By Emma Louise Backe
The lights on the stage dim, a lone spotlight hovering over a dark figure clad in loose robes. Just as Kylo Ren’s red lightsaber ignites, the tinkling overtures of Frozen’s “Let it Go” begin, providing the musical backdrop for Stella Chuu’s NSFW Star Wars nerdlesque performance. The combination of a moody Kylo Ren from the recent reboot of the Star Wars universe, with the pseudo-empowering overtures of Elsa’s ice princess, may seem laughable, and, indeed, the absurdist juxtaposition is an integral part of the performance. As Ren paces around stage, brooding over the path that led him to the Dark Side, the invitation to “let it go” transforms into a proposition to strip himself of the trappings of the Force that hold him back, proceeding to disrobe, one billowing cape at a time. The art of the tease, using traditional burlesque techniques like the glove removal, fit perfectly within this farce, particularly given the lusty fan-base that’s been built around Kylo Ren’s character and his now infamous shirtless scene in The Last Jedi. Chuu incorporates the melodramatic Force grips of Ren with the twirling and sashaying of Elsa, blending the recognizable idiosyncrasies of the two characters until she’s dressed in nothing but a pair of red panties and nipple tassels, astride the lightsaber like a pageant queen. The crowd of cosplayers and con attendees erupt into applause and laughter, their favorite villains qua heroes simultaneously celebrated and parodied.
Stella Chuu is among the new coterie of fans participating nerdlesque, an out-growth of neo-burlesque in con spaces that celebrates sex positive and body positive cosplay. While the geek community of late has been wracked by controversies over gatekeeping and harassment, cosplay and nerdlesque have emerged as a dimension of geek identity and con experiences that counteract impulses toward exclusion and shame. The “sexy cosplay” controversy—namely whether or not individuals, usually women, who cosplay in what might be considered a sexually provocative way do so for male attention—has long hinged upon the fake geek girl phenomena, arguments about authenticity vs. celebrity, and the moral economy of cosplay.
“Booth babes” or “hot chicks” who cosplay as characters with less clothing are seen as “attention addicts,” “wannabes” or “poachers” pretending to be interested in geek culture in order to, “infiltrate[e] a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street,” according to Geek Out’s Joe Peacock. Other members of the cosplay community have critiqued sexy cosplay as a form of female self-objectification that “panders to the male gaze,” often citing costumes like Slave Leia in Return of the Jedi. This debate is further complicated by the design of many female characters in video games and movies, often depicted with slim yet busty physiques accentuated by body-hugging spandex and anomalous accents like Power Girl’s “boob window.” The particularized gendered and sexed aesthetic of female characters similarly impacts the kinds of bodies allowed to inhabit characters like Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, or Sailor Moon.
The sexy cosplay controversy developed in the midst of an ongoing debate within the feminist community about the role of body image and sex positivity in personal empowerment. Third wave feminism celebrated the reclamation of sexual pleasure and fulfillment, while celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Amber Rose address slut-shaming and self-love through naked mirror selfies and social media posts calling out sexual double standards. Contemporaneous with the rise of third wave feminism in the early 1990’s, neo-burlesque made its debut in New York City, reviving the spirit and practices of traditional burlesque with a twist. The classic burlesque of the early 1900’s was premised on a spectacular strip-tease using absurdist humor and physical comedy, while pushing against conventional beauty standards of the time and subverting gender roles through cross-dressing and parody. Early burlesque performers like Lydia Thompson were known for their voluptuous and full figures, flesh and skin that did not fit within the trim standards of the flapper physique of the time. Although early burlesque performances often trafficked in the hyper-feminine, troupes luxuriated in double-entendre, “’a physical and ideological inversion of the Victorian ideal of femininity’” (Blanchette 2014, 161), one that dramatized a “reconfiguration of the idealized female body” (Dodds 2013, 78). Although burlesque performances became increasingly sanitized to match the intensifying sexual modesty and conservatism of the 1940s and 50s, eventually going underground in the 1960s and 70s, their transgressive artistic legacy appealed to the “re-evaluation of second-wave feminist anti-porn debates as unnecessarily exclusionist, normative and anti-sex; and second, the ramped up commodification and sexualisation of the female body through ‘raunch culture’” (Miller and Moore 2015, 20), leading to the co-evolution of neo-burlesque, radical drag, and grrrl power.
“All neo-burlesque is really just nerdlesque,” one panelist at a nerdlesque panel at Washington DC’s Awesome Con quipped. Neo-burlesque is essentially an homage to the traditional burlesque of the early 20th century, while turning the art form on its head with a wink and a smile. Like early burlesque’s celebration of re-shaping which bodies are considered feminine and sexy, in neo-burlesque, “the non-idealised body is set free and made conspicuous by its nudity and unbridled movements” (Blanchette 2014, 176). As Dodds goes on to note, “A multitude of physiques occupy the neo-burlesque stage, and while the overt display of ‘imperfections,’ such as sagging breasts and wobbly bellies, is embraced and applauded, the idealized and unattainable bodies of consumer capitalism are a rarity” (2013, 78).
Neo-burlesque has been hailed as a transgressive medium to remap normative sexualities, deconstruct patriarchal paradigms of beauty, and reorient the male gaze—it’s no longer male members of a supper club come to fete themselves upon the sight of a “loose woman,” but rather productions that are predominantly female produced, operated and performed for female and queer audience members. As Cherie Sweetbottom—a mainstay in the Washington DC burlesque circuit puts it—”Burlesque is still largely a female-run art form and there aren’t a lot of those in the world. Women are the movers and shakers in burlesque, and they always have been. It’s very woman-centric.” Sweetbottom first heard of nerdlesque in 2012 when the sub-genre of neo-burlesque was still getting its feet. The first ever nerdlesque festival didn’t occur until 2014, but the art form has spread throughout the international geek community since then.
One of the women I spoke with at Awesome Con, Erin, was cosplaying as Rose Quartz, a crystal gem at the center of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe franchise. She’d been involved in the cosplay community since 2002, but went on hiatus for over 10 years due to harassment she’d experienced at cons. As a self-described “bi, chubby mama,” she was inspired by Rose Quartz’s character, who represents for her one of the few role models of motherhood on TV. The cosplay is not consent movement, and other institutional policies to address sexual harassment, such as Awesome Con’s staff training in bystander intervention, helped to create a con environment where she felt comfortable to cosplay again, bolstered by the creation of more representative characters. Cosplay has not only become more accepting of diverse body types—she also uses con spaces to sell menstrual cloth pads for her brand BleedGeek, promoting menstrual hygiene and comfort as yet another frontier in effacing shame around otherwise taboo topics.
Maki Roll, another cosplayer and nerdlesque performer at Awesome Con, discussed the art form as part of re-centering the female experience in geek spaces. “We are still kind of outsiders within the community, despite the fact that there are women creating our comics. There are women who are in these kick-ass roles as different characters. We are literally part of the foundation of the geek community, but we are so shunned, especially if you are in any form of sex work,” she said. When asked why she thinks there’s such an antipathy toward sexy cosplay, she responded, “Taking this character and thinking about how they would be sexually, for some reason men hate that. It becomes a problem when they’re not allowed to objectify us on their own terms. When we take ourselves and we make ourselves into a commodity and we decide who gets to see what and at what price, that’s where it becomes a problem.” As another nerdlesque performer, Ellie Quinn–the self-described “Duchess of Dork”–added, “Female sexuality has been exploited for the male gaze in geek culture. We are expected to cater to their male gaze. That is the thing I love about burlesque…you can enjoy my female form in all its beauty on my terms. I am telling when and where and how and why to look. That is liberating.”
Many individuals who cosplay celebrate the artistic ingenuity and invention that goes into translating a fictional character into an actualized costume design. Nerdlesque similarly allows for “total creative freedom,” says Sweetbottom. “I can take any character that I want, and put them in whatever aspect of the story that I want. It’s my chance to tell a story the way I want to tell it.” In this way, nerdlesque seems to be an obvious extension of fandom—cosplayers often point to love of a character or fictional universe as the motivation behind their participation in cons. Like fan fiction, nerdlesque allows enthusiasts to build out and occupy a dimension of fandom as they see it or would like to see it. In fact, many nerdlesque performances are inspired by slashfiction or “shipping”—when fans envision a romantic or sexual relationship between two characters (Finn/Poe as one example). These performances, like a sexual duet between Xena and Gabrielle or Kirk and Spock, might consecrate a sub-culture within the fan community, or lampoon the OTP’s imagined in geek spaces, like Sweetbottom’s Giles and Buffy act to “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Still other performances directly critique the very same sexy cosplay controversy they participate in. Sweetbottom also has a “Hutt Slayer” routine in the Slave Leia costume mentioned earlier, a performance she describes as Leia reasserting her power and reclaiming her place at the center of the rebellion.
In such a way, nerdlesque pushes back against pernicious sex myths within the geek community. Geek gatekeeping and misogyny are often linked with ideas about male sexual frustration and privilege. As Courtney Stoker has said, “The narrative goes something like this: Geeks are smarter than everyone else, and ladies like hot, not smart, so geek men have almost no contact with women until they become adults. They’re socially stunted and bitter about their lifelong rejection by women, so they lash out at women to make themselves feel better. The cause of their sexism is their sexual frustration, not mainstream misogyny.” Paul Mullins goes on to point out, “The caricature of geeks as poorly socialized straight men eternally mystified by women hazards becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: a modest but vociferous circle of geek men seems to warily view the entrance of smart, beautiful, and strong women into the geek fold.” This attitude presumes a dearth of female members of the geek community interested in the same media and activities these male geeks enjoy, while doubting the legitimacy of these women based off of their appearance. While sexual naiveté and spinsterhood is often equated with male and female geeks, LGBTQIA individuals rarely figure into the equation, or find their sexuality adequately represented in television shows, comic books or movies. Indeed, queer characters in shows like The 100 are often killed off in brutal yet inexplicable ways (now known as the “bury your gays trope”); sexual assault is rarely treated with the gravity or intention it deserves; and Marvel superheroes like Doctor Strange always have romantic interests but rarely explore any kind of sexual desire. Apart from a few stand-out examples—like the relationship between Wonder Woman and Captain Steve Trevor, or Deadpool and Vanessa Carlyle—heterosexual men are allowed to act out their sexual pleasures but women or LGBTQIA individuals are rarely afforded the same erotic power.
Instead, nerdlesque and cosplayers are increasingly dedicating themselves to sex positivity and sexual education. Many professional cosplayers use their platforms to discuss social justice issues and consider their nerdlesque performances to function as positivity in praxis. Shirley U. Jest, a drag performer representing Geeks Out and Pride Alley at Awesome Con, spotlighted the importance of cultivating cons as safe spaces, saying, “We already promote an atmosphere of including everybody. We believe so much that everybody belongs. I think it’s important to include sex positivity, especially in the culture that we live in. At comic cons, it’s the breeding grounds for loving everybody.” Cherie Sweetbottom is careful to be attentive to diverse and inclusive casting when putting together shows, quite literally re-casting the white, cis-gender, heterosexual paradigms often endemic of media programming. In the midst of these revisions of femininity and desirability, we can consider Judith Butler’s (1999) theories on performing gender, as well as the ways that nerdlesque complicates Butler’s notions of subversion through repetition.
Sweetbottom and Maki Roll both discussed the transformative power of nerdlesque for audience members, who come to recognize and accept their own sexual identity through the experience. Ideally, nerdlesque “combats certain ideas that nudity is shameful or certain body types, that it’s not ok for them to be sexy or desirable. It’s a space where every type of body can say, ‘This is who I am.’ It’s breaking down these social norms of who’s allowed to be sexy and how they’re allowed to be sexy and when they’re allowed to be sexy,” says Sweetbottom. Nerdlesque might also be audience members’ first encounters with sex workers, a population that has been largely excluded from the #MeToo movement. In such a way, nerdlesque may not only help to transform the sexual economy of geek culture—it may also serve to disrupt common misconceptions about sex work, particularly given the role that sex workers can play in framing conversations around consent. Dovetailing with the “reckoning” elicited by #MeToo and #TimesUp, nerdlesque’s politics of pleasure similarly articulates with emerging calls to incorporate the celebration, rather than prohibition, of sexuality. Nerdlesque allows self-described geeks to stage sexual, often fantastical, situations; interrogate imagined and real sexual encounters in geek spaces; and enact entertaining alternatives to desire and sensuality.
Nerdlesque and cosplay toe the line between experimentation and appreciation, but as Maki Roll is quick to remind me, “There are no rules to cosplay. You put on a costume and you play! That’s the essence of cosplay.” In that play, many of the cultural norms in geek culture are being stripped away, only to be rebuilt as something familiar yet new.
Header image taken from Star Wars Nerdlesque performance, featured on Cherie Sweetbottom’s Instagram.
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Blanchette, Annie (2014). “Revisiting the “passée”: history rewriting in the neo-burlesque community.” Consumption Markets & Culture 17: 158-184.
Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Dodds, Sherril (2013). “Embodied Transformations in Neo-Burlesque Striptease.” Dance Research Journal.
Ferreday, Debra (2008). “’Showing the girl’: the new burlesque.” Feminist Theory 9: 47-65.
Miller, Jacqueline and Catriona Moore (2015). “‘Performing Oneself Badly?’ Neo-Burlesque and Contemporary Feminist Performance Art.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 15: 20-36.