Every so often, Western Civilisation has a moral panic. Above the background radiation of The Daily Mail‘s worries about the threat of rising house prices/immigration/celebrity/hasn’t she grown up so quickly, there are the special ones that lead to legislation. In Undressed for Success, Brenda Foley charts how, in the USA, anxiety about the female body was expressed in the condemnation of burlesque and the controlling behaviour of beauty pageants. The unclothed female body, she argues, frightens patriarchal interests. Strip-clubs (and this applies to the recent Scottish Parliament discussion about them) represented danger and moral disease. The presence of women in states of undress provokes public disorder.
Tom Harlow, Glasgow boylesque performer and cabaret singer, clearly draws influence from the USA’s traditions. While there is a history of male strippers performing aspects of ‘female’ behaviour, usually through props and imitated gestures (La Loc0 being a recent Scottish example), Harlow uses striptease to connect a thoroughly modern gender-fluidity and 1950s’ ‘sleaze’. Heavily made-up, crooning and recalling the sexual ambiguity of Desire from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (who flickered between male and female), Harlow’s routine, Money (seen as part of Kabakunst) delivers on burlesque’s promise to deliver a explicitly (if not explicit) sexual performance that seduces and repulses.
Performing an idea, Harlow applies classic femme fatale tropes, leering at the audience and entrancing them before revealing his identity. The subsequent strip and fan-dance is a coda to the intention of the song, which simultaneously recognises the appeal of cash and subverts it. The immediate political message is submerged beneath the splendour of the display – in particular, the gold thong and the whirling fans.
In alluding – through movements and the fans, and even the style of the song – to the 1950s and its notions of glamour, Harlow places himself in the heritage of the now forgotten strippers who were demonised by the press and the state. At the time, strippers were not seen as performers, but as ‘dirty women’ acting out. It’s the same mentality that allows ethnographic studies of lap-dancers to include intrusive questions. Harlow’s presence captures that quality, where performance (mimesis, if I must) appears to be natural (physis, thank you Aristotle).