This project uses the reemergence of burlesque performance as a spring board to look at the idea of comedy and sexuality as the emergent mode for female dominance via media.
This project stems from a series of interviews I have filmed with women who are burlesque dancers as well as conversations I have had with women working professionally in standup, improv, sketch comedy and comedy writing. There is something very specific to the kind of agency these women are creating for themselves through the intentional use of burlesque to lampoon established images of femininity in western popular culture. They are intentionally using their own bodies to be confrontational and at the same time charm their audiences with a coquettish sexuality. Using the reemergence of burlesque as a spring board to look at the idea of comedy and sexuality as the emergent mode for female dominance via media. Through interviews and textual analysis of performances, of women who write and perform their own material as investigation of the possibilities for women to assume control in the larger narratives and representation of women within popular culture. There is a wealth of writing on topics related to this idea including historical documentation of women performing comedy, theoretical texts on sexualized self representation by women and explorations of humor and feminism. I selected a cross-section for this review as a touchstone for beginning my own research. Some very relevant books have been omitted from this review but only because I was not able to access them in the timeline for this assignment.
The subject of women and humor is clearly present but ultimately as a side note in feminist theory. However, it seems like an obvious way to engage with younger generation of women who do not feel they are part of a specifically feminist history. I am interested in foregrounding the burlesque combination of humor and sexuality as a mode of critique for women writer/performers working within the contemporary media environment. By using a sophisticated combination of humor and sexuality women can burlesque centuries worth of feminine representations. In this way, they craft hybrid identities for themselves within the heavily mediated contemporary cultural environment. This could be prescribed as a feminist mode of media critique, which can be highly visible and thus effective in influencing new perceptions of femininity. Much of the writing around feminist theory and humor is often about a lack of humor in feminist theory due to feelings that the subject was too serious to make light of. Helen Cioux's 1975, Laugh of Medussa, provides an excellent text for exploring the feminist theory aspect of this for several reasons. It advocates that women must write and I think women today would especially appreciate that Cioux does not specify content or form – which opens a door for many types of female authority to emerge. She also writes that women must use their bodies to tell their stories since they cannot escape the meaning of its presence – so, women must write from their perspective and they must acknowledge their physicality in order for their writing to assert power in a larger cultural dialog. The inversion of the medusa myth from screaming to laughter is the perfect parallel for looking at how women are writing/performing themselves, today.
There have been many attempts to identify a sense of humor specific to the female experience. In the book, They Used to Call me Snow White, Regina Berreca points to the fact that women have used double entendre to provide coded messages in comedy (performed on a stage or personal life) out of necessity because showing outright wit was not socially acceptable. Berreca looks at female characters in classic and contemporary texts and even the actors who portrayed them on screen. She mentions the formidable Lorelie of Anita Loo's Gentlemen Prefer Blonds a story itself that burlesques a type of woman which Loo's felt was the type men desire. A coded message that would " have no trouble getting by the censors despite the fact that the hidden message could easily be understood by the audience." (p17) A woman who purrs to men cloyingly with a wink to women watching that this man is clearly a fool. She describes a 'double-voiced dialog' in which women, aware of the humor in a situation are trained by societal conditioning not to confront it directly.The many ways that humor is used to gain power in social situations is a predominant theme of writing about women and comedy. Women of a certain generation have been made to feel uncomfortable women using humor as a tool because it implies sexual experience, as is asserted by many examples from film, television and social conventions which align use of humor with 'bad girls'. The message from such portrayals is that we are to look negatively upon those women who do use humor. It could be useful to bring contemporary insight to this area, by observing and interviewing women of the next generation, those who grew up with a different set of images of femininity. Is there Such a Thing As Women's Humor by Sevda Caliskan addresses directly the idea of a specifically female sense of humor. The combination of the perspective of women in general from a position of “other “ and that humor has publicly belonged to men, creates a situation where women in comedy is inherently subversive because it is seen as an exception to the rule rather than for its own independent relevance. Out of necessity, women writers/performers have learned to rely on subtext and double entendre in order to make a place for themselves, without uprooting the existing hierarchy of male dominance in comedy. Many examples of women as in performance or social context, using a strategy of subversive humor to satirize and call out double standards, are provided in existing writing on women and humor.
A Popular Discussion
The subject of funny, sexy women was brought into the public sphere recently when Vanity Fair published an essay from Cristopher Hitchens entitled “Why Women Aren't Funny.” The essay is essentially an anthology of all the historical mythology around women and humor, subtract a few contemporary references and it could easily be mistaken for something written in the 1950's. The article generated a good deal of discussion online between women writers and comedians and served as a build up to a cover story in the magazine about a recent trend of funny and (not so coincidentally, beautiful) women making names for themselves in mainstream comedy television and film today, including Tina Fey former head writer and cast members from Saturday Night Live. Vanity Fair continued the dialog with a rebuttal from Hitchens in a video interview online where he reiterates his real provocation which is that women don't need to be funny evolutionarily.
History and Revival of Burlesque Performance
One of the few pieces I found investigating use by women of a specific distribution mechanism for creation of this type of self image, in this case the photo promotional cards, carte visite etc.e, . The early self representation by women actors and proto-burlesque performers, in the mid 1800s on and how they used photography to create and mass disseminate a simultaneously sexy and comedic image of themselves. This was the beginning of the modern the pin-up, a sexually self aware yet charmingly coy, promotional image meant for mass distribution. Even in the earliest form these images played with feminine stereotypes and shamelessly blurred the boundaries of a character and the performer. This sets up a historic president for women to use combination of sexuality and comedic parody of sexuality to create a powerful hybrid identity for themselves. The feminist theory approach these images of women has been addressed in her book The Happy Stripper. It profiles several eras of burlesque through the work of performers and looks at what modern burlesque reveals about the contemporary condition of post-feminism. There is something empowering to the women performing and observing this burlesque with its bold, smart, tounge-in-cheek humor. "The burlesque performer looks back, smiles and questions her audience, as well as her performance, a performance that is comic outlandish and saucy, a highly camp mostly vintage spectacle. Burlesque is the low invading the high it cheekishly and brashly moved into the mainstream, adopting its forms, performance art, comedy, circus, modern dance, but without taking any one too seriously." The burlesque body is a place where all kinds of issues are called into light, class, agency, economics, gender etc. all the while, it a light entertainment that can appeal to a cross section of male and female audiences. It can be used to address a public indifference which she sees in many young women have to calling themselves feminists. Walker is a bit uncomfortable with too quickly aligning this new-burlesque with female empowerment but, in my own research interviewing performers and women who are active as producers and educators, it is clear to that their work is on the whole, very intentional and intellectually inspired.
Since my own area of expertise is neither women's literature or feminist theory, comedy or sociology but rather the study of digital media and the new modes distribution and social interactions that it allows for, I propose to study how the burlesquing female fits in this context. Women have used burlesque as a way to reassert control over the eroticism of female body and to create a complex self-image not available in the traditional female archetypes offered by the mainstream media. A study of the self-made funny, sexy female as an alternative archetype throughout history could construct a feminist theory of interest to young women, today which encourages them to own burlesquing of culture as a right and responsibility.
Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow White. New York: Viking, 1991
Buszek, Maria-Elena, “Representing "Awarishness":Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th- Century” The Drama Review 43.4 (1999) 141-162
Caliskan, Sevda. “Is There Such a Thing as Women's Humor?”, American Studies International v33 (1994) p49-59 O
Cioux, Helene. “The Laugh of The Medusa.” SIGNS 1:4 1976: 875-881. University of Chicago Press. Rpt. In The Essential Feminist Reader. Ed. Estelle Freedman. New York: Random House, 2007. 318-324.
Dresner, Zita and Walker, Nancy, eds. Redressing the Balance: American Women's Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1988
Fraiberg, Alison. “Between the Laughter: Bridging Feminist Studies through Women's Stand-Up Comedy.” Look Who's Laughing: Gender And Comedy. Ed. Gail Finney. Amsterdam: Gordon And Breach, 1994. 315-333
Gray, Frances. Women And Laughter. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1994
Hitchens, Cristopher. “Why Women Aren't Funny.” Vanity Fair January. 2007
Hitchens, Cristopher. “Why Women Still Aren't Funny.” Vanity Fair Magazine YouTube Channel April. 2008 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7izJggqCoA
Stanley, Alessandra. “Who Says Women Aren't Funny.” Vanity Fair April. 2008
Wilson, Jackie. The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque.