book review – The Happy Stripper
June 2, 2010
The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (2008) by Jacki Wilson. 187 pages of text plus citations.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. There were some things I loved about it, and others that I couldn’t handle reading one more sentence about. If you were picking up this book because you were purely interested in burlesque and learning more about the new burlesque scene I’d give The Happy Stripper a C+. f you are looking for an interesting read about feminist topics concerning art, women, history and burlesque, this book would get a solid B+. Now let me explain.
The Happy Stripper is basically a really long paper about feminism. To me, it reads as a research paper, and not the most well researched one at that. If you notice, it does not say ‘feminism’ anywhere on the cover, so I was a bit confused when the author just kept talking feminist theory and citing feminist critiques throughout the whole book. The book also focuses a great deal on female artists, specifically performance artists. Luckily for me, I enjoy reading about feminism and performance art, but I didn’t pick up this book to read about those topics, I wanted to learn about burlesque! As I mentioned above, I felt the new burlesque research wasn’t where I would have hoped it to be. Now, that being said, the historical research seemed top notch and was fascinating to read. The current burlesque research done by the author seemed like it was all done hastily on the internet. For example, Wilson says the burlesque world is sadly lacking black burlesque performers and that they are discriminated against. Wilson then makes mention of only two such performers, one in the UK and one in New York. Doesn’t talk about them or their acts, just mentions two names. Although I can’t speak about the discrimination factor, I was floored by the audacity of the author to make it seem like there are only 2 black new burlesque performers (and only 1 in NY). Not only is this not true, Fem Appeal also runs her own weekly show! Plus the author made no mention of other performers of color, where you once again have a lady who not only is of color, but is ALSO the organizer and emcee of her own weekly show (Calamity Chang – Dim Sum Burlesque).
And while I am on the topic of the “lady” factor, I became very frustrated by the female focused perspective Wilson came from. There are a great deal of male burlesque performers as well as those that straddle or bend the area between the gender binary. Sadly, these performers weren’t discussed or even mentioned in the book. Since the author spends so much time focused on feminism and the debate between the sexually liberated woman and the objectified lady, we rarely get to even hear the performers themselves discuss their thoughts. It is one thing to speculate and theorize when you have no primary sources to work with, but the author did! She could have interviewed so many of the performers, or taken a class or even tried burlesque once herself before casting judgement on a whole movement that is still alive and evoloving.
My last issue was with the overwhelming heterosexual perspective in this book. Many times the author discussed feminist viewpoints about the woman always trying to please the man, or every time she undresses she is tied to the male gaze et. al. What about us queer ladies? I know many times while I’m performing, I am not focused on what men are thinking of me. And I am sure other gay female performers out there would agree that they are not consciously or subconsciously doing their show to impress and try to bed/wed a man.
All this negativity aside, the book was enjoyable to read, and the actual parts on burlesque (1/4?) were interesting and thought-provoking. The author does a great job of setting up the historical context to let the reader understand the world and society at the time the three big booms in burlesque were happening (1870, 1920, 1990). The author decided to focus on single performers from these periods, which allowed a deeper level of research on those specific women, but at the same time it also cuts away at the variety of shows and performers happening at that time.
In summary, the book wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t really focused on burlesque. I can say I definitely learned some things about the past world of burlesque, but the book stayed up in the theoretical and philosophical clouds of feminism and post-feminism that I feel the reader loses their grounding and ability to connect with the information on a practical level. The book doesn’t seem to be sold in book stores yet, but if you have the money and an interest in history, feminism, performance art and burlesque, I think you might want to check out the book for purchase online. If not, focus on some of the other burlesque books on the market or just go see more shows and talk with the performers. You might learn just as much if not more.