It’s not easy being a feminist. And I’m not talking about the big stuff, the right of women to have equal representation in public and political life; the right for a woman to dress any damn well way she likes and it never to be thrown in her face that it contributed to her attack, rape or abuse. The right to choose, reclaim the night, be awarded equal pay. No the big stuff is fine, we seasoned sisters can come out punching at the bell, arguments at the ready, soap boxes to hand. No the difficulty arises in the “off duty” moments, when you let the guard slip. That’s when the non-believers (and sometimes the zealots) come at you, all the time trying to trip you up. Someone says they went to the doctor and you ask with concern “what did he say?” And they are right on top of you. “Oh call yourself a feminist? Why wouldn’t you assume the doctor was a man?” “Because statistically” you say wearily, “that’s the most likely scenario”. Say someone throws like a girl and the hounds of hell are loosed. It can be exhausting; any veggie who’s ever snaffled a bacon sandwich to cure a hangover couldn’t be less despised from her meat free chums than a feminist who is ever less than on message 24/7.
Well I confess last night I may have slipped up, oh and big time. I may be asked to hand back my membership card; I may be stripped of my original and pre Elle “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T shirt, my “What Have Women Ever Done for Us – Plenty” backpack may have to be handed back.
Knowing my love for all things Berlin and all things cabaret, my penchant for a spectacle and a bit of a torch song a chum took me along to Burlesque at the Theatre Royal. Neither of us had checked it out, weren’t really sure what to expect, but it was on at the Theatre Royal so maybe some parody, satire, mockery, extravaganza, bit of drama, bit of music; in other words sticking to its origins of “burlesco”. Sure we knew that in recent times it had become in seedy clubs a byword for strip joints so much so that a couple of years back a borough in North London insisted that places advertising burlesque needed adult entertainment licences; and burlesque lessons have become a bit of a hen night staple for the kinds of women who think pink rhinestone studded cowboy hats the go-to fashion accessory for every overweight bridesmaid. BUT we wouldn’t go to a striptease show, no, this was on at the Theatre Royal, not the Kings or even the Pavilion, Scotland’s National Theatre of Variety. Surely it would have a bit of class a bit of pazzaz
Early signs proved worrying. A number of the female audience, who ought to have known better, were wearing flowers and sequined headbands, there was a denier of fish net tights, and people with over 35 BMIs were tottering around in stiletto boots the downforce from which risked them sinking into the pavement. But we pressed on.
The theatre was far from full and our seats were worryingly near the front, and there were distinct signs of “girl’s night’s outs”. Parody and satirical commentary I felt were not to be on the menu. Instead a tawdry show with a small cast of women and a male “comedium” (comic come psychic medium – get it) proceeded to fill the first hour with dubious singing, and a succession of the dreaded and feared striptease turns that had all the charm and sensuality of a kiss me quick hat from Largs. It was like being stuck in a Benny Hill meets Dick Emery show with that scene from Carry on Camping when Barbara Windsor’s bra “accidentally” pings off during her morning calisthenics playing on a continuous loop. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t slick, it was cheap in every sense of the word! It was simply difficult to believe that this badly lit, hopelessly technical incompetent (long pauses while they got their tapes to play with whispering from the wings) touring rag-bag of tits and bums could actually be pulling in the paying customer in 2014.
Now I’m no body Nazi and I think women should confirm to no man’s or woman’s trimmed and airbrushed view of perfection dictated to by the advertising industry or popular culture. I’m with the Dove adverts let’s get a few more real women in our faces. So on a positive shout out for the Sisterhood at least it’s good to know that excessive cellulite is no barrier to a career on stage…though I wish it were. My ass has, I’m proud to say, not gone completely south but I know when to keep it myself. The same could not be said for our brave artistes. Think blancmange, think bag of fighting cats and you get the rather grotesque picture. Not so much Moulin Rouge more Milnathort or when Lesmahagow met Las Vegas! And not to be outdone showing themselves up, the show stooped to the cheapest and easiest version of entertainment, let’s get some hapless men on stage to make complete tits of themselves, and oh! how they loved it.
And perhaps this was the most worrying thing about the whole ghastly experience, apart from me and my chum EVERYONE seemed to be having a simply rip-roaring time, so much so that the woman sitting next to me positively glared at me when I didn’t clap, hoot, cat call or whistle when Tina von Titty or Betty la Booby teasingly (?) threatened to take off another layer.
I have no idea if men find striptease generally sexually arousing, or of they find looking at naked bottoms on stage a turn on. I can see, on the other hand, how a sensual removing of clothes in the privacy of one’s own bedroom might turn up the passion nicely. I also cannot imagine that straight women find the spectacle of women taking a mighty long time to take off their gloves, before taking off everything else, a titillation. So if it’s not for sexual gratification then they must be here for fun. But there was no charm in this, no tongue in cheek parody. This wasn’t some big spoof that we were all in on the joke of. This was just rather desperate, and if the audience weren’t laughing with them then they were laughing AT then and that’s what, as a feminist, I find so distressing: that the audience, who were mostly women, couldn’t see anything wrong or uncomfortable in what was happening in front of them in a provincial theatre. That women are still being paid to undress in front of men and that it is billed as entertainment, is not sending a positive role model to women and don’t give me all that crap about it being empowering. These women might indeed have had the choice but what about women trafficked into the sex trade who are required to perform this sort of act nightly not on the stage of a theatre but in the seedy back rooms of private clubs. When does one set of striptease become just a laugh out with the little woman for a night away from the kiddies and the dishes; and when does it cross over into something a bit more extreme a bit more controlling when just out with the lads on a stag night. Afterall the logic must go if a woman wearing a short skirt is gagging for it then a woman taking of her clothes and attaching tassles to her nipples is practically paying YOU for it, surely????
We can look back to the “Oh you are naughty but I like you” childish gender stereotypes of the 60s and 70s television shows that passed as popular culture, and watch with a sort of snooty grimace that how awful we used to think that funny. But no-one would ever dream of making shows like that again. On the Apprentice this week the team that designed a relationship game that re-enforced crass and demeaning stereotypes of women were quite rightly taken to task not least because the focus groups said that sort of presentation was no longer acceptable.
And yes we did leave at the interval so for all I know the second half were all about chaps getting their kit off. That wouldn’t have been any more appealing. Reducing anyone of us too a mere object of sexuality for profit IS a sort of prostitution. So before you tell me to “calm down dear” it’s only a bit of fun; just be aware that despite those that claim we live in a post-feminist world I can’t remember winning the war. If we don’t challenge sexual and gender stereotypes at every turn how the hell can we expect to be taken seriously. I wonder how many of the women their last night egging on their partners and the strippers complain about low wages, shit part-time conditions, having to do most of the housework and the kid raising. Well ladies I got news for you if you don’t respect yourself or your gender don’t expect anyone else to.
And before you accuse me of having no sense of humour I was secretly hoping to be hauled up on stage so I could say “My name is Esmeralda and I sew shrouds for a living” and watching the suckers lap it up.