Lately my social media feeds (and my life) have been filled, packed even, with musings, strife, drama, rants, general laments, and intense debates and discussions over the notion of community. And it’s not isolated to one area of the country – I’m seeing these take place across the greater US – from small towns with a fledgling scene to metropolises with hundreds of performers.
In muggledom I’ve watched these debates hash out over and over again, especially in areas affecting fandom, nerdery, and games. Usually the discussions have been sparked over “well meaning” (haha) warnings over the rise of “fake geek girls” or the lament of the “increasing casualization” of games or particular scenes. Ninety percent of the time the person sparking the discussion is someone who believes themselves to be the “core” of the community – a representative of the scene at large, and its no coincidence that these folks are often the most visible and the most homogenous. In areas of geek culture we see it over and over again – heterosexual, white, upper middle class males, in their 20s to 30s, standing up to speak “for the community” and “defend it” against the incalculable threats its facing.
In my muggle life as a content creator and critic of nerd culture and geekdom, I’ve said, time and time again that we don’t need gatekeepers. And I haven’t been the only one who has been quick to point out that the self-appointed gatekeepers and spokespeople for these communities are ignoring the broader swath of the people they purport to speak for.
When talking about community a “gatekeeper” is someone who actively seeks to shut others out. To build up barriers around that community and common space rather than fostering an open and inviting exchange. I find that gatekeepers directly contradict the notion of community entirely. They’re not leaders (though they’ll tell you they are), they’re not paragons of their artform, and they’re certainly not direct representations of the people they claim to speak for.
In fact, the point of community is inclusion. The word itself has roots in “commonness” and “fellowship.” You know, “we’re all in this together.”
And we are - when I think of the many people I’ve met over my short burlesque and performing career, so many of them are people who do or did live on the periphery of society. People who have been marginalized by their gender, race, sexuality, economic status, education level, but who have all found each other and their voices and taken their power back through the medium of being together on stage.
In the world of games, geekery, and fandom, it certainly seems like our communities are exploding – getting bigger – and they may be. But the self-appointed gatekeepers, those who warn about the “fakes” aren’t actually paying attention to the size, they’re getting scared off by the fact that the least served members of those communities are gaining more ground and more visibility. David Gaider of Bioware addressed these issues directly in his 2013 GDC presentation “Sex & Videogames” saying: “”If you’re part of a group that’s being catered to, you believe that’s the way it should be. ‘It’s always been that way, why would that be a problem for anyone?’” Gaider went on to explain that serving women, POC, queers, and other underserved members of our communities and consumer bases, only push our respective mediums forward.
I see parallels between the debates about geekdom and those taking place surrounding burlesque across the country. While burlesquers aren’t generally going after “fake burlyqueens” the theme of exclusion – of an old guard supposedly “protecting” the art from interlopers or those who don’t “truly understand or respect what it means to be a geek performer” (see what I did there?) are beginning to sound like a familiar refrain whenever they cross my desk. In burlesque we see, time and time again, the playout of the following debates: hobbyist versus professional; feminist versus not-feminist; classic versus neo; high art versus low; etc… We see treatises on “paying dues,” on how to create or not create, or what even really counts as burlesque.
In the many cities and scenes that I’ve interacted with, including my own, I’ve butt up against the entitlement culture that comes with wanting to be a “gatekeeper” to a scene and the damage that active exclusion has on that scene:
“Don’t they know who I am?;” “Well there’s nothing really out there;” “I don’t know why people book her;” “oh there’s a scene there, but they’re not as good as us” etc…
It never cease to shock me when I hear these statements or when I see people from this artform – an art populated largely by marginalized individuals – seeking to marginalize others. I cannot imagine clinging to something that means so much to me, that welcomed me, that helped me SURVIVE, and saying: “no this is just mine now. It’s mine and not yours, it helped me but it can’t help you. It’s not for you.” (and holy shit if you feel like I ever did this to you I don’t think I can apologize enough).
I know there are those who look at their own exploding (or imploding) scene and feel like they’re getting lost in the shuffle. Others find that growth has fostered cliqueyness and playground rules and drama because everyone’s fighting for an increasingly small part of the pie or conflating interpersonal issues with the dynamic of the community at large.
Certainly no burgeoning community is without it’s growing pains – especially in the arts. And I’m sure it’s easy, when you feel you’ve helped build a community and carved a niche for yourself to feel ownership over that. It’s natural even to feel fear when it starts to take a shape you don’t recognize. But that’s the nature of community or of life even – these are evolving, changing, vibrant entities. It’s not productive for community to stagnate.
While I concede that it’s frustrating to start to feel like a drone after spending so much time as a queen bee, sometimes the conflicts I see playing out are not about community (the greater good) at all, but rather about egos and deeply personal conflicts that should be settled privately rather than in public, backstage, or on social media.
Producers body-shaming their performers, cultural appropriation, addiction, creepers with cameras, rehearsal spaces getting shut down - these are community issues. “So & So didn’t give me a part in her show” or “XX blew my boyfriend backstage” are personal issues.
To truly be a member of a community means giving up some of your own needs – the need for stage time, the need to “call someone out,” the need for attention – in favor of what benefits the group as a whole and its long-term success. As bloggers all over tumblr have pointed out to those calling out “fake geek girls” - anyone who truly loves their community and the art they consume wants to share it with others and celebrate its growth.
If I wanted to act as a gatekeeper (which would be so fucking hypocritical given how many people pushed me, welcomed me, and supported me through my early days of very bad drag and mediocre burlesque), to shut out new blood or people who were “too classic,” “too cliché,” “too strippery” or any of the other myriad “too …” statements I’ve heard over the years, I would be limiting this community that I love that gives me so much and our collective potential. I’d be serving myself while doing harm (even unintentionally) to many others.
When a performer plays gatekeeper and attempts to define the rules for their entire scene, decides to set barriers rather than standards, they’re not helping their community. In fact they are both limiting that community and their individual self. If you find yourself trying to exclude someone or keep them from getting booked because they’re “not part of the community” – really stop and think about that statement. Stop to consider whether you’re really serving the community, the actual dynamic of the group you’re trying to protect or your own ego driven needs. Because a community with stringent, unwavering barriers, does not, no matter what the size, remain a community; instead, it becomes a clique – and we certainly don’t need any more of those.
In the four short years that I’ve participated in the Boston burlesque scene I’ve watched it grow exponentially. Venues have closed, troupes disbanded or rebranded, shows recast, performers retired all while a steady stream of new talent pours in. I will always, personally, want our scene to be known for polish, spectacle, innovation, and progressiveness. But I need to recognize and understand that those are my personal prerogatives and might not be shared among the greater group. Other performers are motivated by different ideals and personal narratives – and that’s ok.
New members bring new experiences, aesthetics, skills, and perspectives to the table. New blood ensures we stay humble, on our game, and committed to delivering the best art that we can. New people prevent us from being complacent – because let’s face it, an unchanging community eventually becomes one giant circle jerk where all parties are patting themselves on the back in celebration of their own mediocrity.
Every time we set an arbitrarily imposed, inflexible, definition of what our community is and looks like – rather than a set of adaptable standards of what it could or might be – we limit ourselves, our art form, and ultimately short change everyone. While the issues that pop culture face don’t seem as pervasive in burlesque, they are still there – for all of our progressiveness as an art form, we still deal (or don’t) with misogyny, body shaming, homophobia, cultural appropriation and racism. And when any of us seeks to appoint ourselves as gatekeepers of a community – to shut out new voices that can help us address these things – or that ::gasp:: might call some of us out or offer up some much needed “real talk” we feed right into the systems that so many of us are looking to rally against when we get on stage.