Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Cultureby Robert C. Allen
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.
Groundbreaking in situating dance as part of a social context.
An exemplary work of cultural studies.
Women's Review of Books
A solid and often brilliant work that will challenge most readers' preconceptions about this genre of entertainment.
New England Quarterly
What People are saying about this
A provocative and illuminating exploration of the meaning of burlesque in American culture. Allen takes a seemingly marginal, degraded, and little-understood theatrical form and asks why and how it came to be so. In the process, he uncovers not only the historicity of burlesque, but also its centrality to several critical cultural problems in the period from 1860 to 1920. His reading of burlesque offers significant and telling insights into the history of the theater and popular entertainment. Bridging the gap between literary theory and semiotics on the one hand and social and cultural history on the other, Horrible Prettiness may well be a model of the innovative interdisciplinary work of the future.Kathy Peiss, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
An intriguing exploration of an important (if elusive) theatrical genre, its predecessors, successors, and cultural meaning, especially related to gender issues.Winterthur Portfolio
A solid and often brilliant work that will challenge most readers' preconceptions about this genre of entertainment. . . . This excellent book provides both a model for investigating and interpreting American popular entertainment forms and a foundation for further analysis. Allen's history of burlesque impels readers to examine disturbing assumptions Americans have made and continue to make about class and gender in their culture.New England Quarterly
An exemplary work of cultural studies. . . . The thoughtful, thorough way Allen has gathered and organized a wide range of data casts American popular entertainment in a new light of cultural intelligibility.Women's Review of Books
Horrible Prettiness is an impressive, creative and entertaining piece of scholarship which deserves a wide audience.Theatre Survey
Groundbreaking in situating dance as part of a social context.Lingua Franca
Meet the Author
Robert C. Allen is James Logan Godfrey Professor of American Studies, History, and Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is author of Speaking of Soap Operas, coauthor with Douglas Gomery of Film History: Theory and Practice, and editor of Channels of Discourse, Reassembled and To Be Continued: Soap Operas Around the World.
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