My partner recently surprised me with tickets to see Dita Von Teese’s Burlesque: Strip, Strip, Hooray!, purported to be a revue of high production-value, best-of-the-best burlesque performed by Dita and a cast of striptease superstars. Though I’d never seen Dita in person before, many of the supporting cast were performers I had seen in the past (and some I’d even performed with), and I could confirm that the show would be epic. As a burlesque performer myself, the chance to see so many talented artists in one night was just as exciting for its educational value as for its entertainment.
I also knew that Dita would be performing her much-contested “Opium Den” act, which had been widely criticized for being culturally appropriative yellowface. I approached the show with an open mind, eager to see for myself what the so-called Queen of Burlesque was like in the flesh.
Dita’s casting choices were thoughtful and inclusive, with talented performers ranging in race, gender, age, and body type. The emcee, drag king Murray Hill, fanned the sexual energy of the crowd by encouraging couples to smooch (first a straight couple, then two lesbians, then two gay men) while the rest of the audience cheered them on. Later, he playfully teased a white male audience member about being a bank manager and for generally being privileged. There were many popped pasties and jokes demanding freedom for female nipples, and the vibe was lighthearted and fun.
Up until the last act of the night, the show felt like a big love fest. The audience loved the performers, the performers loved the audience right back, and everyone was feeling sexy. But then came the Opium Den, crashing like a soggy burlap potato sack on the energy of the room.
A white dragon blazed on the closed velvet curtains that opened to reveal an elaborate set, half pagoda, half settee, surrounded by red lanterns. Dita, tightly corseted in a kimono-sleeved, Mandarin-collared ensemble complete with a headdress full of cherry blossoms and red knotted tassels, smoked an opium pipe as she sat among the silken cushions. The act finished with Dita mostly naked and miming sexual climax while being stroked by two sets of disembodied gloved arms.
The music was a mash up of vaguely “Asianized” covers of “Lullaby” by The Cure and “Young Folks” by Peter, Bjorn, and John. This treatment reduced the songs to what’s known as the “Far East Proto Cliché,” a nine-note musical phrase that’s been used to denote things that are deemed “Asian” for Western audiences since the 19th Century. (You can hear it in pop songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas or “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors.) NPR’s Kat Chow writes that the riff is, “a shorthand way of saying, ‘This is Chinese; this is Asian,’” and that it reinforces the viewpoint that “people of Asian descent are intrinsically foreign” and of one singular culture.
Dita’s stereotypical dragon lady followed this line of thinking. During and after the act, the crowd was noticeably quiet as we awkwardly looked around at each other, wondering how to respond.
I’m not here to talk about what people should or shouldn’t be offended by. Whatever the truth of your personal experience is, when you’re affected by something, you feel it in your body. Sitting in the audience watching this pan-Asian caricature, I, Privileged White Lady, felt pretty sick. It was like burlesque, our precious, feminist art form, had been turned into a cultural garbage disposal, gobbling down complex histories and identities and then pooping them out as two-dimensional and white. It was like watching a racist cartoon from the WWII era, exactly the type of vintage artifact that progressive art forms like burlesque should be rewriting, not rehashing.
TL;DR: it ruined what was otherwise a great show.
As audience members, we don’t have much control over where or how problems like this manifest, and yet we become complicit just by witnessing them. In a world littered with problematic media, how do we deal with this?
For one, we could disengage. Writing off Dita’s whole show would be one way to avoid interacting with the problematic parts of it, but then what else would we miss? (And how bad would our FOMO be?) Dita’s showcase included some of the greatest burlesque entertainers in the world (like Perle Noire, who I could seriously watch FOREVER). Is it worth limiting our options, and, in doing so, missing out on things we love?
Here’s the thing. It can be okay to find pleasure in media that’s problematic or to enjoy aspects of that media that aren’t racist/sexist/colonialist/ablest/etc. But to do this responsibly, we have to be aware, critical, and outspoken when things aren’t right. Otherwise, things will never change.
By thinking critically about and discussing why something is problematic, it is possible to consume problematic media in a responsible way. Everyday Feminism is a good resource for tips and questions that can help get the ball rolling. For starters, consider what is (or isn’t) being represented and how that fits into larger problematic norms. How does that reinforce oppression? We can also stop making excuses for things, advocate for better representation, and know where to draw the line when the damage caused by something outweighs any other redeeming qualities. As creators, we can make better choices about the messages we send. As consumers, we can call bullshit when we see it.
Why is this important? Here’s an excerpt from a post on problematic media from the Lady Geek Girl blog:
A recent study from the University of Michigan showed that women who watched romantic comedies that featured men pursuing women persistently and despite rejection—in a light that celebrated that behavior—were more likely to find stalking behaviors unthreatening in real life. I bring this up to underscore the fact that media has a real power over our reactions when we’re not thinking critically about it.
The damage this causes is real for everyone it touches.
In America at least, Dita is the de facto face of modern burlesque. Rebellion, sexual empowerment, vintage glamour, and femininity are all rolled up in that, and audiences that come to see her are looking for inspiration to drum up their own rebellions, however personal or private they might be (a hair flower here, a red lip there). Let’s hope that the ripples of the Opium Den include more conversations and advocacy, instead of more problems.
[Note: This article was revised on 5.17.16 to include revisions made by the author.]