Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
Robert C. Allen

Who knew that someone could write so much about this topic and make it completely fascinating? Allen’s vast scope, writing style, and analytical ability make this book a joy to read, perhaps my favorite so far this semester. The title comes from William Dean Howells’s essay on burlesque, who described burlesque performers as “not like men” but at the same time “in most things as unlike women.” He said in fact that they were like “creatures of a kind of alien sex, parodying both. It was certainly a shocking thing to look at them with their horrible prettiness, their archness in which was no charm, their grace which put to shame” (qtd. in Allen 25).

One gets the sense from Howell’s commentary that he protests too loudly, and that kind of protest was a common theme of the day. Many reviewers and audience members had to frequent burlesque shows so that they could complain regularly of the immorality. That one theme of the book is present, but it isn’t belabored. Too many other important themes exist. Another interesting point Allen makes is about changing notions of beauty, certainly a part of Howells’s observation. One of the first illustrations in the book is a photograph of Lydia Thompson as Ixion. She’s no beauty from where I sit. Her features are coarse; she’s decidedly overweight (though thinner than me); her legs look like two baseball bats; and her nose could not have been pretty, even then. Allen takes the whole first chapter to tell the story of what might have been the first case of hype. The story that preceded Thompson to the U.S. was the world’s response to her “charismatic sexuality” (7): people literally went crazy. In small Russian towns, people hung her picture in the kitchen alongside the one of the Czar. In fact, in one Russian city, a captain of the dragoons committed suicide, saying his love for her drove him to it (7). So either it was spin to ignite the New York audience, or the European audience had different tastes. In any event, the New York press wasn’t so kind, saying she was “well proportioned…but by no means handsome” (8). New York critics preferred Ixion cast member, Pauline Markham, who they termed “the most beautifully formed woman who had ever appeared on the stage” and who is much prettier in her picture (9).

Anyway, the idea of burlesque humor can be seen at the beginning of this first chapter, where we see what must have appeared on the program of Lydia Thompson’s first season in America. It says: “DRAMATIS PERSONAE – MARS – commander-in-chief, as Ma’s usually are. THE NINE MUSES, including POLLY HYMNIA. Those Thessalians who would be these aliens if they weren’t natives; dreadful Democrats, members of several secret societies who demand the right of free speaking in a state of free-dumb” (1). And so on. What we can see from that brief example is that the pun is one of the most common forms of burlesque humor.

Moving right along, I said that Allen shows the changing forms of beauty as well as the changing ways the people handled sexuality at the time. We’ve just added to that the way humor was used. But Allen frames the way he considers burlesque in a much larger way. He explains, “we might say that burlesque is one of several nineteenth-century entertainment forms that is grounded in the aesthetics of transgression, inversion, and the grotesque” (26). Now, all these become significant because they relate specifically to the role of women, to the nature of power in society (which relates both to women and to race), and to issues related to disability. All those come in to play in this study of burlesque. Frankly, I did not expect to have a feminist reading of burlesque from a male author, and I wouldn’t have looked forward to it, had I known it, but this is one of the best feminist readings I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to say more about what I learned.

I should not have to stop and explain my excitement over the feminist reading, but I guess I want to. This summer in my “Leadership & the Glass Ceiling” Peer Day, we discussed Andrea L’s students, many of whom, she told us, say things in class like “I’m not a feminist, but…” Now, I certainly don’t mean to emulate Andrea’s students, but I do feel compelled to say just that. Is the famous joke about feminists true? (You know the one—“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “That’s not funny!”). I guess my apology or disclaimer is that I don’t want to be taken for a humorous woman with a bad haircut and sensible shoes. But that said it’s so easy to get a bit angrier after every tiny awakening to these feminists truths, more and more red-faced until I look like that one horrible, angry feminist at Goddard (who I won’t name), who one would want to avoid at lunch time because the conversation would be so tooth-gnashingly furious. As I write about Horrible Prettiness, I’m going to be telling you about a few disturbing truths.

Okay. Now that that’s out of my system, back to Allen. He uses Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s ideas to explain how to begin thinking about the burlesque: as a part of the low culture, and that isn’t just to marginalize it. If burlesque is a part of the low culture, say Stallybrass and White, then it is “reviled by and excluded from the dominant social order as debased, dirty, and unworthy,” but at the same time it is “the object of desire and/or fascination” (26). So, in other words, we love to hate it; it “elicits both repugnance and fascination” (26). Allen explains that the result is “a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level” and that is why “what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central” (26). I follow Allen’s point here: the events that transpire on the edges of the culture seem to be the real focus of the culture many times.

Allen realizes that if he intends to define burlesque in American culture, he must offer a working definition of culture. He says, “the study of culture is the study of how groups of people make sense of, find their place within, express their understandings of, and make pleasurable or displeasurable their relationships with the social worlds they inhabit” (30). So, Allen further explains that we should not study any of these events “in isolation,” or as though they meant the same to everyone who experienced them, but rather in the context in which they occurred to the ones who were there. “Pleasure is socially constrained, and [...] socially determined” (30). In other words, how and what one enjoys has much to do with one’s social position. But it’s important to keep in mind that culture has as much to do with the groups and groupings that exist as it does with the “contestations” (32).

These contestations bring up the issue of power, which will be quite pertinent to the later discussion of burlesque, believe it or not. In defining terms, Allen explains that it helps when we “think of power relations in terms of subordination’s more precise opposite, ordination, than the term with which it is more commonly paired (domination)” because “groups in a position to do so rarely exercise their power with the force and directness suggested by the term ‘domination.’ Rather, power is expressed through ordination: that is, by attempting to regulate through the arrangement of things in ranks and orders—what is high, what is low; what is us, what is them” (34). An example given is of ethnic jokes, which Allen says “work by reordinating the world, dividing it between an us and a them – a them that is always close to us – geographically or culturally – but is through the joke made ontologically different and inferior” (34). This concept of reordinating the world is particularly interesting when I see it related specifically to humor—humor is often related to interplay of power, so there’s a connection to my other work.

Anyway, the power of ordination is “bound by the limits of discourse.” Allen gives examples of things like editorials, sermons, and even jokes. But “insubordination is resistance contained by discourse: the temporary and circumscribed upsetting of another group’s symbolic ordering—grafitti, rude noises at the back of the classroom, the hiss, the boo” (35). Allen connects this kind of discourse to burlesque through Bakhtin’s work with “the carnivalesque.”

No comments: