Burlesque has always meant more than entertainment. In the highly sexist society of the 19th century and a big chunk of the 20th, striptease embodied (no pun intended) a social dynamic in which women could assert a degree of cultural autonomy. While men held nearly all the political and economic power, women could wield their sexuality to declare, like the women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, that they were not powerless. This held true especially in the controlled environment of a theater.
Of course that’s a somewhat idealized picture, as men still held the reins of the entertainment industry, and individual performers weren’t typically self-made independent contractors. But one look at Gypsy Rose Lee’s act, which accented the “tease” much more than the “strip,” shows that in the best circumstances burlesque could give female performers a measure of social and psychological power. Sometimes financial power too.
So what can we make of the current burlesque revival? Sexism isn’t dead, but it’s a good deal less dominant and more subdued than in the days of vaudeville. For burlesque performers today, the power expressed in their acts is no longer subversive, but right on the surface, and taken for granted. We go to see and appreciate the beauty of the female body, but not to leer at it. In fact, we go partly for the subtle thrill of being dominated – again, in the safe, controlled environment of a theater. It creates a politely celebratory environment in which the only inequality is the same as occurs between actors and audience members in any theater.
Many of today’s burlesque acts are clever, smart, comic, sometimes thought-provoking. Naked Girls Reading takes it all to the nth degree, and in a way subverts it in the process. This show is burlesque only in the technical sense that it’s performed by naked women wearing colorful, glittery makeup and provocative accessories (and at the show I saw last night, a minimum of those). Fundamentally, it’s a reading, albeit a reading that takes place only because people are interested in seeing naked women.
Nasty Canasta, who runs the New York City chapter of Naked Girls Reading, sets a theme for each monthly event – Sci-Fi, Bros vs. Hos, and such – within the confines of which each reader chooses her own selections. The show last night was an exception, as there was no theme, simply a readers’ choice, but the selections displayed some commonalities anyway.
Styles and sensibilities varied widely. There were funny perspectives on the creative life by Lorrie Moore, Woody Allen, and Groucho Marx. There was dystopia from Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange.
And there was sex, childhood, and the disturbing intersection thereof. Sapphire Jones read with glorious archness a biographical account of Ava Gardner’s introduction to and enthusiastic embrace of the dirty deed with new husband Mickey Rooney. Pure humor came from Delia Ephron’s How to Eat Like a Child. And host Nasty Canasta closed the show with an intensely focused reading from Nabokov’s Lolita, which put this listener in a thoughtful and provoked state of mind. As I sat appreciating the equality of the sexes asserted by the “intellectual burlesque” on stage before me, Nabokov was conveying with brutal clarity his character’s pedophilic demons.
Looking at and listening to nude, grown women reading from books, which by necessity they held in front of their breasts, I reflected on the fact that the show wasn’t called Naked Women Reading, but Naked Girls Reading, and wondered what Nabokov would have said about that.
There’s only one way these women could elevate their act further. I await the debut of Naked Girls Reading Silently to Themselves.