Saturday, 26 February 2011

Gender uncertainty and air space castration (Notes on Burlesque)

*** Warning: The following gives away sections of the film's ending. But to be honest, if you're watching Burlesque for narrative ingenuity you're likely to come away disappointed ***

The rather safe notion that burlesque dancing is sexy without being sexual is largely borne out in the intermittently entertaining Cher/Christina Aguilera diva musical, Burlesque. What is most interesting about the film is its almost complete denial of straight male libido. The film pushes the idea of women controlling their own sexuality to literal conclusions, to the point at which it hardly becomes sexual at all. The Burlesque Lounge that provides most of the film with its setting is notable for being an almost exclusively straight female/gay male area, where any whiff of male-female desire is summarily expunged. This isn’t a Strip Club, as the camp-as-Christmas doorman (Alan Cummings, who else?) makes clear; “The only Pole you’ll find in here is Natasha the shot girl.”

The will they/won’t they heterosexual coupling that provides the film its (limited) narrative interest is between Ali (Aguilera) and Jack (Cam Gigandet). Ali abandons her clearly delineated ‘dead-end’ life (Iowa, waitressing job, dead mother) for a new beginning in L.A. First port of call is Tess’ (Cher) sunset strip nightclub, where Jack, the bowler hat and eyeliner wearing barman, stands her a drink. Ali watches the dancers from the bar “Who does a girl have to flirt with to get from here to up there?” she asks. “Is this you flirting?” responds Jack. “With someone wearing more eyeliner then me..?"

From the first instance Jack’s gender identity is all over the shop. He and Ali form a bond and she accepts an invitation to crash at his place. It is only later, with the mention of a fiancée, that Ali realises Jack’s true predilections (although some doubt remains). As the film continues, Jack’s heterosexuality starts to reassert itself (a regressive flipside to the more exciting gender reversals in the Hawksian comedy) but the effect is to make him almost sex-neutral. The eventual love scene between the pair is played almost exclusively for laughs (and the shot of Jack’s rather sporting buttocks is the closest the film comes to prurience).

Whilst Jack’s heterosexuality is essentially neutered by his feminised appearance, the aberrant desires of the film’s other significant straight male, Marcus, are dealt with in more metaphorically  aggressive fashion. Marcus is a property developer with his sights set on both Ali (whom he attempts to procure with a pair of jewel encrusted shoes) and the Burlesque Lounge (which is more a matter for hard cash). At the films conclusion we learn that his deal for the club is motivated by a wish to build a towering condo block with the best view of sunset strip. Outside, L.A is littered with phalluses: Ali’s introduction to the city is illustrated by her glaring up at the numerous intimidating structures; inside it’s a different story (remember: No Poles*). When Ali learns that Marcus’ intention is to destroy the feminine lounge to erect a monument to manhood, she schemes to scupper his plans (and in so doing rejects his dangerous masculinity for the more dispassionate charms of Jack). Through some rather complicated dealings about construction rights and the purchasing of air space, Marcus is finally (and invisibly) castrated, and the club can continue.

But whilst the film can be seen as progressive for its reclamation of erotic dance from the grubby palms of the heterosexual male, this denial ultimately leads to sexless frustration. Amongst the dancers themselves any hint of liberated sexuality is scorned. The insult of choice here is “slut”, one mostly reserved for booze-prone Nikki, the former headline act who, it is inferred, had no qualms about opening her legs to get where she wanted. (Choice line from Cher to her ex-protégé: “I’ve held back your hair whilst you vomited everything up... except your memories.”) It’s no surprise then that the one real moment of unity among the girls comes when one of them gets married. Writer/director Steve Antin’s (who, a quick IMBD search tells me, played one of the rapists in The Accused) attempt to show Burlesque as a safe form of sexy results in a film unlikely to get a rise from anyone. It’s Showgirls for tweenies.

* A statement somewhat problematised when later on Ali dances with erm..a pole. 

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