A review of “The Best Little Shop of Whorrers in Texas” – spoiler alert –
Sidney, who works at the Vape Hole Lounge on the courthouse square in Denton, has they/them/their pronouns. When they are misgendered by the moralizing and bigoted Furry Oldwitch, the crowd yells its disapproval. Furry wants to “Make Denton Great Again” by shutting down Miss Tawdry’s Rubber Chicken burlesque joint on the other side of the square. Boo! The only thing standing in his way are his own sexual hypocrisies, portrayed in riotous flare in a strip tease that culminates in swirling, glittery Buccees pasties. The crowd howls in delight as the Rubber Chicken is saved and Sidney falls into the arms of Miss Tawdry.
This is Denton politics as portrayed by the Salty Lady Burlesque in their musical, “The Best Little Shop of Whorrors in Texas.” It is a glamorous celebration of queer bodies and cultures told through mash-up songwriting that is consistently smart, funny, and provocative. The singing and acting are first rate. The energy produced and the love unloosed is all just about too much for the intimate space of the Black Box Theater. It is, in other words, Denton at its best – creative and bawdy, simultaneously deviant and upright.
There, in the dark, we laughed without fear. The big therapeutic laughs that only art can provide. We were free to jeer the villains and cheer the heroes. But we could also feel the vulnerability of the space. The door to the street – that line between art and politics – is thin. There are places where boots kick in such doors, round up the artists, and persecute the abnormal and the sinful.
While the artists of the Salty Lady Burlesque were writing their musical, the Trump administration was writing a memo. If that memo becomes law, then gender will be defined as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. The government will erase the identities of millions of Americans, including my son, stripping them of recognition and protection. All of that diversity on the courthouse square – on stage and in real life – will be shoved into just two boxes. One former member of the Education Department said that this move “quite simply negates the humanity of people.” Miss Tawdry, played by Honey Sin Claire, sang with enough strength to drown out the sound of the boots marching. But can that last?
The musical portrays two systems of morality. Of course, from Furry’s perspective there is only his morality – his standards of decency stand between civilization and sin. He must use the formal powers of government as a bulwark against the informal, nihilistic powers of culture. There is one right way to be human – thus the insidious language in the Trump administration about gender being determined ‘objectively.’ Thus, the finger wagging of Pastor Mann in the pages of the Denton Record Chronicle.
But our protagonists, though they sing and dance oh so ‘crudely,’ have their own standards of decency. For example: thou shalt respect a person’s affirmed gender identity. They means they. But that’s just an instance of the underlying ethos, which is about respecting people for who they are and who they choose to be. It is the morality of true colors. When we cheer at the strip tease in a burlesque show, we are in a dynamic of empowerment where someone is showing us who they are and we are letting them know they are valuable and beautiful regardless of any stereotype of what bodies should look like.
The question is whether this morality can be squeezed without remainder into that great totem: consent. Consent is the ruling ideal of the burlesque show, where we are told not to touch the actors. Consent, the banner of the #metoo age, is rooted in the foundational concept of autonomy, which means self-legislating. Human beings are ends and can never be treated as mere means or cogs to be fit into some social scheme. It’s my body, my life, my choice.
Some of the proceeds from the burlesque tickets went to organizations that seek to decriminalize consensual sex work. After all, what could be wrong with two (or more) consenting adults having sex on terms they all find agreeable?
This is where consent, for as vital as it is, shows its limitations. Because consent has a way of devolving into transactional terms and getting dragged down into the language and logic of capitalism. You set the price and if I agree we have a deal. This seems fine enough for commodities, but is that a good way to talk about bodies and sex? I pictured those bodies that we celebrated on the stage arranged in store front windows for the offering. I didn’t want those bodies to be reduced to consumables…yes, even if the ‘owners’ of those bodies wanted to treat them that way.
I suppose this is where I will sound like those ‘conservatives’ sneered at in the musical. But I don’t see selling your “sex services” as a fitting conception of what sexuality is all about. It deforms sex to treat it as a market transaction. And it deforms the person who invites the alienating logic of wage labor into their own bodies. To be alienated is to be phony or inauthentic, which seems like all that sex under those conditions could be.
Some things are not for sale. Most cultures call these things ‘sacred.’ I wonder about a burlesque – and a feminism – that might find a way to complement a morality of consent with a sense of the body and sexuality as sacred. I don’t mean the pretentious pieties of Furry and his ilk. I am talking about a queer morality that doesn’t lose all sense of the profundities of sex and gender in its laudable push to expand our sense of what those terms can signify.