Friday, September 23, 2016

"Masculine" Burlesque and Self-Deprecating Humor

I was scrolling through my performer Facebook like I usually do, when I came across a thread posted by fellow performer Dangrrr Doll that caught my attention. Since I love reading about contentious topics and the oft debated "why we do this" ideologies of burlesque performance, I was inspired to write on it myself.

It's no coincidence that Dangrrr, a terrifically accomplished burlesque performer who I occasionally get to share the stage with, habitually critiques the way we present our concepts on stage. I've even featured her on this blog before, so with that in mind, here's the original post;

In the class I teach here in Boston (now in its fourth installment), this is the core concept I build from--masculine movement, masculine character building, masculine stripper moves, masculine kazoo concertos, masculine giraffe husbandry, etc. It's really the only thing I can speak to as an expert, since it's at the heart of every piece I write and perform. And based on the varying levels of comfort of the men I know in burlesque, it's not always a focal point of everyone's act construction, though for my own students, I like it when they take my lead and make it their own.

When I first sat down to talk with Stratton McCrady and Robin of the "Acting Out" project, Robin was surprised to learn that I was a straight male performer doing burlesque. Even though operating on the pretenses that most burlesque performers are queer to some degree (or that any men who perform burlesque MUST be gay) isn't an unsafe bet, it does beg the following question:

"What does a straight man performing burlesque look like?"

I dunno, this?
Photo by Roger Gordy

While straight men aren't a rare commodity in most walks of life, we are somewhat unrepresented in burlesque. I've found that most straight men don't have any idea how to move like a man might, to say nothing of how to break into the burlesque scene in the first place. As I've alluded to before, I learned most of my first striptease movements from Rogue Burlesque founders Dixie Douya and Bustee Keaton, and those movements weren't exactly....masculine.

After a year or two of figuring out what I wanted to change, I decided to spend some time and effort learning how to walk, crawl, posture, and pose myself as a masculine character. And for several years now, I've spent a lot of time watching myself in the mirror and making changes as needed.

But taking it back a little, I've found that men who jump onto a stage to perform instinctively gravitate toward one tendency; self-deprecating parody. It's almost like there's an expectation for a man to get on stage and put himself down to make himself feel accepted by the audience. It's weird, but I understand it. I used to do it a lot.

Like, an uncomfortable amount.
Photo by Stratton McCrady, Acting Out!

If I've learned one thing about teaching men striptease, it's that men don't have a default "sexy" set of movements. If I ask a new guy in my class to walk around and move like a suave, ladies-man type for the purposes of an exercise, he will almost always include a section where he's pantomiming an aggressive rejection (possibly involving getting a drink thrown on him). Selling confidence, success, and attractiveness in movement is terrifying for many men, and I suspect, a huge reason why they might want to take my class in the first place.

I'll give you an example. Sway Bradbury mentioned that "embarrassment/shame is all about maintaining your masculinity in moments of vulnerability; i.e. your pants fall down and you feel shame, portraying your nudity as something you feel negatively towards and understand should be hidden. Whereas in high femme burlesque, what I consider classic burlesque, nudity is something you revel in. That vulnerability isn't embarrassing, it's empowering."

That's real. If a guy is on stage and acting out a scene where his shirt and pants are suddenly missing, he's embarrassed, he's shy, and his first move is to cover it up. That same scene acted out by a woman? She's suddenly the one in control. She's sexy, intense, and using that as her weapon.

I want to say that this has to do with the power dynamic of burlesque and how it contrasts with the power dynamic of a gendered society. Should straight men naturally feel like they need to approach burlesque cautiously, and justify their presence in the space with a few jokes made at their own expense? Maybe that's just the price of entry. But I think there's something else hiding there.

I think it has more to do with the fact that men are raised without the burden of having their sexuality constantly available for consumption, a benefit that women don't have the option of. At every turn, women are expected to be sexy and have a way to market themselves constantly with every choice they make in their waking lives. A lot of women I talk to about burlesque performance use the stage as a way to claim ownership of their sexuality--especially since there's so much unjustified entitlement to it in the outside world, perpetrated by media, industry, and random men on the sidewalk. Since men never have to experience this, they don't know what to do in a situation where the expectation turns to them.

Photo by Ben A Johnson

The result of this is that straight men on stage have to get naturalized to the concept of being objectified. Even after all these years of performing striptease, whenever I get an aggressive compliment from a stranger about my sexiness on stage, my gut tells me to feel flattered. What I don't feel is guarded, defensive, or threatened. I don't think I'll ever understand what it means to be truly objectified, and that vulnerability is something I could never learn or teach.

Straight men aspiring to perform with sexual and vulnerable burlesque on stage require a bigger understanding of this, myself included. It's that knee-jerk answer that I get from every guy that I talk to about potentially jumping on stage to perform burlesque: It's the "I'm not in good enough shape" response which signals that most of us fellas aren't even remotely conscious of what the concept of sexual desirability is for a male-facing audience--which would explain why gay male performers have a better understanding of the concept. We straight guys instinctively assume that we just have to be hot and show up, and only then can we perceive the ironic vulnerability of what it means to be objectified.

Or, barring that, we could make intentional fools of ourselves to garner favor from the audience. Comparatively, that certainly does seem like a less scary option.

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