In Defence of Geeklesque

Posted: December 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

Geeklesque is rapidly becoming very popular, which means it’s going to acquire some detractors.  Not a lot, in my experience, because most of the people I know and care about either do geeky burlesque or love it.  But, rather notably, it was criticized by Julie Atlas Muz in her Keynote speech at Burlycon this year.

I wasn’t there and I can’t seem to find a video or transcription of the speech so keep in mind that this is all second hand.  It sounds like she wasn’t terribly harsh or anything, she just said that she didn’t get it, she didn’t think it was creative and she didn’t understand why you would do it rather than being yourself and creating your own characters.  Like I said, not terribly harsh but, I think, worth talking about.

I can’t say I haven’t had these thoughts.  When you’ve spent more than 100,000 on an arts degree and end up spending months making a muscle suit so you can dress like an obscure comic book character and then get naked, well… it’s easy to ask yourself if you maybe took a wrong turn somewhere. You had hoped to be Julie Taymor and now you are naked Deadpool.

“Is this really art?” you ask yourself as you put on your stripper heels and Gandalf robe.  And, StripperGandalf, I don’t have an answer for you.  There’s really no satisfying definition of art unless you’re in that skit on The State where everyone agrees that it’s “Paintings and stuff.”

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But I do have some answers for the question Julie posed:  Why do geeky burlesque?

If there is one thing NYU taught me, it’s how to defend my artistic choices.  I will present my argument in bullet points because NYU also taught me that I really don’t like writing essays.

It’s totemic. (+1 for fancy sounding word)

I never really got cosplay until I’d been doing geeky burlesque for a while and actually got to know some cosplayers.  There are a number of reasons to cosplay but I think the strongest (but least talked about) one is that it is a modern day form of totemism; taking on the physical characteristics of something you admire in the hopes of drawing its characteristics into yourself.  Ancient people wore the skins or wolves and bears in the hopes that it would give them the strength of a bear or the stealth of the wolf.  These days we dress like Deadpool so we may draw into ourselves the irreverent courage to do shit like this. (Seriously, if there’s a better example of Coyote’s trickster spirit, I don’t know what it is.)  Like burlesque, cosplay isn’t about what you look like or who you are in every day life, it’s about who you want to be.

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Geekleque is about being the characters we *want* to be.  One of the things I hated about being an actor was that I had no control over who I played.  If I’d become a professional actress, odds are good I would have spent my whole life playing the same damn role over and over again.  No thanks.  Now I can be whoever I want.  I can be The Joker, I can be Rogue, I can be Fluttershy (All in the same show if it’s a long one.)  There are plenty of non-geeky performers who do acts based on gods, like Isis or Kali, or based on legendary burlesque performers, like Josephine Baker or Gypsy Rose Lee.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think that these days pop culture figures loom just as large in people’s hearts and minds as foreign gods or burlesque legends.  I personally can’t see a functional or artistic difference between playing The Joker and Playing Kali (which is one of the acts Julie Atlas Muz is known for.)

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Interpretation can be creative.

I express myself through the characters I choose to play and how I portray them.  Yes, it’s an interpretation but so is most art.  Thousands of painters have painted Jesus but you’d have to be blind to not see the difference between Dali’s painting and Caravaggio’s.

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Their style, their personality, their world view is expressed not just by their subject but by their interpretations of that subject.

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This is not to say that everyone who paints Jesus is an artist. There are plenty of people who have done incredibly boring paintings of Jesus, or just plain shitty paintings of Jesus, or straight up copies of other people’s paintings.  Those people aren’t artists.  But, in a way, that’s ok too.  Some people are just hobbyists.  There’s room in the world for them.  And their existence shouldn’t take away our appreciation of the real artists.  If you’re looking for the difference, it’s not hard to spot.

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It’s accessible.

When you’re working in a medium where your act will probably last less than 5 minutes, you have to work fast.  One way to give a layered and nuanced performance is to start with a character that people already know or think they know.  It’s a pretty great jumping off point to explore something.  Could I do an act about the dark, scary, side of sexuality without using a pre-existing character?  Of course.  But it’s a lot easier to crawl into people’s minds when The Joker gives you a head start.

On a more mercenary note, working in a city that has at least one burlesque show on any given night and literally THOUSANDS of entertainment options, it helps to build on something that people already know they like.  When the average person, with limited knowledge of their local burlesque scene, thinks “What burlesque show should I see?” they will see a geeklesque show that targets their specific fandom and think “Well, I already know that I like *half* of that equation.”  This is not to say that geeklesquers can or should kick back, secure in the knowledge that people will come see their show just because it’s based on something popular.  Quality is STILL a huge factor.  But it always helps to have something that sets you apart from the thousands of other options.

There are other people who may not know what burlesque is or whether or not they want to even see a burlesque show.  But they DO know that they want to see anything on this planet that has anything to do with Firefly.  This is why quality is *extra* important with geeky burlesque.  If these people come to your show, and you do a shitty job, they may leave thinking that they just don’t like burlesque.  Don’t to that to those people.

It’s entertainment.

I am the first to admit that I was making no great artistic statement by enacting a scene from LoTR for 30 seconds, then ripping my robe off and shaking my ass for 60 seconds.  But MAN did people enjoy it!

Was it ART?  Probably not.  But it DID evoke an emotional response and that’s good enough for me.  Burlesque is always going to straddle the line between art and entertainment.  That’s one of the things I like best about it.  Just like the rest of burlesque, not all geeky burlesque will be art.  Some of it will just be entertainment.  But ALL of it, if done well, will give people an experience they will treasure.  I think that’s something we can all agree on.

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Comments
  1. Great post! I’m not a cosplayer myself, but I certainly respect the art and dedication that goes into it. Ditto geeklesque! I think the reasons you outlined in this post are also the reasons that burlesque attracts a lot of theater people (including me).

    Also, I love you for The State reference, because that show made me who I am today and Ben Garant can still get it.

    • definitelynotdita says:

      Thank you! I grew up in theatre so it only made sense that when I started doing burlesque I would eventually use it to start playing the characters I wanted to play but never had the chance to.

      And, yeah, The State takes up a surprising amount of space in my brain.

  2. Bonus points for referencing The State, kudos.

  3. Dave says:

    Well put, though I’m curious now about the other side, the case against, which I’m not familiar with.

    It’s like when there was a backlash a few weeks ago against “fake geek girls” who cosplay at conventions. I had no idea what everyone was reacting to until someone told me yesterday that some idiot with a loud microphone said something stupid. They couldn’t remember who, and frankly, I don’t plan to find out unless I feel the need to mail him toxic spiders.

    I’d be curious to know more about why some people object to it beyond the whole, “is it art” thing, on which point I could care less. A lot of us will never agree on what art is. I play video games and as far as I’m concerned, they’re art. Roger Ebert disagrees. So what? As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t get it, never will, and that’s fine. I don’t care for a lot of the movies he praises. Doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but that I can’t appreciate them the way he does.

    My point is…ok, my brain just went walkabout and I can’t remember where I was going with that. Good argument though. And the first time I’ve seen someone bring Caravaggio into the same conversation as naked Deadpool. So if for no other reason than that, this is the best thing I’ve read all week.

    • definitelynotdita says:

      Thank you so much! To be honest, this is the first thing I’ve heard against geek burlesque, specifically. But there’s often debates over the artistic merits of one form of burlesque or just burlesque in general. That’s a pretty huge topic and I wanted to stick to something a bit smaller and more manageable. Also, like I said, it’s something I’ve struggled with so this was a good way of thinking out loud.

  4. Fantastic. As a male burlesque performer (I hate the term boylesque and prefer the term BRO-lesque), I’m already fighting to find a niche in a crowded market of talent. Being the guy who does goofy geeky stuff seems to me by M.O., so I’m all for geeklesque and it’s impending takeover. Is it a cheap and easy way to instantly connect with an audience when the first few notes of “Gangnam Style” plays? Well, yeah…but it just serves to pull them in to what you’re expressing on stage. Making it your own is the key, not just paying tribute to pop culture.

  5. […] There was a Lord of the Rings themed burlesque show in D.C. this week. What’s the deal with the rise of cosplay burlesque? Let a geeky burlesque performer explain. […]

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