It is a universal truth that sex onscreen sells. So, is it possible that when the sex being embraced or embodied is notably campy, it can still be good enough to sell the narrative? This is what I found myself pondering whilst re-watching Burlesque (yes, the 2010 Christina Aguilera vehicle). What becomes quickly evident is that the version of female sexuality on display here is meant to be traditionally sexy and it should, in turn, serve to pull viewers further into the narrative. Instead, it dissolves into something more mundane and performative, a mimicry of the GQ-brand of female sexiness men are sold ad nauseum. Moreover, the theatrical lengths to which these women go to (while performing in The Burlesque Lounge) seems to suck all the mystique that one would believe goes hand-in-hand with an actual burlesque performance.
What makes Burlesque worth a camp classification is that it simultaneously overstates and understates about its own theatricality. While it wholly misrepresents the actual art of burlesque, it finds ways to merge it with musical theatre sensibilities so as to create plush musical interludes. In turn, the female dancers and singers that fill every frame of the musical numbers are constantly on display, literally: lingerie clad and all dolled up, they are prancing and gyrating and smoldering but manage to de-sex themselves in the process. Their overt female sexuality is dulled by the sharp tonal contrast to the mundane melodrama that fills up the rest of the film’s runtime. Take, for instance, Ali (Aguilera), running around the club as a cocktail waitress but sneaking glances of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” onstage. She dreamily inserts herself into the number, belting out the final bars, reveling in the spotlight while glittery confetti rains down and dancers swirl around her. This is Burlesque’s campy secret: it manages to both overestimate and understate the version of female sexuality that it argues is naturally infused into burlesque itself.
This notion that there is somehow a way in which even the innate sexual pleasures elicited from women — in places notable for producing hyper-sexualized performances — are not safe from being overtly camp can come as a bit of a relief. If female sexuality can be taken down a peg onscreen, there is no better place to do it than in the confines of a camp film. In this sense, what is created is a portrait of female sexuality so overwrought that it’s comic. In turn, viewers are unburdened from the pressures of embracing the sexuality and are simply allowed to revel in the wild performance of it. Furthermore, Burlesque’s low-key campy female sexuality begs the question: From where did this idea of female sexuality as campy comic schadenfreude issue?
Historically, we should look to Showgirls (yes, the 1995 Elizabeth Berkley vehicle). There is a moment early on in Showgirls, when Nomi Malone (Berkley) first meets her rival Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) that cements not only the entire film’s cringe-worthy approach to its subject matter but its status as a campy favorite as well. This meet-cute involves Cristal’s half nude body on full display, with Nomi reflected in the mirror, timidly rubbing herself in silent admiration. Things quickly go from sweet to sour when, after Nomi reveals she is working at a strip club, Cristal implies Nomi is just another cheap stripper, causing Nomi to brusquely reply before storming out. It takes all of two minutes to unfold, but for the viewer, this is the moment where Showgirls achieves its sexy and campy tone — dutifully maintained for the rest of its runtime.
Nomi’s body and the ways in which she uses it are the bargaining chip, one every step to her finally earning the lead role in the “Goddess” floor show. Her readiness to strip down and leave her body on display is so commonplace that what should be arousing becomes a perverse mockery of female sexiness. This is partly due to Berkley’s own performance of what female sexuality is: wild writhing when she has sex with Zack (Kyle McLachlan), extreme and over-pronounced showgirl choreography during the dance audition or stoking the simmering sexual tension with Cristal with coy kisses and caresses. Berkley’s interpretation of how women should be sexy is so frenetic that it becomes comic to watch. Its not her fault; she is reflecting back to viewers the ways in which women are told to be sexual in every facet of life, from films to magazines to heteronormative patriarchy.
The campy allure of both Showgirls and Burlesque is that we not only get to go behind the curtain of two uniquely female spaces, but we also get to soak up the glamorously comic performances of female sexuality housed there. The women charged with performing for their audiences reflect back to us a wish fulfillment of female sexuality that is precisely how women have been instructed to behave while also turning it on its head. In a camp performance, female sexuality can be turned back around to reveal that these traditionally patriarchal ideals aren’t always as attractive as imagined. That is the pure pleasure of these films. Not only can you laugh at idealized displays of female sexuality, you can revel in the awful performance of it too.
Allie Gemmill is a film writer from Tampa, FL. Her previous bylines can be found at Broadly, Bitch Flicks and Little White Lies. She is also the founder and creative director of The Filmme Guild, a feminist film salon dedicated to examining how women shape film and film shapes women. Follow her on Twitter @alliegem.