Neo-Burlesque: Striptease as Transformation by Lynn Sally, Rutgers University Press 224 pages, 48 color and two black-and-white images, available Oct. 27 in hardcover ($55) and for $26.95 in paperback, epub, pdf or Kindle editions
This remarkable treatise on a formerly taboo subject is a serious examination of an art form that has been tossed off as frivolous entertainment. Truth or Consequences’s own Lynn Sally proves that striptease can also be political protest, and, when done with humor, this outrage can be powerfully expressed through frequently outrageous parody.
Sally, who has organized and performed in burlesque shows here under the stage name of Dr. Lucky, became interested in burlesque when she was working on her doctorate in performance studies at New York University. She accepted an invitation to dress up as a cigarette girl for a show at a swanky midtown Manhattan supper club—and was hooked. She realized that she would have to keep her academic career separate from her newfound occupation. Other performers had been fired from their day jobs when their nightlife was discovered.
Sally became a professor by day and, fearing repercussion from academe, a burlesquer by night. This put her onstage, backstage and on the road with the performers she interviews and writes about in this book, giving the reader a passionate, personal and spectacular insider’s perspective of this wildly irreverent performance art. Asserting that self-revelation is less harmful than choking on fear, she presents herself in the book as a “vulnerable observer,” opening her experiences as a striptease artist and as a member of the audience to full scrutiny.
The author explains how neo-burlesque is different from classical theater. Whereas burlesque performance is all about self-authorship, in theater, actors play characters written by someone else. Burlesque also works best when the audience is actively involved, and, in this way, pokes fun at the formality of traditional theater. Performing a striptease is transformative for the artist, and Sally hopes to prove in this book that it has the power to transform its audiences, as well.
Sally reveals the history and purpose of neo-burlesque, a term she uses to “designate a performance practice and participatory culture that is connected to, but represents a historical and performance break from, antecedent forms of burlesque.” Her aim is to establish striptease as a viable and valuable subject of serious
study. She digs into the intricately complex reasons that make neo-burlesque a “uniquely corrosive and therefore dangerously anarchic cultural force.” It disrupts, rather than reinforces, the social norms that police how women are expected—and thereby bound—to inhabit public space.
Every neo-burlesque performance has a story to tell, with a punchline or political jab at the end. The artist’s “exaggerated presentation of self” hooks the audience’s attention. While the stories naturally evolve in response to changing social and historical contexts, they are all, Sally argues, “emblematic of a new kind of feminism that revels in the explicit female body as a site of agency that tells stories full of good-humored fun, sizzling sexuality, and political import.”
But the book is not solely a scholarly treatise. Sally delights in taking her reader right into adult entertainment nightclubs via the book’s fabulous color photos, giving them front row seats, as one reviewer put it, as Sally “shines a spotlight on the “most iconic performers of the last two decades.”
We meet, for example, Dirty Martini, who graces the book’s cover. A member of the board of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the art form, Martini performs her “classic broad” routine with a big, knowing wink that conveys her self-possession. Bunny Love is also in on the joke on unsuspecting audiences. In an interview with the author, Love shares a quintessential tip of the neo-burlesque trade: “Even if you want to make a strong political statement, if you put a little twist of comedy in there, it’s a lot easier for people to take. And enjoy. And probably think about longer.”
Little Brooklyn’s Lucille Ball-esque housewife routine goes awry at every attempt at 1950s domesticity, displaying the performance artist’s self-deprecating humor.
Sally’s description of MsTickle’s stupefying performance in her “Blowup Doll Act” is accompanied by several jaw-dropping images that powerfully portray, as Sally explains, a “compelling narrative of women’s continued subjugation through layers of costuming, imagery, and meaning.
The New York Times praised Julie Atlas Muz, whose act is grounded (she told the author) in “politically pointed nudity,” as a “feminist stripper.” After seeing all these stunning photos and reading this hilarious, thought-provoking and wickedly entertaining book, the reader comes to understand that this is not a paradoxical term.
Editor’s Note: Sally, who is also the author of “Fighting the Flames: The Spectacular Performance of Fire at Coney Island,” will give a reading from “Neo-Burlesque” on Friday, Oct. 22 at the Rio Bravo Fine Art Gallery, 110 N. Broadway St. in Truth or Consequences. Doors open at 6, and the reading is at 7. As there is limited room, seating will be on a first come, first served basis. Masks and social distancing requested. Copies of “Neo-Burlesque” will be available for purchase for $26.95, plus applicable tax.