My Burlesque Years – The Tassels behind the mask

My blog posts are a little project to write 800 to 1000 words a day on something that has come into my head. They are sometimes an attempt to work out what I really think about something by writing it down. They may be confused and confusing, now read on if you wish

Sometimes I think we should all be forced to wear the niqab, then I wouldn’t have to see your stupid faces and you wouldn’t have to see mine. This could also lead to money saved on day to day hair, make up, combs, razors and moisturiser.

In the debate on covering and uncovering, these can be confusing times. On one side, there are demands to that all women reveal their faces, on the other, their nipples must be covered up in newspapers unless strictly necessary. The use of topless models to sell stuff is seen as objectifying and marginalising women and leading to them being viewed as second class citizens, while topless and naked demos by women are seen as ways of being heard and issuing a bold statement.  Ukrainian feminist group Femen, PETA protestors, women of Maine wanting equality of toplessness on sunny days, the ethics of good and bad exposure can jar the mind. Flesh exposure is a good way of getting noticed, just as it can be used to sell pointless gadgets, aromas and magazines, it also creates column inches of coverage about patriarchy, dictatorship and European fishing policy. 

Even the most ardent feminist heterosexual male will be distracted by exposed female flesh, the test is the speed at which his rational mind overcomes his instincts and the internal monologue screeches, “you charlatan, you are on the verge of objectifying, now look to the sky or the handrail”. 

I remember compering an event which included La Clique, a group famous for spearheading the new burlesque movement, each time I had to go anywhere near backstage to shout for the next act, my eyes concentrated on the drab ceiling or my shoes. When I was a teenager, I had been staunchly trained by Australian feminists and angry comedians. 

Obviously the difference in these debates comes down to freedom of choice, the freedom to expose yourself if you wish, the freedom to cover up if you wish, and also other people’s freedom not to be exposed to what they don’t wish to see. It can be a precarious balance, ripe with misunderstandings and moral high grounds hastily ascended. I think of Stephen Gough, the naked rambler. Sure, a naked man on a footpath may be a difficult thing to explain to a child or a Rabbi, but just how much harm is it going to cause? If he was leaping out at passers-by and exposing himself in grand and pointed display like those flashers that occupied 70s cartoons with almost the same regularity as a man on a one palm tree desert island, there are issues of malice and perversion. He just seems to be some weird naked guy going for a long walk. Crikey, none of this would have happened if some idiot hadn’t put a knowledge tree in a garden and then manufactured a duplicitous serpent. Some people let omnipotence go to their head.

I once tried a stand up bit about thong underwear being Britain’s burqa. I never quite found a way of expressing the idea, maybe because I didn’t really know what I meant. Like trying to describe a lengthy and intricate dream soon after you’ve woken, as the words come out, the story in your mind starts erasing, and all your left with is something about a rhinoceros and a hill made of hands and clouds. I’ll try again. It was the clash between accepted cultural pressures and state imposed oppression. To force women to cover their faces while men shamble arrogantly around with beards frothing across their faces is ugly and wrong. There are some women who may choose to cover up and only peep from their clothing, but how many of us freely choose? How much does cultural pressure, sometimes barely seen, and sometimes with a velvet glove covering an iron fist or a chipboard hand in a woolly mitten, lead to an illusion of freedom while a heavy fug to conform fills the air. 

As for the thong thing, this came to me while walking through Wolverhampton late one night. Like any fine gentleman, I always take a stroll through Wolverhampton late in the evening, they say it clears the head and startles the mind. As I walked down a quiet road, with only the melody of lorries reversing in a nearby supermarket, a stretch limo drove by. Two pink stetsons peeked out and yelled something colourful in my direction, then the faces and hats were swiftly replaced by three exposed bottoms in the open passenger door window. Whether one of two women had a double bottom or whether there was a third woman who let the others jeer while she prepared herself for this moon puppet show, I don’t know (well I do, there was third woman, what am I going on about).

The car continued in the distance, their arses mocking me until the next set of traffic lights. 

What worried me, because something in even the most banal incident will worry me, was the fear that one of those three women didn’t really want to be in a pink stetson, drinking something made from chemical peach memory, and then sticking her backside out of the window. I imagined in her head there lay a guilty secret. She had taken to reading 19th century french literature and she liked it. She was too ashamed to admit that to her friends, and to make it worse that she also had started to gain an interest in continental philosophy. The pressure to remain a friday goodtime drunk with ambitions to expose herself for purposes of derision and larks hung heavy around her, and so she hid her Zolas in the freezer below the peas and kept quiet.

And of course that might all be bullshit. They may possibly have been the midlands wing of the Emile Zola Reading Group, their behaviour not being far off what you might read in L’Assomoir or Nana, or perhaps they were just happy while the bookish middle-aged man in a patronising Pygmalion moment imagined some other world. 

Surely we should have reached a time where all adults are allowed to dress themselves and put on the clothes they chose, however garish or drab. Nations with draconian dress regulations that are punishable if disobeyed are likely to hold divisive attitudes that go far deeper than a forced hat or mask.

Everyone should be free to look as much of a dick as they want, and once they have that freedom, they should think, “now I have it, let me look within myself and decide if I do really want to be in this garb or is it fear of judgment that makes me shun these galoshes and this cravat that I truly wish to wear”.

My tour about Darwin, Feynman and Red-Lipped Batfish continues across UK, coming to Radlett, Bristol,Exeter, Shoreham and Northampton soon, plus 45 other destinations. Details of those plus DVDs, Infinite Monkey Cage and other things HERE

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5 Responses to My Burlesque Years – The Tassels behind the mask

  1. awdawd says:

    Burqa bother… it’s a symptom of the turbulence and interference you get when two sufficiently out of phase cultural waves cross paths. It’s such a sticking issue because they’re so alien and otherworldy – you’ll remember one burqa for every 10 pairs of jeans and t-shirts you pass, so these strange beings hang about in your subconscious, provoking feelings and fears far beyond the influence of any other fashion or cultural symbol. By far the best thing about them is the lack of any slogans or logos or depressing catchphrases! Have you ever tried making casual conversation with the person underneath? I don’t think I ever have – maybe I should.

  2. I feel the same when I walk though the streets of Dublin on a Saturday night, seeing so many young women with dresses shorter than shirts and shoes that approach fetishism. I wonder to myself what would happen if I pushed one, would they all tumble down off their heels as they grabbed their friends in a human domino effect along the Quays? They walk along the streets in groups with chino and polo shirted young men in docksider shoes. The contrast in exposure and vulnerability is in balance with the niqab and be-burka-ed women of the middle- east (and Edgeware Road) who walk slightly behind young men in tee shirts and jeans.

  3. sam says:

    I find the niqab can be quite sexy, but I do think we should ban limos from public spaces

  4. Not The News in Briefs says:

    The phrase ‘two sides of the same coin’ springs to mind…Female sexuality seems to be such a problem doesn’t it? The idea that Muslim women ‘choose’ the veil is as meaningless as the view that Page 3 models are doing it of their own free will. In my view.

  5. celkali says:

    All the girls in my rural Minnesotan middle school had the weirdest ‘fashion’. When it would be as low as -20 out (schools don’t close unless it’s -35 without windchill), you’d see these little 13 year olds going up to school in short shorts, Ugg boots (or flip flops), a (usually school themed) sweatshirt, and just this weird fashion of straightened out obviously dyed blond hair. Or, what annoyed the shit out of me, wearing pajamas to school, which the boys would do. They looked so stupid in the snow with short shorts, but making sure to wear a sweatshirt and Ugg boots to keep warm. It was so contradictory it made my brain explode.

    They had the right to look like idiots, of course, but that they did it and didn’t realize they looked like idiots was infuriating.

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