Burlesque and the Lens of Rewriting

I remember the first time I read a character I wanted to re-write. It was Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody.

I was angry that Mad-Eye, who had the same eye that I do, hadn’t actually been the character I had gotten to know in the book. I was frustrated that, like with most of the other disabled characters in my childhood, I was given the bait and switch of evil.

I was never really into fanfiction. I wrote some, but most of it was in the form of roleplaying games. I found myself drawn to writing my own stories, and creating my own worlds, and eventually, was told not to tell my stories at all.

In my twenties, I started the process of retaking the narrative.

That’s when I started performing burlesque.

Science fiction writers can take a cue from burlesque dancers. Because burlesque dancers rewrite the narrative every day.

Burlesque has a history of reinventing the narrative. At its inception, Lydia Thompson and her British Blondies were rewriting Greek Tragedies in the 1840s. This isn’t new. Burlesque is an art form dedicated to the idea of taking a thing, adding people who need to be added, and forcing the audience to like it.

Burlesque is where I got to rewrite the beloved fictions of my genre with my body.

A few rewrites:

Mad-Eye Moody strips out of my actual graduation robe, carries a white cane, and wears (and removes) a real prosthetic eye. Mad-Eye Moody is covered with scars, enhanced versions of my own, and caresses her broken body with acceptance.

Arya Stark recites the names of those who have harmed her, as she goes through 15th c. sword-fighting forms using a white cane. She wears furs and a cloak, and the audience is silent, because this is not a piece about sexuality, it is a piece about rage.

Irene Adler uses a steampunk cane, copper piping built to withstand actual mobility cane use, and strips to opera, eventually shredding a photo of a person who has harmed either the disability community or the burlesque community through legislation.

Marian the Librarian pauses for a moment, to read the cover of a book with her fingertips. Even though this act has nothing to do with disability, it has everything to do with it because I am the one on stage.

Jessica Rabbit approaches the mic and sings her iconic song with a live band. What the audience doesn’t know (for the most part) is that the singer is partially deaf and was terrified because it was her first time singing with a hearing aid.

The TARDIS spins in space, seeking her Doctor, seeking someone to love her for who she is.

All of these acts had something in common. Even when the piece wasn’t about disability explicitly, I was rewriting the character, because with a disabled body, I was engaging not just with the original source material, but with my body and the space that I inhabit as well, and what people see when I leave the stage with a white cane in hand, well, that changes your understanding of the character. Sometimes my white cane wasn’t on stage with me, sometimes I left it on the props table. The fact of the matter is, when someone sees me with a cane in hand, it changes their perception. Most audience members aren’t expecting a disabled performer—not in burlesque, where sexuality is a huge component of performance. Disability is not often associated with sexuality—assumptions range from whether or not our literal genitalia works, to whether or not we can find partners. Disabled people performing burlesque challenges that narrative, so when I appeared with a white cane at the end of a show, it changed the narrative, even if the audience didn’t know about it.

Nerdlesque is fanfiction. It gives performers a chance to reinterpret and recreate their favorite characters. Some burlesque performers wear our marginalizations on our skin, others display them proudly. Performers of color and disabled performers like me, who cannot blend in to the status quo, find themselves. It allows us to own characters and their sexualities, to truly bring them closer to us in ways the written text never could. Whether it’s making Leia a Black woman, or Mad-Eye Moody really blind, we are retaking the narrative.

Without a world where I have a variety of disabled characters to choose from, I have to pick from those characters who weren’t originally meant for me. If I wanted to play blind characters, I’d have to go with just Helen Keller, or just Daredevil. And only two characters isn’t enough.

One of the beauties of burlesque is that it allows women to own characters, and to do so with bodies that the originator of the concept did not. There can be a Black Wonder Woman, there can be an Asian Jessica Rabbit, and a disabled one. And these interpretations of iconic characters are valid. They are real. They are important to us.

So why am I talking about my former burlesque career in a science fiction magazine, you ask?

Well, it’s because I believe our audiences deserve more.

I believe that if we can dream outside of the lines in burlesque, if we can break open character archetypes and reinvent the wheel as it were, then speculative fiction writers can damn well do it too. We can stop looking at the same archetypes over and over again, we can stop assuming that disabled characters can only look one way.

Burlesque is, in my opinion, a form of artistic activism. Gypsy Rose Lee and Mae West were both arrested for performing. They were women who were arrested for committing acts of art. Jacqueline Boxx is a burlesque performer who is a wheelchair user.

She’s never been arrested, but she does an act where she strips with a PowerPoint running behind her, displaying ableist slurs which have been employed against her.

Burlesque is political. Art is political. Writing is art, which means writing is political too.

Writing this essay is political, because up until now I’ve carefully constructed a separation between my science fiction writer persona and my burlesque persona. When your Master’s thesis was on obscenity laws, and how they were employed (and still are employed) to punish women for performing burlesque, when you are keenly aware of the legal and social consequences of striptease, it can be difficult to negotiate sharing this information in a social context. When women have been shamed by trolls for simply being women, when disabled women are shamed for having bodies like mine, it can be terrifying to share what I have done with mine. But I’m shedding my shame, because shame is worthless. Shame is dangerous, shame strips us of our power, and striptease gave me the power to retell stories. Burlesque has informed the ways in which I make art. It has pushed me to be daring, it has pushed me to be inclusive, it has pushed me to think outside of the lenses that have been given to me as a writer. Burlesque is the place where I learned to re-envision. If I can imagine Mad-Eye Moody as a woman, if I can imagine Jessica Rabbit as disabled, if I can give Irene Adler her fire back—then I can create characters I never thought I could before.

Burlesque gave me permission to dream. It gave me permission to see myself in the narrative, and that is more precious than anything I have learned anywhere else.

Because when I look at the stages of burlesque, I see Black women who are also Princess Leia. I see Magneto using a wheelchair. I see Drusilla, being interpreted by a woman with lifelong chronic pain. Those narratives tell me what people want to see for themselves.

Burlesque made me a better writer, not necessarily because of anything I personally did, but because I was surrounded by people who choose to think diversely. Don’t get me wrong, burlesque can be ableist, it can be racist, it can be fatphobic, and it can be sexist. Burlesque can be all of the awful things that our society is, but there are many people working in that world trying to change it for the better. I used to be one of them.

The people I love, the people I worked with, they are the people trying so desperately to change that, to reimagine their genre.

Science fiction writers have that same choice. They have the ability to reimagine their genre. Burlesque taught me how. Perhaps it will give you those tools, too.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a queer and deafblind author and editor of speculative fiction and disability focused nonfiction. Her fiction work has appeared in magazines such as Uncanny and Fireside and her nonfiction has appeared at Tor.com, The Boston Globe, and other venues. She was the Co-Guest Editor in Chief of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and is an activist for disability rights.

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