Burlesque as Parody

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Burlesque is a theatrical performance genre known for its use of satire, exaggeration, and parody. Originating from early forms of European theater, burlesque has evolved over the years to become a significant part of modern entertainment.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive look at burlesque, exploring its history, key examples, techniques, and its role as a form of parody.

History of Burlesque

Burlesque has its roots in early European theater, where it began as a form of comedic performance. Over time, it evolved and made its way to the United States, where it incorporated elements of striptease.

Key milestones in its development include its popularization in vaudeville shows and its transition into a form that combines comedy with sensual performances.

Characteristics of Burlesque

Common traits that define burlesque include satire, exaggeration, and musical numbers. Unlike other comedic forms like stand-up comedy, sitcoms, and full-length plays, burlesque often involves a blend of comedy and sensuality, presented in a theatrical format.

Techniques Used in Burlesque

Creating an effective burlesque performance involves various techniques such as timing, dialogue, and physical comedy. Visual elements like costumes and props also contribute to the overall impact of the performance.

Burlesque as a Form of Parody

Parody is a form of satire that imitates another work of art to comment or criticize it.

Burlesque often serves this role by mimicking and exaggerating societal norms, famous people, or other works of art.

For example, a burlesque act might parody the exaggerated femininity seen in classic Hollywood films, using it to comment on modern gender roles.

Key Examples of Burlesque

Classic Performers

Iconic performers like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand played a significant role in shaping the history of burlesque. Their acts combined comedy, music, and striptease, setting the stage for future performers.

Modern Performers

Contemporary performers like Dita Von Teese have modernized burlesque, incorporating elements of fashion and high production value, while still retaining its comedic and satirical roots.

Dita Von Teese

Dita Von Teese is a modern burlesque performer known for her glamorous and highly stylized acts. Her performances often feature elaborate costumes, intricate choreography, and high production values, including props like oversized martini glasses or powder puff compacts. She combines elements of vintage Hollywood glamour with contemporary fashion, creating a unique blend that pays homage to the past while remaining relevant to modern audiences.

Dita Von Teese in a martini glass
Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Parody in Dita Von Teese’s Act

Dita Von Teese’s act serves as a form of parody by exaggerating and mimicking the traditional notions of femininity and sensuality often seen in classic Hollywood films and pin-up art. Her performances are not just a display of sensuality but also a commentary on the objectification and stereotyping of women in media and society.

Target of the Parody

The primary target of her parody is the exaggerated, often unrealistic, portrayals of femininity and sexuality that have been perpetuated by popular media over the years. This includes the glamorized images of women in classic Hollywood films as well as the objectification seen in pin-up art and modern advertising.

Parodic Elements Employed

Dita Von Teese employs several parodic elements in her act. She uses exaggerated costumes that amplify traditional symbols of femininity, like corsets and feather boas. Her choreography often includes over-the-top movements that mimic the sultry poses seen in pin-up art. The high production value and attention to detail in her acts serve to exaggerate these elements further, making it clear that her performance is a form of commentary.

Implied Criticism

The implied criticism in Dita Von Teese’s parody is multi-faceted. On one level, she critiques the unrealistic and often limiting portrayals of femininity and sexuality that have been popularized by media. On another level, she challenges the audience’s perceptions and attitudes towards sensuality and objectification. By adopting and exaggerating these traditional symbols, she forces the audience to confront the absurdity and limitations of these stereotypes, encouraging a more nuanced understanding of femininity and sexuality.

Burlesque in Popular Culture

Burlesque has also found its way into movies, television, and theater, often serving as a backdrop for stories about self-expression and liberation.

Here are 3 examples:

1. “Burlesque” (2010 Film)


The 2010 film “Burlesque,” starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, is a musical drama that explores the world of a Los Angeles burlesque club. The film features extravagant musical numbers, elaborate costumes, and a storyline centered around self-discovery and empowerment.

Parodic Elements

The film parodies the classic “rags-to-riches” and “small-town girl in a big city” tropes commonly found in musical dramas. It exaggerates these elements to the point of absurdity, using them to comment on the predictability and simplicity of such narratives.

Implied Criticism

The parody in “Burlesque” serves to critique the formulaic nature of many musical dramas and the unrealistic portrayal of instant success. It invites the audience to question these clichés while still enjoying the spectacle.

2. “RuPaul’s Drag Race”


“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a reality TV competition where drag queens compete in various challenges, including burlesque performances. The show is known for its humor, wit, and social commentary.

Parodic Elements

The burlesque performances on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” often parody gender norms and celebrity culture. Contestants exaggerate feminine traits and mock the extravagance of famous personalities, using humor and satire to make their points.

Implied Criticism

The parodic elements critique rigid gender norms and the superficiality of celebrity culture. They challenge the audience to reconsider their own perceptions and biases related to gender and fame.

3. “Cabaret” Broadway Revivals


Modern revivals of the musical “Cabaret” often incorporate burlesque elements to tell the story of the Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin. These productions use satire and parody to comment on political and social issues.

Parodic Elements

The burlesque performances in “Cabaret” parody the political and social climate of the time, using exaggerated characters and situations to highlight the absurdities and dangers of the era.

Implied Criticism

The parody serves to critique not just historical political extremism and social apathy, but also to draw parallels with contemporary issues. It serves as a warning and a call to action, urging audiences to learn from history.

Cultural and Social Impact

Burlesque serves as a form of social commentary, critiquing a wide range of topics from politics to gender roles. It challenges societal norms and encourages critical thinking, often pushing boundaries to make its point.

Criticisms and Controversies

However, burlesque is not without its critics. Some argue that it can be objectifying, while others claim that it trivializes serious issues. Legal controversies have also arisen, particularly concerning copyright issues and obscenity laws.

Further Study

Brown, Mark. ‘Dita Von Teese: ‘I’m Not a Great Dancer – I’m a Great Rehearser.’ The Guardian, 29 Sep. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2021/sep/29/dita-von-teese-bondage-burlesque-night-strictly-metoo.

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