Jo Weldon has been a fixture of New York nightlife for many years. Her latest project, The Burlesque Handbook from HarperCollins /ItBooks, is available as a pre-order on Amazon and due out June 1. She is the headmistress and founder of the New York School of Burlesque and has taught and performed around the world. She has toured with The Sex Workers Art Show, been on the road with hair bands and recently co-produced the first evening of “W.O.(e)R.D., Women of experience Read Downtown,” with Heather Litteer. She is a dedicated blogger, primarily about burlesque but information, advice and opinion about related topics, from pasties to politics, sneak into everything she writes. She is universally liked, globally respected and one of the world’s most skilled tassel twirlers. A conversation with Jo can begin on one subject and meander through dozens until you’ve lost half your day. Here, we present a few choice snippets on feminism, domestication, rock dudes and, of course, burlesque.
Jo Weldon on burlesque: “It may not be breaking the glass ceiling, it may not make healthcare more affordable, but it brings real joy to the performers, the audiences, and the people in their lives who get to enjoy the incredible changes they experience. That is value…However while burlesque may be therapeutic, it’s not therapy; it’s theater…Burlesque is one the very few art forms that makes only one demand of its audience: to have fun.”
Carnal Nation: You talk a lot on the concept of intention and community in burlesque. Is this more of an integral part of who you are, or is it an integral part of burlesque?
Jo Weldon: It’s an integral part of the burlesque community within which I work.
CN: Playing devil’s advocate, quoting Laurie Penny from The Guardian: “Burlesque serves up misogyny in a tasteful package of feathers, while the explicit nature of the shows increases each year…Burlesque stripping, like lap-dancing, is about performing—rather than owning—your sexuality. It’s about posing provocatively for applause. The transaction is one way; you give, they receive. You pout, they clap.”
Is burlesque really just a representation of sexuality and one that merely perpetuates that age-old stereotype of the woman as a visual object of desire? Do you agree with the idea that all burlesque is stripping but not all stripping is burlesque?
JW: I believe Penny had the experience she described, but I also believe it’s anecdotal. In a later interview on NPR, she said she was a huge fan of burlesque, but only when it was transgressive. I’m paraphrasing, so you may want to look this up. As far as the burlesque with which I’m involved goes, what we wear—feathers, false eyelashes, absurd costumes—isn’t what most men look for their women to be wearing. If some men find it attractive, that’s great, but it doesn’t reflect the appearance of most lingerie models.
I think the desire to play with our appearances, to be drag-queen glamourous sometimes in direct opposition to being mainstream-pretty, to use appearance as theater and as performance rather than as simply bait, is obvious in our work. However, I also don’t think attempting to be attractive to men, or whatever gender you want to want you, is antifeminist, especially when you’d like to have sex with one or some of them. They do it for us. Some of it may be cultural and of course some of it is motivated by other desires and fears worth examining, and ours is a devastatingly looksist culture, but mating is undeniably natural. It reminds me of the kinds of feminists who spawned the original meaning of “sex positive.” They were saying that in a patriarchal culture, all penetrative sex was patriarchal, so sex positive actually meant that you believed that sex was okay to have, and not that you liked erotica.
“Heterosexual intercourse is the pure, formalized expression of contempt for women’s bodies.”—Andrea Dworkin
“Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”—Ti-Grace Atkinson
These quotes are out of context, but even in context, they are anti-intercourse. I still have interest in some of the things these women say as I refuse to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but those assumptions are both absurd to me as they point to the theory that sex is a purely cultural construct.
CN: Is Penny’s quote an attempt to split “good girls” from the “bad girls”?
JW: I don’t know if Penny is insisting on that split. I think there is definitely a burgeoning faction in “feminism” that supports the Madonna (pure feminist) /whore (Uncle Tom) dichotomy, when most women have elements of both. It continues identifying women only through their sexual choices, their decisions about appearances, and their meaning as only defined by how they allow themselves to be perceived by men. There’s a saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and that saying comes to mind a lot when I look at any fundamentalist approach. I’m not 100% at the other extreme—I’m willing to critique pornography, but on a case by case basis, and not as a monolith. The saying “no means no” means a lot to me. But I was also moved by a recently published book named Yes Means Yes.
Conservatives in power don’t like anti-patriarchal feminists or Uncle Tom sluts, seeing both of these extremes as being anti-family and amoral, and what actually matters is struggling against the power structure, the real opposition to choice.
Jo Weldon on the Madonna/Whore dichotomy: “When women who had believed they had to choose between the roles of Madonna (nonperson who is required to sacrifice selfhood for the benefit of others) or Whore (nonperson who is required to sacrifice security and integrity in order to use her sexuality) find an undomesticated role in between the two, it opens up their minds to other possibilities.”
CN: What do you mean by “undomesticated role”? Can you talk about how that has manifested itself in your life?
JW: I’m obviously undomesticated—I have never wanted children and have never looked for a traditional marriage. I don’t think that’s feminist or antifeminist, it’s simply a decision I made based on what I wanted. I’m also not anti-family—I love my families, both genetic and chosen. But a woman doesn’t have to be nontraditional to be undomesticated; she could simply be traditional by choice rather than by compulsion.
CN: You keep one foot in the burlesque world and another in the sex work world. You obviously approach each with integrity, dedication and respect. Is it difficult walking a line between tradition and rebellion?
JW: I know people who are so much more radical than myself. But I mean it when I say I refuse to accept discrimination against sex workers. When people say, “Well, what do you expect?” it makes me sigh. I expect nothing; there are a lot of people who don’t discriminate, and a lot of people who do, and I don’t know who they are until I hear it from their mouths or see it in their practices. But when it happens, I always say, “No. Not acceptable.”
CN: You are on the cover of Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture by Feona Attwood. How did this happen? Is there a story of connection here?
JW: I don’t remember! Sorry. But they may have been referred to me.
Quote from Jo Weldon: “I am currently working on a project to do with the unique music associated with burlesque, and having more fun with these musicians that love to collaborate with women than I ever had with hair band musicians who were totally terrified of women.”
JW: That quote is no longer in the book, but I’ll address it. Most of the hair band guys I was around in Atlanta and LA, and when I encountered those men on the road, were monsters of misogyny and homophobia. They were pretty open about it. I had my reasons for being there, and I did in many ways get the fun and freedom I was after. But it was odd because before that I had been hanging out at Club Rio where RuPaul, John Sex, and Wayne County were, and there were similarities in the aesthetic that appealed to me sexually. But RuPaul was never going to sleep with me, you know. I have to say that today I see a lot more openness to the kind of sexuality that attracts me, the more fluid, bisexual, non-monogamous orientations that work for me.
CN: Please tell us more about this project! Also, we’d love to hear more about some of your experiences with “hair band musicians who were totally terrified of women.”
JW: I’m saving that writing for another project, but there was an amazing documentary on VH1 called “Girls of the Sunset Strip.” It has a surprise ending. That is what I knew; those are the people from the community I knew then. The documentary didn’t just treat us like comic book characters, it looked at what was going on, the fact that real lives were happening. I mean, we intended to be somewhat ridiculous and surreal and unacceptable, that is all true. But this showed that feelings and families and marriages and children were involved, that there were lives and deaths happening. It wasn’t super deep, and maybe it wouldn’t seem so moving to people who were never there, but it was the most compassionate material I’ve encountered about that era—the mid-late 80s, early 90s, Motley Crue era.
CN: A post on your blog propelled this interview, and when we contacted you requesting a reprint of the blog post you informed us it was included in a forthcoming book. Please tell us more about this book.
JW: I have a book on the way from HarperCollins/ItBooks called The Burlesque Handbook. It’s a book about how to perform burlesque as we do in the burlesque community of which I’m a part. Margaret Cho wrote the foreword, and I know her from working with her at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Pageant and later being in her variety and burlesque show The Sensuous Woman. She’s a wonderful, unapologetic, undomesticated, Renaissance woman, and a great example for women who need to take chances. She’s a “just do it!” kind of person—a very positive light in the world.
CN: We’re looking forward to your book. Thank you, Jo!
All photos on this page and the slide photo © Ed Barnas
See original at Carnal Nation
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