The first time I presented my research on obscenity law and burlesque, there was an old man sitting at the back of the room listening to my presentation (and the other two in the panel). During the Q&A session he didn’t ask any questions of either the guy who presented on airplane shows, or the woman who presented on sideshow. And then he locked his eyes on me.
“Is it really art?” he asked, referring to my argument that burlesque clearly falls under the artistic merit clause in most obscenity law cases.
Another professor years later said to me “You’re just supporting women making the patriarchy stronger.”
And another said “Who cares about strippers?”
Well I do. (and I have answers to all of those questions, but that’s another story…)
I believe very strongly that the history of burlesque is intrinsic to our history as a country. Why? Because burlesque is an American art form, and one which has essentially been pioneered by women since the 1840s. The women I interview at the Burlesque Hall of Fame consistently floor me with their histories. Women who worked in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (even into the ’80s), they have stories that inform both the general understandings of women and how they have been treated because of their gender but also what it means to be a woman working on the stage. Not only that, but I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a woman working in her own body.
I’ve heard powerful stories of abuse, histories with drug addiction, harrowing stories of escape. I’ve heard about getting to know Duke Ellington. I’ve heard about stealing furs from headliners, and what it’s like to be turned away from a gig because of your skin color. I’ve listened to a woman tell me about dancing for the Nazi’s to stay alive. I’ve heard about a club in San Fransisco – an all Asian revue where Frank Sinatra used to go get a quiet drink. I’ve heard about acts that we may never see, I’ve gotten to talk to women who stepped on the stage at Minsky’s.
It is a rich, intense, sometimes empowering and sometimes devastating history. It inspires me in a way that I cannot begin to explain. And I record it once a year at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Not a lot of people do this work, those who do it care deeply about their subjects and the art form which their subjects pioneered. So here I am. And I’m asking for help.
I can’t get to BHOF without assistance this year, and if you’re willing to lend a hand – there’s a fundraiser here: Support the Oral History Project
More than anything, I do this so that these stories will be heard. So that these women can tell the generations who follow them what it means to be a burlesque performer, and what they experienced to get us here.