It was my pal Pete's Birthday the other night and we would go to a Burlesque night in order to celebrate.
I had slight reservations. What I've seen of stripping I've typically detested- the po-faced male clientele, the £10-a-pint-because-we've-let-you-in-and-we're-doing-you-a-favour-mate ambiance and, of course, the portrayal of half the population as gyrating eye-meat. Strip clubs are a sort of Checkpoint Charlie in the war of the sexes, with cynicism and shame the mixed fabric of either side's uniforms. Best avoided.
The counter-argument was boobs. Well, heck, it was the guy's birthday. I went along...
And surprised myself that I didn't end up feeling like shit. Why? Because Burlesque- at least as run by Red-light, Leicester's own take on the genre- is a matriarchy. It's the stripping equivalent of 5th century Athens- as if the strippers have stabbed the club-owning tyrant ('the night of the long stilettos'?) and installed a new democracy in a state of perilous undress.
Not only were women the stage act, they were also the compares (which stopped me in my tracks when I first entered), the money-takers, the roadies and- most strikingly- the greater half of the audience. If not, they were audibly the most enthusiastic anyhow.
They seemed heterosexual for the main, too. At least, they appeared to have brought boyfriends along (though I don't imagine they were exactly dragged). A fascinating dynamic. I couldn't shake off the thought that this wasn't so much a celebration of some women taking their clothes off, but rather the notion of all women doing so. Real women doing so. The stage artiste is a kohl-gilded cypher for the audience to project themselves upon. I'd never been so delighted to be so useless to an evening's proceedings.
I could be wrong, naturally. My take of burlesque as a 3rd wave feminist grassroots movement (the Tea Party with nipple tassels, if you will) might well be mere ogle-justification. Others have called it stripping for the middle classes and they may well be right (though I think it more likely they've never been to a burlesque- nothing about the crowd that night suggested any class distinction. There's an odd sort of freemasonry to body piercings). It is still women removing their clothes as entertainment. I don't possess the requisite ovaries to judge it.
However, I am an SF writer, or thereabouts. And so I found myself asking, in the eventuality of an all-female society (Science fiction's oldest, most-worn hot potato) would burlesque, or something fundamentally resembling it, exist?
From what I've seen I think yes, it would. In fact I could see it reinforcing that society's sense of itself and the individuals that comprised it, especially if threatened by forces military and male from without.
Whether critic or voyeur, I'm pretty sure it was a female art form I saw the other night. Heterosexual men simply don't watch their own kind undress. Burlesque may have its roots in 50's men's clubs, doubtless, but now the ones calling the shots are also wearing the pasties.