A scholar and theorist of visual media as well as a documentary photographer and filmmaker, Tara Pixley is interested in discursively produced conceptions of the Other. Her PhD research at the University of California San Diego considers the role of visual media production in construction/dissemination of implicit biases. Her photographic work frequently uses filmic and photographic portraiture to probe the complexities of self-presentation/re-presentation, especially in relation to race and gender. Her film Porn Star Quotidian on a feminist adult film actress has screened internationally in film festivals. She is completing a Knight Visiting Fellowship at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab.
A flurry of feathers, glitter and glamour follows her across the stage. She — strutting like sex itself made surreal through the application of pomp and circumstance — is mesmerizing. Brazen, coquette, wanton. Beautiful, self-possessed, powerful. Such are the many superlatives of the burlesque queen. Underneath the sequins and simmering sensuality, beyond the bra tugs and tush shakes is a woman who revels in her own body, whether for pleasure, performance, or the pleasure of performance. She is entirely herself.
The sum of all these parts is befuddling to the puffed-chest patriarchy. She ignites a squirming, unpleasant sensation of having one’s presumed ownership diminished, made small, inconsequential, irrelevant. You may look, but cannot touch. Your money is no good here.
She is a mother, an architect, a nurse, tattoo artist, an aerialist and she dons red feather boas under stage lights in her free time. Dancing for the love of dance, for the enchantment of a well-placed crystal headdress unbothered by a high kick, dancing for the sake of dress-up appreciated well beyond the confines of childhood. She does it for the sisterhood, the backstage beers and sense of camaraderie in the naked, sweaty confines of small venue greenrooms.
She does it for the sheer thrill of hot lights and packed theaters, brass bands backing her every gesture. She dons pasties and thong to fully celebrate her stretch marks from two incredible children, her hard-won muscles or stunning curves. She performs to show there is nothing to be ashamed of. She does it for you, for us. She does it for herself.
What do we call these women, so fearless in their flaws and fabulous in their various shapes and sizes? There are those — too many — who interpret confidence as impropriety, bemoan the “false consciousness” of women who don’t agree their sensuality merely plays to the male gaze. We might imagine instead a shift in the body politic, prizing a unified materiality of self and sisterly love over a stratified theoretical of re-presenting the heteropatriarchal norm. We might imagine neo-burlesque, with its twirling tassels and vaudevillian antics, as feminist sexual freedom in practice.
How to upset the balance of heteronormative, patriarchal, neoliberal, capitalist ideologies: be a group of women flashing and flaunting, dancing, laughing, naked together and entirely free.
How absurd and unthinkable, how brilliantly wild and wonderful to love your perfectly imperfect womanly form. How dangerous to claim your body as wholly your own.