Next up is a collation of three somewhat shorter papers addressing feminity, the dynamics of the showgirl and the grotesque on stage.
Freaky Feminities: fashioning queer counterpublics
First up is Debra Ferreday, Lecturer in Media and cultural studies at the Uni of Lancaster who is interested in “resistant forms of feminity” and the way in which (pace Julia Serrano) feminity has moved from being a valid alternative way of being to always transgressive, always outside of the norm.
Working on burlesque, retro, queer-inflected culture she identified ways in which hegemonic culture places great emphasis on women to conform to an over-arching normative feminity – and is then rejected wholesale by feminism. Her aim is to try to open up and permit ideas of feminity that are not limited to female-born bodies: an approach that both allows personal expression and at the same time acknowledges feminist critique.
Beginning with a show by Charlie Brooker, Debra identified imagery that in other spaces might be viewed as problematic, transgressive, even. Yet feminities that can be challenging are themselves condemned and dismissed by liberal feminism. Disgust for the feminine can often conceal a masculinist neo-capitalist viewpoint.
Media discourse has determinedly placed feminity and feminism in opposition: its very easy to pick up on this discourse and attack those who aspire to feminity and to dismiss them as objects of oppression. Why, Debra asked, does public discourse require biologically female feminine to be viewed as victims? This is possibly a misuse of feminist theory, particularly common to second-wave feminism.
If you read images for evidence of oppression, that is what you are likely to find. It is time to reclaim semiotics!
One source of insight is taken from online trolls, who argue, strongly, that (over-) use of make-up and beauty products is evidence of lack of confidence. Yet this is an essentially masculinist perspective: discussion of self-image is derailed by repositioning women as victims of patriarchy which they are seen as having internalised.
We need to move away from definitions of feminity which views some feminities as “troubling”. Ferguson’s view, expounded in “Guilty Pleasures” views culture as shifting from an age of irony to one of glamour, described as “non-ironic non-identity”: yet Debra turns this on its head, suggestring that feminity should be seen as a form of “shared creative commons” celebrating artifice. A form of geekery that brings people together.
In this context, Andre Pejic, a trans model, demonstrates how feminity can be repeated with a difference.
Tits, teeth and talent: the showgirl’s body and what she can do with it
Next is Alison Carr from the Uni of Sheffield Hallam, who has been working on showgirls. This is a very personal view taken from an individual interview and therefore, with apologies to Alison, a rather shorter write-up. Her subject talks intimately about the energy created by live performance: how the sense of being on stage provides a sense of well-being and life through connection and interaction with the audience.
There is definitely power in performing, though not exactly control. Rather, performing is about inviting attention and connection, creating personal energy that after needs to be held in check.
There is, though, a negative side. Performance is for show, for fun, for sharing and creates energy that is powerful and leads to attention that may be unwanted if it is not held in check outside the performance arena.
Empowerment is about knowing how to harness your energy, being in charge, making choices. People who have that energy and are not consciously making choices over how to use it are not empowered.
Performing is a very conscious activity based on body awareness, informed by early experiences with dance – but also influenced by intellectual awareness of semiotics.
Alison’s work is about reclaiming the showgirl from status as object. We need to ensure that we do not close down our examination of the showgirl due to historic critiques determined to view individuals in this position as lacking agency. They do not. Close study suggests that many individuals in this position possess dominion, over themselves, over their audiences.
As an academic, Alison is offering the hand of friendship from academia to subject.
Meat magic: grotesque-ing my transbody at “The box”
Finally, performance artist Lazlo Pearlman talks about his practice and contextualises same on the basis of his experiences in a club called “The Box” in Soho – a trendy and “hot” nightspot. His research looks at what the naked (trans) body is doing on stage.
The Box is about challenging patrons “just a little”: the “Lady Gaga of nightclubs”. In terms of normative culture, Laszlo is challenging norms. Freaky. A male person with a vagina. And that is what those who come are paying to see. There is a focus on bodies conventionally labelled as “grotesque” – art whose form and subject nmatter appear to be part of while contradictory to the natural social or personal worlds of which we are part.
Responses include attraction, fear and repulsion.
The grotesque body, however, is a hybrid body, defying clear definitions, occupying the middle ground…bridging the gulf between the norm and the other. There are three main tropes: doubleness, hybridity and metamorphosis. Laszlo is booked for his ambiguity.
Yet this raises questions of whether the trans body is truly other, as opposed to representative of the ambiguity in ALL bodies. F’rinstance, one act is ”The Blind date” in which Laszlo dates a tall, young, leggy girl. Its about a transgressive seduction scene in which the denouement reveals that the “girl” has a penis, while the “guy” has a vagina…much to the enjoyment of the audience, which appears to be based on incredulity, enjoyment and perhaps a celebration of “body magic”.
In a second sketch, ”Against all odds”, featuring other players, ambiguity is played with by a switch of an average-height guy for an individual of restricted stature. The audience response, yet again, appeared to be centred in delight and a sense of wonder at the magic of the show.
In sum, “meat magic” – a creation of the impossible and resulting in a “sudden, deeper insight into the shared process of being in the world”. (Erika Fischer-Lichte, The transformative power of performance).