Students Say Burlesque Show Violated Their Safe Space

Northwestern’s burlesque show becomes the latest battlefield in the War on Hurt Feelings.

02.07.16 5:15 AM ET

If I told you a provocative burlesque show at Northwestern University was being restructured in response to student complaints, you would probably assume a handful of whiny, sex-averse conservatives had complained. But no—the event has infuriated left-leaning students who insist that it isn’t going to be inclusive enough.

Since perpetrators of non-inclusivity on college campuses are all but tried at the Hague for war crimes these days, the burlesque show’s student-organizers are desperately trying to switch up the performance roster. In doing so, they hope to “reestablish a safe space” for students who felt marginalized by the first round of casting choices.

In other words, not getting a part in a school production—a fairly typical life experience—now counts as a microaggression.

NU Burlesque will host its fourth annual show in April. Previous incarnations of the production have unfolded during Northwestern’s transgressive “sex week,” alongside such events as “Reclaiming Pornography One Orgasm at a Time” and “Bad Ass MCs and Big Booty Beauties: A Panel on Women, Sexuality, and Hip Hop,” according to Campus Reform.

It’s entertaining. It’s educational! But it’s also highly triggering for students who didn’t get a solo.

That’s right: This year, burlesque show directors invited students to audition for individual, duet, and trio performances. All students are guaranteed a role in the production, but not all students are guaranteed their very own musical number. That’s just life.

But when the casting decisions were shared with the would-be performers, they revolted. Apparently, they didn’t think the directors’ choices were diverse enough—“marginalized experiences were not sufficiently represented in the selected acts,” reported The Daily Northwestern.

“It was brought to our attention that there are people in our community who feel that those solos and duets and trios are not best representing what the Burlesque community is,” [NU Burlesque co-director Avril] Dominguez said. “We do have a very inclusive and representative cast at large (and) we’re taking that criticism into account and really trying to reestablish a safe space.” 

But Dominguez may be too late—several performers have already quit the show. Others, like student Genesis Garcia, decided to stay on in order to “make sure people are being held accountable.” 

It’s not exactly clear which diversity boxes the directors’ failed to check off, though the Northwestern’s story suggests to me that at least some students merely read the names of the chosen solo performers and assumed they weren’t diverse. There’s something mildly, ahem, problematic, about such assumptions—names don’t always give away a person’s ethnicity, for instance, and they have nothing to do with a person’s orientation. 

In any case, the directors are working tirelessly to un-hurt everybody’s feelings, and have restructured the show to make room for more solo acts. But the irate performers demand more:

“Even though this is something new that we’re being confronted with, that doesn’t make it any less valid,” said one student told the Northwestern. “It’s very important that we are always consciously thinking of deliberate ways to uplift people that are not uplifted in society.”

Another student said burlesque show rehearsals will strive to be more “intentionally inclusive” from now on. The group is apparently drafting some kind of constitution, which will presumably enshrine their right to unimaginable levels of inclusivity.

Look, American burlesque has a long, celebrated history of advancing social progress by empowering people—of all genders, orientations, colors, shapes, and sizes—to celebrate their bodies while provoking the censors. This form of expression has played an important role in subverting society’s expectations of conformity and morality. There’s never been anything particularly “safe” about burlesque. It’s edgy! It’s radical self-expression! It inspires people to think and behave differently! It provokes! It challenges!

But for some reason, a whole bunch of today’s college students don’t merely run from challenges—they demand repayment, a formal inquiry, and federal legislation to remedy any instance of provocation. All too often, these are the liberal kids—the ones who are supposedly tolerant and open-minded. Recall what happened last semester at Colorado College, when the screening of a pro-gay film was protested, not by social conservatives, but by the campus’s LGBT+ group, because it didn’t feature a sufficient number of transgender characters. For these students, perfect is truly the enemy of good.

Of course, it seems like there’s also something a tad ordinary going on here: Some students are experiencing a brush with disappointment—possibly their first—at having lost out on a juicier role in the production. It might be better for these students if the directors didn’t erect a safe space to shelter them from reality. As The College Fix’s Dave Huber wrote, “A Broadway director, or better yet, an employer isn’t going to care one whit about some snowflake’s feelings of ‘exclusion.’” Meanwhile, the show must go on—but only if everybody is 100 percent comfortable with it at all times.