Burlesque, A Clockwork Orange and depictions of rape as “art”.

[Trigger Warning: violence, rape, depictions of violence and sexual violence]

Everyone’s seen that scene in A Clockwork Orange, right? The one where Alex and his droogs break into an old theatre, where a rival gang is preparing to rape a “weepy young devotchka”. We’ve also all seen the scene where they break into the house of a writer, cripple him, and rape his wife.

Most of us also understand that A Clockwork Orange is allegorical – that is, that it uses violence and rape to criticise our current tastes for violence, to subvert accepted works of art (Beethoven’s symphonies, Singin’ In The Rain) by pairing them with scenes of “ultra-violence”. It seeks to show us how Alex views violence as fun by accompanying his acts of violence with whimsical songs and classical music. He uses music and art to distance himself from the violence, to make it into a form of art.

We understand all that, because of the way Anthony Burgess wrote the book, and because of the way Stanley Kubrick made the film. We don’t see it as a glorification of violence at all, because we view the violence and rape in the context of the whole story.

But what happens when that violence and rape is taken out of context, and played for laughs? Is rape art? Can it ever be funny?

This week, controversy erupted over the Miss Burlesque Australia competition, where a performer called Lolli Box put on a performance lampooning the rape and violence in A Clockwork Orange. The video is no longer on YouTube or on the Miss Burlesque Australia website, but it caused quite a large amount of heated discourse across the online burlesque community. A friend of mine (who shall remain nameless to protect her experience) happened upon the video from a Tumblr post written by TumblinFeminist.

I have not seen the performance in question as the video no longer exists online, but my friend gave me the following description:

“the female performer came out on stage in an Alex costume. At some point in the routine, she dragged a second female, wearing only pasties and a bright blue comical merkin on stage. She held the females flailing arms down, and simulated a dry humping motion to indicate forcing herself on her.  when this was done, the performer then took an umbrella, and mimed attacking the ‘victim’ until the victim stopped moving, and remained in a crumpled heap on the side of the stage for the remainder or the routine. No more mention was made to the ‘victim’ again throughout the routine.”

All this was set to La Gazza Iadra (The Thieving Magpie) buy Giaoacchino Rossini, the same music featured in A Clockwork Orange in the scene I mentioned above, where Alex and his droogs fight a rival gang in the old theatre.

A further description from my friend:

“When the assault was simulated, in a comical fashion, the audience laughed and clapped and cheered. I watched it no more then [sic] 3 times, convinced I must have missed some important subtext but there was none. It was pure shock factor. A cheap laugh. “

One attendee of the same performance said:

“I was sitting, shocked and everyone was laughing and cheering around me. I was just hoping there wasn’t a women in the crowd being traumatized by it with flashbacks to her own experience. Go say something on the youtube. I think Miss Burlesque needs to know this isn’t acceptable, especially put her above other stand out empowering performances. ”

-taken from http://tumblinfeminist.tumblr.com/post/19935911628/tw-rape-murder-comedy-generally-in

A producer of the show defended the performance, treating it like it wasn’t a big deal, rape is part of life and life imitates art. Discussion forums also revealed the same cavalier attitude of rape as fair game for comedy. Survivors shared their stories, but were more or less told to get over it.

VivianeMae.tumblr.com writes:

Rape should not be covered up. That is true.

The problem is when it is parodied.

And then when victims who are triggered come forward, they are silenced or excused away.

This silencing of victims is not new. Everyone who has ever been raped in the entire history of the world has been, in some way, shape or form, silenced or excused away. It must stop.

The producers of Miss Burlesque Australia have removed the video from YouTube and from their website and have issued an apology and implemented steps to ensure nothing like this happens again.

But this isn’t about Miss Burlesque Australia and I have no wish or desire to smear them. As I understand it, they were also blindsided by the content of this particular performance, and they have responded  by removing the video and by distancing themselves from the controversy.

From the descriptions of the performance I have seen, it would appear to have very little to actually do with A Clockwork Orange, beyond the costume choice and the rape scene.

Winceworks.tumblr.com writes:

“What I found worst about the act was that is was dismissive of the whole concept of rape and really didn’t touch on anything from a Clockwork Orange except for one scene and the costume.  Basically it felt like a shortcut to get something that’d generate a response without bothering to consider the audience, the significance, possible interpretations, etc.

It didn’t incorporate any of the feel good humour of burlesque and encouraged the audience to cheer for another deplorable trope, rape is okay when it’s female on female, which dismisses lesbians as well as rape victims.”

The themes and contexts of the story of A Clockwork Orange are far richer and deeper than a costume or a rape scene, and by taking these things out of their context and mashing them together (the rape of the writer’s wife, the beating of the homeless man and the music from the gang fight), the performer has delivered only rape and violence, with none of the deep context present in the movie or the book.

The performer has refused to acknowledge any potential hurt she may have caused and has now been booked to perform the same show TONIGHT (March 29) at the Bohemia Cabaret Club in South Melbourne. The owner of the club had the following to say about the show on her personal Facebook:

“Bohemia kicks in a bit of controversy as we feature Ms Lolli Box…who most recently horrified audiences and officials at Miss Burlesque Australia with her take on A Clockwork Orange.

Oh yes…the Burlesque Underground just got a whole lot more political :o) Come and see it for yourself, and chat to Ms Box after the show to get her take on all things burlesque, violence and the expression of self.”

“A bit of controversy” and “horrified audiences” refers to people like my friend, who were not only horrified by what they saw, but as sexual assault survivors, were triggered to the point of panic attacks. This sort of language trivialises the intense impact of sexual assault, and the long road that many survivors must walk to get to a place of healing.

I’m certainly not arguing that there is no place for explorations of rape and sexual violence in art, and even in burlesque. Many burlesque performers or survivors of rape or sexual violence themselves, and the exploration of dark themes in burlesque is not new.

What I am arguing is that rape is not a joke, and should NEVER be played for laughs. Protip: if your joke is giving people panic attacks, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t have much of an opinion on this particular performance, as I haven’t seen it, so consider this article as an aggregation of information and opinions from people who HAVE seen it. The performer in question made it very clear on the private forums that once she receives new video footage of her act, she’ll post it back online.

This is far from the last you’ll hear from me on this issue.

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