Stripping Down the Patriarchy with Bechdel Test Burlesque
Bechdel Test Burlesque, October 2015
Produced by Jo Jo Stiletto, Sailor St. Claire, Sophie Maltease, Scarlett O’Hairdye, and Sin de la Rosa in association with GeekGirlCon
Disclaimer: A ticket to the performance was provided in exchange for an honest review.
My dear Women Write About Comics readers: I really, truly wish all of you could have been with me in the audience for Bechdel Test Burlesque. (Perhaps some of you were; I so hope some of you were!) Over the course of the show, I laughed, and I cried, I cheered, and I said “Hell yes!” more than once. By the end, my ears were ringing—not from the loud music, but from the raw, ecstatic, appreciative volume of the people around me. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what the women of WWAC and our readers are fighting for. This thing, right here.”
Just what were we cheering? Agency-laden interpretations of some of our favorite women from popular culture, that’s what. Women who have been celebrated, women who have been overlooked, women who have been misused.
Oh, and Lucius Malfoy doing the Charleston in his knickers to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” I kid you not.
But, before we get to that, let’s talk about naked bodies, shall we? Specifically: the bodies of naked women. (You’ve probably realized this already, but just in case: most would consider this article Not Safe For Work. Depends on you and your workplace, I suppose—but fair warning, anyway!)
We—as in popular media—spend a lot of time dissecting the representation of women’s bodies. When you get down to it, it’s because representation is important. Who we see in media and how we see them affects how we interact with real people in everyday life. When the manner in which a person is presented is akin to that of an object, that’s not okay.
When we critique and dissect the manner in which women and people of color and LGBTQ folks are represented in games, movies, and comics, we do so because their power in society is not equivalent to the power of cisgendered heterosexual white men.
Over the long course of the history of art, many famous works presented the bodies of women and people of color as objects to behold. The primary audience for these pieces? People who held power. In most cases, men. The “male gaze” is predominant, and the power to look upon is connected to ownership. (Side note: I’ll get further into a discussion of the gaze in November during WWAC’s upcoming series on art history. Stay tuned!)
That’s why it’s so powerful for marginalized groups to present themselves. To take back and reflect the power of being gazed upon. To choose how and why their bodies are viewed.
Earlier this summer, I interviewed burlesque performers and producers Jo Jo Stiletto and Sailor Saint Claire about nerdlesque—nerd-themed burlesque. Jo Jo described it as: “Nerdlesque explores and critiques our relationship with pop culture at a time when women’s voices are often excluded from creating those same pop culture properties. It’s often sexually charged but also can explore a wider range of emotions.”
Hence, my hooting, hollering, and crying during Bechdel Test Burlesque.
The evening started off with Sailor St. Claire’s fantastic piece about Black Widow. It’s staged quite simply, but it’s starkly powerful. Sailor begins the set with her back to the audience, hands tied to a chair behind her back. By the end, she’s escaped the chair and her clothes. Not only does Black Widow reject her childhood conditioning by throwing the chair across the stage, but she reveals some fantastically wicked hourglass undergarments.After the inaugural performance of the evening, Sailor stuck around as the host. To raucous applause, she welcomed the audience and proclaimed that together, we would “smash the patriarchy with striptease!”
What followed was nearly three hours of fantastic intersectional feminist performances. Honestly, every act was amazing. The performers were creative, strong, funny, sexy, smart, coordinated, beautiful, confident, and most of all: empowering.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been agonizing over how to choose the highlights to discuss in this article. And you know what? I can’t. I just can’t choose. They’re all my favorites. So, without further ado, here’s my full recap of Bechdel Test Burlesque, accompanied by Heather Schofner‘s fabulous photography.Sophie Maltease toyed with one of the Internet’s favorite memes as Grumpy Cat. To the oh-so-perfect tune of David Bowie’s “Cat People,” Maltease grumped about the stage. Once she burned down the “Patriarchy Pup” doghouse, she lost some of her bad mood, and by the end, she was joyfully playing with one of the most inventive sets of pasties that I’ve ever seen: toy mice. Café Au Lait Ole paid homage to inspiring actress, singer, and science advocate Nichelle Nichols by portraying Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura. Café Au Lait Ole captured Uhura’s strong stance and commanding presence, striding in her high heels and paying attention to her communicator. The audience chuckled as Uhura seemingly became possessed by the beat of the music, looking about in shock as her hips and body moved on their own. After a bit, though, she got into the swing of it, and we watched her expression shift from confusion to joy and delight. She didn’t even seem to mind when she discovered tribbles in her dress. Kiki Mustang took us all back to sex ed class with her portrayal of the 80s-era geeky girl who has no idea what to do with all of this sex stuff. In a delightful reverse strip-tease, Mustang first removed all of her clothes, then pulled sexy items out of a “Sex 101” suitcase and did her best to figure out how they all fit on. Obviously, the cups on a corset are meant for your bum, and clearly that strap-on dildo is supposed to be a unicorn horn. Duh. Sara Dipity made me fall in love with Rose DeWitt Bukater all over again. No, really. She and guest Al Lykya (as Jack Dawson) somehow captured all of the over-the-top romantic ridiculousness—but also the beauty and strength—of Titanic. Well, maybe I feel that way because I’m still a sucker for that Celine Dion song. I was crying by the end, but I didn’t know if that was because of my sappy reaction to the song or because I was laughing so hard. Honestly, I think both, because Dipity’s facial expressions and body movements were spot on. One second, she showed the audience the power of Rose discovering her sexuality. The next, we were roaring with laughter as she displayed a miniature Titanic attached to her rear.
(Did you know that Titanic is the highest grossing film to pass the Bechdel Test? I didn’t, until Sailor St. Claire pointed it out to the audience.)Verity Germaine gave me chills as Firefly’s River Tam. As Sailor described in her introduction, River Tam is only valued for her body. Not only that, but control of her body was taken away from her. Germaine is a strong, acrobatic performer, and she delivered River’s deadly grace with seeming ease to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. In addition to that, she also evoked River’s bottled confusion, sadness, and rage at the loss of her own volition. Sin de la Rosa brought us Cho Chang, Harry Potter’s one-time girlfriend and stereotyped East Asian Hogwarts student. Sin de la Rosa called attention to J.K. Rowling’s problematic portrayal of Cho by taking tears completely over the top in her performance. As she wept her way across the stage to Adele’s “Someone Like You” while making comedically extreme sad faces, de la Rosa continually upped the ante: first she cried, then she sprayed tears on herself, and finally she dumped a bucket of tears over her head. It was impossible not to laugh, particularly as her pointed criticism hit home. Scarlett O’Hairdye took the stage after intermission to portray the nerdy Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master; all of us old school rp’ers wanted her to be our Dungeon Master. I almost squealed when she displayed a 2nd edition AD&D Dungeon Master Guide. Okay, I probably did squeal. O’Hairdye’s DM lovingly held up an illustration of a scantily clad barbarian warrior and proceeded to strip her way into a fight with a dragon. After all, the less clothing a woman wears, the stronger she is in a battle, right? In this case: absolutely! Satira Sin portrayed Avatar’s Katara exactly as I’ve always imagined her: graceful, strong, determined, proud, and self-aware. Her performance was so beautiful. The stage was washed in blue light, and Sin’s costume evoked Water Tribe clothing. And then she began to waterbend through ribbon dancing. <3 Hyacinth Lee nearly brought down the house as the Notorious RBG. As Sailor St. Claire said, the show wasn’t just about critique, it was also about celebration. And this year, we’d all do well to celebrate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lee’s dance may have evoked the careful movements of a senior citizen, but it didn’t lack in power. She shed her first judicial robe to reveal another with “I DISSENT” across the back, and then she shed that for the robe, sword, and scales of blind justice. “Hell yes!” I screamed, along with the rest of the audience. The Lady B followed Lee’s rousing cry for justice with a much more quiet, but no less impactful, appeal. She delivered an emotive, moving dance to a recording of Maya Angelou reading her poem “And Still I Rise.” She was joined onstage by Yani and Sir Sissy to soundlessly, solemnly, viscerally proclaim Black Lives Matter. And the audience stood, and we raised our fists in solidarity. I don’t doubt that everyone in the audience will remember this performace
After some moments of silence, the show continued.Boom Boom L’Roux forcefully grabbed everyone’s attention with her performance as ass-kicking lesbian Latinx superhero America Chavez, who can punch holes in time and space with her fists. What is there to say about this, other than that she was amazing? L’Roux took over the stage to Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior,” and I wanted to jump up and dance with her. Her energetic presence and engaging smile drew the audience right into her performance, and it was easy to feel how liberating it is to be completely comfortable in your own skin. Bolt Action raised the roof with a return to the Harry Potter universe. Yes, folks: we got to watch Lucius Malfoy shake his ass to a Taylor Swift song. It was, wow. Action’s haughty demeanor, precise movements, and meticulous costuming tipped the audience over the edge. He even had sock garters. He did the Charleston in sock garters. I was thoroughly deaf by this point, and I think I lost the last of my voice during Action’s performance.
You might wonder about how Action’s performance fits in with the rest of the show. In the words of Sailor St. Claire: “We always like to include male performers because they are strong allies for changing what feminism looks like. We also just think it’s a super funny act because if the most unlikely patriarchal douchebag can enjoy Taylor Swift, who recently came into her feminist consciousness full force, then there’s hope out there yet.”Poison Ivory concluded the evening with her smokin’ portrayal of Lana Kane from Archer. I must admit, I don’t actually watch Archer, but Ivory made me want to. Except that I suspect I’d want to punch Archer. Regardless, Ivory brought a ton of Bond-style sexy to the stage, then took charge and made it her own. She was a fantastic performer, and concluded the show on an incredibly strong note.
The only question I had after I left the show was, when will we get the chance to see this again? Fortunately, Jo Jo Stiletto told me that they’ve scheduled another performance for 2016. That’s right! On April 29, they’ll be performing at the University of Oregon at the invitation of the Women & Gender Studies Department. Makes me wish I were a college student again! But hey, if they do let in the general public: road trip to Eugene, anyone?