Burlesque : music, minstrelsy, and mimetic resistance
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My project can be read as an intervention that aims to disrupt the "innocence" of burlesque's dominant historical narratives, where burlesque is fashioned as related to minstrelsy but not as minstrelsy. A discussion of the White women as minstrel performers is lacking in the available burlesque histories because they have not addressed the meanings of musical sounds and movements, elements that constitute the core of burlesque. Using music as a lens to re-evaluate the meanings of burlesque performance, I show how burlesque, like minstrelsy, has functioned on the historical erasure of Black and Brown bodies. In burlesque, White women performers have predicated their departures from norms of White femininity on racist performances of "black"-ness. These minstrel performances were enabled by a White fetishization of musical sounds and movements coded Black or "Other." Building on the work of Jayna Brown and Sherrie Tucker, and responding to Susanne Cusick's call to address how musical performances might be read productively through Judith Butler's theory of performativity, I foreground music and embodiment to ask: How do burlesque artists perform and (re)perform gender, sexuality, and race? To unpack this question, I first look at historical (re)presentations of burlesque performance and music. After this historical section, I read key scenes from classic era films featuring burlesque music and performance, using semiotics to argue that these performances can be read as an extension of blackface minstrelsy. I discuss how certain jazz-influenced musical devices - horn smears, belting or "loud" singing, angular or jerky dancing - primarily functioned to signal "black"-ness, sex, and modernity to the intended White audience/spectator. In the next chapter, I examine the extent to which neo-burlesque could be considered a queering of burlesque by doing close readings of contemporary burlesque performances. From here, I look more critically at how racial and genre boundaries are created and maintained within contemporary burlesque, resulting in a new burlesque normativity. Finally, I highlight the work being done by burlesque performers of color who work within and against burlesque's dominant ideologies, subverting racist representations of people of color through mimetic resistance.