TROUBLE IN TITTY TOWN: AN EXPLORATION OF THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF BURLESQUE

Sultry emcee Velocity Chyaldd wrapped her fingers around the microphone, hands bound in leather and lace. “Who’s ready for some burlesque, bitchessss?” she rasped. We so were. Among a crowd of faithfuls, my friends and I were dilettantes, diving libido-first into the subcultural. The regulars seemed more than a bit disturbed by the splash.


The average patron of BadAss Burlesque, held at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club, can be typified as such: middle-aged, highly-tatted, gender/sexuality ambiguous and pissed-as-fuck. The man in front of us perfectly embodied this profile. Clearly a denizen of this infamous corridor of used lighting and restaurant equipment since B.C.–before condo–he sat with his legs crossed tightly, savoring a PBR without a hint of irony.
“We gon’ see some TIT-TAYS,” my friend crooned overloud in a baritone sing-song. The man stiffened and about-faced, silently announcing his revulsion. His indignant visage seemed to say: “Really, how vulgar.” Burlesque, with its blend of populist comedy and subversive sexuality, is SO serious; dilettantes beware. The tension dissipated as the lights dimmed and Ms. Chyaldd took to the stage to kickoff the ribald review with a cinematic premier. Ladies and gentleman, je pr√©sente: The Terror of Titty Town. Maybe some tit-tays were on the horizon, after all.
The emcee turned the microphone over to the film’s director, horror-kitsch visionary Val Killmore of San Francisco’s Killmore Kreations (even more titillating than the post-shame physicality of burlesque, perhaps, was how openly proper spelling seemed to be flouted). According to her LiveJournal, Ms. Killmore’s kreation–made possible by the generosity of an “investor from LA$$$$$$$$$$$$$”–features other Bay Area luminaries including Kitten on the Keys, Ruby White, Lady Satan, Miss Bella Trixx and Scotty the Blue Bunny, with “puppetry and prosthetics” by Dave Haaz-Baroque.
The short film follows the plight of an aspiring actress who attempts to upgrade her career prospects from a B- to an F-cup. Much to everyone’s dismay–which is to say the actress’, her dates’ and, not least of all, ours–the implants turn out to be inhabited by Satan, who seems to figure pretty heavily in most of Killmore’s work. The possessed mammaries go on a killing spree, dragging her along with them as they seduce and then consume San Francisco’s male heteros in order to satisfy their thirst for blood (“Really, how vulgar”). The grotesqueness of Haaz-Baroque’s prosthetics cannot be adequately expressed in prose. Suffice it to say that the actress’ new rack is split in twain by two ravenous mouths reminiscent of the Gremlins–but one of the evil little buggers, not the cute and cuddly type.
The possessed protagonist falls into despair. Not only do her implants end up undermining her acting career, they undermine her sex life, as well. It seems as though a happy ending is nigh, however, when she successfully seduces a date without her breasts devouring his face in a sea of gore–that is, until he gets a little too assertive with his morning wood the next day. Even the seen-it-all Bowery crowd around me gasped in the horror of anticipation as her date begins to grind his junk between her breasts, which were apparently sleeping. They blink awake and, confronted with the presence of this aggressive intruder, screech: “Mehhh! We no like to be bothered when we’re sleeeeeping.” Breasts consume penis. Fin.
Campiness aside, I think that The Terror of Titty Town reveals a deep conflict in the sexual politics of Killmore’s work, if not burlesque itself. The space of burlesque performance allows for a rethinking of the body. In a hypersexualized world, it foregoes prudishness. To the contrary, it seems to embrace the forceful sexuality of tits-and-ass and suggest that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in this baroque exploration of lust and desire. Shame is so Biblical, after all. Yet, I see nothing sex-positive about sexual organs going on a violent rampage. If anything, Titty Town is guilty of fear-mongering.
Interestingly, the film drums up anxiety about the female sex organ that our society has a relatively un-anxious relationship with. Rather than challenging the pervasive fear of the vaginal orifice, it actually invents a new orifice of horror–a “horrifice,” if you will–to give dudes the willies. Historically, sexual shame has been used as a form of subjugation, and central to the feminist credo is the need to change this power imbalance in part by changing the discourse about the body and sexual desire. On the surface, I don’t quite see how feminist filmmaker Killmore expands the conversation and promotes empowerment by recasting breasts as demonic.
Yet at the same time, Killmore employs satire to raise questions about the very nature of our anxiety. Why should the writer be able to even conceptualize something called a “horrifice?” The absurdity of demonic breasts intends to subvert a societal fear and loathing by mocking the historical process by which the female body has been cast as a source of sin.
But as with all satire, Titty Town’s impact boils down to whether it changes or reinforces prevailing attitudes. The same is true for burlesque as a performance art. While the old Bowery crowd comes to BadAss for the empowerment, some East Village philistines might sneak in for the “TIT-TAYS.” Upon reflection, the film’s satire seems to expand the dialogue surrounding the ways in which our culture imbues the female body with all manners of hysteria–but only upon reflection. At the time, my mouth simply hung agape as my crotch recoiled into a state of profound vulnerability. Even the guy with the PBR had to uncross his tightly wound legs. In the dark, I heard him utter a slight cough of discomfort.
You can catch the next installment of BadAss Burlesque on the Bowery, entitled “Merry Xmas Satan!!,” on December 20 at midnight.
ALEX WERTH B’09 is no PoMo.

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