On Wednesday, August 31st I successfully defended my second comprehensive paper “Burlesque’s Big Reveal: Neo-Burlesque as Both Scene and Fandom.” This paper will form the theoretical basis of my prospectus for my dissertation research, and having completed both comps and my coursework, my department is advancing me to candidacy as soon as it is approved by the graduate dean. My goal is to be soft on the market in the Fall of 2017 and hard on the market in the Fall of 2018. My committee was chaired by Associate Professor Jonathan Wynn and included (alphabetically) Distinguished University Professor Naomi Gerstel and Professor Emeritus Robert Zussman. What follows is a fairly abbreviated summary of my talk which was itself a fairly abbreviated version of my paper.
My paper offered a brief genealogy of neo-burlesque beginning with burlesque’s American debut in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularization and “Golden Era” of the early twentieth century, its decline in the mid twentieth century and its revival in the late twentieth century and transition to neo-burlesque in the early twentieth century. After reaching the present day, I examined current scholarship of neo-burlesque, which, as I’d previously discussed, is primarily journalism, popular press pictorial/biographical books, theatrical/performance autoethnography, and feminist theoretical debates about neo-burlesque performance. Each of these sources offer a small glimpse into neo-burlesque but their focus on individual experience and on normative questions ignores how neo-burlesque communities operate and create safe spaces and queer communities for participants. To that end, I explored two alternative cultural frameworks which work as theoretical toolkits for examining and understanding neo-burlesque communities: fandom and scenes.
I don’t want to argue that these two cultural frameworks are the only way to study neo-burlesque. Nor are my questions “How is neo-burlesque fandom?” and “How is neo-burlesque a scene?” but rather, “How do these perspectives offer us a toolkit for understanding how burlesque provides a space that is democratic, departs from conventional ideas about gender, is queer friendly and diverse?” Both frameworks operate within larger subcultural theoretical perspectives of sociology and as such tend to focus on sub/counter cultures or transgressive and marginal groups, are interested in the on the ground experience of groups, and examine the production and consumption of culture and the relationship between consumers and producers. The unit of analysis is different for each perspective, but examining how interlocking institutions and actors are related are crucial to each framework.
Burlesque performers by-and-large are fans of burlesque. Their efforts to recreate an older form of entertainment and how they change it for modern sensibilities speaks to some of these factors. Fandom perspective is useful because its early studies looked at fans who consumed culture nowhere near each other, but still formed a community. Email list serves and web boards are early sources for a lot of material on fandom. Fan conventions also offer insight into the ways that fandom works. Though these conventions offer a fleeting moment of togetherness, they represent the coming together of communities that existed previously in cyberspace and news letters. A lot of fan consumption is individual but its interpretation takes place socially. This reinterpretation is another area fandom perspective helps ground our understanding of cultural consumption. A lot of fan literature looks at how fans take cultural objects and reinterpret them. The classic example here would be early “slash” fiction that created romantic relationships between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. This reinterpretation of the product is important as it shows that fans can create their own meanings and sometimes work counter to the creator’s original designs. This reinterpretation can also lead to conflict between producers and consumers of culture. These elements combine to demonstrate that culture is productive. Fans who write fan fiction or “fics” are part of a community that exists outside the merely producer/consumer dichotomy of capitalism. The same can be said for fans who are inspired to create elaborate pieces of art based on their favorite shows or book. A study of neo-burlesque as fandom would offer a fairly comprehensive and compelling study of the workings of fandom and this scene, but I argue that combining it with the scenes perspective would strengthen it further.
One of the major hallmarks of the scenic view is that it is firmly rooted in physical spaces and examining the overlapping venues where members of a scene congregate (e.g., a study of a tattoo parlor would show two wildly different scenes if it also looked at the local coffee shop and art gallery compared to a study that examined the tattoo parlor, a biker bar, and a gun shop). A scenes perspectives tends to focus on the perceived authenticity of a scene: scenes develop certain norms and codes that allow members of the scene to discern insiders from outsiders. The focus on the coding of authenticity reveals the central theatrical nature of scenes. Members of a scene know what code of dress is or isn’t appropriate and though they are ostensibly participating as a spectator, they recognize that their appearance will also be consumed by others. Finally, a scenic perspective lays out two ways a scene might end. The first is that the local space that housed the scene changes in a way that it can no longer exist there. The second end to a scene, paradoxically, is if that scene becomes too successful and it’s ability to police its borders diminishes and it enters into a realm beyond the local and into culture at large. Again, just as with fandom, a study of neo-burlesque using only the scenic perspective would cover a great deal of neo-burlesque, but similar to fandom would not offer a complete picture.
By combining a fandom and scenic perspective, I hope to shift the scholarly focus on neo-burlesque from a normative question to a cultural question of how neo-burlesque functions as a community. Neo-burlesque offers a safe space for queerness in a world where these sorts of spaces are becoming more and more diffuse. Fandom and scenic prospectives offer a good toolkit for understanding the integration and reinterpretation of culture within a performance space. Structurally, my next step is to defend my prospectus. This means combining the theoretical perspectives laid out in this post with empirical data. I will incorporate my years of field observations and begin interviews with members of the local neo-burlesque scene. Though committee structure and formation is currently in discussion, we are hoping that I can defend my prospectus by the end of October at which point I will be ABD. It’s an exciting time, and the end is in sight!