I find my home country, the United Kingdom, depressingly antagonistic when it comes to the subject of stripping and strip clubs. Research has linked strip clubs to rape! Violence! Sex trafficking! Prostitution! Burlesque is mere misognyny packaged in a feather boa and push-up bra!
I’ve written elsewhere about my feelings regarding the sex industry and the UK’s hostile reaction to it, but I’ve always found the US to have a more tolerant and lenient attitude to the legalized sex industry. Which is why I was surprised by James Dao’s slightly snooty New York Times article which detailed Lily Burana’s burlesque classes for Army wives.
There is a long and honorable tradition of military wives (and, these days, military husbands) going the extra romantic mile for spouses returning from war. A quiet weekend without the kids. Candlelight dinners. Some slinky lingerie.
As Gawker notes, the “slightly scandalized” tone of Dao’s piece seems to suggest that Ms. Burana’s classes are more significant than simply idle entertainment for army wives missing their husbands.
I’ve always felt that the US has more of a history of “redemption” than the United Kingdom. People in the UK neither forget nor forgive, and ‘pigeon-holing’ people – particularly women – is a peculiar pastime common to the snide Brit. When I say there’s no redemption, I mean that the public always consider you a man-hater if you’re a feminist, a glamour model if you’re a businesswoman. Despite being a Cambridge graduate with a BA (hons), MA, MPhil, a published book, an extensive journalism background, and a career in screenwriting, for UK purposes my brief fling as a stripper in Manhattan means that my byline in certain, supposedly “liberal” papers, will always be “Ruth Fowler used to be a stripper.” In the UK, we are cast in the image which provokes the most outrage, and we are stuck there, condemned to be man haters, sluts and strippers forever, despite what we may have achieved outside this mold, either before or after our sentence was cast.
The US, in comparison, seems to lap up the positive transformation of those deemed to have transgressed in some way. Diablo Cody’s checkered past as a stripper made a great back story in her rise to success, but the Oscar winner is certainly not someone whose bio now comprises in its entirety: “Diablo Cody used to be a stripper.” Jennifer Ketcham, the former porn-actress who appeared on Dr Drew’s Sex Rehab, is now forging a new career for herself as an insightful and thoughtful writer with a book deal in the works.
In the US, penitence is a requirement for redemption or transformation. We must, as women, leave behind our past without hiding it, acknowledge our “wrongs,” prove to ourselves and to the public that we are worth more than an unfortunate and cliched byline based upon a small but colorful section of our past.
Which is why the tone of Dao’s article on Lily Burana shocked me somewhat, hinting as it did of old-fashioned disapproval, a hint of patronization. Perhaps it could be because Ms. Burana, unlike myself, unlike Diablo Cody, unlike Jennie Ketcham, has not left the “sordid” world of the sex industry entirely behind – she has brought it into a new decade sans scandal, sans the sweaty, seamy, dark, unpleasant side the public devours hungrily, convinced there is nothing good about a career which hovers uncertainly between demeaning and empowering. Lily Burana is brave enough to strip away (pardon the pun) all the accumulated BS which has been tacked onto a lost performance art, and teach that art to others. Not in an effort to win the war on terror. Not just, as Dao seems to imply, for the enjoyment of absent husbands. Not for any purpose or fulfillment. But simply as art for art’s sake.
And maybe because she’s challenging convention in this way, there can be no redemption for Lily Burana in Dao’s conservative America.
I don’t think the spirited Ms. Burana will be entirely heartbroken about that.