Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture

Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture

Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture

Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture


Robert Allen's compelling book examines burlesque not only as popular entertainment but also as a complex and transforming cultural phenomenon. When Lydia Thompson and her controversial female troupe of "British Blondes" brought modern burlesque to the United States in 1868, the result was electric. Their impertinent humor, streetwise manner, and provocative parodies of masculinity brought them enormous popular success and the condemnation of critics, cultural commentators, and even women's rights campaigners.

Burlesque was a cultural threat, Allen argues, because it inverted the "normal" world of middle-class social relations and transgressed norms of "proper" feminine behavior and appearance. Initially playing to respectable middle-class audiences, burlesque was quickly relegated to the shadow-world of working-class male leisure. In this process the burlesque performer "lost" her voice, as burlesque increasingly revolved around the display of her body.

Locating burlesque within the context of both the social transformation of American theater and its patterns of gender representation, Allen concludes that burlesque represents a fascinating example of the potential transgressiveness of popular entertainment forms, as well as the strategies by which they have been contained and their threats defused.


Among the hazards of submitting popular entertainments to scholarly study are the twin dangers of holding the subject in too low or too high a regard. Because topics like burlesque, or the television soap operas about which Robert Allen has written so knowingly in a previous book, still seem exotic and transgressive in academic settings, scholars are often tempted to cover themselves in elaborate apologies, by defensive condescension or over-celebration of their "low" subject matter. One of the many virtues immediately apparent in Allen's new book on burlesque is the author's total confidence in his subject, his respect for burlesque as a demanding and significant popular art form, one that invites imaginative participation by the scholar and rewards detailed historical attention and close formal analysis. The book represents its popular subject as a significant historical subject in its own right, not restricted to the segregated field of "popular culture," a category that often serves to quarantine the transgressive and routinize the scandalous. There is no special pleading in Horrible Prettiness, only a subtle, richly documented, and provocative argument with ramifications far beyond its explicit subject.

A critical history of American burlesque, its flowering in the late- middle nineteenth century, its decline into seamy quasi-pornographic theater for almost exclusively male audiences, and its final shabby demise (and collapse into a nostalgia-ridden trope) in the mid-twentieth century, Robert Allen's book provides a major investigation of the role of commercial popular culture in American urban society. What it shows about burlesque sheds light on modern popular forms in general. Allen reveals the subversive character of early burlesque, its calculated efforts to wring a wildly ironic humor by playing off against "high" cultural values, particularly regarding women. Half the book treats the . . .

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