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I saw The Slutcracker a couple of weeks back, for its second annual run. For those of you unfamiliar or reading from your RSS feeder at work (naughty, naughty; I love it), The Slutcracker is a burlesque version of the classic Nutcracker ballet; a filthy fantasia of dirty old grandmothers, vibrator princes, stripper queen fairies and Bacchanalian beauties.

Burlesque has seen a massive revival in the past ten or so years, and has been widely hailed as a celebration of sex-positivity and expressive sexuality on women’s terms. In its original days, burlesque was home to women of all shapes and sizes, and big girls were all the rage. These days, the nouveau-burlesque troupes are tooting that horn again: the women in this production are thin and flat chested, fat and curvy, athletic and supple, and everything in between. The big things they have in common are talent, and an enthusiastic engagement with the work they’re doing that you’ll rarely see on a stripper bar stage. One of my favorite moments was watching a bevy of women do a Busby Berkeley move, forming a circle facing outward and spinning. I could not believe the incredible variety of breasts that passed my eyes, all wearing identical pasties. Not to mention the massive, genuine smiles.

All this being said, I find myself somewhat discouraged by the burlesque revival as I’ve so far experienced it. I’ve not seen many shows, but the ones I’ve seen have a major thing in common that I find distressing, and yet which largely explains the revival’s mainstream success: male sexuality is still wildly underrepresented, and the female sexuality presented is largely for the benefit of the male gaze.

It must be difficult, I imagine, reviving an old form, comedic and sexy as it is, and changing too many of the rules. But I couldn’t help but notice that in The Slutcracker, the first year I saw it, the few men involved either kept all their clothes on, or, if they stripped at all, did so only to comedic effect. This year, there was a nice concession to those of us who might want to see something different: two tango couples emerged, then switched partners so that the men danced together and so did the women. This, to me, was the sexy highlight of the show this year: the two men were both masculine and beautiful, shirtless with pasties (fairness!), and their plain sexual tension in the dance was not played for comedy. (It is notable, however, that they also put a female dancing couple on the stage so that the straights wouldn’t be too put off.)

Every other moment involving a man, though, was: even the romantic Slutcracker Prince – essentially a life-size Rabbit Pearl vibrator in a tacky pink tuxedo, complete with ruffles – never got down to skivvies or did anything other than present Clara as the object of the gaze, just as in classical ballet. And the other men were basically buffoonish – if very funny – stereotypes of straight guys ogling the women.

Now, granted, these stereotypical characters are shown as insensitive, and only are rewarded in the end when they are able to open up to their women’s broadened sexuality. But as yummy as the huge pile of women of all sizes and shapes (with a few guys) at the orgiastic curtain-call was, it was still frustrating to see the same tropes play out as they have for centuries: women are for looking at, men are there to look. (Men who are there to be looked at, of course, are meant to be looked at by men.)

The few moments of queerness in burlesque that I’ve seen, other than the tango described above, have been disappointing: I was very put off when I watched an apparently butch/femme duo perform in a Boston showcase not long ago, and they both stripped down to identical femme underwear. Why not a jock for the butch, and bound breasts or pasties matching her butch attire? Or, why not flip the femme as well – have her strip to butch nethers? Something, please, other than defaulting them both to the endless burlesque finale of the frilly breast reveal.

I know that this is one of Maymay’s big hobbyhorses, and it’s one of mine, too: I want to see men’s bodies sexualized more. I want to see real queer sexuality, and I want to see the variants on straight sexuality, too. It’s rather unsurprising that the burlesque revival is so successful under these circumstances: for the most part, it’s entirely unthreatening to the status quo. It’s likely I’m showing my ignorance, though, of the larger picture: can anyone point me to burlesque that showcases more than heteronormative sexuality as a matter of course, or that showcases male artists without being directed specifically at gay men?

Do TraniWreck and All the King’s Men count as burlesque?

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