The enduringly popular old-school nudie performer Bettie Page was a devout Christian who reportedly had no problem disrobing for strange men. Her reasoning was that God had made her body to please men, and so there was nothing wrong with using her body for its God-given purpose. I thought of that while watching Exposed, the longtime underground filmmaker Beth B’s tribute to the women, men and unclassifiables who have affably hijacked New York burlesque and bent it to their avant-garde political will. Bettie Page might have felt kinship with some of the performers profiled here, if only because they, like her, know no shame or guilt in nude self-expression. There’s an innocence, a sense of riotous play, in even the most transgressive and in-your-face shows here.
Before anything else, though, I feel the need to object to the audiences for the performances. In a weirdly moving sequence, an entertainer called Bambi the Mermaid comes out bedecked in lobster claws and shells, cracking open and eating bits of “herself” while looking near tears. As someone who pities the lobsters in the tank at the supermarket, and whose philosophy on eating them can best be encapsulated by David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” I felt saddened and disturbed by the performance, but the downtown hipsters in the club chortled hiply at it. I felt like saying “You’re annoying; shut up. She’s doing something beyond comedy here. Respect.”
Indeed, most of the performers do move beyond comedy, and the audiences do sometimes rise to it as it deserves. There’s a good amount of gender-bending, from the likes of transgressive drag queen Rose Wood (whose breast augmentation surgery is sort of the movie’s climax) or the “boy-lesque” artist Tigger! or the genetically female World Famous “Bob,” who spent some years thinking she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body (shades of Margaret Cho) before learning to accept what she was born with. Such self-acceptance is a key motif here, as many of the women are full-figured and one of the male performers, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, was born with what he calls “flippers” instead of arms after his mother took Thalidomide while pregnant with him.
Most of the people on view here hail from what Rose Wood terms “the Island of Misfit Toys,” psychologically if not physically. Women like Bunny Love and Dirty Martini have taken a form of entertainment long considered sexist and degrading (or, at best, goofy and archaic) and refurbished it to speak wordlessly but eloquently in a feminist language. It’s hard to argue that these non-mainstream artists aren’t doing exactly what they want to do, how they want to do it. The moves, the tassels, the striptease, all the elements are there, but the performers use burlesque as a found object, or found medium, to get their points across in a sensual, attention-grabbing manner.
I would also like to take this opportunity to nod gladly at Beth B, who was instrumental in the “No Wave” filmmaking movement of the late ’70s and who has worked in documentaries, some for TV, over the last decade or so. Though I can’t say she ever really left her artistic New York roots, the candy-colored, sex-positive Exposed feels like both a homecoming for her and a fine way to bring newcomers into her fold. (She turns sixty this year. I can’t even.) To put it in crass marketing terms, fans of John Waters and of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and Shortbus should give this quick, often touching documentary a spin, and then maybe look up her early work like Vortex. This is not someone who will be offered a Marvel movie, or would accept if offered, and is to be cherished as such.