Exploiting Fantasy

I feel the need to weigh in on male strippers—well not actual strippers—more like male revue shows, a la the Chippendales or Hunks. Before I go any further, let me say that I have nothing against a shirtless, oiled-up Channing Tatum or Matthew McConaughey because DAMN!!

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I recently convinced a friend to attend one of my burlesque shows, but she was really hesitant at first, which got me thinking. This particular friend’s hesitation had nothing to do with prudishness or an unwillingness to see one of her best gal pals parade around in pasties and fishnets. Rather, it came from a misplaced concern for MY well-being.

I’ve already talked a little bit about how I came to burlesque and my reasons for performing. After learning my friend’s concerns stemmed from believing that I was “pretending to strip” in some dark, dirty bar while “all sorts of suspicious characters” leered and could potentially follow me home, I was able allay her fears with a more thorough explanation of what burlesque is; and assurances that our productions are ticketed performances taking place in well-lit theaters (eyeroll).

Seemingly mollified, my friend commented that she felt better knowing it was a “real show, like the Chippendales.” Full stop.

I had to hold up my hand.

I’ve said before that I take no offense when someone refers to burlesque as simply “stripping.” Burlesque performers remove clothing, so I can see the rank comparison that could be made by the uninformed. But to compare what a burlesque performer does on stage to what takes place during a male revue is disingenuous at best and mildly offensive at worst.

I think a traditional female strip club performance has much more in common with a male revue show than burlesque ever could. First and foremost, the male revue shows exploit women every bit as much as female strip shows do. Yes, you read that correctly! The male revue shows, which feature half-naked men dancing for the enjoyment of squealing women, exist to exploit women.

I’ve been to a few of these shows, and I’ve enjoyed myself each time, so don’t for a second think my perspective stems from so-called “FemiNazi” tendencies (Oh how I hate that expression!) or from the view of someone who doesn’t enjoy nor celebrate sex. It’s the very opposite in fact, and I think that’s the point.

I can get sex on my own, and I’d rather have the real thing instead of some slicked up Fabio in a banana hammock grinding on me for 15 seconds and expecting to be paid for the pleasure of not giving me an orgasm.

The male performers undeniably have the upper-hand in these situations—they do all of their over-the-top suggestive moves while knowing that they will never, ever go past the underwear stage. Penis is forbidden—it will never be shown at one of these “naughty” shows. At least at a traditional strip club, the men know their damp bills will at least get them some boobage, if not the whole enchilada… so to speak.

These male revue shows barely flash a butt cheek, and even those are quickly covered up. Instead, they rely on the ever-lucrative female fantasy—seller of a billion romance novels. These men (usually in fantastic shape) bump and grind their way into women’s wallets with a hip thrust here and a pelvic roll there, ensuring their G-strings are stuffed by the end of the night. Like McConaughey's character in Magic Mike said: "You are fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies. You are the husband they never had. You are that dreamboat guy that never came along. You are the one night stand that they get to have, tonight, with you on stage."

And if that’s what you’re into, more power to you. But really, is every woman’s fantasy fulfilled by these shows? Is it the ultimate female dream to be ground on for 15 seconds by a guy reeking of Hawaiian Tropic and dripping with the sweat of every undersexed female in the place? Do women really want a husband who makes his living by gyrating his way through middle-aged women or acting out a one-night stand in front of an audience?

These guys don’t even put any effort into the performance—it’s so much a job for them that they are halfway off the woman’s lap before they even start the lap dance. They’re just waiting for money to be snapped into the elastic at their waist. Then it’s off to the next sucker.

And I get it—this is their job, and they work for tips. I’m not blaming them at all.

But I take issue with the culture that makes shows like these so popular. I do not know how much revenue male revue performances bring in, but I’m guessing it’s a LOT. I’ve been to four sold-out shows, and never is there a shortage of women lining up to pay extra to get a “private” lap dance on stage.  From the look on most of these women’s faces, that few seconds of simulated sex is the most they’ve gotten in a long time.

And that’s the key.

These shows cater to, or perhaps prey upon, women who are desperate for male attention. For whatever reason—whether being unlucky in love, getting through a breakup, or perceiving themselves as somehow less than (never the case, ladies!)—male revue shows take advantage of women who want the brief flash of excitement these fantasy men bring.

Before anyone gets their feminist panties in a twist, I realize this is not an exhaustive list of the women who attend these shows. Plenty of women go to male revue shows for girl-time and to giggle at hunky guys dressed as fireman attempting a synchronized dance.  Generally, these women keep to the back of the room and laugh at the spectacle; they are not the ones clamoring to run a hand over some muscled, overly-oiled thigh for $5.00 a pop.

These easily excited women act as if they’ve never seen a penis before, and as if these shows are the most scandalous thing that’s ever happened to them. And the latter part at least is probably true, but the sad reality is really just guy dry humping them for money.

I’ll say it again: I’d much rather have real sex than the feel of a fake boner on my thigh for a few seconds; I don’t care how attractive the guy is!

Then there’s the issue with the way these men are paraded out as meat to be catcalled and fondled in ways every bit as sexist as any traditional female strip show. In fact, they are a great deal worse, because bouncers at any strip club would not allow the female performers to be treated that way. The way women behave at these male revue shows is more than a little disturbing to witness.

I understand that the oil, muscles, dancing, etc. is all meant to combine into a sexy little package (or not so little, ahem!), but what I’ve witnessed is so much more than an outpouring of sexual energy. The men routinely have their crotches groped without their permission. I would never condone that kind of behavior from men toward women, so it’s absolutely hypocritical that the women get to respond this way to the male performers.  

Contrast all of that that with what happens at your traditional burlesque performance - where the women on stage would likely deliver a literal kick to the ass of anyone who attempted an illicit grab.

A burlesque show is not a formulaic, overly choreographed routine. Instead, the performers carefully hone our craft into unique performances that we take pride in. Yes, we are artists who most certainly get paid for our work, but that’s handled through contracts and venue bookings, like any theater performance. Burlesque dancers don’t work for tips, and slipping us a fiver isn’t going to win you any favors. (Quite the opposite, in fact!)

We’re also generally performing on stage for ourselves because we enjoy the hell out of putting on a good show. The burlesque dancer is not an object on stage to be exploited, and we are certainly not there for the male gaze.

Burlesque performers don’t rush through the act of removing clothing, anxious to hit that money shot and move on to the next bit. No, we revel in building every delicious bit of anticipation and will take every second we can to tease you before that next article of clothing comes off. Trust me; you’ll leave a fantastic burlesque show thinking a glove peel is about the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen!

Many male revue shows rely on the performer grinding his crotch either as the scandalous denouement, although no climax (literal or figuratively) is ever achieved. The specific names and costumes might change, but generally those shows stick to a formula of men in costume gyrating to “Hot Stuff.” That’s it.

Burlesque builds the costumes, props, music, and movement into an elegant story. It may be cheesy, but it can also be satirical, political, emotional, and sometimes dark or even gory. Burlesque can make the viewer think, even while appreciating the human form. Most importantly, a burlesque performer wants the audience to have a good time—we’re not going to flash a butt cheek here, a pasty there, and call it a night. The audience sees plenty of both, but there is a deft artistry leading you to that cheeky reveal.

I realize my friend didn’t mean any offense with her comments, and we ended up having a good discussion, which was the genesis for this column. Yet I can’t help but think that her original opinion is shared by many people, and that’s a damn shame.

The things that burlesque and male revues have in common are superficial—both feature stage acts where the performers remove clothes during skits set to music. Both types of shows even cater to a largely female audience. That’s where the similarities end. Male revue shows aim to make money off of vulnerable women and purposely turn the men on stage into objects. They are formulaic and sexist in the extreme.

Burlesque is the absolute opposite of all of that. It’s feminism personified and exists for fun, yes, but also grants the performer a vehicle to make a statement and to empower themselves and the people around them.

Women leave male revues wishing they could be with one of the guys on stage; women leave a burlesque show wishing they could be the woman on stage!