It took me over a year to pursue a friend’s recommendation of comic series The Wicked + The Divine, suggested after my wish for more superheroes modelled after rock stars. After devouring the first three trade volumes, I wondered why I didn’t start sooner.
The rock stars in The Wicked + The Divine (also referred to as WicDiv) aren’t superheroes necessarily – none of them go about Saving The Day. They are reincarnations of notable deities and mythological figures, such as Lucifer, the Morrigan, and Inanna, that come down to Earth every 90 years inhabiting specially-chosen human beings to turn them into the Pantheon — powerful Muse-level pop culture icons modelled after real-life icons such as David Bowie and Prince (for up to two years, until they die – often in inglorious blazes).
I’ve been long interested in the mechanisms of fame, how fandom can itself be a kind of religion, and how that devotional energy gets channelled into practices such as pop culture paganism. WicDiv struck me as a story set In A World Where Pop Culture Paganism Is Literal, where pop concerts are religious masses and miracles are granted through unrecordable songs.
One of the Pantheon made a powerful, lasting impression on me: Tara, a mysterious Lady-Gaga-esque figure (writer Kieron Gillen describes her style as “50s movie icon turned sci-fi”) much-maligned both by the rest of the Pantheon and the general public seemingly for being “attention-seeking” with her provocative outfits and supposed ego. Up until her reveal, she is only described as “#FuckingTara”; an annoyance, big-headed, no one’s favourite.
It is only in issue #13 that Tara gets to tell her own story: how she was always the target of unwanted attention, how she crafts her (literal and figurative) mask as a way to give the ever-staring public something to look at, how she always tries to perform her own work at her gigs only to have the audience turn on her because she’s not giving them the Divine Gift they were there for. She hated her godhood, up until the very end; reading pages upon pages of hate Tweets closely resembling the worst of Gamergate, she asks for aid in ending her life – yet even the Gods fail her, burning up her goodbye letter and setting up her death as a murder to frame someone else.
I had such a jolt of connection and recognition reading her story. She and I were both artists from South Asian backgrounds using art and spectacle to challenge preconceived notions about our selves and bodies – a representation I have never really seen elsewhere, especially not of people with similar heritages to mine. Hell, even our names are very similar. And dealing with cat-calling and online abuse is something many women and people of color have had to deal with at some point, especially those of us who have been in the public eye. But it took some time and a conversation with a friend (& fellow WicDiv fan) before I realised why Tara’s story made such a deep impression on me.
Her story mirrors a lot of my bitter, heartbreaking experience with the Australian burlesque scene.
I took some burlesque classes in Brisbane on a whim in early 2009. My excuse was that I had just been cast as the dominatrix in The Vagina Monologues and needed to practice, but really it was because I wanted to do something a little out of character. I had been disconnected from my body and sexuality most of my life, never being any good at sports, and only having the Internet as my creative and social outlet. I felt like my body was superfluous and that I would have been happy being a Brain in a Jar. I grew up in a sex-negative homophobic country and long figured I’d be OK being forever virginal and asexual; it wasn’t until a few years ago that I got in touch with my sexuality, via my first relationship, and a little while before I could really get a handle on my queerness.
I quickly fell in love with burlesque. I loved how flexible it was as an art form, how you could pretty much do whatever you wanted, like a live-action multimedia music video. Spoken word? Sure. Juggling? Why not. Glittering costuming from head to merkin to toe? Hells yeah! The classes I went to, taught by a local notable burlesque elder-like figure, were of the contemporary Neo-Burlesque vein, mixing up classic moves with modern-day music and pop sensibility. However, I was particularly inspired by the work of people like Vixen Noir, who used burlesque as a way to comment on race, gender, and sexuality. I loved burlesque’s history as a means of social commentary, poking fun at class differences and gender roles, and wanted to bring those ideas into my work. Tara challenged the misogynist and racist gazes she would get through her fashion and performance; I wanted to do the same.
My burlesque performances, from literally my public solo debut at a local burlesque competition, were often very political, rooted in my own experiences as a queer immigrant woman of colour. My debut act, a reflection on the clash between my Muslim upbringing, my burgeoning sexuality, and current-day Islamophobia, was a reverse strip (starting naked and putting clothes on) to Deeyah’s “Pashto Lullaby” into a telekung, or Muslim prayer outfit. Later versions would involve an actual burqa. That act was an immediate hit; it won an award, got me on the radio, and built my name as a performer of provocative and innovative work. Even now, it is still one of my most successful acts; every performance of it garners me praise as well as positive feedback from other people of similar backgrounds finding recognition in our shared story.
People – including those in the local burlesque scene – loved that I was daring to be different, to take risks with my work, to challenge norms. I soon found, however, that this scene didn’t particularly appreciate it if you were challenging their norms.
Being one of the very, very few non-White burlesque performers in Brisbane, or even Australia as a whole, I became very aware of the ways that non-White cultures were exotified or maligned (or both, at once) within the scene.
Cultural appropriation and stereotypes were rife. Australia already has a huge problem with casual racism – in burlesque, that was reflected through the sheer number of acts that involved stereotypical, often offensive racial imagery. The burlesque teacher I originally trained with, a White woman, was especially fond of this: she’s performed pole in Buddhist monk robes and a traditional Thai headpiece, dyed herself blue to perform as a fire-eating tongue-flashing Kali (with a White-guy Krishna), and even ‘lynched’ herself to Strange Fruit while wearing a Plantation-era dress in a supposed homage to Gone with the Wind. She was far from the only one: from faux-Oriental to faux-Voodoo, marginalised cultures were being ransacked as though they were merely Halloween pop-up shops.
In the meantime, I found myself stuck between two dichotomous expectations. I was introduced in shows as the Bollywood Princess, despite having no Bollywood material in my acts. People wanted me to be their Exotic Other, quizzing me about my background and praising me for “embracing my traditional heritage” for wearing a $20 op-shop slightly-embroidered dress. At the same time, I was expected to conform to Dita von Teese-esque burlesque beauty ideals, which I sometimes called “1940s Victoriana”: fair skin, clear hairless bodies, corset-cinched hourglass figures doing the Bump and Grind. (A local lingerie company that targets burlesquers once held a photo competition where they unironically stated ‘alabaster skin’ as one of their hallmarks of True Beauty. I and some others called them out on it, and they somewhat apologised, but their perspective is hardly unusual.)
I had no issue with cultural arts or classic burlesque; they just weren’t what I wanted to perform. Like Tara, I wanted to perform my own acts with my own style – sometimes a political statement, sometimes a personal story, often a mash of the two. I wanted them to see anything but the obvious – the reason Tara always wears her mask while performing even before she was ascended to the Pantheon. Our lives could have been so much easier, perhaps, if Tara was right and we just conformed to what our worlds wanted from us.
We wanted things to change, Tara and I. And we both paid heavy, heavy prices for it.
Trouble started for me when I saw photos of the aforementioned burlesque teacher and her colleagues in costume for a performance that was pretty much Chinese Stereotype, down to the straw hats. I messaged my teacher about my misgivings, being as kind and explanatory as I could muster.
She did not respond at all well. She yelled at me about being a killjoy, wanting to control people’s freedom of expression. We did not talk for a few months; the next time we did talk, she had arrived to a party in a fake afro, making passive-aggressive comments about people’s freedom to dress.
The aggression – not just passive at this point – moved beyond this teacher to the rest of the scene. After writing generally about how I wished people would move away from the expectation of All Corsets All The Time to celebrate different kinds of bodies, I was told “if you don’t like corsets get out of burlesque”. I would get comments, both anonymous and not, about how I was too hairy, too knock-kneed, too dark-skinned, too ugly, too uncoordinated to do burlesque. People who used to be friends and colleagues, people I have performed with, people I’ve invited into my home, turned against me – sometimes mocking me publicly.
Tara, too, was the target of overwhelming amounts of online abuse. There is a chilling double-page spread in WicDiv #13 solely consisting of Tweets attacking Tara for her art, her body, her femininity. #FuckingTara takes root as a slur, an insult. The only vaguely positive comments are those coveting her body – and even those turn creepy fast.
I wonder if some of those Tweets had ever come from her fellow Pantheon members. They certainly were very vocal about their disdain to her face.
One of the people who became very vocal about their disdain for me was Australia’s biggest commercial burlesque producer at the time. I had worked for her before and had a somewhat rocky relationship, but it all came to a head when her biggest touring show adopted an Exotic theme, with the headline act being yet again another Orientalist mishmash performed by a White woman. I was very vocal in my callouts, brash even, talking about the racism behind an “Exotic”-themed show and the headliner act in particular on my blog. By this point, I had already been actively writing about racism and exotification in various fields – not just the local burlesque scene, but in performance and pop culture around the world. I’ve had pieces published in other web magazines around race and art. Many followed me specifically for my intersectional burlesque commentary; this was more of the same.
Soon after I posted, I got text messages from this producer threatening to sue me for libel. The headliner wrote an article defending her act (a prop was gifted by a Chinese woman and therefore she can do whatever she wants with it?) and called me a “harpy”. A colleague of the producer went on Facebook demanding that I apologise.
I refused. I had dealt with this producer’s bullying for quite some time and opened up about it. I stood by my words past and present. But the damage was already done. I was iced out of the local burlesque scene, losing friendships and professional connections. The online abuse continued. I would get rare private messages of support, but they would all say that they are too afraid to speak up for me publicly because they didn’t want to lose their livelihoods.
They didn’t seem to care that I had effectively lost mine.
In some ways, I was luckier than Tara. I had found some allies – mostly from burlesque scenes outside Australia, as well as the small handful of queer and POC burlesque performers in Australia, most of whom do not have much to do with the more mainstream and commercial sectors. Some of these, like my early inspiration Vixen Noir, also used burlesque as a means of socio-political commentary. They, too, were very vocal about bigotry and marginalisation in burlesque – and people listened. They weren’t free from backlash or abuse, but they weren’t nearly as isolated as I was. They had each other, they had allies, they had resources.
Seeking those resources, I spent the summer of 2011 at an artist residency in San Francisco, becoming heavily involved with local communities working in the arts, social justice, and sexuality spaces. I met up with some of the people I’d admired or communicated with from afar, and got to meet many new people too. I found unparalleled support: people who appreciated the work I was doing, thanked me for speaking up, gave me strength and listening ears whenever I was put through the ringer. They helped me feel less crazy, more validated about my feelings and perspectives. They got me. And when my residency was over, they wanted me back – I didn’t really get that feeling in Brisbane.
So I went back to San Francisco, for longer. I had intended to do more work in performance and sexuality via my MFA there, but ended up moving away from burlesque into other forms of performance and art-making. I carried a lot of what I originally loved about burlesque into those other forms – freedom of format, interdisciplinary approaches, making it your own. I found spaces where I could put on whatever mask I wanted (or not), create and present whatever I wanted, and have the audience appreciate anything but the obvious.
Eventually I had to leave (visa reasons), long before I was ready. I’m sure there would have been a time, like there was in every city I’ve lived in, where I find myself done with the city and ready to move on. I hadn’t reached that point yet in San Francisco when I was forced out by the sticker in my passport. I did have some rough experiences during my time there (mostly revolving around a bad relationship) but I easily had a few years left. I miss San Francisco dearly and am very grateful that, for a short time at least, I found my people. I found my home.
Tara never got that chance. She never got the chance to try out a different art form and be appreciated for it. She never really found allies – there were others in the Pantheon that were slightly more friendly to her, but nobody that really reached out to her and cared. The one person she felt was more trustworthy betrayed her in the end, by burning her goodbye letter – and possibly by manipulating the way her Pantheon-hood played out. She never found her people, never found her San Francisco.
In death she found peace, but never would she find understanding.
There’s a part of me that wants to reach out to the Tara as portrayed in WicDiv as an actual goddess, one who could perhaps impart wisdom on our shared experience. Maybe she could protect me, guide me, soothe me as I try to dip my toes back into the performance world in this new city (Melbourne) only to deal with microaggressions all over again. It links with some personal spirituality history – I have been haunted by Kali for years, like she’s been trying to get my attention for a while now, and the Hindu Tara is closely associated with Kali.
But Tara hated being a goddess. Being a goddess robbed her of her humanity, her soul, her love for her art. She was told it would have been a great opportunity to present her authentic self – and that turned out to be a lie.
So instead of regarding her as the goddess she was forced to be, I’ll reach out to her humanity – the side she always tried to express and never got heard.
Aruna, I am so sorry. I am so sorry that you were not treated better. I am so sorry that your gift turned into your poison. I am upset, I am angry, I am hurt at the way you were treated – by the public, by the Pantheon, by the one person you thought you could trust.
And I am upset by the way I was treated too.
You deserved better, Aruna. You deserved so much better than to be thrust into a responsibility you never wanted to bear, a pawn in someone else’s game. I deserved better too – deserved so much better than to bear people’s unfair expectations, bear the wrath they unleashed when I dare be myself.
We deserved a world where our art, our voices, our souls were heard, nurtured, cherished. Where we were more than just bodies to be ogled over, reviled, nitpicked, analysed. Where we could create art out of ourselves for any reason without being seen as egomaniacs. Where we could be any version of ourselves we wanted to be, on our own terms, and be respected for that. Where our colleagues were supportive, our friends genuine, our mentors actually worthy of trust.
Where people were kinder than us. Where we were happy.
Your world may have called you #FuckingTara, and I’m sure my world has called me “Fucking Tiara” many times over. Maybe they still will – I know that first burlesque teacher still speaks ill of me to her current students, the same way that WicDiv readers were primed to assume the worst of you before they got the chance to meet you. Even in deaths – literal or figurative – the abuse and ill will still continue. My heart goes out to you. I may not get being a goddess, sister, but I get you.
I love you, Aruna.
In some weird way, to love you is to love me too.
I hope that you had the chance to hear that sincerely when you were alive.
I am so sad for the both of us. I am upset, I am angry, I am hurt for the both of us.
I’m so, so sorry.
We both deserved fuckin’ better.
Image Credits: Tara by Tula Lotay; Performance stills by Creatrix Tiara