Is this What a Feminist Looks Like?

On Saturday, I went to see the Brown Girls Burlesque troupe at the esteemed New York cabaret space Joe’s Pub. One of my favorite moments in an action-packed show was seeing one of the dancers do a routine to Jay Z ripping off a fake fur coat to reveal a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt draped over her shoulders like a wrestler’s cape.

Brown Girls Burlesque Troupe taking a final bow. Photo by Jose Ivey.

So the question becomes: is this what a feminist looks like? Black and brown; sexy; in control…. Sounds good to me! I consider myself a third wave feminist, and I’ve had conversations with some second wave feminists who would not feel the same way. (I’m not painting all with that brush, but I had one conversation in particular with a grande dame of feminism who’s just not down with seeing the girl-flesh trotted out, even if it’s with what some of us consider a feminist angle.)

Back to the show though… the crowd was mixed in all ways: race, sexual orientation, singles, couples, friends. The space at Joe’s Pub is banked, so some seats are looking at the stage directly; some are looking down at the stage… and yes, some in the front row are looking up, which must be fun for burlesque. (None of the people in the front row were complaining about getting a crick in their neck.)

“Josephine Belle” of BGB. Photo: Jose Ivey

The show included a variety of styles, both in terms of dance and approach. There was an opener of the J-Lo-from-Fly-Girls-days variety; an elegant fan dance; a reprise by Jeez Loueez of the routine that won her the 2012 Viva Las Vegas burlesque competition (NSFW — duh). And then there was the burlesque that veered into performance art, like the routine riffing off of Mexican-American working women and feminism that ended with — I kid you not — a hot sauce bottle strap-on.

The addition of race to gender in burlesque is not a 1 + 1 = 2 but more of a 1 + 1 = infinity. The unwanted and unwarranted narrative of black and brown women as oversexed because of supposed inherent racial tendencies makes some people in communities of color want to keep everything buttoned down, make a good impression, not stand out in a “negative” way. But why is self-actualized sexuality negative? That’s something that writers like Joan Morgan, now doing new work on women of color and sexual desire/representation, have covered in books like When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.

Needless to say this kind of entertainment isn’t for everyone, and I’m not just talking about the sex. These women are, and this troupe is, fundamentally subversive. In a time when women’s bodies are still critiqued and commodified in ways that oppress, Brown Girls Burlesque is fresh — a fresh critique of gender and a refreshingly professional and elaborate artistic endeavor.

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at PopandPolitics.com, which she founded in 1995.