Race + Burlesque: Dita Von Teese Dons Yellowface

By Associate Editor Andrea Plaid, The Shanghai Pearl, Chicava HoneyChild, Essence Revealed, and ExHOTic Other

Burlesquer The Shanghai Pearl tipped off the R to one of the latest offensive acts, this one done by renowned burly-q entertainer Dita Von Teese at her ::sigh:: “Opium Den Show.” (Video NSFW)

Latoya asked me to cover the controversy with my burlesque mentor and one of the R’s favorite burlesque experts , Chicava HoneyChild. Chicava reached back to Shanghai Pearl as well as asked Brown Girl Burlesque performers ExHOTic Other and Essence Revealed to join the conversation. Here’s what we all had to say about it.

(Note on name use: in burlesque, one addresses another performer by their stage name, not by their non-stage name unless otherwise given the permission to do so. For this post, I use my non-stage name for clarity’s sake.)

Andrea Plaid: Who would like to run down what Dita Von Teese did? (Don’t everyone jump in at once…;-D)

Chicava HoneyChild:  I first noticed the piece a few summers ago when Dita was promoting Cointreau. There’s a tease of it on YouTube. When I saw it I thought, “No one’s going to say a word about this, huh?” She’s above the burlesque community, if you will. It hasn’t been run very much in America, I don’t think. When I saw I considered the difference between being an artist vs. an entertainer or, more accurately, [in your approach] are you an image-maker or a meaning-maker. A meaning-maker does research to gather information and develop an understanding of the subject. The resulting imaging is the fruit of that investigation. Creating from an image maker’s approach places greater importance on the sensational than origin and implications.

Shanghai Pearl: I first noticed it then, also. I saw some photos and video and, yes, I had some unsettling feelings about it then as well, especially since there are so many ongoing conversations about cultural appropriation in the burlesque community. But I made the decision to stay pretty quiet about it publicly because I had not had a chance to see it in person. And then I got to see it…

Then there was a lot of press about it debuting in London for a reported six figures and I thought “Does anyone else think it’s weird that this white woman is being paid a large sum of money to perform this Opium Den act in the very country that perpetrated the vicious Opium Wars?”

Dita Von Teese created an act called Opium Den that is the finale to her show Strip Strip Hooray, the act uses negative two dimensional stereotypes of Asian Women to invoke sex. The act has a mash up of many Asian cultures in the set, music, costume, and movement. Every ‘Sexy Asian Lady’ stereotype (China Doll, Geisha Girl, Dragon Lady) makes an appearance. The music incorporates gongs, koto, and a loop of the stereotypical ‘something or someone Chinese (or more generally Asian) is happening’ riff.

AP: I didn’t want to go there about the “Opium Den” title, but yeah, I thought the same thing when I saw the title. And I couldn’t help but think, “I smell a shitshow.” The photos just proved what I thought…and now, with your synopsis of the show, Shanghai…SMDH.

CHC: The mashup of [distinct] cultures is problematic for me [sic] in art and pop culture throughout America and the world, [that] cherry-picking the bits you are interested in the image of and placing it together. A great example is the American Tribal Bellydance, pulling on Afghan, African, Indian, Arabic cultures, and even hip-hop. I appreciate the dance but, at a given point, it’s just a beautiful dance and no longer bellydance.  Bellydance is a culturally specific form.

AP: The assumption is people are too ignorant to know better…or at least bust out a book, get their hands on some recordings, or otherwise get some information that offers some nuance. It all becomes this lump of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism.” And that’s what Von Teese, to me, is perpetuating, too, with this “Opium Den” fooliganery.

CHC: In my opinion it is Orientalism, and by employing it she harkens back to the movements of the 1800s and 1900s when all things Oriental were vogue. It appeals to the good ole days much like the re-appearence of blackface that’s been popping up in culture on Broadway and in the art scene. No matter the artist’s objective that messaging can’t be avoided.

ExHOTic Other: …also the connection of what Said talked about with the idea of Orientalism,  is this western

ExHOTic Other. Courtesy: nishasondhe.com

obsession with the other–the “East,” the “Orient”–coupled with wanting to conquer and control this thing–and this is also the time 1850s-1970s when there are explicit laws in the US targeting Asian people. The first ever anti-immigrant law in the US of “undesirable” immigrants for coming in is actually against Asian women: The Page Act 1875, who were [assumed by lawmakers] to come [to the US} and become sex workers. [And] actual wars being fought against Asian countries.

So, while in media and art [content makers] have people dressing in yellowface and making fun of and dehumanizing Asian people–creating, as Shanghai Pearl talks about, these two-dimensional beings–the actual effects of this behavior is it allows for actual real-life effects of laws being passed and wars to be waged against Asian people and Asian countries….

[A]ll trying to say that art has actual effects on society: it did when yellowface was popular back in the day, and it continues to have real life effects today in a climate where there’s so much anti-immigrant sentiment and laws continue to be passed.

SP: I read that she smoked opium in her research for the act, so I would be surprised if the Opium Wars did not turn up in her research.

AP: Shanghai, you wrote what Chicava and I thought was a succinctly well-reasoned and just amazing letter to Von Teese about her act, stating in part:

The Strip Strip Hooray show is spectacular and revolutionary in so many different and wonderful ways.

Shanghai Pearl. Photo: Christopher E. Bachmann

However,  I was stunned that the finale was an act that perpetuates harmful and negative stereotypes of Asian women. It was very incongruous with the rest of the show. I am writing to ask you if you are aware of how offensive and hurtful your Opium Den act is.

As an Asian woman, I was offended and hurt by this piece. I have lived my entire life defending my three dimensional humanity and sexuality against harmful two dimensional stereotypes. We all go through life with many privileges and it is one of your privileges to not have to defend yourself against hypersexualized Asian stereotypes. We have a responsibility when we are in any position of power to be sensitive to our privilege(s).

I was heartbroken at the thought of your legions of fans and followers thinking that cultural appropriation is not only acceptable, but popular, trendy, and fashionable.

Then you wrote a longer response to the whole thing, which is incredible, too. What was the Von Teese Team’s response?

SP: No response as of yet.

The show program says of the act:  ‘The Opium Den act is …inspired by her longtime fascination with the epic Chinese films of director Yimou Zhang. …the Opium Den show was created with her desire to build a timeless burlesque act of mysterious and fetishistic exoticism’.

CHC: I don’t think you’ll be hearing back via written communique. You may have some interesting conversations at Burlesque Hall of Fame [this weekend] as Dita is a board member.

SP: [Here are some of the reactions to those attending the show]–

One performer said, “I have read comments from other Chinese performers who were also offended. It was definitely a two-dimensional portrayal, and I was personally shocked when watching it because of the music she used, which is based on the most cliche Chinese’ melody that has been used in a lot of openly racist scenes in movies.”

Candy Apples commented:

‘My sister and mom were stunned as well. The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that I was surrounded by a very large group of Chinese exchange students, who all had their mouths open and were just as stunned as I was. The girl next to me leaned over and said, “We don’t smoke opium and dress like that! Is that what you think we do?!” and they all began whispering amongst themselves.

I understand her concept behind the piece and I highly doubt she meant to offend. But she did offend. She offended not only three Romani women, but she offended an entire group of young people who just came from the country that she was stereotyping.

To me that was just as offensive as if she had came out onstage dressed as a gypsy and began to read fortunes, cast spells or curses, and steal.

This is just my opinion, though.’

AP: Either one of you can comment on this: as a burlesquer of color stated on burlesque cohort (and the R’s other fave burlesque expert) Creatrix Tiara’s Facebook forum for burlesquers of color/those striving to be anti-oppressive burly-q-ers  that  “being in burlesque ‘community’  is very much about waiting for the ignorance to happen.” It does feels like, to me, we’re holding our collective breath and waiting for the fuckery to happen. Thoughts?

CHC: It does weighs on me, you know it’s coming, some kind of way onstage or off. There are so many factors at play. Though the economics of rank and file burlesque are humble the competitive energy is olympiad, people use whatever they got or feel they need to advance their ambitions.

SP: I can’t say that I ever ‘held my breath waiting for the fuckery to happen.’ But I do know that being human, living in the society we live in, with the media that we have–we are all going to step in it at one point or another. We have to learn to talk about it constructively.

AP: Chicava, I want to bring you into this because of your work as creative director of Brown Girls Burlesque. You all don’t seem to be holding your breath. In fact, BGB seems to be a pushback against this constant fuckery…

Brown Girls Burlesque. Courtesy: Time Out NYC

CHC: Honestly BGB isn’t as aggressive as a pushback, we just do us. Now we did get pushback when we first began from folks on the NYC scene. There was a lack of understanding as to why we felt isolated to such an extent that we needed to start a troupe devoted to showcasing brown women. But what in fact happened in the think tank that began BGB was a specific approach to shows that isn’t about ethnicity.  It just happens that our subject matter may be ethnically specific or expressive–

EO: –because of who we are. We have so many things we want to create, but it’s people like Dita that force us to have to respond and create work that counters these boring-ass stereotypes and privileges. We have so many stories to tell: issues of race and ethnicity are very important to most of us and also are one aspect of who we are, but aren’t the only thing we wanna create work about. Shit we live it everyday! We have many other worlds of fantasy to create on-stage that aren’t just all this bullshit :-)

CHC:The mission of Brown Girls Burlesque is to entertain, educate, titillate and liberate. Our audience is very

Essence Revealed. Photo: Andrea Plaid

diverse across ethnic, age, gender and other spectrums. We’re primarily rooted in our self-determined sensual, sexual, political and whatever else expression for our market, and then as members of the burlesque community. We want to positively affect the self-esteem of brown and all women, and excite every gender.

There was a beautiful moment at Carleton College last month. A student was talking to exHOTic Other about finding herself–

EO: –and how isloating, saddening, difficult that can feel, and not feeling represented, being cut out as–

CHC: –as she revealed that she was of Japanese-Jewish parentage, to which exH exclaimed, “I’m Japanese-Jewish!” Until that moment that women felt she was the only one in her tribe. It means a lot to us to have the opportunity to touch women in this way.

EO: …and know we’re not alone, or that there’s something wrong with us because we don’t look like Dita in or out of her yellowface.

I think what’s been super important and significant for the existence of BGB is for other people to see we exist, to see our literal colorful bodies, for who we are and what our experiences have lead us to this point. The stories we tell through and with our bodies are different: they are rooted in very serious, different experiences with the world, as Shanghai talked about and you talked about, the history and heritages we come from and the way we are forced to experience the world every single day and the ways that our bodies are hypersexualized on a daily basis (differently, depending on what [racial/ethnic group, gender identity, etc.]). Our experiences and understanding of the world affect the pieces we create and what we feel and know is important to share with the world.

We have serious reasons for needing to tell the stories we tell in our work. I think what [irritates me the most] about Dita and every other person of privilege who think they can just create whatever the fuck they want and not be accountable to anyone or history or anything goes back to why: why do you feel OK about telling this and representing this on stage or in a movie, why do you feel this is the story you need to tell..and because, most often, people aren’t at all accountable for what they do or create is why BGB has needed to exist so that we can tell stories for ourselves and actually be accountable to others who look and experience the world in similar ways.

CHC: If I seem casual about being on the “front lines” it’s because I was raised by the first and only African-American mayor of Boulder, CO. My dad and his city council were visionary and bold enough to pass one of the first municipal LBG&T rights laws in the country. There was hell to pay for it. But somebody had to sacrifice to get the wheels in motion. I think brown people experience and internalize more reverence for the sacrifices made by generations before us. The stories are told to us and as children we see what our parents go through.

In your experiences, why do you think some burlesque communities/performers  seem to think Von Teese-type fooliganery is OK?

SP: SP: Similar to other art communities in the U.S., the burlesque community is largely white. With that tends to come quite a bit of unexamined privilege. Discussing race is tricky and challenging so most people just avoid it entirely. It’s easier to say ‘You’re too sensitive!’ or ‘You’re just choosing to be offended’ than to actually look at a problem critically and constructively. And some people want a guilty pleasure. But when that ‘guilty pleasure’ comes at the cost of another human’s discomfort/offense/feelings, how do we gauge when it’s worth it and when it’s not?

There’s this knee jerk reaction to talking about racism, most people just shut down and get really defensive even when no-one is actually making an attack. I love this video:

Essence Revealed: I second the love. [For those who may not be able and/or willing to watch the whole thing, Essence recommends jumping to the 1:45-2:60ish mark.--AP]

SP: There’s also the argument of ‘it’s just entertainment’ or ‘it’s just comedy’ as if there is less of a responsibility to be aware and considerate in those worlds. Or ‘Burlesque is an old timey thing, people were racist back then, can’t we laugh about it now?’. It’s all very derailing to the larger issue.

CHC: Yup Shanghai, that’s what I mean about the good ole days of Blackface and Orientalism.

There’s also the argument of, “ Are we gonna censor each other now?” Or, “Burlesque is about mockery.” Its funny how what burlesque is about shifts in a given moment from In one this feminine spectacle to politically provocative. I want all my colleagues to express themselves in ways that are true for them while wishing them to employ criticality to what would be relevant and progressive to satirize as opposed to going for the sure laugh.

SP: I’m not calling for censorship. I am calling for awareness, dialogue, and progress.

CHC: I hear you Shanghai! I consider progress is a one-by-one cumulative effect. I believe we generate progress by giving energy to the world (images and ideals/ideas)  we want to create. Entrainment, like privilege, seems invisible…but it works.

AP: How do you see ways to counteract this, especially since burlesque, though fun, isn’t the most lucrative of sexual performances? Though I don’t think racism is the only place that this occurs–and please give me side-eye and correct me if that’s how my question is coming off–do you think that this is a matter of people needing to know this is another space where racism is “cool” to “do”?

SP: Andrea, can you clarify this question?

AP: Sure, no problem, SP. A burlesquer of color stated at Anti-Oppressive Burlesque and Creative Sexuality, (and though she specifically stated that this is a NYC phenomenon), there seems to be this mentality of “oh we’re artists, racism is ok in art.” So, there’s this almost wishful thinking that racism in burlesque is okay to “do,” almost like it’s a last bastion of being un-PC, as if racism is some sort of radically rebellious First Amendment act. As someone posted on Tumblr from a now-removed Live Journal post, “Being ‘anti-PC’ is not sticking it to the Man, it’s sticking it to all the people whom the Man routinely stomps on.” And is there a historical construct that undergirds the appropriation/racism in burlesque that allows this mentality?

So…how do we deal with the institutional and interpersonal racism that people like Von Teese feel comfortable in incorporating/doing into their repertoires? The reality is, except for a few, burlesque isn’t the most well-paid gigs compared to, say, pole dancing or club stripping (if burlesque is thought of as a form of sexual performance). So, folks *really* aren’t getting paid to be anti-racist activists, though it seems that’s almost the second duty we (and I’ll put myself as part of the “we” since I consider myself a newbie in burlesque) need to do just to carve as much of a safe space to simply perform. Perhaps a better question is, how do we in burlesque communities institute some sort of “check” on this ish that even Von Teese has to answer to?

CHC: Yes, I think its that fallback rationale we’re shining light on.

SP: I don’t think art/entertainment/performance licenses trump the human responsibility and common courtesy of being considerate and kind to other humans. And as I have said before, I think we all have the right to tackle controversial and challenging subjects in our work, but we should also be knowledgeable and aware about what we’re presenting.

Regarding historical constructs: Yes, historically burlesque as a form of entertainment has followed society with racism and appropriation. Burlesque clubs were segregated when the country was segregated. Acts of violence and discrimination against openly gay performers and performers of color were not uncommon as it was not uncommon in society. Pop culture changes with society.

Burlesque as an art form and movement now has an opportunity to not only follow the temperature of society, but be ahead of its time.

CHC: Totally. We, the burlesque movement, have an amazing opportunity. We perform and then you can actually talk to us about what was put on the stage. We’re not, generally, whisked off and untouchable, you can know us and discuss what we’ve presented.

The idea of burlesque as a form of sexual performance. Getting back to what y’all said about the fantasy, there is a real idea that sex is the space where we can explore the twistiness/slippery slopes that are our sexual attractions. So, how do you two tease that out from Von Teese’s essentially appropriative piece?

SP: I don’t think that burlesque is all about sex, but sex is a part of it, of course. And yes, sex, sexual performance, and art should be safe places to explore our sexual attractions (among other things). But when you have a platform, a stage, and a reach you have a responsibility to give it an extra think, be aware, and be knowledgeable about what you are putting out into the world. Even when you don’t have a platform, it wouldn’t hurt to be more aware.

But let’s say she was just performing a sexual fantasy…what if Dita Von Teese created a lavish slave ship set and used the premise of a slave fantasy to invoke sex? Would they have been as cavalier about it? Would the same people that are defending this act as ‘fantasy’, ‘just sex’, or ‘just entertainment’ say the same about that scenario?

CHC: OMFG a Mandigo fantasy. Brings to mind the Lebron James Vogue cover!

I feel what is not being spoken about, and why my African-American colleagues are so triggered by this on Facebook, etc., is the possibility that there’s something safer about discussing an Asian issue. I wonder how the legions of response would have shaken down if it were directly an African-American slight that was perceived. There’s a frustration that African-American concerns are readily dismissed.

Chicava HoneyChild. Photo: Ed Barnas

Don’t get it twisted though, there is a remarkable beauty, intellect and magnanimous energy among many burlesquers. I would hate for anyone reading this outside the community to come to the conclusion that this is otherwise. We are getting our footing in how to deal with ethnicity and appropriation more directly than many of pop culture and art culture circles.

SP: Yes, I agree with this sentiment so much Chicava. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    According to Shanghai, the Von Teese hasn’t address her personal letter or said anything publicly about it. Still.

  • Kat

    I think I might be in love now with Shanghai Pearl. ;)

    I would also really like to see a Racialicious take on Rihanna’s and Coldplay’s “Princess of China”, in which Rihanna shows that… um… Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture are the same, interchangeable and lend themselves to racial drag. For pictures :
    http://www.mocradio.com/wp-testsite-moc/wp-content/plugins/rss-poster/cache/dfa01_gfb.jpg
    http://www.theprophetblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Rihanna-Coldplay-Princess-of-China-Music-Video-e1338659459936.png
    http://www.musicboxmix.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Coldplay-Feat-Rihanna-Princess-Of-China-Video.jpg
    http://sidewalkhustle.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Coldplay-Princess-of-China-Rihanna.png
    http://www.radiourbanfm.com/new/images/1arihanna.jpg

  • Digital Coyote

     Dita and people like her have a vested interest in demeaning PoC: it’s helps them to erase them from the history of burlesque, which they would have you believe is lilly white and has been forever and ever.  With her, specifically, as an “artist” her taste is questionable.   You don’t date a transgressive performer like Marilyn Manson without yourself having no concern for the feelings of the people you hurt.  It also seems like a good way to legitimize your own “questionable” activity if you crap on other folks to maintain the status quo.   I think everyone involved in the discussion hit it out of the park.

    CHC’s comment about bellydancing bothered me, though.  When I’m dancing, I see it the same way as CHC and EO talk about BGB in this discussion.  There are PoC troupes that have formed for the same reasons.  I can’t talk about performing in the same way doing dances established abroad in seriously deep traditions because those aren’t mine to reclaim from white people.  American belly dancing (where belly dancing is used in the general, as opposed to culturally-specific Raqs, Tsiftetli,
    Dansöz, etc.) started as some “lookit the weird folks we will now have romanticized fetish fantasies about” madness at the Chicago World’s Fair.  There were culture-specific dancers there but a combination of imposters and knowledgable immigrants spread it all over the country (including burlesque halls).  After 100+ years of this, America has its own style that calls back to the sources through basic movements, proper posture, and the beats you should know.  It’s a kind of belly dance because of those elements; that we’ve gone off in to left field with what’s been added doesn’t change that.  Jazz is still music for similar reasons.  It’s well-broadcast that what we do is not pure and any teacher worth their salt will tell you what we’re doing isn’t a pure style upfront.

    The broader “tribal style” (as opposed to a cabaret style) is credited to
    Jamila Salimpur, who was mashing things up in SoCal kinda like how yoga
    was repackaged.  I’m not sure if she’s to blame for the further romanticism of our version of this dance type by giving it a name or if it’s the natural progression of “white culturelessness needing to brown it up to be cool/feel real” phenomenon.  I really want to scream when I hear “tribal” (whose tribe? what do tacky dreadlock extensions [yarn? Really.  REALLY.]  have to do with this?!?) or “gypsy” (Esmeralda you ain’t) coming from the mouths of tone-deaf white folks (primarily women).   It’s problematic as hell and I think we need to be there to call bullshit on folks when it’s going down like SP described.  I still hesitate to fully deligitimize it: this McGuyvering of styles made it accessible to more kinds of bodies and dancers of different traditions.  There are regional (international and domestic) and subculture specific styles and variations, too.  I kind of take offense at CHC’s bagging on it because, in addition to the sources, there’s “even hip-hop.”   If what I do is already not real to you, do you really have to go the extra mile to add something like that? Are the PoC involved supposed to leave what they know at home? I don’t know if the comment was meant to show how far she feels we’ve strayed from the source, but it’s in opposition to the sentiment of expressing what’s true for one’s self.  Does she have have same problem with modern dance forms that fuse or just this one? Do burlesque dancers not have their own gimmicks or trademark moves to set them apart from others?

    American Tribal Style is its own critter: while it does have elements specific to the classic source cultures in which the originator was trained, it has rules (it being improvisational being a big one) and never calls itself the same as the source.  If you add to it beyond what’s allowed according to the rules, it’s no longer ATS.

    • Chicava Honeychild

      Hi Digital Coyote,
      I’m sorry my comment rubbed you wrong. I also apologize for not being able to respond quickly as I was busy at our annual burlesque convention all weekend. 

      I think our POVs are not so different. What I was trying to express is that once a form picks up and integrates so many influences it becomes something new and I think its problematic to call by the same name. I LOVE all forms of belly dance, but I think they are new movement forms unto themselves and that lacking a new name if you will we use adjectives in front of word belly dance to describe them. 

      I often compare the belly dance and burlesque communities because of the influence on both the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair had and use it as a contrast to approach art/movement practice in today’s circles. I like to point out to people that the belly dance is way more practice driven than performance driven than burlesque. I’m a student of the Raqs Sharqu form and  would like to see burlesquers put as much value & focus on practice before performance as belly dancers. 

      I appreciate your sense of history and remain open to dialogue with you. Also, Lotus Niraja is working on a wonderful documentary on the history of African-American women in belly dance which promises to be wonderful. 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001277259129 Samuel Thomas

    I love you ladies yall keep it real.

    • distance88

      I agree–great responses by all.