“Burlesque: We’re smaller than poetry.”
—Jo “Boobs” Weldon
As we gear up for the New York Burlesque Festival —while considering the possibility of a racist crème brûlée becoming President of the United States—I can’t stop thinking about a June article from Holli-Mae Johnson’s 21st Century Burlesque.
It revolved around a performer Tweeting this in response to criticism:
“Who the fuck are you to trash my show? Nooone (sic). What solo show do you have?”
Holli-Mae—who, despite occasional foibles that befall any journalist or publisher, has always conducted herself with evenness, fairness beyond her compensation, and dare I say, grace—shared some of the gems she’s been subjected to:
“Fucking stupid bitch. Who fucking asked you?”
“Stupid whore. What the fuck do you know?”
“Let’s hunt her down and beat her.”
This is a microcosmic view on a macro issue. If you live in the United States, you may have heard of this Trump guy who is wagging the media like a dog wagging a slobber-drowned ripped-up toy hedgehog. And if you live in the United Kingdom, you may still be smarting from how rural, white, middle-class (and xenophobic, if not downright racist) people led the polls to declare Brexit. We could be next.
The takeaway? We can’t talk to each other anymore. We don’t engage about differing views, and self-perceived outliers live in justifiable fear of being shouted down by the FaceMob. “Shut up” has become not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.
As someone who dabbles in journalism, I’m worried. Gawker, which made a reputation of pissing people off while doing some top-notch investigative journalism, no longer exists. As Max Read explained so well, two of the biggest contributors to its demise were 1) a very rich internet entrepreneur determined to burn them by bankrolling a lawsuit and 2) a horde of misogynistic trolls known as “Gamergaters” who never stopped throwing virtual Molotov cocktails.
But back to burlesque. I was shocked to hear the nasty shit said about Holli-Mae, but I shouldn’t have been. I know, academically, that women have it far worse on the Internet (and IRL) than men do. A Straight White Cis Dude might catch all hell criticizing the largely-female burlesque circuit. But as for violent threats, I didn’t get that kind of treatment until I dared to make a RomCom.
There’s one thing that bothered me about the offense that inspired Holli-Mae’s piece: 21CB had another burlesque performer criticizing the show. 1
It’s problematic, to say the least. On Tigger’s “Let’s Have a Kiki” in 2015, Tigs and I discussed the impossibility of publicly criticizing someone with whom you might tomorrow share a dressing room. It goes against the entire concept of the Fourth Estate. Yet, early this year, a producer knocked me on social media for having commented when I “don’t actually perform in the industry”— the definition of “press.”2
Holli-Mae put it thusly: “If you put on a show, and sell tickets to that show… expect to be evaluated by those invited to observe.” And by everybody else. Onstage, offstage, onscreen, offscreen—welcome to the unblinking eye of the Internet.
And then there’s what I’m calling the Reddit Corollary:
If you set foot on the internet, expect to be excoriated.
We can’t blame people for being confused. If an entire Presidential campaign can be spun on the idea that the media can’t be trusted, is it any wonder that it struggles to find its place in a sub-genre art form? If everyone online is a critic, what makes a random Twitter user any different from a so-called traditional “critic?” Do we expect the “press” to behave differently—or better? Is there any measure of responsibility left?
I was as dismayed as anyone else when a Daily Beast reporter “played gay” on Grindr to get a story — but I was sickened by a petition to have the entire news organization banned by the Olympic committee. Silencing an entire news outlet? That’s censorship, at best. Journalists are people, who fuck up, as do editors, 3 and at no time in human history has such a quickly-punishing apparatus existed to shame those who tread on common decency. Sadly, it also works in reverse.
And let’s not forget, mainstream journalism is dying as a career. I heard a writer on a public panel say that when she files a story with The New York Times she might get “a couple hundred dollars.” That’s high: $50 for an article is considered good.
In the current environment, how can burlesque support a press? Who would bother, knowing the impending byte-lashing? And burlesque is such a relatively small scene, there can be no anonymity, not even the decorum of anonymity, as enjoyed by food critics.
You will get accosted in person. 4 Perhaps as a result, there aren’t many writers getting down and dirty.
Then again, you may no longer need them. The burlesque world may not need the “niche” attention it’s enjoyed. The average audience member isn’t arguing about stocking-peel techniques, and the average performer skims sites like this one and 21CB looking for her and her friends’ names. Burlesque went mainstream—it happened, folks. It’s everywhere now, with hundreds of festivals, schools popping up like mushrooms, scenes thriving in small towns everywhere. It’s exciting. But it didn’t go “mainstream” like some of us hoped it would—it became more common, and maybe lost some of its outlaw appeal. There’s so much more of it, but does that mean it’s gotten better? And who’s to say?
This may just be where we are now, after all the latest mitoses. Burlesque has splintered into an infinite number of Subreddits, and may no longer be understandable as a single/unified community. And this kind of growth and division might be necessary, too— as an example, The Burlesque Hall of Fame, the mothership, survives on a reputation. Newbies pay their entry fees, constituents support the organization. Meanwhile, it’s widely known that winning even the most-envied title of Queen will not necessarily translate into higher-paid gigs. Survivors, in this industry, graduate—they get better gigs overseas, they become producers, they become teachers, they make costumes or accessories. I imagine media is no different— Burlesque Beat will get devoured by a new kid looking to learn what’s up in burlesque. The Modern Legends ain’t got time to read this.
Media coverage may have finally found its true calling in the world of burlesque: rewritten press releases on mainstream sites, diaries and interviews on niche blogs. Cater to the audience. Performers have complained that “what’s your real name?” and “do you have a boyfriend” doesn’t cut it, but to the wide majority of the cubicle-reading public, that’s the superficiality that gets them to click. In-depth critique doesn’t reach as far—nor does it pay. And if the people it critiques don’t want to be critiqued, that might just be the fat lady singing.
“Composing your thoughts and publishing them is skilled work with significant pressure attached, and it takes as much sand as standing up on stage.” —H-M Johnson 5
I’ll hit the shows I can this NYBF. I hear Jen is single now—wonder if she’ll flip AC/DC?
No kisses, it’s cold & flu season.
1. To clarify, Burlesque Beat utilizes performers as writers, but in general not to review shows. Burlesque Beat has done so in the U.K., which until recently seemed more forgiving on this issue.
2. It got better: a performer somehow got my phone number and texted me, asking that an offending passage be removed because it might impact her career. Holli-Mae, as editor of the piece and publisher of the magazine, removed the line that offended those people.
3. It still sucks to get it wrong. I was once questioned by my editor on a line, we edited it back and forth—and what we ultimately published was sloppy criticism and, frankly, incorrect. That shit gave me a stomach ache for MONTHS.
4. I have a really, really funny story about this.
5. We have to see those people again! I had serous fucking anxiety after Mr. Gorgeous did his step-down at BHOF. I was like, shit, if I don’t say anything, I’m playing favorites—because he’s from New York. So I called him out. And two days later, I was shaking like a leaf while he was charmingly asking me about my weekend at a social event. Moments later, a performer I’d never met was asking me what I thought about her act, in front of everybody. I excused myself, and that same performer wrote a giant screed in the comments section of 21CB against a reviewer, despite the fact that the writer liked the act. You cannot win for trying.