Since there has been so much confusion about the concept of the Gurlesque (for example over at the Lemonhound blog site and over at Seth's Suburban Ecstacies), and so many people have asked me about it, Lara Glenum wrote me the following little bit to explain it a bit:
To start off, I should say that the Gurlesque is an entirely descriptive project, not prescriptive. In other words, Arielle and I are describing a set of aesthetic strategies/tendencies being engaged by a fairly disparate set of poets. We are not spearheading a movement or branding a product.
The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists who, taking a page form the historical burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends. The theoretical tangents germane to the Gurlesque that I’m exploring in my critical writing include burlesque and camp, girly kitsch, and performance of the female grotesque.
Many people associate burlesque with its 1930s incarnation, the strip-tease, which was a far cry from the early years of the burlesque theater—the 1840s to the 1860s—which were pioneered almost exclusively by troops of female actresses under the direction of other women in Victorian London. Their dance hall repertoire was an antecedent of vaudeville, only much more socially explosive. Robert C. Allen, in his seminal work on burlesque, Horrible Prettiness, surmises that burlesque “presented a world without limits, a world turned upside down and inside out in which nothing was above being brought down to earth. In that world, things that should be kept separate were united in grotesque hybrids. Meanings refused to stay put. Anything might happen.” Emily Lane Fargo writes:
"Burlesque performers also literally usurped male power by taking on male roles onstage.... However, female burlesque performers were never trying to present a convincing, realistic portrayal of a man onstage. Instead, they were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with markers of masculinity… These practices, of course, ultimately emphasized the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves."
The effect of such “unladylike” conduct led at least one critic to deem burlesque performers neither men nor women but “creatures of an alien sex, parodying both.” And parody, as Baudrillard tells us, is the most serious of crimes because it makes acts of obedience to the law and acts of transgression the same, canceling out the difference on which the law is based. The work of early burlesque performers embody Judith Butler’s insistence that we “consider gender as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.”
If the burlesque is always about the body on display (i.e. the gendered surface of the body), the grotesque engages the body as a biological organism. To Bakhtin, women represent the quintessential grotesque: they are “penetrable, suffer the addition of alien body parts, and become alternately huge and tiny.” Grotesque bodies, male or female, are no longer “clearly differentiated from the word but transferred, merged, fused with it.” Mary Russo writes,
"The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture… with rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture, and with social transformation."
In Gurlesque poetry, human bodies and human language (and thus identity) are not closed, discrete systems. They are grotesque bodies/systems—never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, and porous. The body, as the nexus of language and identity, is a strange borderland, the site of erratic and highly specific (and language-mediated) desires.
There is no experience of “pure” culture or language available to us, no “pure” identity, no unmediated desire. The concept of the pure lies at the heart of Western aesthetics—the word “catharsis” comes from the Greek verb “to purify”—and women, non-whites, queers, impoverished, or disabled persons have historically been labeled as social contaminants. Gurlesque poets deny catharsis because they deny the aesthetics of the pure.
For ruminations on the Gurlesque and kitsch, you can go here: http://www.actionyes.org/issue9/glenum/glenum1.html