Thursday, December 9, 2010

Burlesque: A Feminist Review

Honestly, this movie was bad enough that it doesn't merit much discussion.

As you could probably predict from the previews, the music was the highlight of the movie. The only highlight of the movie. The basic premise is this: Ally (Christina Aguilera), an overworked waitress and lonely orphan, quits her job in a run-down diner and takes off for the city, hoping for a bright future. Then she goes out looking for a job and stumbles upon Burlesque, a club whose gimmick is a group of highly skilled dancers who all dance in sheer/skimpy/nonexistant clothing, while also lip-syncing to the classics. Only Tess (Cher), the owner, actually sings. Ally wants a job on that stage, but all she can get is a job as a waitress in the club.

The other premise is that Tess and her ex husband are pretty close to losing the club because they can't pay back their loans. Her ex husband is desperate for her to sell, but she refuses. From here on out, the movie's pretty predictable. But stop here if you really want to avoid any spoilers.

Good choice. I promise, there aren't really any spoilers with such a predictable movie. My assessment of the movie is this: it presents itself as feminist-friendly, but it's driven and defined by male sexuality and the male gaze. The film is about women who willingly, deliberately, and happily choose to dance for a mostly-male audience, in what can only be described as a high class strip club. Yes, the characters say it's not a strip club, but the scene where Aguilera removes the beads she was wearing like a bikini and then dances with feathered fans in front of her breasts and vagina beg to differ.

Seriously. That's one of the scenes. And the costumes that are sheer except for the nipples and the bikini area? It's pretty easy to guess that this film feeds into the objectification of the female body. And it really doesn't help that Ally's main romantic competition is a shrill woman who neglects her man by going out of state while she focuses on her own career. Or that Ally always talks to him (and everyone else) in a breathy voice so unlike the deep, beautiful, and empowering voice she uses while she sings. Or that most of the numbers she performs are about men.

And in terms of how race is portrayed in this movie, it does the typical Hollywood "Look! There's a black character! But s/he doesn't actually factor into the plot much or get more than a couple lines. But still! Look! We're Progressive, right?" Seriously - the characters mentioned Coco all the time, but how much did she actually get to talk?

And, while Stanley Tucci was arguably as much of a highlight as the music, it was pretty ridiculous that the one gay character in the movie was notorious for preferring one night stands over commitment, a challenge he only begins to overcome toward the end of the movie.

Feminist Film Review Grade: D-

A low D-


  1. When you state the film is defined by "male sexuality," doesn't that preclude the possibility for a female sexuality rooted in the visceral and visual? I wonder about making a categorical denunciation of films and similar media like these where female bodies are sexualized and displayed because it seems to limit expressions of female sexuality. In other words, it seems problematic to me to argue that only female sexuality NOT arguably defined by the male gaze is truly "female" because that posits a female sexuality that continues to be defined in terms of the male. Physical manifestations and visual demonstrations fade into a modesty that is nonetheless defined by male sexuality because the former is negated to become the latter. It too much reminds me of Freud's misogyny when he argued that male and female sexuality are distinct from one another where men are associated with presence and women with absence. For Freud, female masturbation was a neurosis because it treated the clitoris as a penis, and the penis is presence, which means a woman masturbating is not accepting the fact of her genital absence when she masturbates and is thus attempting to become a man. When a women scantily clad and dancing provocatively is automatically seen as folding into the strictures of patriarchy, it is defining the possibilities of her body in terms of patriarchy, saying that her sexualized and visceral body is always already configured by the male gaze, and that it can be nothing else.

    I would agree that there are potential problems with this kind of display, as you point out, but my contention is that it seems that you are arguing that those problems are categorical. I would not want to define the sexualized, eroticized female body as manifesting patriarchy, simply because then, by suggesting a modesty of bodily presentation, I would be encouraging a female sexuality that is defined and limited by the male. Modesty then becomes a manifestation of patriarchy.

    I would turn to Lady Gaga's music video for "Alejandro" as a prime example of an eroticized female body that, while seeming to be constrained by the male gaze, resists it at the same time both by the female configured as presence, and as the female sexuality configured in context of a male homosexuality. As Lady Gaga's body is both the sexualized visual object often associated with the male view, it resists that objectification by the reversal of subject object relations of the male and female bodies. Also, the queering of sexuality in the video disrupts the possibility of an uninterrupted gaze of male heterosexuality by disrupting that process of identification. Gaga is not a sex object of heterosexual men, but of homosexual men. Of course, the men are also not wholly queered so as to present a vibrant and bodily sexuality that is at once heterosexual as well as homosexual, at once male, as well as female. The female body is not under erasure, but is reclaimed in a similar logic as feminists who want to reclaim terms like "pussy," "cunt" "twat" from patriarchy and refashion epithets fashioned by patriarchy out of female genitalia, and disrupt patriarchy not by a silence of speaking, but by a proliferation of speaking so as to disrupt from within the machinery of oppression. (

    Anyway, you may not have even been making a categorical claim in the first place, but I thought I'd throw some thoughts out there for conversation's sake. I'd be interested to hear your (and other's) thoughts on my response.

  2. Jeremy, you're right to complicate male and female sexuality. My problem with the way this film portrayed male and female sexuality was that because all of these female performances were geared toward male audiences in the club, they weren't represented as complexly as you suggest they may have been meant.

    I certainly didn't mean to suggest that it was male by virtue of being visual - frankly, I think people have wrongly latched onto the crazy idea that men can't control themselves when they see a beautiful woman, whereas women don't at all care about what men look like. That is, I've encountered way too many people who exaggerate the visual vs. touch difference in how men and women become aroused. I don't mean to add to that exaggeration.

    But there was nothing new or progressive in the way the movie represented female sexuality. Nothing to take it out of the androcentric, female-sexuality-is-defined-by-arousing-men kind of male gaze. Or at least not much.

  3. I could completely agree about the film itself (which I haven't seen) not doing anything progressive and what not. But I'm interested in how we differentiate between the androcentric, and the progressive when the female body is eroticized. How do we distinguish between the film Burlesque, and the Lady Gaga video?

    Umm... I think my comment was deleted again. Honestly, if this blog is censoring, then I don't think I'll participate again. I'm not going to participate in a conversation that is anti-intellectual and exclusionary. That's not my brand of feminism. This isn't directed to you in particular, Em, but to the blog as a whole.

    So this is me signing off. Way to adopt the thinking of patriarchy, notanotherwave, where only certain voices and perspectives are sanctioned.