Classic burlesque was a scripted and choreographed gender-based theatrical comedy. The subversive power of comedy has always been especially maddening aspect of popular culture, often misunderstood, highly subjective, and at its best the ideal form of radical political critique. As Mikhail Bakhtin points out, “laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people, it always [remains] a free weapon in their hands.”

Nice thought, but as we have seen, the most radical leftist class movements are often a-ok with maintaining a conservative gender ideology. Considering the primary audience for 19th century burlesque was working class men, who enjoyed the show on a shared stage with blackface minstrels, we must wonder who the Bakhtinian joke is on.

Burlesque in full is a bit of a handful to get our clutches on now (also, I’m lazy), but as with most things, the promotional material reveals multitudes. What kinds of visual gags are taking place here? Who is depicted as “in control” and at whose expense? Given the working class audience these are supposed to appeal to, how do we read the presence of the “aristocrat” here? Consider:

My god! The gender and class politics here are anything but transparent. We know that burlesque performers exercised a great degree of control over their acts, which begs the question, to what degree are the performers merely catering to their audience and to what degree is the performance infused with subversive trickery? Was this “trickery” part of the marketed appeal of burlesque? Given what we know about burlesque, the apparent opportunity for guerilla feminism is extraordinary, but was it actualized?

One thing is clear: these images underscore how secondary the actual stripping was to the carnivalesque spirit of burlesque. In the 19th century, it was as much of a class issue as a gender issue. Women were deployed as a kind of symbolic elitist assassins, though I misty as to why they were intelligible as such.

I’ll leave you with footage of the 20th century’s most famed burlesque performer, Gypsy Rose Lee, whose highbrow musings are a source of humor for a rowdy group of working class sailors: