Wednesday, December 01, 2004

From Burlesque to Brutal: Horrible Prettiness
How did burlesque develop its performance style? Allen says in order to know the answer, we first need to know that the theater in America has a complex history. Theater did not have a strong place in the culture until the early nineteenth century, because of its difficult beginning. First, theater needs an audience, and without many large cities to provide one, develop a strong national theater was hardly possible. Also, the U.S. had at least a couple of wars between the colonial period and the early 1800s; so cultural activity like the theater was interrupted. Further, during the colonial period, when theater might have developed even a small audience to sustain it, “two of the wealthiest and most populous American colonies were the least hospitable to traveling players” because the Puritans held in “disdain [...] theatrical entertainments of any kind” (46). In Massachusetts in 1750, there came to be “a fine of twenty pounds for attempting to mount any public stage play” (46-47). Similarly in Pennsylvania in 1682, the fine for attempting to stage a play was “twenty shillings or ten days at hard labor” (47). As a result, it is easy to see how it came to be the nineteenth century before theater evolved here. It’s also easy to trace the roots of our prudishness on many things—for example, the Janet Jackson foolishness at last year’s Superbowl. We aren’t so distant from our prudish Puritan ancestors.

The Puritans’ main complaint with theater was that it was “mimicry and spectacle. To disguise oneself and pretend to be someone else – particularly of another rank or gender was to mock nature and God.” They believed that “plays were inherently blasphemous” (48).

Moreover, the spectacle of the plays made them suspicious because using one’s body as an instrument was dubious. And for a woman to do so was extremely suspicious. Actresses, generally, were considered to be equivalent to prostitutes (49-50).

The theater of the early nineteenth century would have seemed unfamiliar to us in the present day. Allen described theater at this time as noisy and chaotic, and unlike the theater of the later nineteenth century (as well as the present day), the audience would have been less middle class. One might have encountered there “ink-covered newsboys, aproned butcher’s apprentices, burly stevedores, and, in the theater’s third tier, dozens of prostitutes and their customers” (45). Interestingly, the theaters originally had been built in the 1820s by and for the upper classes, but more and more by the late 1820s and early 1830s, the theater was attended by the lower classes (51-52).

Another interesting fact Allen reports is that “To a degree that would be unimaginable to theatergoers today, early nineteenth-century audiences controlled what went on at the theater. When the audiences “found something particularly to their liking, they would insist that it be repeated.” Boston newspaper Spirit of the Times reported for example “from the voice of the audience in 1846 [...] ’tonight we are going to encore Mrs. Kean’s “I don’t believe it” in The Gamester. We hope she’ll prove agreeable and disbelieve it twice for our sakes. Perhaps we’ll flatter Mr. Kean by making him take poison twice’” (56). Sometimes theater riots occurred when audience desires were not satisfied (57).

Later in the nineteenth century, the middle class began to emerge somewhat more, and more middleclass entertainment was made available, including burlesque, so “'respectable’ women attended museum theaters in a manner that would have indelibly marked them as prostitutes in the 1840s: without male escort” (65). Society changed.

A little later, in the chapter, “Women on Stage,” Allen discusses the connection between ballet as high art and burlesque as low art, explaining that ballet costumes showed bare legs and far more skin than would be allowable elsewhere in society—especially including a burlesque show—because ballet is considered to be high art. But if burlesque dancers wore the same costumes, it would be considered obscene (92).

Allen also talks about William Mitchell’s having taken over the Olympic theater in 1839. His form of burlesque was to entertain his “mostly working-class audience with send-ups of whatever their ‘betters’ found fashionable in literature or the theater” (102). This is hilarious to read about, but wonders whether the working class audience truly understood the humor. Hmmm…

In the chapter, “Ixion Revisited,” Allen takes up the topic of “Burlesque’s Problematic Femininity,” and maybe its phrasing is no grabber, but this is where I began to consider some of the feminist issues in the book. Earlier in the chapter, Allen cites the many morality-based critics of burlesque. Just one example is the New York Times’s review of Thompsonian burlesque in 1869 calling it “immensely damaging to the public taste and terribly ruinous to the public morals” (137).

The show that so upset them was what Allen calls “the most thoroughly feminized form of theatrical entertainment in the history of the American state to that time.” But even more interesting is when he elaborates, saying that “no form of American commercial theatrical entertainment before or since has given the stage over to women to a greater degree” (137). In this show, all the parts were played by women, except one—and even that single male actor played a woman.

That the costumes revealed some curves should surprise none of us, but the forceful, “slang-spouting, minstrel-dancing” behavior was what Allen calls “a physical and ideological inversion of the Victorian ideal of femininity.” Dressed in corsets, these women showed off “bust, hips, and legs, calling attention to the markers of sexual difference the sentimental costume kept hidden” (138).

Allen discusses this whole phenomenon alongside a mention of a historical fact that “the 1850s and 1860s [...] saw an outpouring of commentary on the ‘problem’ of prostitution, which was, as Michel Foucault has argued, a displaced discourse on sexuality and women in general. It was also a discourse on the ‘problem’ of class” (138). Incidentally—prostitution wasn’t illegal at the time; it was just a name for transgressing “the bourgeois notions of feminine propriety” or maybe returning “a man’s gaze on the street” (139). So no wonder the burlesque was seen as a threat alongside prostitution.

What struck me here—particularly with Allen’s reasoning and his intelligent discourse—was the mockery made of women who had some power. And if such a mockery was made, why? I started to think about the idea of power as it relates to the idea of modesty, particularly as I hear it defined by my Mideastern – Muslim students. I don’t mean to marginalize or speak ill of their religion, because I think it actually typifies the values that I was raised with also, but sometimes Islam is easy to characterize because their dogma is so clearly stated. Women are expected to be demure, particularly when it comes to matters relating to sex. The less they know, the purer they are, and the better that is for them. Christians—especially fundamentalists—say similar things.

However, this is not simply religious dogma—or even a specifically American phenomenon, I think. People in general are embarrassed by women who know about sex, talk about sex, look overtly sexy, remind people too much of sex. We have disdain for them. For a frivolous answer, think back to Janet Jackson—her foolish ratings grabber breast exposing exercise cost a television network millions of dollars because we’re all supposed to pretend she’s some sort of a virginal divorcee. I realize that the world sometimes at present feels as though it’s full of Britney Spears girls and bare-midriffed girls who seem to be all skin, but they’re in the minority.

My point is that it never occurred to me until I read Horrible Prettiness what it means to make sure that women are modest and demure. If women are this way, they don’t know very much about sex, and that keeps them out of a position of power. Not being savvy about sex makes us powerless in some important ways. To begin with, we know that we are subject to rape under a number of circumstances, but if we’re ignorant about sex, we’re never really sure how or where it might happen. We’re always afraid, so we are unlikely to be independent and must be reliant on men for ease in passage to new places and experiences. If we are truly ignorant about sex, we can never be truly sure if we’ve done it or we’ve gone too far. So we live in fear of being branded a whore. The theocratic accusations of Puritan America (or present day Saudi Arabia or name any one of any number of places where innocent women have been branded whores for no reason) don’t seem so outlandish when we think of what it was like to be “the right kind of girl” or even how it is to be that right kind of girl today. It becomes, to my mind, so completely foolish to be that way oneself and still more irresponsible to teach one’s daughter to do so. It’s horrific. Tell that to the red states, though. Never mind the rest of the world for just a moment.

So here is what women did to look beautiful. The fashion in 1867 was called “the Grecian bend.” That meant to wear a special kind of corset that forced the breasts forward, of course pulled in the waist abnormally small, and then forced the rear-end bizarrely backwards, so the woman would literally form the shape of an S. The result was that most women couldn’t even walk. But, as is true with stiletto heels at present, many women wore them (141). Around the same time, blonde hair dye and heavy makeup became fashionable (142).

Allen cites scholar G.J. Baker-Benfield’s connecting the “stylishness and assertiveness of middle class women” with “the rise of gynecology in the years after the Civil War” (143). When these women took steps “beyond their established roles [they] threatened the entire system by inverting power relations” (143). Most importantly, “a stable and ordered society was seen as dependent on the maintenance of patriarchal power in the home” (143). A former president of the American Medical Association wrote in 1870 that "the unnatural practices of rebellious women (including masturbation, contraception, and abortion)" represented "a threat to American civilization on a par with the barbarian threat to the Roman Empire."

The medical literature around that time saw women as "inherently unstable biopsychological systems, whose maintenance required professional control and periodic intervention. Whereas man's nature was seen as governed by his higher organ, the brain, women's nature was determined by the sexual and reproductive organs of the lower body" (144). (Thank goodness we've seen the light and reversed that!). But in all seriousness, the “wisdom” about these roles was interpreted to mean that if a woman acted out in an unusual way, the intervention had to be through her sexual organs! So gynecological treatment in the years after the Civil War meant these "hysterical" women who "transgressed sexual norms" were “cured” with female castration and clitoridectomy (up through the late 1860s!!)--that is, the “lucky” middle-class women. Working class women with the same issues were declared "feeble-minded" or "criminal" and locked up (144). Frankly, here is one time I’d rather be poor. So enough of our calling other countries barbaric, because that is no more than about 140 years ago.

That’s enough for one reading. More next time about what kind of humor was used in burlesque: Think puns.

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