Review: Carnival Strippers

Dear Constant Reader,

It’s Wednesday! How about a book review. I know it’s been so long, but I had reviewed every burlesque book in the library at Stately Babydoll Manor. We’ve acquired a few new books for the Library and I’m getting back in the habit of reviewing them.

Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas (1976).

A visit to an antiquarian book fair turned up this long out-of-print volume of photography. The price tag was somewhat daunting, but it tells an important story of burlesque and Scratch was able to haggle a bit for it and another book I’ll review later.

I know there’s a fantasy that burlesque was and still is all champagne and rhinestones. And we modern performers certainly like to perpetuate it. This book bluntly puts that to the lie. In the early 70’s burlesque was spiraling downward, still hanging in there, but well beyond the glory days. One of the lowest venues for the burlesque dancer was the carnival girl show. The work was hard and paid poorly. They traveled all summer, living in trailers, until the season was over. Most of the dancers stripped to full nude and allowed the audience members to grope them. There was an expectation that they would offer the “lunch counter” — sit on the edge of the stage and have cunnilingus performed on them by the audience. And there was an assumption that they would turn tricks as well (some did, some didn’t).

Meiselas traveled with carnivals from 1973-1975, photographing the denizens of the girl shows and recording stories and conversations. Other than an introduction from the photographer, the book’s text is entirely transcriptions of those recordings. The photos are untitled, so it’s unclear if the subjects of the photos are also the subjects of the accompanying transcription.

The photographs are gritty and occasionally grainy and the text frequently disturbs. The photographer does not pass judgement, merely records what she sees and hears. She gives a certain dignity to the dancers, shown in varying stages of dress, on stage and off. Even the “lunch” shots are documentary rather than titillating. Few subjects even acknowledge the camera; most look too tired or busy to bother posing. There’s a poignancy to the shots of the naked dancers waiting backstage, playing cards, drinking beer, smoking, napping. Then add the text about the degrading treatment by the audience or how the dancer needs to be drunk or stoned to perform (or be performed on) and the reality of their lives is painful.

The second section of the book is entitled “Portraits” in which the performers do pose for the camera and the accompanying stories are longer and more intimate. There are even a couple of poems (anonymously authored). All the dancers tell how they got into the girl show: one began in burlesque, another is part of a family that runs the show, some had nowhere else to go. Some seem content with their choices, some are clearly miserable and trapped. Lena’s story is dated over the course of several months and it’s heartbreaking to watch her evolution from “I’m gonna strip till I get on my feet” to “girl shows are absolutely the worst thing anybody could ever do” to “they want to get up there and lap your pussy and you get a feeling of exultation because you’re looking down at a bunch of animals at your feet”.

Susan Meiselas writes “Like the show, the book represents coexistent aspects of a phenomenon, one which horrifies, one which honors. If the viewer is appalled by what follows, that reaction is not so different from the alienation of those who participate in the shows.” I think this is the key to the collection. The dancers are in a horrific place, but the camera honors them, showing the dignity as well as the degradation.

It’s important for all burlesque performers to know that this is a part of our heritage too. Our sisters in shimmy aren’t just the glittering headliners, our beloved Legends, but these women too, taking it off show after show, town after town for the worst kind of audience. And let us be thankful we don’t have follow in their footsteps.

M2

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Published in: on 15 January 2014 at 2:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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