was even a thing

I tip my tiny burlesque top hat to you, Bettie Page.

Page, risen from poverty and trauma, grew up to ignite her own successful career and a sexual revolution. Charged multiple times with indecency, her battle cry, “I’m not indecent” dared to elevate women’s naked bodies, no longer impure or passive-and-possessed.

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Image source: http://www.seantcollins.com

Tori Rodriguez’s fantastic article in The Atlantic, “Male fans made Bettie Page a star but female fans made her an icon” takes a good look at Page’s life, career, icon-status, and the upcoming film Bettie Reveals Allhttp://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/01/male-fans-made-bettie-page-a-star-but-female-fans-made-her-an-icon/282794/

“…Bettie Page Reveals All, a new movie about her life, is the first film to tell her story in her own voice—in fact, she’s the narrator. Based on a series of interviews with Academy Award-nominated director Mark Mori several years before her death, the film recounts how—despite a childhood in Nashville, Tennessee rife with neglect, sexual abuse by her father, and extreme poverty—she managed to graduate at the top of her high school class, earn a college degree, and forge her own career. Page also reveals details of her struggle with paranoid schizophrenia, which included 10 years spent in a psychiatric hospital after abandoning her modeling career….” –excerpt from The Atlantic

“I’m not indecent!” frees Page from the role of victim as well– sexual abuse tells the survivor that there is something wrong with his/her body and that his/her body is solely for someone else’s pleasure, yet Page goes on to confront sex and sexuality not as an object, but as a career woman of agency and sex-positive expression.* That’s not to say she didn’t suffer. We know she did. That’s not to say that burlesque and modeling are always routes to empowerment and healing. We know they aren’t. And still, I can’t help but see Bettie Page’s career as a giant “fuck this noise” to sexual repression and the oppression of women. Her icon-presence radiates strength, even when she’s “hog-tied and gagged.” We still look to her for pin-up power-ups.

“….for many women, Page symbolizes self-confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and bold authenticity.”

“‘Bettie’s female fans often feel a deep emotional connection with her, which I think says a lot about the rigid expectations women still face,’ Mori says. ” –excerpts from The Atlantic

And so, my refrain: I tip my tiny burlesque top hat to you, Bettie Page. Live on in glory.

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Image source: http://www.pinuppassion.com

*If you’re interested in sex-positive empowerment for sexual trauma survivors, you may want to check out Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines.

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Take me to the London Burlesque!

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Manifest destiny,” says Maria Bamford, patron saint of lady artists. “It’s kind of already mine. 

Listen, I didn’t need another reason to go to London– I’ve already been pining since I was invited to write with friends during the summer. Obviously, the only thing keeping me from it is money. What else? And now this fantastic post by Charlotte Lennon on the London burlesque scene with pictures, like the one above, has moved me to wonder about The Secret.  http://charlottelennon.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/london-burlesque/  I’m super good at making shit up and obsessing about it, so it seems like I’m already a pro.

Top 15 Classic Burlesque Queens

Here’s a fun little youtube clip adventure through the top 15 Burlesque performers. If you’re anything like me and have an intense fear and hatred of parrots and parrot-like tropical birds, then maybe avoid Rosita Royce’s “Bird Dance.” She’s talented and gorgeous, but THOSE WERE BY NO MEANS DOVES! Parrots are evil, but Burlesque is forever. I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean. I’ve been writing for many, many hours now.

Simply Burlesque

The ’30s, ’40s,  ’50s and ’60s were exceptional times for striptease artists. Hundreds of theaters and clubs across the country catered to burlesque and even Hollywood came calling. Hundreds of  extraordinarily beautiful women made careers teasing  eager audiences with carefully planned and, by today’s standards, modest displays of flesh. What makes a classic burlesque queen? Here at Simply Burlesque the criteria is simple:

  • beauty: the performer had to be easy on the eyes with a stunning figure to match
  • dance ability: the best burlesque strippers could easily glide across a stage and keep a beat
  • striptease ability: since burlesque is about the art of teasing, the queens of this field were the ones who could be seductive without being lewd
  • gimmicks: whether she used a fan, her stockings, an animal or balloons, classic burlesque queens always had a little something extra to captivate the audience
  • performance: song choice and costumes…

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Fans of Faith and Mindfulness

Not gonna lie… after reading about Faith Bacon’s untimely end I got a little choked up with the wings.

I watched Behind the Burly Q on Netflix (amazing, by the way) and one of the dancers described the abject despair and revulsion she felt during her first performance when she looked into the audience and saw the men in the front row masturbating. The burlesque back in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s was, more often than not, exploitative. The dancers were often poor, mistreated, and desperate.

And yet, the burlesque of today looks so empowering– the performers seem to have real agency. I have no hesitation seeing burlesque as an art form. The documentary A Wink and a Smile, also on Netflix (also amazing), suggests that contemporary burlesque upends the more traditional dancer as sexualized object. Instead, the dancer is performing her sexuality through her burlesque persona, a character of her own creation that she uses to articulate the dynamics of agency and desire. It makes me think that the contemporary burlesque dancer is fiction in motion.

I wonder though if it’s possible to perform and not feel some degree of shame. I’m not suggesting that there is anything intrinsically shameful about burlesque or stripping: it’s a specific part of American culture that created the stigma and labels it shameful– that’s the same cracked culture that slut-shames pop stars and victims of sexual violence. Maybe people just can’t perform anything, even day to day life, with out some degree of shame.

The yogic practice of mindfulness, nonjudgmental self-awareness, is one way to approach transcending shame while fully inhabiting the body. Mindfulness travels well, so I imagine then that anything done mindfully could liberate and embody. Writing, eating, walking, singing, surfing…. dancing, too, I bet, especially if that dance includes giant feather fans. Who could possibly feel bad with feather fans? Well… nevermind. Obviously many people can and do, Miss Bacon included. We need mindfulness and fans, together, I suppose.

This is why I like the direction burlesque is going in: 1. it’s gender and trans gender friendly, 2. it’s more racially diverse and allows dancers of color to reclaim symbols that have been used to exoticize, 3. It’s creative and glamorous and kitch all at once, 5. costumes, and 6. It’s about choosing how, when, and how much to perform the inescapable. It’s important to note too that not all the early burlesque dancers in Behind the Burly Q described their work as shameful. Quite a few of them found fame and money and felt a lot of pride in their talents and resourcefulness during a tough time in American history. That felt good to hear. With all this in mind, and without disregarding anyone’s experience, perhaps the burlesque of yesteryear may take on a new meaning, or at least another aspect, too.

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Faith Bacon performs “Dance of Shame” (sexuality is complicated)

Looking up some old burlesque acts and stumbled upon this gem: Faith Bacon, delicate veil work, and tiny sparkly pasties and thong. Miss Bacon was once known as America’s most beautiful dancer, but her life came to a tragic end when she jumped out of the window of her hotel room in 1956.

I used to dance with veils back when I did traditional Romani dance and traditional Middle Eastern belly dance– it was always my favorite, but it can be very tricky. I’ve been tangled in my fair share of chiffon and silk, and I felt like an awkward fish in a net that was far too good for me. And I wore a lot more clothes than Miss Bacon. A LOT more clothes. And even with two skirts on I was still nervous as hell. I am so impressed by how confident and comfortable she looks in this performance– her expression is as relaxed and warm as a velvet fainting couch. And yet, it’s the “Dance of Shame.” Burlesque means parody… perhaps she’s parodying the very notion of bodily shame.

I like it.