When racy turns racist: a look at the issue of race in modern Burlesque performance
August 14, 2012
By: Fayida Jailler
In 1926, at just 20 years old, American born Josephine Baker exploded onto the Parisian entertainment scene with her iconic ‘jungle dance’. Naked all but for a scanty string of rubber bananas hanging tantalisingly around her waist, Baker captivated Parisian audiences with her raw kinetic energy, her overt eroticism and most of all her exotic glamour.
Yes, Josephine Baker was bold, beautiful and perhaps most intriguingly of all, she was black.
Born in a poor slum in Illinois, Baker had never been to Africa at the time of the ‘jungle dance’ and knew very little of the culture that she portrayed in her performances. However she used her dark skin to invent a persona for herself as the primitive African beauty. Instead of her skin colour being a hindrance at a time when overt racism was still acceptable in 1920s Parisian society, she played off the notion that sexual desire towards someone of a darker skin was seen as socially transgressive, therefore making that the crux of her allure.
With a show business career that spanned more than fifty years, Josephine Baker is sometimes described as ‘the first black superstar’. However, were her performance of the ‘jungle dance’ to be set against the backdrop of modern society, some might view Baker’s use of racial stereotyping in her work as irrelevant, inappropriate or even offensive. Indeed racial stereotyping in Burlesque is a subject that provokes debate even today.
In 2010 the iconic burlesque performer (and ex wife of Marilyn Manson) Dita Von Teese sent ripples across the burlesque community when she debuted the grand finale of her show ‘Strip! Strip! Hooray!’ the infamous ‘Opium Den’ act. In the final act Von Teese appeared dressed in Swarovski crystal-bejewelled oriental attire, smoking an opium pipe inside a hugely elaborate pagoda style set. Whilst many praised Von Teese’s performance in this racy number as ‘[stylish] beyond compare’, others were shocked by what seemed to them to be ‘a white woman portraying a stereotype of a woman of colour during a very oppressive time’. Others described it as ‘negative’ and ‘two dimensional’ and some even claimed that her performance was as offensive as doing blackface (covering one’s face in black paint in caricature of a black person).
Admiring of the life and works of Josephine Baker and intrigued by the accusations of racism surrounding Dita Von Teese, I began to consider the role that ethnicity plays in burlesque performance and whether it is appropriate in today’s society for performers to use elements of cultures that are not their own, at risk of perpetuating racial stereotypes.
Curious to hear a professional opinion firsthand, I approached two black burlesque performers who kindly agreed to share their thoughts. The first was Canadian born London-based performer Mysti Vine. The second was African American performer Vixen Noir. I took the opportunity to ask them about their experiences working as black women in the industry.
Mysti Vine told me that she has not chosen to incorporate her ethnicity into her work and goes by a name that deliberately makes no allusions towards her skin colour. She describes herself first and foremost as an entertainer, and her ethnicity in effect is secondary to her art in that respect. She does not look at her acts in terms of black and white, instead ‘they are merely acts done by a performer…who happens to be black’.
Vixen Noir however chose a name for herself that made deliberate reference to her ethnic background because she wanted it to denote her ‘pride in being a black woman’. She has previously made her ethnicity a conscious feature of her work in few of her acts, and describes herself onstage as ‘standing tall and in my power because of my blackness’. She has at times used her status as a performer to ‘assert her blackness’ when ‘bombarded by racism and lack of racial consciousnesses’. For example in her 2007 act entitled ‘Vixen’s Favourite Things’ her opening line was ‘I am Vixen Noir and I am a BAP (Black American Princess). I come from Ghetto Royalty and I have lots of class!’
When I asked the ladies about burlesque performers incorporating elements of other cultures into their work, both agreed that there was a fine line to be drawn between tasteful art and racist parodies. Mysti Vine pointed out that burlesque performance is derived from Belly dancing as in Middle Eastern culture, so the art in itself is in a sense borrowed. She considered it acceptable to use elements from other cultures as long as there was a ‘story’ behind it and the artist was aware of how their act might be perceived. Vixen Noir thought that the artist risked being quite racist, even if they claimed to have an understanding of the culture they were portraying. In her words ‘you’ve gotta be hella conscious and hella sensitive and hella knowledgeable to pull it off!’
Having read articles by burlesque performers on the subject of ethnicity in Burlesque and having spoken first hand to two black performers in the industry, I am now coming to understand just how deep and complex this issue really is, making it impossible to form a concrete opinion. But on the grounds of what I have read and heard so far, my own personal conclusion is this: that it is acceptable to draw elements from other cultures, be it in burlesque performance or any other creative medium, as long as it is done to celebrate and honour that which one considers beautiful or inspirational. One could argue that artists should be allowed the freedom to express themselves, though it should be done intentionally and intelligently with an awareness of how others may perceive it in the context of modern society. However as Vixen Noir points out, the subject of ethnicity in burlesque is a sensitive and complex issue, and the subject of on-going debate in the world of Burlesque. In other words, it’s not just black and white!