You Don’t Own Me: Beelzebabe And Bunny Buxom On The Art Of Feminist Burlesque

The phrase “feminist burlesque” verges on tautological. The female-centric art form offers women a unique kind of agency over their sexual expression and representation, which makes burlesque an implicitly feminist act. When a production is designed for female empowerment from start to finish, however, these “feminist acts” coalesce into one explicitly feminist production. With this in mind, burlesque performers slash producers Beelzebabe and Bunny Buxom have come together to create an evening of feminist burlesque at The Parkside Lounge this Thursday, June 25th.

You Don’t Own Me: Burlesque Unchained is an evening about equality, sexuality, and not putting babes in the corner (without their explicit and enthusiastic consent). It’s $10 admittance for men and $7 for women, which is less of a “screw you guys” and more a clever play on income disparity and the fact that women are reportedly making 70 cents to every dude’s dollar. We had the pleasure of chatting with producers Bunny Buxom and Beelzebabe about their own work as performers, and what exactly they have in store for a night named after our favorite Lesley Gore anthem of autonomy.

First off, tell us what we can expect from “You Don’t Own Me” (without giving too much away of course).

Beelzebabe: We hope the show will be powerful, thought-provoking and political without being ham-fisted. It’s a message but it’s also meant to be entertaining.

Bunny: I think there’s going to be a lot of really powerful performances about the whole spectrum of what it’s like to be a woman, from everyday situations to feelings to sexuality and sexual orientation. It’ll run the gamut of “fuck yeah I’m powerful” and in your face, but not in an angry way — in a way that we want our voices to be heard. It’s a celebration of being a woman.

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What inspired this particular production? Have you two joined forces before?

Beelzebabe: This is the first time Bunny and I have collaborated in producing, although we have shared the stage many times. The show was inspired by a conversation about how neo-burlesque started out as kind of a riot girl, punk rock movement and now as it’s become more mainstream, we are (unfortunately) reverting back to the “old ways” where more and more men are controlling the scene as producers and making money off women. There are (of course!) a lot of powerful female producers (Jen Gapay, Angie Pontani and Calamity Chang to name a few) but in some venues it feels like we’ve reverted to the 1960s — the men are clothed in front of the mike and the women are on display.

Bunny: We’ve been friends since I started burlesque. She’s been doing it twice as long as I have, but we are very like-minded: Feminism, girl power, and “I don’t take shit from any man or person” kinda thing. We were talking about the relationship between men and women in the scene and we said we should produce a show called “You Don’t Own Me” kinda as a joke, and then we were like, no really, that’s a good idea!

What’s interesting is that it’s a woman-oriented art form, but there are so many men who are in control of shows. It’s like even in this subset of a culture it’s still reflecting the world at large. It’s like I have to ask this man for a booking, I have to have this man take my picture and be in control of the rights to my photos. That’s really frustrating and my personal initiative is that I want more female producers, I want more female hosts. There’s nothing wrong with male performers, but I just don’t think that female performers get the respect they should have in a scene that is supposed to be about them.

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What societal expectations of women do you personally feel passionate about challenging right now?

Beelzebabe: Right now I am focused on aging and what it means to age as a woman in our culture. I am working on a new multimedia project with another performer who is also in her 40s, Vanil La Frappe, called Fearless Over 40. We are really looking to challenge and break out of that fear that society puts on women around aging. Once you hit 35-ish you start getting bombarded with fear mongering ads about “keeping your looks,” once you hit my age (44) they start with the terrifying and relentless ads about menopause and plastic surgery. My inbox is literally littered with offers for botox and awful, scary ads that imply that when midnight strikes on my 50th birthday my vagina is going to dry up and fall out.

Bunny: I think it changes every day, depending on who’s messing up in the media, like one day I’m angry about women aging out of Hollywood, another I’m angry about rape culture or I’m angry about the double standard. My act personally is about identity and the faces we wear as women and how we’re expected to behave depending on where we are. I’ve been thinking a lot about men telling women to smile when they’re on the street. It’s funny because I made this act before the show concept but it just applies perfectly.

How do you feel burlesque is uniquely positioned as an art form to break the chains of patriarchal control?

Beelzebabe: What I love the most about burlesque is the way it challenges the beauty ideal. The audience gets exposed to un-photoshopped, unedited, real live women of all ages, sizes and abilities. You NEVER see that. And it’s amazing and powerful to see a woman declare HERSELF beautiful and sexual, because it gives all of us permission to claim that for ourselves too.

I started out really fearful on stage and clung to the idea of trying to be “conventionally pretty,” but the longer I perform the less tied I am to that. I have become less afraid of doing weird, ugly stuff which is very liberating.

Bunny: I think it’s a feminist art form. My burlesque is activism, it’s body positivity and sex positivity. It’s “this is what I want to do, how I want to do it, when I want to do it.” It’s all about choice, so I think if someone wants to they can definitely parlay their social awareness into burlesque acts. I don’t think that’s necessarily the point of burlesque, but I think it’s built in.

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When were you first exposed to burlesque and what drove you to begin performing? When did you begin producing your own shows?

Beelzebabe: I’ve been a fan of burlesque since 1999 when I first saw the World Famous Pontani Sisters at Shag. I have been performing since 2009. I started performing really just to see if I could. I was 38 which is not the usual age to start, and I fell in love with the community which is what keeps me performing. I started producing because I had a lot of fun and wacky ideas I just needed to get out there. I produce an all improv burlesque show called “Random Acts Of Undress” and recently produced a show based on Project Runway called “Project StripWay” where all the performers constructed their costumes on stage in 30 minutes with materials I brought from home.

Bunny: In college I got really into the pinup aesthetic, which led me to Dita Von Teese, which led me to burlesque. I’d always fantasized about being a stripper, but I don’t like being touched by strangers (not that that’s a necessity), but it is often a part of the culture, so I was like, “you mean I can take my clothes off in public and no one touches me? That’s amazing!” The first burlesque show I saw was on my 21st birthday. I went to the Slipper Room which was at that time at Casa Mezcal because it was under construciton, and I remember talking to Pinkie Special and saying I want to do this, how do I do this? She said “The School of Burlesque.”

I actually started producing solo in December of last year as Rabbit Hole Productions. My first show was Hollaback, which was a benefit show for the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback. Before that, I had worked with a very prominent New York producer, Johnny Porkpie, as his production assistant and associate producer for a while. We did Dead Sexy, Church of Titillation, and a bunch of awesome shows.

I’m trying to cultivate a language I use in a very specific way for my productions, like, for example: they’re “pick up artists” not stage kittens. That word seems kind of infantalizing to me. And like as for the rules of burlesque it’s less “we take our clothes off you cheer” and more a consensual interaction. We’re doing this for you, we give you consent to cheer when we take our clothes off. So everything in my productions is very conscious but hopefully not overbearing.

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What else will you be up to this summer? Any other new endeavors you care to share?

Beelzebabe: I plan to be everywhere I can be making everyone fall a little in love with my middle aged ass ; )

Bunny: Iris Explosion and I have started this thing called Burlesque Against Abuse. Although we are an incredibly supportive community and there are amazing people doing amazing work, like everything, there’s always people who aren’t that. I’ve encountered them myself, and have spoken to other women who have as well, so Iris and I got together and said, “let’s make an online safe space for other performers to get together and talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault and things that have happened to them in the burlesque community. It’s a confidential, super safe place that we have to add you to, you can’t lurk. It’s to make women more aware that they’re not alone. I wish it didn’t have to exist, but at the same time, I’m glad that we made it.

Photo Credits: Beelzebabe; Bunny by Ben Trivet; Beelzebabe by Don Spiro; Bunny by Jose Contreras