At long last, my paper from last year about raunch culture, drag, burlesque, parody, Butler, Foucault, Munoz, etc. My intention was to rewrite it integrating some new ideas, but it got back-burnered and never happened. 20 months later, I am making it public for the first time.
A New Burlesque Of Parody:
Combatting Raunch Culture And “Porn Chic” Through Drag And Disidentification
April 17, 2006
You can’t avoid it, not if you watch TV or movies, or surf the Internet, or live in a neighborhood that has stores that sell magazines; it’s everywhere: floor-humping female celebrities wearing as little as possible, Maxim magazine, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Charlie’s Angels, Girls Gone Wild, the Pussycat Dolls, the Playboy bunny as a fashion icon for teenage girls, low-rider jeans and accompanying high-rider thong underwear, the mainstreaming of stripping and porn and, specifically, the beauty and hygiene standards that accompany them.
This is all layered with language of female empowerment. According to the rhetoric, feminism has succeeded. In this “postfeminist” age, women can take pride in their sexuality. And they should display it for all it’s worth. This ideology, part of what Ariel Levy calls “raunch culture,” has taken over our media so totally that one is hard-pressed to find a representation of a liberated woman that doesn’t present her as “porn chic.
It is as though this is the only way for women to express sexuality these days, and that sexual empowerment is the only way to be empowered. If you don’t buy it, you’re probably lying. Because, for example, “dissing the Pussycat Dolls is like denying you want a peek at the Victoria’s Secret runway show—a foolhardy stance since nobody’s going to believe anyway” (Amazon.com). And because “inside every woman is a Pussycat Doll” (Music.yahoo.com). Which means that, at the core of every woman, there is the real-life equivalent of a porn star waiting to get out, to sing and dance in front of people for money, or at least to ogle at the catwalk. If you don’t buy it, you’re probably a prude. Because, according to Christie Hefner, chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises (and daughter of Hugh), women who do not participate in raunch culture are “embarrassed about” or “uncomfortable with” their sexuality (Levy 39).
I argue, however, not only that raunch culture exists by presenting itself as the only option for expressing sexuality, but that its (extremely limited) form of sexuality is more about the presentation of sexuality than sexuality itself.
Paris Hilton is a wonderful example of this. Hilton is the “breathing embodiment of our current, prurient, collective fixations—blondness, hotness, richness, anti-intellectualism” and yet it’s strictly about her presentation. Her various “accidental” sex tapes that have circulated the Internet over the last few years prove this: In them, she looks bored, even taking a cell phone call during sex. And yet, she is our “perfect sexual celebrity,” probably because, according to Levy, “our interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure” (Levy 30).
I wonder how it’s possible, this presentation of sexual empowerment, if there does not appear to be a trace of actual sexual desire. All the elements of raunch culture point toward a certain type of gender presentation, that of “hyperfemininity.” But aside from being eye candy for the large number of people who find this hyperfemininity to be desirable (mostly men; this is pretty strictly a heterosexual phenomenon), how does this prove the sexual liberation of the women presenting themselves as though their only desire is to look the part? Could it possibly be our culture’s obsession with the so-called correlation between sexuality and gender presentation?
Butler’s theory of gender construction
According to Judith Butler, this correlation is a myth; there is no necessary link between sex, gender, gender presentation, and sexual desire, practice, and fantasy (Butler, “Imitation” 25 & Gender 136). After all, how do compulsory hyperfeminine practices like make-up, hairspray, plastic surgery, and waxing make you more sexual?
Considering the possibility that sexuality does not necessarily derive from gender can open us up to another idea of Butler’s, that gender does not necessarily derive from biological sex. According to her, there is not an essential gendered subject, or a certain mode of behavioral elements that comes with one biological sex or another. Here she creates a distinction between biological sex and gender, and says that the behavioral and “visual” attributes of a person’s identity are arbitrary and socially constructed as representative of gender, as opposed to being biologically essential. She supports this by reminding us that gendered behaviors “produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body” (Butler, Gender 136) and are therefore can never fully express the identity of the person within the body. She later writes, “Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications” (Butler, Gender 136). In other words, because there is no essential way to express sex or gender, the behaviors we enact in order to represent our sex or gender are performative in the sense that they produce, in this case, the idea of a normative representation.
By telling us that the presentation of gender is indicative of biological sex and that this presentation of sex/uality is the “authentic” representation, the powers-that-be take away any options to express (or rather, perform) one’s sexual identity in any alternative fashion, for fear of being seen as deviant (Butler, Gender 136). In order to be “normal” (or “human,” Butler goes so far to say), there needs to be a clear correlation between one’s sex, gender, and sexuality that anyone and everyone can identity immediately upon first impression.
Parody as critique
To theorize on this level is all well and good, but try explaining this to those who are so entrenched in raunch ideology, which, as I’ve said, presents itself as the only option, as the ultimate truth in female sexual liberation. It doesn’t work; the validity and sometimes the existence of people who do not engage in raunch culture are dismissed even before they open their mouths—recall the examples of the blanket statements by raunch icons like the Pussycat Dolls and Playboy. Raunch culture seems to have a built-in mechanism to deflect and dismiss criticism by stating as fact that women who do not participate in raunch culture ultimately want to—they’re just not empowered enough. How, then, do we critique it, or at least attempt to begin a dialogue about alternatives of sexual empowerment and expression?
Butler suggests that in order to continue to be represented as authentic, “the abiding gendered self will then be shown to be structured by repeated acts that seek to approximate the ideal of a substantial ground of identity, but which, in their occasional discontinuity, reveal the temporal and contingent groundlessness of this ‘ground’” (Butler, Gender 141). In other words, any one presentation of gender is not the original or authentic representation, but rather an imitation of its own ideality; every time a gender performance is enacted, it is merely a repetition of this imitation. It’s a little different every time; however, these differences are often negligible and merely absorbed into the ideal, which also changes—gradually, over time, and still presenting itself, in whatever form it takes, as the original and authentic ideal. More significant differences within the imitation—the “occasional discontinuity”—can work to reveal that these differences are not deviations from the original, but that what purports itself as the original is as inauthentic a representation of identity as anything else is.
Therefore, deliberately repeating gender in a parodic way might help to shed light on the idea that all gender is performative. I propose drag performance as one effective method. Drag performance can be distinguished from male and female impersonation: The impersonator’s performance of gender is an attempt at a plausible appearance of a gender different than his or her own. The drag king/queen, however, parodically performs a gender not “biologically” assigned to them, often in an exaggerated and caricatural manner, making the dissonance between sex and gender and the theatricality of the gender the mainstay of the act (Halberstam 232). Drag parodies the notion of a true gender identity, as well as the essentialist notion that any one gender presentation “belongs” to one biological sex or another.
Not all drag, however, is performed with the intention of unveiling all gender as repetitive performance. Butler warns us that “parody by itself is not subversive” (Butler, Gender 139). But one can create effectively political performance in drag by having solid theoretical intention.
Foucault’s theories of power and “‘reverse’ discourse”
Michel Foucault writes that there is no place where power not has already been, because “it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere… because it comes from everywhere” (Foucault, History 93). In other words, because power is relational, because it acts upon actions rather than being one immutable entity, one cannot find a place outside of power from which to resist it.
He does not intend for this to mean that we should stop trying to fight, but rather, that we must remain mindful of “the omnipresence of power” when engaged in political struggle (Foucault, History 93). In fact, he says that there is always a resistance to power, but that “this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power” (Foucault, History 95). He categorizes forms of resistance: “resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial” (Foucault, History 96). My interpretation of this categorization is that while some forms of resistance work too much within the system (the third, those that are “quick to compromise”) and some work too much against it (the second, those that are “savage… rampant, or violent”), like Mama Bear’s porridge, some forms are “just right” (the first, those that are “possible [and] necessary”)—working within the system to resist it, always keeping mindful of its position on the fence, the fine line between other, more extreme methods.
Specifically, Foucault suggests a “‘reverse’ discourse, or claiming the power already existent in categories—specifically hierarchical binaries—that have traditionally been used to oppress (Foucault, History 101). After all, why fruitlessly try to resist power when you can deliberately use existing sites of power in order to shed light on and question all power structures?
I will discuss the practice of Jose Esteban Munoz’s disidentification, specifically disidentifactory performance, as an option of working within the system in order to subvert it. Again, the hegemony of raunch culture seems impervious to criticism; after all, how can that which calls itself empowerment be anything else? By rejecting direct critique we can parody the system and thereby offer some alternative perspectives.
Munoz’s theory of disidentification
Disidentification arises from the theory of what I call the “paradox of identity,” that everyone, and marginalized subjects in particular, are formed by “hybrid transformations generated by the horizontal coexistence of a number of symbolic systems” (Canclini 32). This hybridity can speak to a marginalized subject’s sense of identity as arising both from his or her position in the margin as well as his or her relationship with the dominant ideology, or center. This can create a tension with seemingly conflicted messages and feelings about one’s identity. For example, Munoz explains one of his first encounters with queer culture as “exhilarating as it was terrifying” (Munoz 4) and speaks about “the power and shame of queerness” (Munoz 5).
In addition, the marginalized subject’s identity is formed in opposition to the center and, therefore, by what it is not: not white, not straight, not male, not bourgeois, etc. Foucault’s analysis of power suggests this paradox as well: By “conducting” (or directing, or facilitating), power both oppresses and produces, both forms and coerces (Foucault, “Subject” 341). Power can be insidious and evil and oppressive, but without it, we wouldn’t be who we are (for better or for worse). The marginalized subject in particular is in a position to understand this and be empowered by it, knowing that an existence in the margins is much more complex than just being disenfranchised: It allows for a more nuanced and complex individual identity and perspective on both the margin and the center.
Disidentification recognizes this paradox of identity, this reliance on the center to determine and define oneself, and takes power in it. Specifically, disidentificatory performance is a way to work “within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously” (Munoz 5). It is the option of Mama Bear’s porridge that challenges the extremes of assimilation versus counteridentification, or attempting to break free of ideology (Munoz 11-12). Munoz elaborates on the definition and usage of disidentification:
The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture. (Munoz 31)
Disidentification is a method to bring attention to a way of thinking within the center as just that—as a way of thinking, as not necessarily the ultimate truth—in a manner that has the potential to open the minds of those so entrenched in the dominant’s ideology.
Munoz’s theory of the “burden of liveness” is a way to use disidentifactory performance to engage in Foucault’s “‘reverse’ discourse.” The “burden of liveness,” he says, is the idea that the marginalized subject has always been called upon to entertain the dominant elite, specifically within a performative, theatrical setting. This is “a cultural imperative within the majoritarian public sphere that denies subalterns access to larger channels of representation, while calling the minoritarian subject to the stage, performing her or his alternity as a consumable local spectacle” (Munoz 182).
Instead of completely rejecting this idea of the “performing monkey” (as a old theatre buddy of mine once called it), disidentificatory performance appropriates it from its place as a way for the dominant to keep the marginalized disenfranchised and transforms it into a tool to subvert the center’s assumptions about the margin. It is subversive because a marginalized subject performing will always been seen as mere “entertainment” for the dominant, and therefore the political messages within the performance will always catch the (dominant) audience off-guard. Therefore, by engaging deliberately in the “burden of liveness”—performing as marginalized subjects—we can invoke Foucault’s “‘reverse’ discourse,” using the language of the dominant in order to critique it.
Drag as disidentifactory performance
Let’s return to the practice of drag, which has already, in recent history, brought some radical political ideas to light. While once being seen as offensive to women because of its supposed cooptation and disrespectful imitation of femininity, Butler suggests that the drag queen brings attention to essentialism and to the notion that there is an original, an authentic, to coopt. The same could now be said of the drag king, whose performativities of masculinity as nonessential have emerged since Butler theorized this.
Drag, then, and other forms of gender parody, are not imitations of an original, but rather of another imitation, that of all gender presentation, even (especially) that which purports itself as the original/authentic. It’s “the parody is of the very notion of an original,” a phantasm of a phantasm, imitating “the myth of originality itself” (Butler, Gender 138). We can use this theory and put it into practice using “‘reverse’ discourse,” speaking in a language that the dominant understands and will respond to (using the “burden of liveness” will catch them off-guard; they’ll think they’re just being entertained by the marginalized like they always have been), thereby subversively and insidiously introducing radical ideas to spectators that might otherwise not be open to such ideas.
As a disidentificatory performance strategy, drag is a powerful tool for subversive critical politics. It can break down the ruse of “hyperfemininity” as the only option for the expression (or rather, performance) of sexuality, thereby allowing for alternate forms of sexual empowerment.
In addition, disidentificatory performance can show how there are paths to empowerment other than just sexual empowerment, by combining elements of what is considered sexy or “properly” gendered and elements that are considered sexually deviant.
An example: Coney Island USA
Coney Island USA, a nonprofit organization founded to preserve the history of one of the country’s oldest, and most saucy, locations for vacation and amusement, has recently brought back its famous burlesque show, that had its heyday in the early twentieth century. The show, which is often exhibited tandem to the more established revival of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, attempts to create a fusion of the old with the new; it advertises “a blend of old style burlesque, sideshow freaks, strange women,” among other attractions (Coneyisland.com).
Its disidentificatory powers come from its blending of the old—what was considered bizarre, shocking, and scandalous in the days of yore (undulating women in revealing costumes)—with the new—what is today considered bizarre, shocking, and scandalous (gothic subculture and its physical manifestations of body modification). Today, the former, which has become our culture’s modern mainstay, is considered sexy while the latter, to the mainstream viewer, is considered repulsive. To combine these elements is an effective method of questioning why we, as a culture, consider some practices and presentations to be sexy and not others. Also, by presenting itself as extremely sexual, it opens up audience members to be titillated, thus questioning their own ideas about what they as individuals find to be arousing. It utilizes Foucault’s “‘reverse’ discourse” by engaging a diverse audience in an intentionally unalienating dialogue to question normative practices of sexuality and “empowerment.” Coney Island burlesque goes one step further than drag, allowing for a performance of identity that is not necessarily just about gender and sexuality. This allows us to find our identity and empowerment in other arenas, while still maintaining that any identity presentation is just that—a presentation, a performance, that is not necessarily indicative of the whole person, and that identity, taken as a whole, can seem contradictory—paradoxical—when not presented as a coherent and immediately recognizable (and inherently gendered) representation of the self. After all, a presentation of the self can never represent “the ineffable interiority of its sex or of its true identity” (Butler, Gender 136).
I have included an array of photographs [coming soon], taken from Coneyisland.com, to illustrate this tactic. Among the images you’ll see “normally” “sexy” visuals combined with elements of the bizarre and even the grotesque and, most shocking of all, decidedly unskinny women. The fifth image in particular encapsulates this: a larger woman, in thong underwear and a transparent body suit, that begins below her breasts and is filled with randomly-placed eggs, with clown noses covering her nipples.
A specific example of the new burlesque is the lovely Insectavora. She is thin, pretty, and sexy, covered in tattoos and piercings with dreaded, dyed hair, and her always-minimal costumes consist of black lace, leather, and chains. Her sideshow and burlesque acts range from insect-eating (for which she became famous; hence her name) to fire-eating (for which she is currently best known) to striptease. (Note that the two action shots of her are from burlesque shows.) For me, Insectavora encapsulates all of the disidentifactory powers that Coney Island demonstrates. She single-handedly has the power to arouse, to shock, and to frighten. If it gets out that this type of thing is just as much of an option of sexuality and sexual presentation as a Pussycat Doll is, then the hegemony of the Playboy empire will crumble.
An alternative definition of “burlesque”
Interestingly, according to the Oxford University Press dictionary, the word burlesque means “a variety show, typically including striptease” to the American while to the Brit it means, “a comically exaggerated imitation” or a “parody.” Perhaps, then, we Americans can steal that definition and incorporate it into our own: disidentifactory burlesque drag, the ultimate in creative public intellectualism. How very disidentifactory.
Discussing the benefits of using tools like disidentification may be able to sway the proponents of “counteridentification,” those who dismiss any amount of working within the system as doing nothing but giving credit to and perpetuating the evils of hierarchical power structures. (I was, until recently, one of those people.)
The critical effects of “disidentifactory burlesque” (the appropriated British definition) are (at least) two-fold: It works from within to critique the system which presents one particular gender presentation as authentic, original, and essential, and which says that the “correct” presentation of the female gender is the means (or rather, the end) to sexual empowerment (which is, of course, the only empowerment that counts). Because it works from within the system, it has a subversive power to, perhaps slowly, but surely, as in the efforts of the Seattle-based nonprofit alternative arts circus Circus Contraption, “burrow in [the] brain” of those entrenched in the center: “We’re here to peel back your cranium, and crawl inside for a little ride.”
Amazon.com: Pussycat Dolls: editorial review. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000ANVQ64/sr=8-1/qid=1145039513/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-6276564-7989505?%5Fencoding=UTF8
Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble.
Butler, Judith: “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, Ed. Diana Fuss, 1991.
Canclini, Nestor Garcia: “Cultural Revolutions,” On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Circus Contraption: lyrics from “March In A Minor” and “Come To The Circus,” from Our Latest Catalogue (2003).
Coney Island USA: Burlesque at the Beach. http://www.coneyisland.com/burlesque.shtml
Foucault, Michel: “The Subject and Power.”
Foucault, Michel: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.
Halberstam, Judith: Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Levy, Ariel: Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press (A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 2005.
Munoz, Jose Esteban: Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Yahoo! Music: Pussycat Dolls Biography. http://music.yahoo.com/ar-4623677-bio–Pussycat-Dolls